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The Most Famous Hotels in the World - The Strand Yangon
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Myanmar’s oldest hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the world, The Strand is the only hotel in Yangon left over from the colonial era
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by Andreas Augustin, Edited by Thomas Cane
September 2007

Once again, I am taking you on a journey into a historic grand hotel. This one is in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, where it overlooks the banks of the city’s main river, on Strand Road. It is ‘The Strand’. By Andreas Augustin
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The Strand in Yangon
92 Strand Road
Yangon, Myanmar
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‘There is no fate so uncertain as the fate of books of travel’ said Joseph Conrad; ‘They are the most assailable of all men’s literary productions. The man who writes a travel-book delivers himself more than any other in the hands of his enemies.’

A travel-related ‘hotel’ book seems to be an even more dangerous affair. It describes atmospheres of the most personal nature. Doesn’t it enter into the intimate moments of sleeping, eating, being ‘at home away from home’, as so many hotels advertise their service?

I was sitting on the terrace of The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok reading Conrad, when the phone rang:

‘It’s Sally Baughan from the Strand Hotel in Yangon. Myanmar.’ She paused for a second. ‘The Strand, you know? Rangoon ... Burma!’

Richard Kaldor of The Metropole in Hanoi had recommended The Most Famous Hotels in the World as a reliable institution to research the history of famous hotels.

‘We are celebrating our 100th birthday next year. Could you help us put a book together?’

‘Of course,’ I replied like a shot.

The Strand had been renovated and its reopening had caused quite a stir. The old lady of Burma was up and running again just as in her best days. It was the same old story. Grand hotels are always treated like concubines: decorated with jewellery in good times, neglected and not visited in bad times. And just like all good lovers they keep their past a well-hidden secret. When somebody comes along to dig into their history he finds more secret doors and hidden keys than Aladdin.

I had a very special personal interest in the hotel. The Strand was another enterprise of the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who so successfully founded one grand Asian hotel after the other (E&O Penang and Raffles Singapore to name a couple).

‘Only two types of men should write about the East: those who know a great deal and those who know next to nothing.’ Richard Curle wrote those words in 1923.

Having written the history of Raffles in Singapore many years earlier, I was confident that we could do a good job. Under the farsighted entrepreneurial hotelier Adrian Zecha, who stood behind this turnaround, we became the official history researchers of The Strand, one of the rarest and most delightful properties of the East.

Six months later, 17. January 2001. I arrived at Yangon on TG 303 the morning after the 125th birthday celebrations of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. The fireworks, speeches and voices of 1,200 guests were still echoing in my mind.

The airport was relatively small. This used to be the hub of all Asian flights. The planes on KLM’s busy Amsterdam-Batavia line and the British Imperial Airways, later BOAC, always flew into the city. For over two decades Rangoon was the most important stop on the air route between Europe and South East Asia. Today the airport is as peaceful as its hinterland.

I was picked up by Ms Sally’s driver, who drove me into town in a blue Volvo. Little traffic. Very relaxed. We glided by gas stations: one gallon one dollar.

Yangon has five million inhabitants, and Myanma 47 million people, making it the largest country on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

I spotted the hotel immediately, with its cream white facade. Ever since its renovation The Strand had been immaculate. Teak was combined with marble, creaking wooden staircases were covered with thick red carpets. There were 32 elegant individual suites including the pièce de résistance, the magnificent Strand Suite.

The lady of the house welcomed her guest personally. A charming New Zealander, Sally Baughan’s elegant touch could be felt everywhere, all over the house.

I hadn’t been without a mobile phone for years. Now I had to because Myanmar didn’t support a free GSM system. Less than 1 percent of the population had a mobile. Nor did Myanmar support the internet for the broader public. I was cut off from the world. It took me some time to adjust – an interesting experience.

At night, the butler caught me in front of my door. I was about to escape to bed. He asked me if I required a wake-up call and took my order for breakfast. No door-hangers to be filled in - nice touch. Later I called him for a fax to be sent (yes, I was back to faxing). The butler, by the way, earns $80.00 a month.

