DECEMBER 2005 – NO. 1
Hospitality and Tourism
The declining standards of Rangoon's last great hotel and the security of its Lost and Found.
Back in 1978, Burma had only recently opened up for tourism and I grabbed the chance to visit this mysterious country, which I'd always viewed romantically. I applied for the only visa available at that time, a seven-day visa, at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, where I was given a verbal mauling by a stocky woman who, had it not been for her Asian face, could have been an inspirational model for the heroic tractor-driving peasant women glorified in Russian propaganda posters. Eventually she relented, giving me a visa that in turn gave me passage to Rangoon on a dangerously decrepit, juddering Burma Airlines plane.
When I arrived in Rangoon, I endured a four-hour customs going-over that included grappling with complex and almost illegible forms printed on pulpy Third-World paper with not enough room to print my answers. I had to empty my pockets and list every small coin of the various denominations I'd collected during my assorted Asian peregrinations. An officer noted that my planned itinerary form stated I would stay in Rangoon for the entire seven days of my allotted week. I was told I could not stay in Rangoon and I was instructed to take the road to Mandalay or Bagan.
I argued that it had been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Rangoon. I was told to check into the Strand Hotel for the interim, and from there a hotel manager took me to a small Rangoon shop-front possessing Rangoon 's only neon light, which identified the establishment as the Ministry of Tourism office. A miniscule man, who reminded me of the Jiminy Cricket cartoon character, informed me he was the Minister of Tourism. His English was quaintly colonial, with numerous quotes from Kipling, and he too advised me to take the famous road to Mandalay. "No tourist would want to stay in Rangoon, sir. Much better that you join the other tourists in Mandalay or Bagan, or both."
I reiterated details of my boyhood ambitions and eventually he acceded, telling me that if I intended to remain in Rangoon, I could do so providing I stayed for the week at the Strand Hotel.
The Strand was an archetypal British colonial hotel and a monument to the concept of British Imperialism, albeit frayed and dusty. Like other famous archetypal British colonial Asian hotels including the Eastern and Oriental in Penang and Raffles in Singapore, it had been built by the Armenian Sarkie Brothers.
The Strand, like Rangoon itself, was a sad testament to the decline brought about by the dysfunctional dictatorial regime of the mad General Ne Win, who ruled this socialist republic for so many years and who, while reputedly bathing in dolphin's blood, turned the once prosperous nation into the economic basket-case of South East Asia.
I crossed the dusty marble floor of the Strand and, after a long, drawn-out check-in process, stepped into an ornate wrought-iron lift and learnt my first Burmese lesson — Never Use Lifts. The power supply in Burma is erratic, and on this occasion the power cranked down, the lift stopped mid-floor, and I was trapped for more than an hour.
I later chanced upon a tattered Burmese magazine in a street stall — the August 1966 issue of Panorama magazine, the front cover of which announced the opening of the Unity Hotel in Mandalay, noting that it offered "Day and Night elevator service." An inset photo on the front cover showed a gleaming chrome lift, and inside, an article extolled the virtues of this significant development, stating: "Everybody likes upper floors that command beautiful panoramic views. But you need an elevator that works around the clock to take you up and down. There, Unity Hotel has it for you!"
The lost property cabinet in the foyer of the Strand was famous for its contents. The cabinet was a time capsule cataloguing the up-market detritus of the grand old days, the days when the British ruled in stuffy Victorian splendor and partied at the Strand, leaving behind jewelry, gloves, cuff links, and binoculars to sit, unclaimed, in this dusty display cabinet for a hundred years or so.
Over the years I'd read dozens of accounts of the contents of this display case and the claim that the sanctity of this lost property is inviolate — nothing can be bought, nothing can be purloined. Except that, after two days of my offering bribes, the cabinet was unlocked and I bought a magnificently ornate Victorian English necklace for my then wife. It had thick, finely worked filigree silver, studded with large twinkling blue stones that could well have been sapphires. Unfortunately, the necklace was stolen in Calcutta and I have never determined whether I had made the purchase of a lifetime.
Extracted from Land Of a Thousand Eyes, by Peter Olszewski. © Peter Olszewski. Published by arrangement with Allen and Unwin and available at http://www.allenandunwin.com (and in the U.S. in 2006).
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