Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and the world’s superpowers began strengthening ties with the once-isolated state, Myanmar’s star has been ascendant and Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon – has rocketed to the top of everyone’s must-go lists.
A beguiling mix of British colonialism and Myanmar tradition, this captivating South-east Asian city is as yet unsullied by the trappings of sudden economic development – but things are changing quickly.
As visa restrictions were relaxed and inbound tourism soared, so did development. New hotels have been mushrooming all over the city. Properties constructed during the late ’90s, a time when foreign investment peaked before sanctions were imposed, are seeing renovation and expansion.
In April, the Traders Hotel reopened as the 484- room Sule Shangri-La Yangon, following a two-and- a-half year renovation. However, to find the city’s best rooms, it’s better to look to those with a much longer hospitality heritage.
Accommodation at the two-storey 1920s Belmond Governor’s Residence Yangon (www.governorsresidence.com) recalls the days when the British official was still at home to callers. In the Governor’s Rooms, teak canopy beds bordered by silk-panelled walls and doors overlook leafy treetops, gardens and a blue-and-green tiled swimming pool. Every morning, guests peruse global newspapers over a sumptuous breakfast of imported teas, coffees and international and locally produced deli fare – including “Barma” ham and pave de Mandalay by Yangon gourmand Ye Htut Win.
Rooms at The Strand Hotel (www.hotelthestrand.com) also rank among the city’s most coveted. Built by British entrepreneur John Darwood in 1901 and later acquired by the Sarkies brothers, it was one of the region’s most luxurious lodgings during Burma’s (Myanmar’s former name) colonial heyday. The signatures of George Orwell, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling grace the guestbook, and many of the Victorian features they praised have been well maintained. The hotel’s colonnaded entranceway opens out into a vast marble-inlaid lobby where butlers in tighpone dress jackets and traditional longgyi and slippers coax the ancient elevator into submission.
“Myanmar is the tourism treasure trove of Asia, with its huge diversity of cultures and people and fabulous history,” says general manager Philippe Delaloye, a Swiss national with 30 years’ experience managing hotels in Thailand. “Its relative slow development has preserved the beautiful ecology and unique way of life. Its relative difficulty of access and, at this time, high expense, predestines Myanmar to be a choice destination for the affluent and exclusive traveller.”
Delaloye has a point. Development might be booming – even Myanmar Hotels International, which took over managing The Strand from GHM Hotels last year, plans to re-open its 40-room annex and build a swimming pool, spa, fitness centre and upscale restaurant – but demand far outstrips supply, pushing prices up.
In like for like comparison, Myanmar is already around 30 per cent more expensive than Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. After years of trade embargoes, procuring any kind of commodity takes time; quality vehicles are in short supply. Even when flying, you have to be flexible. Local carriers operating Myanmar’s shiny new fleet of planes sometimes cancel all afternoon flights upcountry the day prior, forcing passengers to switch to 6am departures at the last minute.
That said, Myanmar’s frontier feeling is all part of the allure – especially for its expats running businesses there. Michelin-star chef Felix Eppisser and wife Lucia attributed to a sense of adventure their decision to leave their highly acclaimed restaurant Rigiblick in Switzerland to take over local restaurant Le Planteur in 2010.
“We decided to move to Myanmar because we were fascinated by this country and amazed by the people. At that time, nobody knew about the changes and development of this country and we stepped into an unknown world,” Lucia recalls.
The couple moved on last May but left a keenly trained local team behind. Two months later, Boris Granges, who conceived the restaurant in the ’90s and ran it until the Eppissers took over, reopened Le Planteur (www.leplanteur.net) close to Inya Lake, a stone’s throw from Suu Kyi’s house. It has recently shifted again to 80 University Road, Yangon.
Granges is already invested in his next venture at the old location: a 24-hour members-only club – the first of its kind in Myanmar – to provide French fine dining, Myanmar nouvelle cuisine, a bar, a library, spa and concierge, among other services, for local artists, businessmen and intellectuals.
“It’ll take nearly two years of renovations to turn the mansion on Kaba Aye into a high- end private club in line with the China Club in Hong Kong, or 5 Hertford Street in London,” says Granges, whose resume includes Girardet Restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland.
Family-run Italian eatery L’Opera (www. operayangon.com), set in a colonial mansion on the banks of Inya Lake, is another stalwart of the city’s fine-dining scene. CEO Franceso Fedeli was an Italian diplomat to Myanmar for many years. Genteel to a fault, he invited me to join the family table and try a little of everything on the menu.
