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We are still here! Let us send you tips for travelling through Myanmar and stories from the road …
The Strand quickly became a beacon to writers and adventurous from around the world hosting, amongst others, Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. It later fell on hard times. During the Second World War it was used by the Japanese forces as stables for their horses and after Burmese independence fell into disrepair until a large renovation project commenced in the early 1990s.
Suki Singh, Managing Director of Myanmar Hotels International and VP Operations GCP Hospitality, was at the forefront of the Strand`s rejuvenation. In September 2020, Sampan`s Managing Director Bertie Alexander spoke with Suki to discuss his life and work in Myanmar. This was part of a series of conversations with the intention of releasing a podcast called `The Teashops Tapes` exploring the thoughts and stories of Myanmar people and others that call Myanmar home.
Development of The Teashops Tapes has been suspended but this article intends to act as a teaser before work on the podcast can be resumed.
This conversation took place online in September 2020 as Myanmar was entering its second wave of COVID-19. Suki spoke from his house of 30 years in Yangon near to the Inya Lake Hotel. He describes Myanmar as his `native country` despite being born in Lhasa, Tibet, where his father was posted by the Indian Foreign Service. Suki has no memories of Lhasa, leaving with his family to Washington when he was still young and then continuing to grow up `all over the world`.
Suki studied hospitality in Vienna having been inspired as a child standing in the marble lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. He worked in several properties in Vienna before moving to Sofia, Bulgaria, when it was pivoting out of communism. He was in Sofia when he was offered a position in Myanmar, perceived to be a country similarly in a state of transition …
When I arrived here I didn`t really know what to expect. It was indeed a much larger task than we could ever have imagined. It took us more than 3 years although it is only 32 keys. It was a very extensive renovation at huge cost.
31 August 1991 was when I arrived in Yangon. I can very clearly remember that day. It was quite something. [The Strand] had somehow stood still in time. It was as different as one could imagine. There were bats and rats all over the place but also that old world quirkiness and charm. It is fair to say it had been neglected for a long time. It required a lot of nurturing love and care.
We only managed to finish in November 1993, opening on 4 November 1993.
The Ministry of Tourism had a huge workforce so we conducted interviews with all the staff that were there and chose a group that was then trained by trainers from abroad: F&B, HR … different disciplines to instil high standards.
When The Strand opened we had 240 staff – an 8-1 staff/room ratio, which is unheard of. But the thing about the Myanmar people is their kindness. The nature of the people is such that whatever the shortcomings there may have been in technical terms were more than compensated by the kind demeanour, willingness to please and a genuine empathy to look after people. I always think of the quote, “In a world when you can be anything, be kind”. That’s something that comes to my mind when I think of Myanmar.
It still remains today in Yangon, this city of 7 million people, you still have this feeling of warmth and closeness. And that’s what kept me bound to this land.
In those days in the early `90s [tourist] arrivals were around 45,000 a year. You had a limitation of staying seven days and then subsequently 14 days. Most travellers brought a bottle of Red Label and a carton of cigarettes [to sell] and that could get them through a week of staying in Myanmar. It was primarily western travellers from the UK, the United States, Australia, and to some lesser extent Asians.
There was this feeling in the early ’90s that things would take off. The country would be opened to investment and there would be more happening. So we benefited from that.
It was so tight-knit. There were not that many people and not many places to go to. On Friday`s we would go to the Sailing Club or the American Club. Other than that you didn’t have too many avenues to meet so The Strand was like a congregation point.
It was party time all the time. But remember that we had a curfew, like we have now. At 10PM you had to be at home or you had to stay out until 4AM. So that helped to drive parties because people didn’t want to leave!
I don’t want to take away anything from the challenges that many people faced. But we never noticed any pressure of the army on the streets, we were able to move around. I have never been stopped, in 30 years, by anyone. This is my narrow, personal experience. We felt a lot of freedom.
Since in Myanmar people are Buddhist predominately they did not begrudge some people having a good time while they were not able to do that – that is how I rationalize it. Karma plays a big role in Buddhist life. People are happy for those that are able to be better off than others. Maybe we lived in a bubble. We didn’t feel any suffering.