Sukhdeep Singh is the Managing Director of the Myanmar Hotels International group, the local mother company of The Strand. Within an hour he pulled half a dozen confirmed interview appointments for me out of his hat, suggested a good dozen of terrific leads and filled a few pages of my research notebook.

The phone in my room kept ringing. The lobby manager had taken over my agenda: ‘Richard K. Diran is at the bar to meet you!’ He is the author the splendid book The Vanishing Tribes of Burma, which includes a splendid selection of his own photographs. ‘Can you please call Paul Strackton tonight at the in Inya Lake Hotel, room 205? He would love to give you some more leads – you know, he wrote that book on Myanmar? Tomorrow at 10 you are meeting the representatives of the Ministry of Tourism, how did your meeting with Aunt Monica go this morning? Isn’t she a lovely lady?’ ‘Aunt Monica’ Mia Maung was a lady in her eighties who recalled many amusing anecdotes.

‘Are you interested in the history of the Strand Hotel?’ The Burmese watchman of the Australian embassy across the road threw a careful eye on me. I was wandering around the hotel like a cat around the hot plate and must have looked somewhat suspicious.

‘Yes, I am researching the history of The Strand.’

‘My father used to work there. I even have some photographs and some old papers back home. I can bring them.’

The Burmese smiled friendly.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked him.

‘Andrew McDonald.’

Andrew Williamson signalled some findings from London about The Strand’s history. We did have some research results in Bangkok and in Singapore. I travelled back to start putting all material together. The day I left The Strand, Tony and Maureen Wheeler (Lonely Planet Guide Books) arrived for a lunch with Sally Baughen. She must have told them about my job. Days later an e-mail arrived from Australia. Subject: The Strand Hotel in the 1970s:

‘The Strand’s lobsters were not only quite good, they were also amazingly cheap, at US$2.50 for two. The waiters call everybody sir, male or female. By 11 pm you are likely to be feeling pretty lonely in the lounge area, though, just the occasional Strand rat scampering around the floor to keep you company. On the last night of one Burma visit, to my utter amazement hot water came from the shower when I turned on the tap.’

That was in the 1970s.

Back at The Oriental, Sue Reiz, a former Strand general manager, passed through Bangkok. She told me her stories about how she had brought the hotel back to life after renovation.

By the end of our research we had unearthed old menus, letters, labels and photographs. We had found stories of the early and the more recent days of the hotel, and we were able to give The Strand a historical identity.
 

The Strand - History in Detail

Myanmar’s oldest hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the world, The Strand is the only hotel in Yangon left over from the colonial era.

Built and run by the Sarkies, the famous Armenian hotel family, it was part of a hospitality empire, which ranged from Singapore’s Raffles Hotel to Penang’s Eastern and Oriental and to the ambitious plans to build the Majestic Hotel in Calcutta.

The Strand’s story takes us back to the days of the Bibby and Henderson Lines, which plied their services between Europe and Rangoon. From there, we take to the air aboard the first Imperial Airways aircrafts, back in the times when the London to Rangoon trip took a mere nine days. Let’s meet the old colonialists at their clubs and at the Strand‘s Bar. Visit old Rangoon when a tram route used to pass by the Strand Hotel on its way from the harbour to the heart of the city.

Join Rudyard Kipling in his memoirs and read Somerset Maugham’s notes. We meet the Prince of Wales on his visit to Burma and enjoy the tales and memories of so many old friends of The Strand. They‘re all gathered here in one book to celebrate their Strand, which has a great past – and after its sparkling renovation and reopening – an equally promising future.

When Aviet and Tigran Sarkies arrived in Rangoon, they found a markedly less British city than centres like Georgetown on Penang and Singapore. Meals, for instance, were eaten at oriental times. On Sundays it was Muligatawny soup, not curries. In Singapore one wore dead white suits, but not here. Over there they drove in rickshaws, in Rangoon they didn’t. Ladies in Singapore were mems, here they were memsahibs etc… Rangoon was a growing city - but one bereft of a good hotel.