Fritto misto of squid, baby octopus and shrimp in a light crispy batter with tartare sauce, beef tenderloin carpaccio with extra virgin olive oil, walnuts and parmesan cheese flakes, three steaming portions of pasta – pappadelli; home- made tortellini stuffed with porcini mushrooms and Italian sausage in white wine sauce; soft, yielding gnocchi enrobed in a light gorgonzola sauce – served on a square black plate, risotto with truffle and asparagus sauce… Everything was made from scratch and absolutely delicious.
For a city on the cusp of development, Yangon already has a respectable number of great places to dine, most housed within colonial properties. Laidback Union Bar and Grill (www.unionyangon.com) is known for its delicious East meets West gastropub fare – salt and pepper squid, tuna tataki, chicken tikka masala, Union club sandwiches on rosemary foccacia bread – and cocktails.
Newly opened Water Library (www.waterlibrary.com) – a concept with sister outlets in Bangkok – serves New Nordic cuisine by Swedish chef Gabriel Hedlund and Danish sous chef Martin Ceccarelli Sorensen, both of whom came from Copenhagen’s stellar restaurant Noma; the bar is a nightly hotspot for its 300 bottles of wine and cocktails by Italian mixologist Mirko Gardelliano.
Even Yangon’s traditional tea-shop culture – featuring community hubs for coming together over local favourites like Mohinga, a fish noodle soup considered Myanmar’s national dish, and tea sweetened with condensed milk – is represented at the high-end by the upscale Acacia Tea Salon (www.acaciateasalon.com). But many of Myanmar’s greatest hospitality gems lie outside the city.
Bagan’s plain of temples is one of Myanmar’s big draws. At the apogee of the then Kingdom of Pagan’s wealth in the 11th and 13th centuries, the plain was covered with over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, 2,200 of which remain today. When safari camp-inspired Bagan Lodge (www.bagan-lodge.com) opened last year, it offered travellers a luxurious base from which to explore the Bagan Archaeological Zone, while retaining the frontier feeling of the destination.
“We wanted to keep the idea of an explorer’s camp. Here you are, going somewhere, to Myanmar, and you pitch your tent amid the pagodas,” says designer Brigitte Dumont de Chassart. “In the room, you look up and see the ceiling, with a tent above the double beds. We kept to the concept of tents with 21st-century amenities.”
A 20-minute flight away, Mandalay Hill Resort (www.mandalayhillresorthotel.com) in former capital Mandalay faces the distinctive architecture of the Royal Palace and its beautiful moat.
The all-chalet Inle Princess Resort (www.inleprincessresort.net), lapped by Inle Lake’s eastern edge and backed by the blue peaks of the Shan Hills, is one of the few resorts on the water to successfully unite the stunning setting and local cultural traditions with five-star service and standards. (It’s also one of the few resorts not connected to the old regime – the owner is a former political prisoner.)
“One of our most unique experiences is the Princess’ Wine Cellar Dining Experience: dinner on an Inle longboat table in our traditional pottery oven-inspired cave, surrounded by about 2,500 bottles – a selection of wines from around the world and from the Red Mountain vineyard nearby,” says resort owner Misuu Borit.
That’s right – Myanmar produces wine, and it’s very good. Located behind the resort, the Red Mountain Estate (www.redmountain-estate.com) was planted in 2003. This year, the winery will produce 205,000 bottles of six red and eight white varietals, including a selection of sweet muscat wines, sold at hotels and restaurants around the country. Says winemaker Francois Raynal, who has been with the brand since the beginning: “We are going to release a new sweet wine soon. This wine, called Essencia 2011, is made with the Hungarian Tokaj method and has been aged three years in Hungarian new oak barrels. I also love the red wines which have spent two or three years in the bottle. Today, the Syrah 2011 is excellent. Unfortunately, all wines are sold and drunk too early.”
Myanmar even boasts unspoiled beaches. Ngapali Bay Villas and Amara Ocean Resort are two of the better new openings along the 3km Ngapali beach, but for out and out charm, my favourite is the 50-room Sandoway Resort (www.sandowayresort.com). The safe inside my palm- crowned villa was a metal box with a padlock, and the fridge simply a crate full of ice. Every night, I climbed a short ladder to fall asleep in a canopied bed, as swaying coconut palms and casuarinas cast shadows against the A-frame ceiling.
Says co-owner Pietro Tura, who is married to a Myanmar national: “The first time I found myself in Ngapali was back 22 years ago, when Myanmar was still a destination unknown to international tourism and the political situation wouldn’t allow any sort of foreign investment.
“The element that makes Ngapali so unique is the feeling of finding comfort in a place that hasn’t changed its landscapes and traditions drastically to conform to the global standards of international tourism.” Let’s hope things stay that way.