“If they need somethings, water, towel, whatever they need, I want to serve the guests!”
So says Ei Mon Kyaw, housekeeper at the Savoy Hotel Yangon, bobbing up and down on her chair, beaming broadly, her eyes sparkling, her bubbly demeanor disarming and more than making up for any fault in her grammar.
So enchanting is the service in Myanmar that it commonly compensates for any slight deficiency in the standards that one might expect in its neighbours Thailand or India.
The Savoy is one of Sampan Travel’s favourite hotels. Just down the road from our office, over the last few years we have built up a strong relationship with the hotel. It is at the top of our list of recommendations our guests clients in Yangon, and its poolside bar is where we can occasionally be found rewarding ourselves after a particularly taxing week.
Despite being situated in the centre of Yangon, the Savoy is an oasis of calm. The rooms are elegant, the décor riffs of colonial aesthetics without being overbearing, and the food is superb.
Furthermore, the classic Myanmar hospitality can be enjoyed at its finest.
Sitting next to Ei Mon Kyaw, Lin Htet, Operations Manager at the Savoy, speaks more on this:
“In some countries, they serve you a glass of water with no emotion or kindness!’ – and he raps his knuckles on the table. “But in Myanmar … there is hard working, kind working, and respect.”
Most of the guests that journey with Sampan Travel are particularly keen to meet and speak with the people of Myanmar. Warm and memorable interactions can be had throughout the country, with trishaw driver, markets sellers, and plucky children on the street.
But commonly the people that visitors to Myanmar most frequently engage with are the staff at the hotels where they are staying. These people are not the great movers and shakers of the tourism industry, but they are the ones that have the greatest impact on a visitor’s time in Myanmar.
Often, however, guests do not know much about these people.
It is for this reason that one Thursday afternoon we from Sampan Travel sat down with Lin Htet and Ei Mon Kyaw in a suite at the Savoy to speak more about their experience working in the travel industry.
Lin Htet fell into this line of work by accident. As a young man he had plans to be a big businessman or a successful salesperson. However when the opportunity arose in 1990, he took a job at the Queenspark Hotel in Yangon. He turned out to be good at his job and had become headwaiter by the time he left in 2005. He moved on to a café near Bogyoke (Scott) Market and once there was soon promoted to Service Manager.
In 2010 he planned to go to sea working on a cargo or cruise ship, as many young men at the time did. Before setting sail, he took a job at the Savoy Hotel when a friend notified him of a vacancy, which he intended only to be temporary.
The Savoy was well known. It has been founded in 1995 in time for the greatly lorded (albeit, ill-fated and anti-climactic) Visit Myanmar Year 1996, one of the few luxury hotels in Yangon at the time, along with the stalwarts Inya Lake Hotel and Kandawgyi Palace.
Lin Htet had not planned to stay long but began to enjoy himself.
‘I loved to serve the guests. I loved to communicate with the guests!’
Furthermore, working at the Savoy meant that he could continue living with his family in Yangon.
“I was really happy. And so I decided to stay.”
It was fortuitous timing.
In 2010 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from a house arrest and national elections were set for that year. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), boycotted them, meaning that the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed a vast majority.
Despite much skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the result, Myanmar was now to be ruled by its first nominally civilian government in a generation. The military appeared to be in retreat, and tourism boomed.
This worked out well for Lin Htet.
“I now had the chance to deal with foreign guests. And I was happy to see the development in Myanmar.”
In comparison, Ei Mon Kyaw is new to the hospitality industry. Coming from a village outside of Mandalay – Myanmar’s third city and former Royal Capital – she moved to the commercial hub of Yangon for the job opportunities and to learn English.
“I want to speak more English. I want to talk in English, and so I came here.”
She has worked at the Savoy for just over a year, and although she doesn’t like the crowds of Yangon, her enthusiasm for the job appears to have not abated.
She tells us that her favourite thing about working at the Savoy is greeting the guests. And here she dips into a disarming example of just how she does this: “Good morning sir. How are you?” Bobbing her head again and grinning.
Improving in English was similarly a big incentive for Lin Htet when he decided to work in hospitality.
“Honestly, before, I was afraid of the people. I was afraid to talk even though I passed basic English class. I tried to talk to tourists in downtown Yangon, but it was no good in the beginning. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to hide.