1892: Rangoon population: 180,000 ... and rising. Aviet and Tigran Sarkies saw the opportunity – the genius of the Sarkies brothers to set up shop wherever trade was blossoming.

Trade meant travellers. What travellers needed were banks and hotels. Rangoon had the banks but not the hotels. The Sarkies acquired the British Burma Hotel in Merchant Street and renamed it Sarkies Hotel. It was the only time one of their hotels bore the family name.
That decade the first rickshaws appeared. Pulled by Indians dressed in an Indo-Chinese livery, they were cheaper than the pony gharries and immediately favoured by prostitutes (making it impossible for a decent lady to ride in one).

1893: During the festival of Bakr-I-id, Muslims provoked a confrontation with Hindus by sacrificing a cow. It was the first riot in the city, leaving 30 people dead, over 200 wounded.

1894: Inauguration of league football. In 1895 the Burma Association Football League was founded. In 1898 cricket was added to its activities. Cricket never obtained nearly such a hold in Burma and football became the declared favourite of the expatriate society as well as of the local Burmese population. In 1899 the present title of the Burma Athletic Association was brought into use. Hockey became a favourite pastime, too.

c.1895: Rangoon was awash with visitors and new arrivals.At the harbour, boats scrapped scrapped for places to moor and unload their passengers: riverboats transporting rich tourists; British India steamers laden with poor migrants from Madras; vessels from the Bibby and P Henderson lines carrying travellers from England. The attractions of Burma for the British were manifold. Among them, the forbidden fruits of Asian legend. In Silken East, the writer V C Scott O’ Connor related that Rangoon offered ‘the haunts of the opium smoker, where men lie as in a shambles, forgetful of time, the inner parlour of the Ah-Sin Club, where there is heavy gambling and little cards are heaped with money on the tables.’ These were exotic vices one could not find at home.

1896: The Sarkies brothers sold their Sarkies Hotel. Faced with stiff competition from a collection of mediocre new hotels, it had not fared well.

1897: The Sarkies opened the Bodega restaurant at the corner of Merchant Street and Phayre Street.

1898: The Rangoon Trades Association was founded by 30 trading firms.

1899: News in Rangoon. Just before Christmas, a certain John William Darwood died, leaving a lot of land to his John William Darwood. It was none other than the ‘Strand’ land. A shabby 12-room boarding house stood there.
In 1899 the first issue of the weekly Times of Burma was printed.

1900: The Strand Road was a fine location. Overlooking the river, the street had direct access to the trams that weaved their way through Yangon. It was notably home to prestigious companies like travel agent Thomas Cook and newspapers like The Times of Burma.

Knowing that the Sarkies brothers wanted to open another hotel in Rangoon, John William Darwood contacted them with a view to using his plot on the Strand. After fruitful talks, the two parties teamed up. Darwood drew up plans for the new hotel. It was to have three storeys, outer corridors with guest entrances, a central staff entrance, staff quarters on the roof and sun blinds.

Many were unconvinced as to the Sarkies’ chances for success in Rangoon. ‘You are building a white elephant,’ people warned, ‘anyone who comes to Rangoon and can afford a first-class hotel have friends in the city to accommodate them.’ Defiant as ever, the Armenians listened, ignored and went ahead with construction.

1901: Rangoon population: 250,000. The Standard Oil Company, the first American petroleum company in Myanmar, began its operation. Businessmen flocked to town. And the city was just about to get a new hotel!

1901:  The Strand opened for business. In typical Sarkies fashion, its modernity and luxury married East and West, Asia and Europe, in a manner hitherto unseen in the region. The hotel had 60 rooms, including a large dining room, a drawing room and a billiards room with no less than 6 tables.

The Strand was powered by electricity – some 5 years before the rest of Rangoon had the luxury. An artesian well supplied the water. The interior décor was resplendent, with wall panelling and parquet floors made of local teak wood and original Burmese oil paintings hanging in every room. Verandahs ran around the outside of the building on all floors and the rooms started about two metres within.

