It had to happen one day, and it has happened in Rangoon. My mobile phone got stolen.
The last time this traveller had used it was from inside the taxi taking him to the Motherland inn from the train station. The devil had invented the gadget by making it so convenient that it’s almost impossible to be without one, and it’s the same devil who steals it within a blink of an eye by distracting you. However, the loss of contact details and photos should not, anyhow, impede the happy ending of my trip. After all, all’s well that ends well. By the way, the old name and spelling is used as it’s nostalgic. It also keeps haunting the country’s colonial past.
The curious appeal of Rangoon, as late, is its stark contradictions. They are manifested almost in everywhere. The winds of change by opening up to the world has resulted in import of newest model Japanese cars , growing number of swanky hotels, Latin and European football mania , fast-food joints to almost anything trendy across the globe. The city’s transformation is happening at the backdrop of a regal setting. To me, without Buddhism, the British colonial era and the not-long-ago military rule Myanmar has a present but no past – and is just another naturally blessed and a culturally diverse south Asian nation. However, the city has also divided the new from the old, in terms of, fashion and feelings; food and drinks; trends and habits to architecture.
The former "Garden city of the East" still has the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia and most of them are crumbling in silence. The most distinguished among these is the Old Secretariat Building. Bounded by four roads from four sides it occupies an entire block. The redbrick used is strikingly similar to our Curzon hall.
I would describe its location differently. Be anywhere among the four surrounding roads (Anawrahta Road, Theinbyu Road, Maha Bandula Road and Bo Aung Kyaw Street) and one of the building’s four corner wings will appear within a striking distance.
Its grandeur and sheer size stands alone to remind us the endless ambitions of an empire in which the sun never sets. However, what needs be known is - the phrase ‘an empire where the sun never sets was originally coined by the Spanish for their Spanish-Portuguese empire but in reality it was actually materialised by the British.
Mostly abandoned and decrepit, its spacious grass lawns have seen the heights of negligence. The high ceilinged ornate meeting rooms which once boasted of being the administrative offices of British Burma are grubby and empty from whatever can be seen from the outside. Several parts are hidden behind thick patches of lush greenery. One can’t enter the premises. A proposal to turn the massive relic into a hotel and museum is believed to be under consideration. Yet, signs of small renovation works are taking place here and there. Promising tremendous tourism potentials its fate, too, seems doubtful like the empire that had erected it.
Given its past heritage, the Secretariat Building can outwit any historical site in Rangoon. It was within the confines of this building where, on 19 July 1947, a gang of armed rebellions led by former Prime Minister U Saw broke in and assassinated the country’s founder Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers. The building also carries that bloody legacy. The building has remained vacant for about a decade, even when the new capital was shifted to Naypyidaw.
If you walk about a kilometre from the Old Secretariat’s west side’s Bo Aung Kyaw Street you’ll reach a roundabout at the end facing Rangoon port’s dockyard. A right turn and a five minute walk will take you in front of the city’s legendary Strand Hotel. Perhaps, the only well maintained colonial monument. Regarded as one of the finest addresses east of Suez, The Strand reminded of The Grand Hotel in Calcutta and Raffles in Singapore. Its neoclassical design is typical of the British raj. The ambience inside is even more captivating - an airy, marble-floored café appointed with cane chairs and ceiling fans enacting the old times. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling are some of its notable clientele.
No, this writer may not have the means to stay in one of its rooms but he can surely afford a drink from its bar. One needs to be careful to roam about free inside as you’re carefully monitored. Nevertheless, be here for 10 minutes, look around, have a drink and disappear as this writer did. This particular part of downtown Rangoon has dozens of Raj-era buildings. Even the British embassy is close by.
Taking a city map I embarked upon a heritage walk.
I walked past some more notable colonial era buildings, including the Rangoon region’s court building on Strand road, the Central Telephone & Telegraph office, the Custom House, the Bogyoke Aung San Museum and the Myanmar Port Authority building. And these were dotted with an abundance of street side eateries and colourful markets.
The city central Bogyoke Aung San Market has turned into a major tourist attraction. The colonial building with its inner cobbled- stone streets is surrounded by tiny shops selling handicrafts, jewelleries, paintings and antiques. In many ways it resembles Calcutta’s new market. But I was trying to spot one of the black market money changers, where the best rates for the largest notes comes from. But if it’s a good oil or water colour one is looking for, this place is the best. The market is also great place for quick eats.
Like its culture Myanmar cuisines are diverse too.
Unlike the lip-smacking Chinese or overtly – spicy Thai, the Burmese cuisine has its distinct taste.
Most dishes are cooked with a variety of local, mainly plant- and seafood-like items, a common trait in Southeast Asian cuisines. T’ămìn (rice), is the core of all Myanmar meals and it is served with a variety of dishes that defines the indigenous Myanmar cuisine - a unique blend of Burmese, Mon, Indian and Chinese influences. But the real charm of authentic Burmese cuisine is the sheer variety of dishes at a single setting – soup as a starter, green tea, salad and a succession of side dishes. The most difficult part is ordering the right food since everything is in the local language. This traveller often had to follow what others were eating and then order a similar dish.