“I didn’t choose Front Office, I prefer F&B [Food & Beveridge] Service. Front Office staff can meet with the guests when they check-in and check-out, maybe for thirty minutes. Housekeeping, maybe for fifteen minutes while they are filling the minibar or cleaning the room. But mostly housekeeping clean the room when guests are going outside. For F&B, I can communicate with the guests at least thirty minutes to an hour while they are having breakfast or dinner.
“And it is not only for my English skills. I want to know my guests feelings, and what is their opinion. Sometimes the guests tell me, “This table should be like this!” or “Your country is whatever whatever!” … So, I get to know more than other departments.”
It doesn’t surprise us to hear that guests often give hotel staff a piece of their mind. Do the staff ever get to do the same, we wonder? Are their things that they wish to say to the guests? Things that they wish the guests to know when travelling in Myanmar?
Neither Lin Htet or Ei Mon Kyaw are quite sure how to respond to this one at first, but eventually Lin Htet says that tourists should remember to cover their knees and shoulders when visiting pagodas or temples in Myanmar. He also recommends avoiding displaying any untoward religious tattoos they may have.
He is likely referring to recent cases where two tourists were asked to leave Myanmar for having tattoos of the Buddha on display on their ankle and leg.
While we can assume these were honest faux pas with no intent to cause offense, one might be less sympathetic to the lady who made headlines last year for repeatedly refusing to take of her shoes when visiting the pagodas and temples of Bagan.
“Religion is sensitive for the time being,” Lin Htet says.
He cites the useful Dos and Don’ts for Tourists in Myanmar on display at Yangon International Airport.
(The Dos and Don’t Booklet is provided to Sampan guests on arrival.)
It is safe to say that the boom in tourism that took off when Lin Htet began at the Savoy in 2010 is over. Growth in arrivals has deflated to around 2% (according to some figures), while tourism from Europe is said to be down somewhere between 25 and 45%.
This drop is undoubtedly due to the bad press Myanmar had received since the latest cycle of violence erupted in Rakhine State in August 2017.
The flunk that Myanmar tourism is now in is concerning to both Lin Htet and Ei Mon Kyaw.
“With tourism,” Lin Htet says, “our country will develop their ideas, and increase their income.”
But more importantly, he says, Myanmar remains safe to travel to. This point he makes repeatedly.
“I want to say that Myanmar is safe. Actually some news is true, some is false … But the world thinks they are not safe in Myanmar. But they are safe. Even in Ngapali, in Rakhine State … Foreigners are sleeping on the white sand without problem. Walking on the beach without any issues …”
He insists that there is still much for the traveller in Myanmar to enjoy, from the “beautiful heritage” of Bagan, to the “virgin” Mergui Archipelago, and Ngapali Beach itself – “the best in ASEAN!”
“I would like people to have a taste of this beauty, this treasure.”
Ei Mon Kyaw is of course keen to recommend Mandalay, these days too frequently neglected by visitors who believe that it can never live up to the wonder conjured by Rudyard Kipling. She recommends the U Being Bridge, the Mahamuni Pagoda, and the Mingun Bell.
And of course, there are less crowds there than here in Yangon.
Lin Htet cites the 135 (official) ethnic races of Myanmar, the traditional lifestyles still lived by much of the country, and the multitude of wacky and wondrous festivals held throughout the year, from the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon Festival to Naga New Year.
But in the end, as it always does, it comes back to the Myanmar smile.
“Everywhere, you can see the smile,” Lin Htet says. “They smile so much!”
Sampan often cites the famous Myanmar smile. We are fearful of doing so too much; anxious of being accused of reducing a country to a trope. Myanmar is more than just a country of smiles. Just as Lin Htet and Ei Mon Kyaw are so much more than just their smiles.
And yet the smiles are important. Because they are a signal of the hospitality that tourists in Myanmar are offered. And to Sampan’s guests, it is habitually the number one favourite thing about their time in Myanmar.
Smiles do not make up for the myriad problems and challenges that the country is currently facing, but it does reward those who are prepared to travel here with a warm welcome.
Passing through in 2006, the author Paul Theroux wrote:
“If the military in Myanmar was odious, the people I met were soft-tempered and helpful, and it was perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness."
The people of Myanmar – people such as these two from the Savoy – remain the greatest asset to the Myanmar tourism industry.
As Lin Htet says, “In other countries, maybe ten people will smile to you. In Myanmar, one hundred will smile to you.
“That is our warm welcome.”