The Sarkies appointed their nephew, S C Johannes, to run the Strand, assisted by a Mr Travers and a Mr Sookeas. The French chef’s culinary delights became a must for any discerning visitor: ‘The omelette served at the Strand is the best reason to visit Rangoon!’ exclaimed one satisfied customer. With tariffs ranging upwards of 10 rupees a day, the Strand Hotel was exclusive. Not everybody could experience the fine art of Sarkies hospitality. At the entrance stood a turbaned doorman, whose job it was to turn away non-desirable guests and welcome those who mattered. The British governor was among the very first guests. He had stayed at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and was delighted that the Sarkies had now extended their operation to Rangoon.

Trade had of course been one of the driving forces behind the annexation of Burma. The British dreamt of a golden road through Burma to China. By 1901 they had successfully exploited the staggering mineral wealth of the region. Burma’s economy became part of a vast colonial export economy tied to global market forces. Overseas demand for Burmese goods had never been higher. Exports of rice, teak, cutch, cotton, oil-cake, jade, tobacco, caoutchuc, sticklac and groundnuts were shipped out of Rangoon. Rice exports were huge. The price of the commodity had more than doubled since the 1850s and production was increased accordingly. Oil was equally lucrative. The Burmese Railway Company made all areas of the country readily accessible. A cotton industry was also born. On the river near Rangoon, a modern mill was opened. Burma was making a lot of money for the colonisers.
At the Strand, meanwhile, business was booming.

1903: Reuters Telegram Company, Ltd. opened its Rangoon branch in 80, Strand Road. Further confirmation of a very desirable location. Grand and imposing civil and government buildings were going up all the time. Until 1900 very few buildings were higher than two storeys. Now three to four storeys were becoming the norm. Fires were a growing hazard.

1904: The Strand faced stiff competition when the Royal Hotel opened in Merchant Street. Owned by Messrs Saxton and Stuart and proudly advertised as ‘the only British hotel in town’, it could could host 125 guests.

Other new hotels appeared. On the Strand Road alone stood the Oriental, the Great Eastern and Evershed’s. Others included the Central, the Criterion, Minto Mansions,British India at Sule Pagoda Road and the New Continental.

1905: That year, the motorcar made its first appearance in Yangon. It joined all those other amenities of the ‘civilised’ world brought to Burma by the British: trains, trams, telegrams etc… British Rangoon was in full swing. That year, the first lawn tennis competition was held under the auspices of the Burma Athletic Association.

A trip to the harbour would reveal the kind of supplies being shipped in to suit the palate of genteel colonial society: Perrier water, Scotch whisky, dressed beef, mutton and pork, Fitzroy ‘gilt-edged’ butter and Schlitz, the ‘beer that made Milwaukee famous.’ About 850, 000 tonnes of merchandise was flowing into port the port each year - the double of what it had been just twenty years earlier.

1906: In January the Prince of Wales (future George V, reigned 1910-36) visited Rangoon.

1908: Rangoon’s population was now over 290,000.

1910: 5m barrels/year of petroleum produced in Burma!

1911: Allen Charlesworth firm contracted as chartered accountants of the Strand Hotel. The Sarkies opted to expand their enterprise to India. Construction promptly began on the Majestic Hotel in Calcutta. On East Java, Lucas Martin Sarkies (son of Martin, born 1876 in Penang) opened the Oranje Hotel (today Majapahit – never part of the Sarkies network).

1913: The Sarkies added another annex to the Strand to accommodate the rising number of visitors (today the annex houses the Australian Embassy). The building was nicknamed the ‘Strand House’. Here Rangoon got a decent concert hall for touring pianists, orchestras, dancers and singers.

1914: A huge blow for the travel trade. On 28 June the Crown Prince of Austria was shot dead in Sarajevo. The event sparked the great conflict known as World War I.

The Majestic Hotel in Calcutta – still under construction – could not be completed. It would never open for business.

