The Grand Strand

 |  March 30, 2010

Our flight was delayed for six hours, we were informed, because a VIP needed use of the airplane. Tempers could have flown, but it was best to see the humour, and soon enough we landed in Rangoon after a swift 45-minute flight from Chiang Mai. The rest of the long weekend, thanks to one extraordinary hotel, was perfect.

The slightly battered hotel Volvo picked my friend and I up at the airport, and as we drove through the dimly-lit city, pelting questions at Win, our smiling driver, we felt as though we were shedding time…not just hours (half an hour time difference to be exact), but decades. We drove down wide avenues lined with longyi-clad figures gently peddling on bicycles, dark faces occasionally glowing with yellow thanaka powder, lit up by glimpses of the gleaming Shwedagon pagoda between tired and retired colonial structures and tatty tin-roofed shacks. We soon turned into the colonnaded façade of The Strand Hotel which sparkled with light from polished chandeliers and were welcomed with a chorus of mingalabar into the cool marble and teak foyer of a hotel infused with history and significance.

Ten steps to the right of the entrance and we were seated on a teak bar stool at The Strand Bar getting our first order in with Hla Myint, who has been behind the hotel’s bar for 16 years. With a Strand Sour in hand I wondered whether George Orwell, in the 1920s, and by that time disenchanted by colonisation, had sat in my seat with a gin and tonic before boarding the P Henderson liner home from the dock on the Rangoon River in front of the hotel or if Noel Coward had enjoyed something stiffer to accompany a friendly game of billiards after an evening stroll at Scott’s Market during his stay at the hotel where he allegedly wrote Private Lives.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, the Sarkies brothers, Aviet and Tigran, of Armenian heritage, procured a parcel of land on the Strand Road. Thomas Cook, Reuters Telegram Company and The Times of Burma had already opened offices on this road which faced the landing docks where all visitors, by ship, to Burma landed. The two brothers commissioned a British architect to build a grand hotel, fitted with electricity and other ‘modern’ luxuries which officially opened a few months after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. The Sarkies brothers, over the years, built or took over such iconic Asian hotels as Raffles of Singapore, The Majestic in Calcutta and Eastern and Oriental in Penang.

While the days of Rudyard Kipling, Lord Mountbatten and Somerset Maugham are long gone, huge doses of nostalgia linger for today’s less well-heeled guests to enjoy. Old lifts groan their way slowly up the three-storied hotel where floor butlers intuitively greet and meet your needs, black-lacquered ceiling fans whirl overhead, in the foyer where a musician plays the Burmese xylophone, the atmosphere surreptitiously hushing camera-toting tourists who descend from tour busses for a Kodak moment every hour or so.

Over the century and more, The Strand has gone through golden and grey days…Its salad days at the turn of the last century stalled with the arrival of both wars, especially the Second World War, when the hotel bar was used by the Japanese cavalry as a stable, its floors littered with straw. Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame stayed there in the 1970s and said, “As the biggest and finest hotel in town it could also boast the biggest and finest rats”. In 1993 the hotel was renovated and refurbished from top to bottom, and was handed over to the GHM group (who also run The Chedi here in Chiang Mai) in 1999. Unlike many other grand dame hotels which have been modernised into moulds, The Strand, while oozing luxury, has stayed faithful to her past. There is no swimming pool, no plasma television, and, alarmingly at first, no clock in-room. There is a discreet business centre for those seeking internet access and many areas of the hotel provide intermittent wifi.

After an exhilarating day shopping for art, my friend and I came down from our huge set of rooms – lofty ceilings, antique furniture, teak floor, walk-in closet, giant bathtub and scrumptious bed – for a Friday evening at The Strand Bar. With drinks at half price all day on Fridays, an initiative from the active and enthusiastic new GM, it has become a weekly expatriate event. We met aid workers, English teachers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, international delegates and the odd tourists, all of whom made us feel quite at home and part of the crowd.

Whether sitting in the foyer engrossed in Amitav Gosh’s The Glass Palace, shopping for objets d’art in the hotel’s many boutiques, galleries and jewellers, sipping a cup of tea with a freshly baked cake from the delicatessen or indulging in the spa suite, you really are stranded in style.

To do in Rangoon

• Eat
Apart from The Strand Grill, one of Rangoon’s most stylish venues and the hotel’s more casual Café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, here are a few other options:

Incredibly delicious authentic Italian cuisine in a wonderful colonial house and garden.
Le Planteur

Haute French cuisine in a beautiful setting with a superb wine cellar.

Great selection of cuisine from all over South East Asia.

• Drink

50th Street

Rocking nights with expats and locals (pool table, sports screen, wifi). They also serve bistro food.

• Art

River Gallery

Showcasing Burma’s most exciting contemporary artists.
Golden Valley

Huge collection of modern and some traditional art.

• What’s Happening?

Rangoon’s version of our, check out to find out what is going on where.

Editor’s Note:
We all have our principles and opinions concerning visiting Burma – to go or not to go? My personal opinion is that I can do more by going, whether by helping people, or learning more about the issues facing the country while I am there, or writing articles on social-related issues, which Citylife has, and will continue to do. There are hundreds of good causes we can support to help the people of Burma in their continuous struggle. During our stay in The Strand we met young entrepreneurs US Matt Schatz and Norwegian Jon Andreas Andersson who have recently founded Mekong Aid International, a U.S. registered charity dedicated to providing personal, transparent and unabridged aid to children in the Mekong area. When not brainstorming with street kids in local ice-cream parlours on souvenir marketing strategies, they can be found on their foundation Facebook page, though their official site should soon be up and running.

• Hot Deal!

Three-Night Package for Chiang Mai residents
There is a great new offer, perfect for Chiang Mai residents, of a three-night package at The Strand. As long as flights on Air Bagan (8,500 baht return) fly on Thursdays and Sundays (or until further notice), two guests can share a deluxe suite at The Strand with an a la carte daily breakfast (eggs Benedict or the traditional mohinga are delicious), round trip airport transfer in the above-mentioned Volvo, personalised butler service, one three-course set dinner at executive chef Steven Grander’s The Strand Grill and a full day city tour with an English speaking guide. All for 640 US dollars. Contact (