It was in one of these dhaba types where a side dish - A tray of fresh and par-boiled vegetables and herbs tasted better than the main dish itself. The ubiquitous item is the Burmese fried vegetable – healthy, tasty and cheap. Take it with a plate of plain rice, mix and gobble. Despite innumerable recommendations by renowned travel books, the local Biryani cooked in many of the Indian run shops are different and not actually in par with our taste and flavour and in some queer way resembles the local taste. Can’t say what Bahdur Shah Zafar, the last official Mughal emperor had for lunch and dinner but I hope it was not the Birayni sold today.
Since the last Mughal was mentioned, why not pay him a visit?
Located far from the downtown in Zi Wa Ka Street the mausoleum has turned into a somewhat pilgrimage for Indians, Muslims and history aficionados. No sooner than I had entered, it felt like I was in one of the holy shrines of north-India. Covered in silks and strewn with sweet-smelling petals, the remnant is kept below in a chamber. The walls of the adjacent room were hung with copied old photos of the emperors last days and his family members. The location is actually the site of a former British prison and Dalrymple has brilliantly chronicled Bahdur Shah Zafar’s burial in details in his book The Last Mughal. The grave itself remained a mystery until in 1991 a group of workmen discovered it some 3½ft underground during excavations for a new structure at the site. A small mosque has also taken its place inside the shrine. History and heritage have been explored enough and this traveller now had less than a day’s time. It was time to spice up the mood. As it got dark the nightlife of Rangoon had begun.
Compared to other Southeast Asian cities Rangoon’s nightlife was just waking up.
Pubs, clubs, discos and other nightlife destinations are complemented by some independent night-time establishments, but most of these are located in five-star hotels - often meant for the rich and privileged. An army general here is bound to be rich, stakeholder of major businesses, owner of a few houses and plush automobiles. To them wealth comes like a birthright. However, the middle class, too, is now catching up with fast life. At some nightspots you can expect more than just local beer and good music. I leave the rest to you to explore. Nightlife venues tend to close comparatively early, but in recent years, closing times are getting pushing into dawn. Entrance fees to clubs can range from USD $5 to $10, but for hotel guests entry is free.
Responding to the relentless calls from a local friend this writer arrived at the hub of the busiest nightclubs, restaurants and discos at a place in Rangoon’s Chinatown. The experience hinted of an upcoming Bangkok in making.
The night was exhausting quick so I boarded a taxi for my desired restaurant. In about 15 minutes the massive gilded stupa of the Shwedagon came in site, glowing majestically in the dark. It’s truly the spiritual and political heart of Myanmar; a living testament of time. None other than Rudyard Kipling could immortalise the charisma of it. A decade later in 1889, after having visited the Shwedagon, Kipling penned in his Letters of Travel – “Then, a golden mystery up heaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?
His was the true mind of the 19th century English adventurer. The green knoll, shades and mills have disappeared but the majestic aura of reverence reigned supreme. Perhaps a piece is not enough to describe Rangoon’s most celebrated landmark. The Shwedagon needs no introduction. What does it need?
It needs you to go and discover it by yourself.
The taxi halted in the middle of U wi zara road. Inside an alley on my right was my favourite restaurant – House of Memories. Though I have been here only twice, it’s my favourite of all restaurants in Myanmar. Although a bizarre name for a restaurant, it is actually housed in a mock-Tudor colonial villa stuffed with antiques, old photos and a private office where General Aung San once worked. Moreover it’s an old family home belonging to the Nath family from India. Aptly named, both the floors of the restaurant are full of old Nath family memorabilia including photos and medals from the current owner Richie Nath's grandfather’s golfing days . Antique dressers and cabinets have added a cosy feel to the dining spaces. Even the fans and bronze chandeliers have been preserved.
A piano sits near the bar counter, where music-shows are performed on weekends. Though overpriced but House of Memories offer a long-list of traditional Myanmar food besides Chinese, Thai and Western dishes. The rice section in the menu has many varieties of rice dishes including coconut, butter and sour rice tailor-made to suit with your choice for meat and vegetables. Its traditional Myanmar salads are good too.
For its historical significance and quality food travel books often recommends particular dishes prepared in this restaurant, but I wasn’t fooled by them this time. Our choice of food is different from Americans or Europeans. Once there, my readers also should choose a dish on his\ her own. The quality could almost be guaranteed.
It also offers a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages not found in local stores.
A couple of tables in the ground are parked in front of a vintage Mercedes and another car. But captivating is the room used by General Aung San. It is like a small museum, with a writing table, chair and the General’s type writer. Photos of different periods and events of his life are hung on the walls.
However the clock was ticking, in about 12 hours I‘ll be heading towards Dhaka and in my case the last night in any where is difficult to pass. It’s always a sleepless one. A sadness of things and places missed keeps coming back repeatedly. Perhaps it happens at the end of all travels.
The back aching long and delayed journeys, bumpy rides, limited budget and losing my phone beside all sufferings endured during the trip had begun to break up.
At a distance, the shwedagon kept radiating its gold aura over a dark Rangoon.
The writer is a journalist and a keen traveler.