It is said that downtown Yangon has the largest grouping of colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. After decades of neglect - buildings slipping, tilting, rusting, and resigning themselves to the onslaught of weeds and foliage - this architectural finery is beginning to be spruced up. Call it preservation, call it gentrification - there is a belief that Yangon might once more regain its title as “Princess of the East.”
Apart from anything else, the smartening of downtown Yangon is great for tourism, and many of the finest buildings have been renovated into restaurants and hotels, attempting to reignite the romance that so often dances aside colonial heritage.
“Somerset Maugham would have loved this!” squeals one restaurant review on TripAdvisor.
Maugham crops up frequently when making a heritage trail through Myanmar.
In the opening pages of one restaurant along the grand Pansodan (formerly Pharye) Street, he is quoted at length:
“Because they are called Rangoon, Bangkok or Saïgon, because they are situated on the Irrawaddy, the Menam or the Mekhong, those great turbid rivers, they are invested with the magic spell that the ancient and storied East has cast upon the imaginative West.”
That magic spell of the East - cast by the palm trees, the mangroves, purple sunsets, verdant paddy - is said to have been first made comfortable and bearable to European visitors by the four Sarkies Brothers - Martin, Tigran, Aviet, and Arshak - hoteliers of Armenian descent. Whereas before, hotel proprietors for Europeans in Asia had thought “job done” if dust and pariah dogs were kept at bay and a mosquito net was provided, the Sarkies, armed with sweeteners such as caviar from the Caspian Sea, developed a hybrid Asian-European hospitality that provided more than simply a refuge from heat and noise.
After the Oriental and Eastern hotels in Georgetown, and Raffles in Singapore, in 1901 Aviet opened The Strand in Rangoon - a city which at the time was being described as “one of the cornerstones of the British Empire.”
Here at The Strand the perceived romance of the East was crystalized and attracted both adventurers and sybarites. From his balcony in the early 1990s, the British painter R. Talbot Kelly sat and watched the enterprise of the Rangoon docks, marvelling at the “baskets of coconuts or vegetables, gaudily painted calicoes and haberdashery, cheap knives and looking-glasses, and baskets of cool melons”, slung across the shoulders of porters, passing from one warehouse to another ...
The Gentleman in the Parlour
Though it makes up only a small proportion of all that he wrote, Maugham’s scribblings on Burma, Siam, and Indochina are seen to encapsulate travel through the last day of the imperial world in the 1920 and ‘30s.
His vernacular is sometimes pompous and excruciatingly British (his travelogue is peppered with phrases such as “cock a snook” and “a rum sort of cove”), but the way he travelled and the way he saw the world was more nuanced than many of his contemporaries. He trekked through Shan State for example - a much more intrepid activity then than it is today - and remarked on Mandalay that wise men kept away, aware that the city would never be able to live up to the ‘independent magic’ aroused by its name’s lilting syllables.
Nonetheless, standing outside Mandalay Palace he was captivated by the gold-mohur trees that stood on its banks, making stronger "a beauty that leaves you and stuns you and leaves you breathless". And in Bagan he was overcome too - as so many of us are - by the myriad temples and stupas of Burma’s first great empire, looming “huge, remote and mysterious, like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream.”
It was also the romance of the Ayeyarwady River, the Great Irrawaddy, that attracted Maugham. Not just the river itself, but the experience of travelling with strangers through a strange land. “If I could plunge into that engimate life,” he wrote, “and lose myself as a cup of water thrown overboard is lost in the Irrawaddy.”
He entitled his book on travelling through Southeast Asia, The Gentleman in the Parlour, meant to refer to the precious anonymity that is afforded the traveller. The romance of this kind of travel comes not just from the place, but also from one’s fellow travellers.
“... in some lonely place in the jungle … a man has told me stories about himself that I was sure he had never told to a living soul … a strange acquaintance … a wanderer for a moment … it is one of the great pleasure of travel …"
Down the Irrawaddy
Cruises remain a favoured way to travel through Myanmar. While it is possible to travel up to the far north, to Homalin along the Chindwin River and Katha (home of Orwell’s Burmese Days) along the Ayeyarwady, the most popular cruise is that between Mandalay and Bagan.