There used to be these shops in town, one of them is Ma Khin Aye, she is still around. I remember buying Don Perignon at 20$ a bottle. You had to buy six. Maybe four would be OK and two you would have to discard. And you could buy Cuban cigars and everything. How did this come in? Gifts made to senior people and somehow ended up in the shop and you could buy it.
Also in the market place we could get quite a lot of stuff. We did not feel a lack, as such. It was a really lovely period for me. One of the best periods that I have lived through here.
We have always taken the view that when the times are good and we are making decent returns we are not paying people more. We are paying them their fair wage as agreed: service charge plus basic salary. And so when times are more difficult we are prepared to dip into our pockets and support people at a time when they are barely able to make it and for no fault of theirs.
We believe that we need to look after our people. We could go on and say we will cut your compensation by 20 or 50% – it is not going to be a material amount for us but for them … So we don`t want to touch that. We are prepared to touch compensation packages of expats that are making much more, like myself. So we have this sense of family.
As you know the social security net is not as widespread [in Myanmar] as in many other countries so if someone here requires medical attention or has any other personal problem we tend to help them. We don’t do this with 20 pages of policy but it`s just logical empathy towards our people. That is the approach we take.
During this time we also offer some of our colleagues who are more senior, who have been 25 years with the company, if they don`t want to sit this out to offer them a retirement package and they will be free to look at some other opportunities. We paid some people up to 13 months salary in line with labour laws so they could get an exit at their own behest. We did not force anyone to go.
We really wanted to avoid as much hardship as possible for our colleagues who are actually the reason why the property has done so well over all these years.
The Myanmar people are by nature very resilient. I remember right after Nargis people started rebuilding their homes without waiting for anyone to come and help. There is this fortitude in people to face adversity. I come back to Buddhism again because I think it plays a very important role in this country. It offers a sense of patient perseverance, to live in the present moment. The only constant in life is change. So, it does prepare you.
One opportunity that this pandemic offers us is to review our business and make it more efficient for the future, so that when business comes back, we will have exponential benefits from growth at the top line of revenue: conduct trainings, qualify people to be more multitask orientated so they can do more than one thing and come out of this stronger.
It`s daunting at the moment. We just try to live one day at a time.
It`s so important to preserve all these buildings. Yangon arguably has one of the most intact grouping of heritage buildings on the planet. Since then our Inya Lake Hotel also has a blue plaque.
Inya Lake Hotel was designed and built by Russians and built from 1958 to 1961. At that point it was supposed to be a gift to Myanmar but Myanmar people being proud and generous actually returned the favour by giving rice and other thing in exchange to the Russian people. It is such a solid structure. It is maybe not the most attractive but it has architectural value. It looks a bit like a submarine.
Yes! And if you talk to the Russian Embassy they claim that Khrushchev had a hand in the designing of the pool. Now, I don’t know if that is true or not but I`ve heard this several times.
In order to be sustainable heritage preservation also has to have an economic basis. I think what the government here could do is to allow commercial use of heritage buildings. How many museums can you support if you don’t have enough stuff to display? Encouragement should be given to give the asset to a company which undertakes to invest a large amount of money to preserve the asset but in return they don’t pay a huge rent.
In the total scheme of things in Myanmar there is need for education, healthcare, infrastructure, development … So the Myanmar government will not have the resources to do this [preservation] on their own. One example is the Standard Chartered Bank. [This] could be given to the bank on a 50- or 100-year lease with the understanding that it would be preserved and kept intact so that way it would still serve a commercial purpose but also still be in the cityscape.
Absolutely. I think in terms of opportunity there is a lot of opportunity. But one needs a lot of patience. It is not easy. Every endeavour that you take here you have to come prepared for a long haul. This is not a short-term prospect even though it looks quite easy initially.
But every avenue of the economy offers opportunity. It is such a fertile and rich country with a small population, with natural resources and a young workforce – people who are willing to learn – like sponges. If you have good leadership there is a lot that can be done.
And it is one of the last bastions for tourism. We would like to share this destination with people in the world who can come and experience something unlike anywhere else. To create a better environment for future travellers to enjoy this quite amazing land.