Weekend in . . . Yangon

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

I t’s Myanmar’s moment and the country’s major city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), is hoping to become Southeast Asia’s next boomtown. Diplomatic missions, business delegations and tourists have filled Yangon’s hotels since the country’s military government began transferring power to civilian leaders in 2011. The spotlight continues this year as Myanmar takes on the chairmanship of the Associa tion of Southeast Asian Nations.

For now, though, as the road map for laws and reforms is being drawn, the city remains in a kind of urban time warp, still awaiting a much-needed capital infusion to fuel what it hopes will be its renaissance.

Golden pagodas, colonial-era buildings, traditional shop houses and mouldering jazz-age mansions form a low-rise fabric unique to Asia, the whole stitched together by tree-lined avenues swarming with buses and cars.

While ethnic and religious tensions simmer along Myanmar’s borderlands, including in remote Rakhine State, where there have been recent outbreaks of religious violence, Yangon is far from these areas. Still, time will tell whether the city will reclaim its former status as a cosmopolitan capital.

1 A river runs through it
On Yangon’s chaotic riverfront boulevard, Strand Road, stately buildings like the Custom House, Central Post Office and British Embassy bear stucco and stone witness to the city’s turn-of-the-century status as one of the British Empire’s commercial and trading hubs. A haven of tranquillity, the Strand Hotel, among Yangon’s best-preserved colonial-era mansions, has cosseted globe-trotters almost continuously since the Armenian Sarkies Brothers, owners of Raffles in Singapore, opened it in 1901.

It’s also home to River Gallery I, opened by a Kiwi expatriate, Gill Pattison, in 2005 and the ideal place to explore Yangon’s buzzing contemporary art scene. Last year Ms Pattison expanded, with River Gallery II, just up the street in a lofty-ceilinged former law office.

2 Watering hole
A slightly stodgy medley of teak, black leather and whirring ceiling fans, the Strand Bar comes to life during Friday evening happy hour, when drinks are half price and a worldly mélange of hotel guests, expatriates and locals gather to throw back a Dagon Beer (on tap, 3,000 kyat, or about €2.22) or sip a Strand Sour made with Mandalay rum (about 8,000 kyat). Local intelligence flows freely, as in the days when the likes of George Orwell or Rudyard Kipling came here. A few blocks further on Strand Road, in the majestic Myanmar Red Cross Building, is the Union Bar & Grill where you’ll find seasonal food, free wi-fi and cocktails like the Mango Sunset, with house-infused Kaffir lime rum (about 6,500 kyat).

3 Barbecue, beer and beyond
When the tropical sun goes down, 19th Street, between Maha Bandoola and Anawrahta Roads, still sizzles. Mounds of grill-ready raw meat and fresh seafood, arrayed on outdoor tables along this lively pedestrian stretch, lie ready to meet their fiery fate. A grilled fish is about 5,000 kyat.

Squeamish about street food? No worries, there’s enough cheap draught beer and cocktails at places like Ko San Bar for a second happy hour. Other local dinner options featuring Burmese specialities from salads to curries, like Taing Yin Thar Myanmar National Restaurant or Khine Khine Kyaw, are a taxi hop away near Inya Lake, a more residential area of town where once-posh villas peek from behind mildew-streaked walls and lush foliage. Dinner at either place will cost 10,000 to 15,000 kyat.

4 Golden land
Spiritual heart of Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda’s bell-shaped stupa rises in golden splendour above Yangon. Buck the tourist trail by taking in the colourful pagoda neighbourhood first, beginning with a bowl of mohinga noodles – the Burmese breakfast – at deli-like Myaung Mya-Daw Cho on Yay Tar Shay Old Street (about 500 kyat).

Then, peruse shops brimming with Buddhist religious items, papier-mâché toys and herbal health remedies before climbing up vertiginous steps to the Shwedagon Pagoda’s eastern entrance. By engaging a local guide in advance, you’ll both support the economy and gain cultural insight.

Some travel agencies, like the local operator for Kensington Tours, even donate a portion of proceeds to community projects such as the renovation of a 120-year-old Buddhist ordination hall hidden at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda, featured on the half-day “Spiritual Shwedagon” tour.

