Saturday, October 6, 2007

Grandeur versus Horror

The Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar

Monks in thousands marching in peace
During our June visit, our host had highlighted certain sights and places we should not miss. Taking the cue, we made preliminary plans for our daily itinerary. It had to be a flexible plan as we were in the middle of the monsoon season with heavy downpour daily. We went through a few of such rain storms where poorly maintained roads, choked and broken drainage and sheer mass of vehicles, caused considerable jams and havoc on the roads. One afternoon, after having lunch in the city centre, we proceeded to the Yangon Port area as we wanted to go across the wide Yangon river on a ferry. The ferry, which can take hundreds at a time, takes about 15 minutes to get over to the other side. The locals pay the equivalent of our 10 cents ( kyat in Myanmar currency) but as foreigners/tourists we paid 2 US $ each! It is the same for the top pagodas like Shwedagon and Sule. Locals enter free, we paid 5 US $ each. When I asked to whom the fees go to. I was told ....."the military".

After our river crossing, we headed across the port area for one of Yangon's most famous landmark....The STRAND hotel, located at 92 Strand Road. This is in the main commercial and diplomatic district. It is little surprise that an obligatory Yangon tradition is to have afternoon tea, a quintessential English distraction, at this opulent stop. The Strand, built in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers reminds us of our very own Raffles Hotel...gracious,elegant, with its high colonial columns, high teas and starched linen. Restored to its former glory, this Victorian-style regal gem of Yangon sits on the waterfront, displaying all the charms of the 20's and 30's in lavish fashion. No need to ask if it is 5 star quality. Those who have sampled her offerings may even give her a 6 rating!

We settled ourselves down at the Strand Cafe. Believe it or not, there were no other visitors save us. A lone musician was playing the Myanmese harp and xylophone and we tipped him generously as we were the only audience! The music was strange and haunting. It could be echoes of the past. Sitting under the archaic whirring ceiling fans and in such a redolent setting, I could never have imagined nor conjured up the images and horrors of such as we have witnessed in recent days. At least not that ....soon! What D2 and I had seen and experienced was nothing compared to what is taking place right now in Myanmar.

The tea or drink at the Strand cost 4 US $ each. A plate of noodles 9 US$. The suite is about 500 US$ ++ per night ( cheapest ). There are only 32 suites, no rooms at all. Why are there so few tourists at the Strand or even elsewhere? If you visit the Lonely Planet website or read their latest guidebook on Myanmar the answer is pretty clear. The country has been labelled as a "pariah" state by the west and Europe. No, not referring to the local people but the military regime in power. And Madam Aung San Suu Kyi made repeated calls for tourists and others not to visit Myanmar as an anti-junta stance. As a result, most westerners, Europeans and others in the Asian-Pacific region skip Burma in their travel plans. In a country where most people are poor and where even those who work for the government earn less than 1 US dollar a day, it does not come as a big surprise that life in Burma is very hard. Even well-qualified doctors in their dilapidated hospitals earn 80 US dollars a month only. Many have to moonlight to survive.

The Strand is by far the best Yangon luxury hotel offering a vintage experience.

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