Living the Rangoon Dream

Murni explains how the history of one of the World’s great hotels is inextricably bound up with Myanmar’s roller coaster history: Living the Rangoon Dream.

March 2015

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The Strand, Yangon.

 

The four Armenian brothers, Martin, Arshak, Aviet and Tigran Sarkies, legendary hoteliers, were born in Isfahan, Persia and created outstanding, mind-blowing, Western but Asian-style, colonial hotels, any one of which would make one’s parents proud and be the crowning achievement to a lifetime’s career. Their legacy is our dream.

 

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The Strand, Yangon.

It’s an almost impossible task to say which is the best, but, for my money, I love the Strand, for it’s in magical Rangoon, the capital of the World’s most enchanting country.  Today Rangoon is called Yangon, which means ‘end of strife’ but I can’t stop saying Rangoon, because, although it means nothing, it’s really evocative.

 

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Increasing trade made Rangoon prosperous in the mid 19th century. Textile merchant at Bogyoke Market, Yangon.

 

The brothers became active in the 1860s when world trade was changing and increasing. Steam ships were sailing from Europe. The increased trade made the Indian and Southeast Asian ports prosperous and created a demand for accommodation. Only very basic rooms were available at that time.

 

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Waiting for a haircut and shave in downtown Yangon.

 

The first place to attract the attention of the Sarkies brothers’ beady eyes was Penang, the first English settlement east of Calcutta, which was founded by Sir Francis Light in 1786. Martin Sarkies arrived in 1869 and promptly decided to create a luxury hotel that would rival the Ritz in Paris. The four brothers did just that and opened the Eastern Hotel in Georgetown, the capital of Penang, in 1884. The following year they acquired the next-door hotel, the Oriental, and merged the two hotels, the Eastern and the Oriental, and it became known as the E&O.

 

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Yangon River.

 

Not content to rest on their laurels, the brothers travelled down to Singapore, rented a house, made it into a hotel and opened the Raffles in 1887. They now had two hotels but by 1891 they wanted more. It was time to expand and establish another hotel. Rangoon on the banks of the Yangon River, a tributary of the mighty Irrawaddy, looked like the ideal place. Burma was then a province and part of the British Raj and Rangoon was its capital. There were already banks and trade and foreigners looking for accommodation but there were no proper, comfortable, first-class hotels.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-6Lobby of the Strand Hotel

 

The majority of the Burmese population are Buddhist.

The Third Anglo-Burmese War resulted in all of Burma coming under British rule, a nice birthday present for Queen Victoria on 1 January 1886. It was an incredibly rich country, full of gems, rubies, rice, teak, natural resources and oil. As part of the British Empire Burma joined a global and political framework, the like of which had never been seen before, covering approximately a quarter of the globe.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-4Indian Temple in Yangon.

Under the British, Indians worked as soldiers, civil servants, merchants and moneylenders, but their numbers are now much reduced, about 2% of the population, living mainly in Yangon and Mandalay.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-10Downtown Rangoon.

 

Most of the buildings, many of which are architectural masterpieces, often painted green, in Yangon’s densely populated streets are in urgent need of repair, but funds to do it are scarce.

Wonderful, really large, substantial buildings were being constructed in the city’s well laid out grid system. Visitors from all over the World made a beeline for Rangoon to engage in business, attracted by good communications, the rule of law and religious freedom: Baghdadi Jews, Indians, Armenians Germans, French, and others.

 

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Child wearing Tanaka.


Traditional Burmese life continues as it has done for centuries. Women and children still draw thanakha designs on their cheeks and foreheads. Thanakha is a sandalwood powder, ground on a stone, to protect the skin against the sun.



The brothers liked what they saw and bought an existing hotel on Merchant Street, the road behind Strand Road where the Strand now is, and called it Starkies Hotel, but it was a mid-range hotel and didn’t do well, so they sold it in 1896, and turned their attention to upgrading the Raffles in Singapore. The Raffles refurbishment was completed in November 1899.


strand-hotel-yangon-2A Burmese Buddhist nun inspects the local food in one of the numerous roadside restaurants in central Yangon.

 

Aviet had stayed on in Rangoon and heard in December 1899 that a small boarding house on Strand Road, facing the river, was available. It was where the brothers had stayed themselves on first arriving in Rangoon, just opposite the jetty where the steam ships moored and offloaded their passengers. The location was perfect. Their timing was impeccable: a new phenomenon called ‘tourism’ was just beginning. They opened the Strand’s doors in 1901, the year that Queen Victoria died.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-13The expanding railway system improved communications.

