Last summer I arrived in Yangon in Myanmar to join the dots of my family’s fragmented history. I had heard stories of a doctor from India (my husband’s grandfather), who had married the daughter of a gem merchant from Saudi Arabia, and settled down in a modest apartment in downtown Yangon, then Ragoon.. The city grew on them, while they grew in love and had a family. Then sometime in the early sixties when the military junta took over Myanmar, tragedy struck, and the family got separated. A few members travelled to the safer shores of India, while the rest continued to remain in the country.
I decided to visit Myanmar to find out more about the doctor and his family and what happened to them. But in the process I discovered a fascinating culture and country, one that was once a major financial, political and administrative hub during the British rule of the subcontinent and an exporter of oil, cotton, rice, timber and precious stones.
My journey took me to Bagan, Inley and Mandalay via road, rail and river, as I explored the wonderful cuisine and the warmth of its people who often greeted me with a smiling “miglabar” (hello in Burmese). One of my most endearing memories of Myanmar would be that of the many little boys I met, their faces smeared with tanaka (a white chalk-like powder) playing chinlone (traditional ball games) in the fields.
I have stopped by the many tea houses to enjoy bowls of lahpet thoke (fermented tea leaf salad) and Shan khow suey (a popular noodle dish from the Shan state), shopped for lacquerware and rubies and stayed at the many ancient buildings that have now been transformed into wonderful hotels.
The famous British writer Rudyard Kipling spent just three days in Myanmar during a sea voyage from Calcutta to San Francisco in March 1889, but wrote, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
Kipling, then 23, did not get a chance to return to the land that so entranced him, but he promised, “When I die I will be a Burman.”
Kipling is not alone; many men of arts and letters, including George Orwell, Somerset Maugham and Lord Louis Mountbatten, and much later former US president Jimmy Carter and celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain, have found the country quite unlike any other land they knew.
History and architecture
Yangon or Rangoon, once the capital (the present capital is Naypyidaw), is a charming city at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers. Its impressive colonial and spiritual heritage makes it one of the most fascinating cities in Southeast Asia.
The city’s bustling downtown is at the crossroads of the Sule Pagoda and the Mahabandoola Road. Bombings during the Second World War have destroyed much of this historic city but you can still find fascinating pieces of architecture on almost every street, especially on Yangon’s riverfront along the Strand Road.
Here you will find the jetty where the Armenian brothers, hoteliers Aviet and Tiran Sarkies, first landed. With their unfailing sense for location, they must have immediately cast their eyes on the spot opposite the landing pier and decided to set up the 60-room Strand Hotel, today an intrinsic part of Yangon’s social fabric and Myanmar’s story.
Standing three storeys tall, with each floor surrounded by a lofty verandah to keep the interior guest rooms cool, it opened its doors in 1901 and soon gained a reputation as the finest hotel east of Suez, playing host to international royalty, ambassadors and statesmen from across the world.
The history of The Strand is colourful and often described as riches to rags to riches again. During the Second World War the hotel was used to stable the horses of the Japanese cavalry, while during the military socialist rule, the property lost much of its charm and fell into despair.
In 1989, after decades of neglect The Strand was sold to renowned hotelier Adrian Zecha. There have been several renovations after this, the most ambitious one being in 2016. The hotel’s 31 rooms still retain heritage architectural details, such as marble and teak wood floorings, chandeliers and lacquer wood furniture.
Its old-world charm (where every room is serviced by a personal butler) has been praised many a time by its esteemed guests, such as British novelist George Orwell and Somerset Maugham, actor Sir Peter Ustinov, CEO of Chase David Rockefeller and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. We spent a couple of long languid afternoons at The Strand’s famous Sarkies Bar where the Burmese elite still meet and socialise.
Like The Strand, the new Yangon Excelsior in Downtown has also been painstakingly refurbished. This was once the headquarters of the Steel Brothers Limited Company, a major British exporter in the early 19th century.
These hotels now see a steady stream of guests from the rest of Asia and the West as Burma markets itself as the newest luxury holiday destination in Asia.
Our highpoint of Downtown was a trip down to the 38th street, near Fraser Block, where a part of our family still lives. We crossed the lanes and bylanes, filled with settlers of Chinese and Indian origins, living in apartment blocks on either side of the dense narrow streets. Members of my extended family have now had inter-religious marriages. Culturally they speak Burmese, dress in the traditional lyongi, send their children to local schools and relish local food.
Meeting second- and third-generation family members, who now spoke Burmese and practised a different religion was an immensely memorable, inclusive experience for us. For my mother-in-law, who had left her parents back in 1964 to come to India, 54 years melted in a few seconds. She had lost her parents and her sister, but her nephews and nieces greeted her with love and tenderness, laying out the biggest spread we had ever seen in our lives. There were bowls and bowls of khow suey, marinated river fish in different sauces, dried fish, fish broth soups (locally called the mohingya), tofu noodles, rice in garlic oil and the many variations of the Burmese tea.
Spaces of peace and quiet
The spiritual connection with Myanmar happens at different levels. The Irrawady cleanses your soul, its vastness and depth both captivating. The pagodas in the different cities are spaces of peace and quiet.
Many residents embrace Buddhism on the social level and visiting the pagodas is quite common among all communities.
I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda built 2,500 years ago and the Chaukhtatgyi Reclining Buddha, whose feet are carved with traditional symbols.
On one rain-kissed morning I took the Circle Train that passes through the outskirts of the town, and gives a unique insight into the lively, colourful lifestyles of local people in the rural areas.
Yangon’s Bogyoke Market, formerly known as Scott’s Market, is another popular attraction and it offers a wide selection of Burmese handicraft, precious jewels, cotton shorts and skirts, artwork and other goods.
From Yangon, I travelled to Mandalay, founded at the foot of the Mandalay Hill in 1857 by King Mindon as his royal capital. The city is enchanting, with pagodas dotting its slopes.
Mandalay houses the Mahamuni Pagoda, where you will find the Buddha covered with gold leaves by devotees who come here to pay respect. Mandalay is also home to several cottage industries and you can visit these to learn more about cotton and silk production and lacquerware. Mandalay’s former capitals of Sagaing and Amarapura offer travellers an exquisite insight into the rich cultural heritage of Myanmar and are good as day trips.
Bagan, on the other hand, is impressive with its archaeological remains and panoramic views of the magnificent plains.
I travelled by horse cart for a tour passing Thatbyinnyu, the highest temple in Bagan; the luxurious Dhammayangyi Temple, noted for its remarkable brickwork; and the vast, much-visited Sulamani Temple. Bagan’s architectural masterpiece is, however, the Ananda Temple. The balloon ride in Bagan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes you over the gilded stupas as they glide away with the majestic Irrawaddy River in the background.
A visit to Myanmar isn’t complete without visiting the villages built on stilts over the majestic Inle lake, inhabited by the local Intha people. Inle’s morning market attracts people from all over the lake’s shores, who gather to buy and sell their wares. The Khaung Daing village on the lake’s western shores is famous for its traditional Shan tofu. You can watch and perhaps participate as locals sift the soy beans, boil them, mash them into balls then form tofu cakes to dry in the sun.
Myanmar is not as remote as you think. As we bid goodbye to our family in Yangon, I realised that there was so much in common that I shared with this country, and its geographical boundaries with my country India were perhaps that, just lines. Myanmar’s people have been victims of its political process, but as I discovered her through the shared customs and culture, and the rich culinary traditions, it turned out to be a remarkable journey.