Spend enough time in Yangon, and you start to realise it has a weird, warped kind of beauty. Grand, dilapidated colonial architecture, combined with a scuzzy dirt-under-the-nails grittiness, gives the city a strange intangible charm that sets it apart from its Southeast Asian neighbours.

One of the alleys renovated by the Doh-Eain organisation
A renovated back alley in Yangon ©Dominic Horner

The back alleys, on the other hand, are a different story. Trash-strewn, rat-infested, grotty no-go zones left for dead by the city. That is, until a few years ago, when Doh-Eain stepped in. Originally conceived as a small-scale restoration project, the organisation - in addition to important heritage work - has expanded its remit to cleaning up the back streets of Yangon, to make it, in founder Emilie Roell’s words: “a more pleasant place to live. We want to design spaces that can be used and enjoyed by everyone.”

Girl plays on a swing in one of the cleaned up alleyways
A girl plays on a swing in one of the renovated back alleys ©Dominic Horner

The first step is to clear out the garbage from the fetid alleys – gruelling work by anyone’s standards. Next comes the in-house construction team who create child-friendly play areas (complete with swings and climbing frames), much of which is sourced from reusable materials. Finally, local artists decorate the formerly drab walls with colourful murals and Burmese vignettes – calling to mind the suburbs of Valparaiso Chile or hipster capital Brick Lane in east London.

Painted doorway in Yangon
Local artists decorate the walls with colourful murals and vignettes ©Dominic Horner

By the end of the process, the formally dank and disgusting alleyways are unrecognisable – transformed into vibrant, happy, communal spaces, where both young and old can escape the relentless churn of downtown city life. Local resident and committee member Aye Win enthuses about the changes he’s witnessed to his local neighbourhood. “In the past we couldn’t use the alleys; the rubbish was piled up four feet high. Now, we have somewhere to rest, and the children have somewhere to play.”

It’s this sentiment that underlines the ethos of Doh Eain’s work in Yangon. The organisation is planting seeds of optimism, and touring the renovated alleyways gives you a glimpse of the kind of city that Yangon could blossom into in the future: a city that retains its unique old-world charm while taking pride in its appearance, working within its communities to create a brighter, more sustainable living space, for everyone.

For more information, or to organise a tour, visit: www.doheain.com

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