 

The expanding railway system improved communications. The country was opening up with an expanding railways system. Burma was moving into the 20th century with the introduction of post offices, trams, electric lamps, telephones, telegrams and cars. The British brought their games: cricket, rowing, hockey, football, billiards and boxing. Clubs, then bastions of European exclusivity, were set up all over Rangoon, strictly reserved for expats, and mainly male hangouts. There were ten times as many European men in Rangoon as women: solace frequently lay in alcohol. It still does.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-5Young Buddhist nuns collect alms.

 

Although everyone thinks of the Strand as a great British institution, it was actually Armenian from the start. By 1911, with the hotel doing really well, the Starkies brothers were getting itchy feet again. They built a new hotel in Calcutta, the Majestic Hotel, while Lucas Martin Sarkies opened the Oranje Hotel in Surabaya, East Java.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-1Distinguished British novelists, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell visited Burma in the early 20th century.

 

The history of the Strand mirrors the history of Burma itself.  It’s been a roller coaster of a ride. The First World War (1914-1918) put an end to tourism. Burma was not involved but Germans and Austrians were now the enemy of the British and detained and their businesses sold. In 1922 Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, who later abdicated the British throne to marry Mrs Simpson, an American divorcée and a commoner, visited Rangoon. Shortly afterwards, another Brit, Eric Blair, better known as the novelist George Orwell, joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years, stayed at the Strand and wrote Burmese Days: he was staunchly anti-imperialist.

 

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Khaing Chin serves wonderful breakfasts in the Strand Café, The Strand, Yangon.


The Strand recovered after the war and was doing well, when in 1925 the Sarkies sold it to other Armenians, the Rangoon restaurateur Peter Bugalar Aratoon and his cousin Ae Amovsie. More literary dignitaries stayed and were enchanted by the temples and pagodas: Somerset Maugham, who described his trip in Gentleman in the Parlour and Noël Coward who wrote Mad Dogs and Englishmen,



Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun,
They put their Scotch or Rye down, and lie down…
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.


strand-hotel-yangon-8Buddhist monks having morning tea in one of the many roadside tea shops in central Yangon.



That roller coaster nosedived again when the Great Depression of 1929 devastated the World economy and tourism slumped. The E&O and Raffles hurt badly. The Raffles declared bankruptcy. The Strand, however, carried on and was saved by the introduction of air travel.  It took a month by steamer from London to Rangoon and now it only took eleven days by plane! Rangoon became an important hub from Europe to Southeast Asia. All went well until the outbreak of the Second World War, then another nosedive, literally.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-17French Toast and Honey at the Strand Café, The Strand, Yangon.

 

Over eighty Japanese planes bombed Rangoon on the first air raid of 23 December 1941 and killed more than 2,000 people. Rangoon was totally unprepared and didn’t even have a warning system. A bomb crashed through the roof of the hotel and badly damaged the lobby. Another fell on the general manager’s floor but didn’t explode. Rangoon was evacuated on 20 February 1942. Approximately 600,000 non-Burmese fled to India by land and sea, making it the then largest migration in history, 80,000 dying on the way.

The Japanese kept on bombing until Rangoon fell on 9 March 1942. The Japanese requisitioned the hotel, renamed it “The Yamato” and gave it to the Imperial Hotel Tokyo Company to manage. The officers kept their horses in the Strand bar. The whole place had to be completely renovated and deloused after the Japanese surrendered on 2 September 1945.

 

boy tannakaNe Win launched a military coup in 1962.


It was an optimistic time. Burma became independent in 1948 after 62 years of British rule. Burmese citizens were finally allowed to go into the hotel. The hotel was hosting receptions and ballroom dancing in 1950 and the first America to Rangoon flight landed in 1952. The hotel was often full and many events were held there. But you can’t control history and there was another nosedive and it was a long one: in 1962 the Burmese General Ne Win launched a military coup and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism. It was more like the Burmese Way to Destruction. The Burma Economic Development Corporation bought the hotel in 1963 and the rot set in. The Burmese Way to Socialism continued until 1988 and turned one of the most prosperous countries in Asia into one of the World’s poorest.

 

strand-hotel-yangon-14The Strand Baby Grand.

 

The government owned the hotel, as it did nearly everything else. Industries were all nationalised. The manager, Peter Aratoon, the previous part-owner, did his best to maintain standards until he retired in 1971 but it was a losing battle. Burma became isolated from the rest of the World for half a century. Few people visited and the hotel declined rapidly. The fridges and plumbing ceased to work, water in the bathrooms hardly existed and bats and rats took over the lobby. But the Strand Hotel was a formidable woman and you can’t keep a good woman down.

 

lobby strand The Lobby Lounge, The Strand, Yangon.

