A Walk in the Park

By Virginia Hendersonn 8 March 2014

YANGON —From early morning until dusk, people from all walks of life are heading to relax and unwind at the reinvigorated Maha Bandoola Garden park.

A peaceful green lung, the garden with its clean, freshly trimmed grass and fountain is a welcome respite from bustling street life and chaotic traffic.

The recent transformation of the garden and the re-creation of a healthy and safe public space are being celebrated daily by people who appreciate having a spot to meet, chat, rest and play. Some come to exercise, others to picnic. The air here is refreshing, thanks partly to the fountain and sprinklers.

More symbolically, it signifies the revival and reclaiming of social space.

Originally a swamp known as Tank Square, the area was cleared and laid out as a public recreation ground by the British in 1867. It was named Fytche Square after the Chief Commissioner of the British Crown Colony of Burma at the time. In 1896, a statue of Queen Victoria was erected. During WWII, the Japanese put another marker on the site.

Today, Independence Monument, a handsome white-and-gold obelisk surrounded by 10 lion statues, commemorates Myanmar’s independence in 1948 from British colonial rule and takes pride of place. The garden was renamed after General Maha Bandoola, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s royal armed forces during 1821-1825 in the First Anglo-Myanmar War. Until recently, the garden was rundown and mostly off limits.

At opening time, in the cool darkness before daybreak, dramatic pink-green-blue spotlighting creates an eerie atmosphere, as if a party is just over. Eager exercisers shuffle through the gates and set about their routines to shake awake the day. It’s all freestyle here. Walkers do laps in both directions. Fan dancers flap and snap their way towards the light. T’ai chi practitioners grasp invisible balls of energy; yogis perform salutes to the sun. Qigong groups and step-up brigades find corners to set up screechy sound systems; an almighty dawn chorus jam session proceeds.

Florence, a dressmaker who lives on 39th St, says she comes most days between 6-7 am, for health. “Before this, I had to walk the streets to do my exercise. Around April 2013 they stopped charging. If they don’t charge, everyone can come. Now some people come every day.’’

U Sein Maung Oo, a retired sergeant major who is now a business lawyer, on his shortcut walk through the park explained, “The government announced to the world they are changing and having democracy. This park is for the people but in the past nobody came because they used to have to pay 20 kyat. Now the government doesn’t tax, everybody can come. These people, they are taking exercise happily.”

Since Maha Bandoola Garden’s entrance fee was dropped last year, more people have been able to experience these simple pleasures. Other parks like Kandawgyi Karaweik Garden still charge entry fees up to 300 kyat.

Park refurbishment has included repairing benches and moving vendors outside. Large palm trees were unfortunately replaced with decorative pom-pom poodle trees, offering little shade. Beds of yellow daisies are framed with hedged paths. There’s not a weed nor a piece of litter in sight, possibly due to the keen rubbish collector striding around clicking his tongs. But his bag is quite empty. People seem to realize and respect that this shared place comes with a responsibility to take care of it, not to trash it. Park regulations forbid betel, spitting, pets and picking flowers.

The view from this precious half acre beside Sule Pagoda which sits at the core of the street grid laid out by colonial city planners, is framed by striking architecture reflecting the city’s cosmopolitan multi-faith character. Next to Sule Pagoda is Sunni Jamah Bengali Mosque, with Emmanuel Baptist Church nearby. The High Court and City Hall give an air of municipal and judicial authority to the landscape. The former Rowe & Co Department store currently under renovation adds a consumerist dimension to the rich architectural tale. It’s so photogenic that everyone is taking pictures of each other and of course “selfies”, against the striking background.

Come 4 pm, toddlers rule at the playground. Every swing, slide and bit of the new colorful climbing apparatus, complete with “fall-safe” ground cover, is in good use. Office workers arrive, as do courting couples. A guitar plays. There’s hardly a better place to be as golden Sule catches the last of the day’s rays.

It’s a pleasing thought that the rest of Yangon might take a lead from this well-nurtured piece of ground and the way it has been prepared and maintained. It’s a glimpse of what can be, offering insight into potential that could be realized in other areas of the city.

This story first appeared in the March 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.