A less common route is the one from Bagan to Yangon - a journey being offered this Spring by the Strand Hotel’s luxury cruise, The Strand Cruise. Peppered along the banks on this journey are an array of towns and villages, ill-frequently visited by travellers, and yet rich in import and intrigue for the discerning visitor to Myanmar.
On this cruise, one of the first stops is at the town of Salay not too far from Mt Popa and the old oil fields of Chauk. Here we recommend having lunch at Salay House, or even staying the night on the banks of the river. As well as being a hotel and restaurant, Salay House is a museum of curiosities, filled up with trinkets and tchotchkes from the time of King Edward VII.
Further down the river you will visit the Min Hla Fort, built by King Mindon (penultimate King of Burma) in the 19th Century with the assistance of Italian engineers, so to protect the Kingdom of Ava from a British Invasion. Further down the river still is Danaphyu where the mighty Burmese General Mahabandoola led the Burmese in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, and the town of Zalun where sits the bronze Buddha Image of Pyaytawpyan Pagoda, famous for being stolen by the British and later returned on the order of Queen Victoria.
Indeed, on cruises such as these, while the sepia waters are intoxicating and the hospitality and service sublime, as much as they are for gorging and reclining, they are for looking and for learning.
Grand Designs, Pink Gins
The ship will eventually dock in Yangon, revealing to the passengers a riverside cityscape that has little changed since Maugham first visited. Indeed, from Sule Pagoda Road at the very heart of downtown Yangon along to Bo Aung Kyaw Street towards the east, the collection of buildings make up a heritage asset unrivaled in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most iconic building of them all is the Port Authority at the bottom of Pansodan Street, built in 1928. To its left as you look at it from the river is the Yangon Division Court, which once housed the most important offices in British Burma. On the other side is the Myanmar Airways Office. Now stripped bare of all architectural ornamentation, this was once the famous Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Office - the company who raised the dispute with King Thibaw leading to the Third and final Anglo-Burmese War.
Further east is the British Embassy, originally built as the office of J & F Graham Company in 1900, the gentlemen responsible for bringing Rowntree chocolate to Burma. Next door are the old offices of the Bulloch Brothers & Co., once “the largest rice millers in the East” and now the Central Post Office. This is one of the few great old buildings that tourists can freely enter - we highly recommend poking your nose in and having a snoop.
And then finally we are back where we began, at the Strand. Built by the British entrepreneur John Darwood at the turn of the century but conceived as what it is today by the Sarkies, heralded the “finest hostelry East of Suez” and patronized by “royalty, nobility, and distinguished persons”!
The Sarkies Bar continues to draw locals, expats, and travellers most evenings, and especially during happy hour on a Friday. The atmosphere conjures the mystique of intrigue and skullduggery of the Old World; what Graham Greene would describe as, a world “... of British clubs, of pink gins, and of little scandals waiting for a Maugham to record them … “
And why not? For when travelling we can all be a little Maugham …
A habitual mistaken conception about heritage is that it is solely about preserving what once was and gazing into history. In actual fact, heritage is much about the future as it is about the past; it is about developing sustainable, liveable, walkable cities, where the inhabitants in understanding their past can better prepare for their future.
When one takes a heritage tour of Yangon, it is not - for example - simply about learning of the history of the Yangon Division Court, but about wandering, slowly, along Bank Street, and seeing that behind the grand building are tea shops that still today serve lawyers and clerks and other court workers, alongside photocopy shops and scribe stalls offering typewriting and computing services to barristers and plaintiffs.
Heritage travel - what Sampan might term slow travel - is about looking and learning; about seeing and thinking.
Maugham claimed that he travelled in search of the “solution to the mystery of existence.” Greene belittled the result to “pink gins” and “little scandals”. The best travel, in reality, lies somewhere in between the two.
As the sailing season is coming to an end, The Strand Cruise is offering a special return journey cruising the Ayeyarwady River from Bagan to Yangon this May, with the possibility to sail 2, 3, or 7 nights.
More details on Sampan’s own Yangon Day Tour - available through the year - can be found here.