 

The Strand’s fortunes were to be transformed and, hard though it was to believe in the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel was destined to become one of the grandest hotels in the World. It was in for a spectacular reincarnation when Bernard Pe-Win, the manager of American Express in Yangon (as Rangoon was now called), Adrian Zecha, the leading Asian hotelier, and other foreign investors entered into a 50/50 joint venture with the Burmese government in 1989.

 

spa strand The Spa, The Strand, Yangon.

 

They closed the hotel for three years and spent millions of dollars, going way over budget, creating thirty-two suites, where previously there were 100 rooms, renovating the hotel from top to bottom, training the staff, and opening on 4 November 1993.

 

kyaw yar zar tun strand Enthusiastic Kyaw Yar Zar Tun deals efficiently with check ins.

 

reception strand Kyaw Yar Zar Tun’s Check in Desk, The Strand, Yangon.

 

Now, you enter a magnificent, jaw-droppingly beautiful, well-proportioned, black and white marble-tiled lobby, full of flowers, potted plants and rattan furniture, where plentiful, smiling, Burmese-clad staff rush to fulfil your every need, while a Burmese musician plays traditional xylophone softly in the background. If you are lucky, Kyaw Yar Zar Tun will check you in.

 

 

butler strand suiteHein Htet Zaw, 24 hour Butler, Strand Suite, The Strand, Yangon.

 

The hotel has 110 tons of teak. The bathrooms are full of marble, old-fashioned taps and water pressure is impressive. The staircases are thickly carpeted in red and decorated with Burmese Kalaga tapestries. And, of course, there’s a Spa.

 

untitled-59The elegant Strand Suite, The Strand, Yangon.

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The Bathroom, Strand Suite, The Strand, Yangon.

upper floor strand The Upper Floor, The Strand, Yangon.

 

The hotel is only three stories high and the bedrooms are on the upper two floors, each guest enjoying 24-hours a day butler service. The elegant Strand Suite on the upper floor, where Mick Jagger, Jimmy Carter and other celebrities have stayed, has its own hall, sitting room, dining room, kitchen, study, and separate staff entrance.

 

cafe strand The Strand Café, The Strand, Yangon.

 

To the left of the entrance is the Strand Café, which serves the best breakfasts in town. Try the wonderful varieties of freshly baked bread, the French toast with honey and the excellent Mohinga, Burma’s most famous dish, a lemongrass and ginger infused rich fish soup with rice noodles, fresh coriander, shallots, fresh lime, crushed dried chilli, crisp fried split chickpeas, spring onions and boiled egg.  Khaing Chin will take your order with a broad smile. The Strand Afternoon Tea is also a great treat.

 

bar strand The Strand Bar, The Strand, Yangon.


To the right is the popular Strand Bar, with its billiards table at the rear, and half-priced drinks all Friday evening, and not a Japanese horse in sight.

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grill strand The Strand Grill Entrance, The Strand, Yangon.

 grill strand 2The Strand Grill, The Strand, Yangon emanates Victorian splendour.


At the far end is the formal restaurant, the Strand Grill, serving Western food and behind is the River Gallery, an interesting modern art gallery, jewelry and craft shops, where everything is mellow and there are no hard sells – and in this section there remains part of the old original hotel, closed for over a quarter of a century. It will shortly be renovated and brought back into the mainstream.

 

lift strandThe old Lift, The Strand, Yangon.

 

The old wrought iron lift is still there, no longer in use, but hopefully will be brought back into service as part of the renovation works.

 

shop strand The Strand Boutique, The Strand, Yangon.

 

I loved living the dream, but you don’t need to stay. Everyone is very welcome to visit. The smiling staff are, without exception, charming and helpful. Everything, including the internet, worked well. I have a small hotel in Ubud, Bali, and know how difficult it is to keep the show on the road with everything working seamlessly, smoothly and well, so I am very impressed, and am already looking forward to my next trip.

 

river gallery strandRiver Gallery, The Strand, Yangon.

lobby strand 2The Strand Lobby, Yangon.

 

The Strand is now over a century old, a highly respected grande dame rather than the formidable old woman of yore. It’s currently in the very safe and experienced hands of Philippe Delaloye, the Swiss General Manager. You will see him, tall, handsome and presiding lovingly over the whole affair in the lobby in the mornings, bringing that unbeatable combination of Western and Asian hospitality together in one magnificent creation and making the Strand one of the Great Hotels of the World.

 

© Text by Ni Wayan Murni, who founded and owns Murni’s Warung, the first international restaurant in Ubud, Bali and Murni’s Houses, Murni’s Warung Shop and Tamarind Spa. Her web site is www.murnis.com and you can contact her on murni@murnis.com

© Photographs by Jonathan Copeland, who is a freelance photographer and writer. His photography web site is www.jonathaninbali.com