World War I in the Colonies 1914–1918

The war itself did not reach Burmese soil, although the German battleship called Emden lurked for months in the nearby Bay of Bengal. It scared off merchants shippers until it was eventually sunk by the Russian destroyer Zemschung off Penang in November 1914.
But World War I rocked colonial economies. European governments and their overseas dependencies piled their resources into the intense war effort.

Travel plummeted, particularly after the tragic sinking of the Lusitania liner in 1915, an event which made people scared of crossing the oceans. To put this in a contemporary perspective, the consequences for the market were similar to the aftermath of 9/11.

1915: The oil industry was huge. By now, Burma ranked as the 14th largest petroleum producer on the planet.

1916: Joseph Constantine, formerly assistant manager to Tigran Sarkies at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, was entrusted with the running of the Strand.

1918: Across Asia, hotels had suffered from the war. The Sarkies network was no exception. Both Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Penang were in desperate need of renovation. The Strand was also due for a fresh lick of paint. Moreover, the Sarkies houses began to drift apart. Although at the start of and even during the conflict, Sarkies advertising still mentioned all the hotels as a group, after 1918 they were always listed as independent hotels.

In Europe and the US, people rejoiced at the return of peace and prosperity. Travelling to the East became fashionable – and affordable. But for the native populations of Burma, the atmosphere was markedly different. Although progress was being made, they remained subservient to the British, their country’s fate was still out of their grasp. However, European education was fashionable and Thomas Cook’s travel agency offered special student’s fares from Burma to England.

1922: Edward, Prince of Wales (1894-1972) arrived in Burma. When the RMS Dufferin entered Rangoon harbour, crowds lined the streets in eager anticipation. The cheering started from the Strand Hotel. Prince Edward played polo at Mandalay, rowed across the Great Lakes, visited Shwedagon Pagoda and was entertained by dancing girls at a lavish reception.

1923 January: The Singaporean branch of the Sarkies family business leased the Sea View Hotel. That year Aviet Sarkies, the founder of the Strand Hotel, died in Paris. Constitutional reforms were granted that year, giving Burma diarchy (the right of dual government). But, frustrated by its delay in coming, Burmese leaders began to doubt whether freedom could come about by peaceful means.

1924: On 20 November aviation trailblazer Alan J Cobham flew from London to Rangoon in his Imperial Airways De Havilland DH50, powered by a 230-horsepower Siddeley Puma engine. Cheering crowds awaited him. Cobham went to the Strand, where officials toasted his success. He stayed in Rangoon for 6 months.

1925: A milestone in the Strand saga: this was the year when the Sarkies put the hotel up for sale. It stayed in Armenian hands. It was bought by Peter Bugalar Aratoon, owner of the Silver Grill at 82 Barr Street - then the city’s premier restaurant. His cousin Ae Amovsie joined him in the venture. Together the pair founded Strand Hotel Ltd. and renovated the whole hotel. 

2001: 100th anniversary.

How to Purchase

The Strand Yangon Leather Bound Edition - go to http://www.famoushotels.org/books/575
By Andreas Augustin. 152 pages, Leather bound / Goldstamping /, laminated jacket, 2 postcards, 2 reading marks for HIM and HER. ISBN 3-902118-05-9  160 x 235 mm, 720 g

The Strand Treasury E-Book - go to http://www.famoushotels.org/books/548
By Andreas Augustin. 88 pages, E-Book (download), laminated jacket, A pdf file; to view it you need Acrobat Reader© or a similar software (like Preview on Apple computers).. ISBN 3-900 692-15-7
 

All content © 1986-2007 by The Most Famous Hotels in the World.

Contact:

The Most Famous Hotels in the World
Glasauergasse 36
1130 Vienna
Austria (Europe)
www.famoushotels.org

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Also See: Schloss Velden in Austria Reopens Under Horst Schulze's Capella Hotel Brand / Andreas Augustin / May 2007
 In the Shadow of the Great Pyramid - The Mena House Legend / Andreas Augustin / December 2006
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