Happy hour at The Strand in Yangon carries on some of the bibulous traditions established when the venerable Victorian hotel was considered "the finest hostelry East of Suez" and a favored haunt of royals, diplomats, and notables such as Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Sir Noel Coward, and Rudyard Kipling.
Built in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers who also built Raffles in Singapore and The Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, the three-story architectural landmark is the oldest hotel in Burma. At the Strand Bar, it's still possible to drink Pegu Clubs, the gin-based cocktail named for the British gentlemen's club (and the Burmese river), while playing billiards with a cast of louche characters who might've escaped from the pages of a novel by Graham Greene or Paul Theroux.
Meanwhile, outside on Strand Road, less than a block or two from the hotel that gives its name to the road, you might encounter one of those makeshift restaurants that populate the broken pavement that passes for sidewalks all through Yangon. Burmese men dressed in the traditional "longyi," that fascinating cloth sheet that runs to the feet and is held in place around the waist without a knot, sit on doll-size plastic chairs drinking tea in the tropical evening torpor of the city once known as Rangoon.
If you linger, you might be offered a small knife-sharpened twig from a plastic bag that contains scores more, all organized like a box of freshly-sharpened pencils. A quizzical look will get you instruction on how to utilize the twig's sharpened point against your gums and enamel, followed by a quick smile, a flash of white teeth, which serves as testament to the powers of this botanical toothbrush.
A land of contrasts, Burma was officially rechristened Myanmar in 1989, although the name Burma is still widely used by governments around the world. Sandwiched between India and China, the two most populated countries in the world, Burma has a population of nearly 60 million living in a country that is roughly the size of France and Britain combined.
As a consequence of nearly 50 years of military rule, Burma remains one of the most impoverished countries on the planet and endures energy shortages, unpaved highways, and inadequate infrastructure. And yet, nearly everywhere you travel in Burma, it's likely that you'll be greeted with smiles and ingenuous offerings of hospitality and kindness.
One of the most pleasant ways to travel to Yangon is aboard the Aegean Odyssey, an eight-deck ship with a capacity of 380 passengers and 180 crew members. Voyages to Antiquity, which offers small-ship cruises to ancient civilizations, inaugurated their Southeast Asia cruises two years ago. The Aegean Odyssey, a mid-sized ship designed for coastal cruising, easily navigates the Yangon River to berth in the port of Yangon.
Winner of the "Best Specialist Cruise Line 2012," Voyages to Antiquity's Aegean Odyssey recently unveiled their renovated staterooms with marble-lined bathrooms. The two-to-one passenger/crew ratio affords a remarkable degree of pampering aboard a ship where the drink of choice is Champagne and wine is included with dinner.
The majority of guests on-board the Aegean Odyssey hail from Britain, the US, and Canada. More than one third of the passengers are repeat visitors, which creates a convivial on-board atmosphere similar to an extended family reunion. Daily lecturers include the estimable British war correspondent Martin Bell and authors of weighty tomes about British colonialism and the history of Burma's democracy movement.
Though Burma achieved independence from Britain in 1948, vestiges of British rule linger on nearly every corner in downtown Yangon with its vast array of colonial buildings, some in desuetude and others, like the Custom House and the Anglican Cathedral and The Strand, impeccably restored to their original glory. This remarkable collection of more than 128 historic buildings and National Landmarks coexists with street fire pots, potholed roads, and broken sidewalks
Yet in spite of the quotidian difficulties, economic hardship and sectarian strife, people in Burma project a calm that permeates the breadth of civilian life. For many young Burmese males, time in the monastery is a rite of passage that might also become a lifelong vocation.
If you are fortunate, your guide might arrange a visit to the Kya Khat Wai Monastery, where you'll witness the monks in their chosen environment and where it's possible to conjecture that these ascetic and altruistic practices foster the sense of inner peace and calm so often associated with Burma.
As one guide reminded us, it was in 1961 that U Thant, the Burmese diplomat and UN representative, was elected Secretary-General of the UN, a position he held for ten years. After Thant's retirement, The New York Times wrote that "the wise counsel of this dedicated man of peace will still be needed."
The same might be said about the many citizens of Burma whose daily practices herald a more humanitarian society.