Source: AFP via Getty Images

Burma and Myanmar: From Junta Repression to Luxury Tourism

Four decades, three visits, two names, one country.

It's happy hour in the bar of The Strand hotel in Yangon. 

A smartly dressed barman mixes a Strand Sour as fans slowly revolve below the high ceiling. Musicians play. Tourists at tables beside the teak-lined walls check guidebooks and discuss where to go for dinner.

How about Le Planteur, an elegant villa on the shore of Inya Lake? It serves fine French food, and offers an $87 tasting menu featuring dishes such as lobster salad, prime veal fillet in pistachio crust, and Grand Marnier souffle with orange sauce. Or maybe the hotel's Strand Grill, with its vaulted ceiling and marble-inlaid floor, where lobster thermidor costs $44?

This is modern Myanmar. It's no longer the British colony where my father was born in 1904, nor the 33-year-old independent state (then called Burma) I first visited in 1981, then returned to in 1992. That was a scary place, brutally governed.

In 1992 the country was ruled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the fearsome junta that held onto power even after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a general election in 1990.

Visiting then as part of a group of Hong Kong-based foreign journalists invited to see that things really weren't as bad as they were reported overseas, one thing quickly became clear: they were. 

My taxi was followed at night, and foreign diplomats spoke knowingly of the ways of the junta's intelligence-gathering efforts.

“Their methods aren't that sophisticated,” a foreign envoy assured me when I interviewed him the following day. “Just pulling out fingernails, that kind of thing.”

Rangoon was like a city frozen in times, with rundown colonial buildings, broken pavements and ancient public buses.

Rangoon in 1981 was like a city frozen in time, with rundown colonial buildings, broken pavements and ancient public buses.

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

When no-one else was close enough to hear, people would whisper their support for Aung San Suu Kyi. A cabbie wouldn't risk being seen driving me past the villa where “The Lady” was detained. He dropped me a block away and took a detour to pick me up on the other side. (These days, the road past the house, decked out with bold posters for the National League for Democracy, is busy. Then, it was quiet.) 

One of the official minders in 1992 boasted to me that I was being followed and that they knew who I was meeting.

One Burmese man publicly engaged me in conversation to practice his English. A policeman quickly appeared and began shouting before handcuffing him behind his back and then hitting him in the face. He hauled him off to a police station. I followed to register my outrage. My courage quickly evaporated when a desk sergeant began to question me and I left. I’m rather attached to my fingernails.

Pagodas Polished

My father was born in Mandalay on Nov. 24, 1904. When I first traveled to Burma in 1981, after his death, it was virtually a closed country, with only half dozen cities accessible to foreigners. The maximum tourist visa was one week.

Most foreigners then would travel a loop, taking the train to Mandalay from Yangon (then called Rangoon) - a gruelling, daylong journey - and then spend another uncomfortable day, plagued by mosquitoes, sitting on the bare deck of an old boat to Pagan. That ancient city, with thousands of temples reaching to the horizon. was stunning and unspoilt. Now renamed Bagan, it is becoming a popular tourist destination.

The boat to Pagan from Mandalay was far from luxurious in 1981. Passengers sat, slept and ate on the deck for a journey of more than 12 hours in tropical heat.
The boat to Pagan from Mandalay was far from luxurious in 1981. Passengers sat, slept and ate on the deck for a journey of more than 12 hours in tropical heat.
Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Junta-era Burma seems so distant today, when modern-day Myanmar is opening up. Traveling in the country today, it is clear foreigners are now welcome. Roads are busier, with monuments and cultural landmarks spruced up, as these images of Yangon's Sule Pagoda in 1981 and 2015 clearly show. 

Midday at the Sule Pagoda in central Rangoon and the roads are quiet, with no private cars.

1981: Midday at the Sule Pagoda in central Rangoon and the roads are quiet, with no private cars

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg
The Sule Pagoda in modern-day Yangon.

2015: Today the Sule Pagoda in Yangon is restored, and is in the heart of a bustling city

Photographer: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Yes, there is poverty away from the tourist sites. Even in Yangon (the new name for Rangoon, and no longer the capital - that honor goes to newly constructed Naypidaw), many people work hard during the day before returning to ramshackle homes. I watched one woman on a building site construct a tower of bricks on her head before delivering them to the bricklayers. As I stopped to stare, she simply smiled.

Staying in Style

In years past, travel was slow and uncomfortable and accommodation was generally basic. Today there are luxury hotels and fine restaurants; new airports are served by taxis with meters that work. A country that was always strikingly beautiful and full of friendly (if nervous) people is now waking up. 

The Strand, which opened in 1901 and became a sister to Raffles, in Singapore, was badly run-down but also inexpensive. By 1981, lobster thermidor still cost just $1. The hotel was only in marginally better shape when I returned in 1992. In December 2015 it was truly luxurious, with prices to match.

My suite cost a total of $851 for two nights. 

The Strand Hotel.
The Strand Hotel.
Source: The Strand Hotel

With its polished teakwood floors and wicker chairs, the hotel is almost the last word in colonial style. But the Belmond Governor's Residence, where I also stayed in Yangon, comes close and costs more. This property is owned by the company whose hotels include the Cipriani in Venice and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons near Oxford, in the U.K.

For two nights I paid £696.86, the equivalent of $1,045.

The Governor's Residence occupies a colonial-style mansion dating from the 1920s in the embassy quarter of Yangon. There's al fresco dining beside the pool, shaded by tropical vegetation. And there's an Indian buffet at about $48 a pop that you might care to try after a $90 facial.

You don't have to pay much to eat well in Yangon. I had a great Indian dinner at a shop called Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink for 11,600 kyats ($9) and paid rather more ($78) at Le Planteur.  (Most of that was for wine.)

Clockwise from top left: Cheese soufflé is served at Le Planteur in northern Rangoon; dinner is served at Nilar Biryani, downtown; tabbouleh at Le Planteur; fish tikka at Nilar.
Clockwise from top left: Cheese soufflé is served at Le Planteur in northern Rangoon; dinner is served at Nilar Biryani, downtown; tabbouleh at Le Planteur; fish tikka at Nilar.
Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

The changes are almost more striking in Mandalay, my father's birthplace. Arriving by train at night in 1981, I remember no street lighting, while transport was by pony and trap or bicycle rickshaw. This time, I flew with Air KBZ, roundtrip from Yangon. The streets are now filled with cars, motorcycles and trucks. 

I stayed at the boutique Hotel by the Red Canal, with tea served on the terrace in the afternoon and cocktails by the pool at night. There's a spa and a good restaurant.

On my last day in Mandalay, I set out to find the chapel where my father was christened in 1904. An old church, east of the moat that surrounds Mandalay Palace, fit the picture I had. It was built around the turn of the century and was rundown. I had to find someone with the key to let me in.

Honestly, I don't know if it was the right place, but even with the rumble of traffic outside, the heat and the thickness of the air, it was peaceful. I loved Burma when I first visited 34 years ago. That fascination continued in those disturbing days of 1992 and is in no way diminished by development.

And now that Myanmar looks set to emerge from decades of repression, there is finally hope.

Richard Vines is chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.

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