5 Monsoon and more
One of the first old shop houses to be restored for public use, Monsoon Restaurant & Bar captures an updated rattan-and-fan vibe. Grab a window table and refuel with iced coffee, juices or a pan-Asian lunch (beef Thai green curry, 7,000 kyat; Vietnamese spring rolls, 5,000 kyat) as street life unrolls outside: gentlemen smoking cheroots, women carrying umbrellas for shade. Upstairs, at the non-profit, fair-trade Pomelo Boutique, expat volunteers market the work of artisan groups. Proceeds from beaded jewellery, glassware, handmade toys and textiles by traditional weavers from conflict-ridden Rakhine State revert to the local communities.

6 The modern era
Walk or have your taxi drive past the Secretariat, the spectacular Victorian brick labyrinth and former colonial government headquarters where General Aung San, father of Burmese independence, was assassinated in 1947.

From there it’s a few blocks to the riverfront Botataung Pagoda, where pilgrims gawk at tarnished jewel-encrusted antique icons and religious items (like a small bowl filled with “the sands of Buddha Gaya”) inside the gold-gilded sanctuary – rebuilt after a second World War bombing raid that was aimed at a nearby wharf destroyed the original stupa instead, revealing ancient treasures buried inside.

Before leaving, stroll past stands selling coconut and banana offerings (meant to appease mischievous Burmese folk spirits called nats) and go down to the riverfront to watch ferries cross the tidal Yangon River waters as ships glide toward inland ports.

7 Back to the future
To grasp Yangon’s urban past and future possibility, snag a copy of the illustrated paperback 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon at the Governor’s Residence hotel gift shop on Taw Win Road and peruse it over a sundowner on the poolside terrace of this 1920s-era teak mansion in the city’s lush Embassy Quarter. Visiting this beautiful boutique hotel, a member of the Orient Express group, is one of Yangon’s most out-of-time experiences.

8 Dream of Indochine
Prolong the languor with French-Indochina cuisine like spicy lobster and seafood pasta (23,000 kyat) at Le Planteur, in a brick colonial-era villa near Shwedagon Pagoda. The restaurant combines fine dining, a funky cocktail lounge and a jaw-dropping wine cellar (1950 Château Pétrus, anyone?). Plus, they’ll send a complementary car from their vintage fleet (like the Vauxhall 1947 sedan) to chauffeur you to and from the restaurant.

9 Unvarnished city
Within a short radius of Sule Pagoda, a historic place of worship now in the midst of a roaring traffic circle, you can spot landmarks like Immanuel Baptist Church, the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, the former Rowe & Company department store and City Hall – a lavender-painted pastiche combining Burmese and British style. On nearby Pansodan Street, outdoor booksellers display Mad Men-era tomes like Marxist Philosophy and Business Systems Development . In a gorgeously decrepit building, Lokanat Gallery hosts contemporary art exhibitions.

10 Noodles galore
Noodle dishes are to Burmese as pasta is to Italians. Every region has its own take. Spicy noodles from Shan State, a rural, mountainous region in eastern Myanmar bordering Thailand, Laos and China, may be the best. You can try them at 999 Shan Noodle Shop, a spotless hole-in-the-wall just behind Yangon City Hall.

Venerable Shwe Yi, a short taxi ride from the Sule Pagoda, serves excellent noodles as well. Try the ohno kaukswe (coconut noodles, 500 kyat), a favourite Burmese snack.

11 Get your longyi on
Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly Scott Market), a sprawling enclosure built in 1926, is the place to buy the sarong-like longyi (about 2,000 to 20,000 kyat). For ethnic textiles, head upstairs to Yoyamay. Other items include jade jewellery, lacquer ware and curios like temple bells.

12 A spot of tea
Catch your breath after shopping by joining Myanmar’s older middle classes who have retained a taste for afternoon tea and worldly conversation.

At posh and polished Acacia Tea Salon, in a restored mansion, goodies like cream-and-strawberry “Napoleons” and salmon-and-cucumber finger sandwiches served with a choice of over 20 imported teas (or a glass of bubbly) will restore even the most heat-wilted travellers.

New York Times Service