Road to ASEAN

How Yangon's heritage hotels became guardians of its colonial architecture

Kate Springer, CNNPublished 5th June 2017
(CNN) — The Strand is steeped in colonial history.
Opened in 1901 by the Sarkies Brothers -- Armenian merchants who founded a hospitality empire in Asia -- the hotel's Victorian facade has made it a fixture of tourist itineraries and the Yangon City Heritage List.
And it's not alone in the Myanmar capital.
"Yangon used to be called 'the garden city of the East.' It was the city with the most colonial buildings and cache in southeast Asia," Olivier Trinquand, vice president of The Strand, tells CNN of the architectural legacy left by British colonial rule (1824 to 1948).
But today Yangon is a city on the move.
As Myanmar opens up to tourists and international commerce, construction is booming and much of the city's colonial architecture is being lost.
"Hundreds of old buildings have been demolished to make way for new development," Moe Moe Lwin, architect and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, tells CNN.
From the newly preserved Strand hotel to the teak wood Belmond Governor's Residence, the city's oldest hotels have become a bastion for heritage.

The Strand Yangon (1901)

Sitting on the banks of the Yangon River, The Strand is the Myanmar capital's oldest hotel. Built in 1901 in the city's old quarter, the majestic structure is listed on the Yangon City Heritage List, with 188 other buildings.
The Strand Hotel
High ceilings, rattan furniture and marble floors are still a staple of The Strand, attracting visitors wanting to see the oldest hotel in Yangon.
When it opened, Yangon was an important port on the shipping route between Europe and Asia, and The Strand became a meeting place for French traders, British government workers and the Burmese elite.
“Yangon was the city with the most colonial buildings and cache in southeast Asia”
Olivier Trinquand, vice president of The Strand
Subsequently, the hotel attracted luminaries including George Orwell, Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Britain's Prince Edward VIII, to name a few.
When Myanmar was occupied by Japan between 1942 and 1945 during World War II, the building was used as living quarters by Japanese troops and renamed the Yamato Hotel.
After the war and the end of British colonial rule, the hotel fell into disuse.
Then in 1989, its fate changed. Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha -- the man behind Aman Resorts -- took over the property, and restored it to its earlier grandeur.
Today, the Strand has just undergone a six-month renovation that preserved its structure and relics, including rare Myanmar marble, teak wood floors, Burmese antiques and chandeliers.
"Of course, it's not identical to the hotel when it opened in 1901, but it reflects the same atmosphere as it did when it opened -- it was new and modern at the time, it had a spirit about it. We kept that spirit," says Trinquand.
The Strand Yangon, 92 Strand Rd, Yangon, Myanmar; +95 1 243 377

Belmond Governor's Residence (1920)

Built in the 1920s, the Belmond Governor's Residence was once home to the wealthy Balthazar brothers, from Armenia.
Belmond Governor's Residence
Located in Yangon's leafy embassy quarter, this teak-wood mansion is another product of Armenian entrepreneurship -- this time built by brothers Samuel and Carapiet Balthazar.
Originally a private home, the influential Balthazar brothers threw lavish parties for the city's upper crust at the two-story mansion.
In 1952, the government took over the property, bestowing it to the heads of the Karenni (now Kaya) States in eastern Myanmar, who would host visiting dignitaries there. But in the subsequent decades, the building became rundown.
Then in 1995, French designer Patrick Robert partnered with the France-based Pansea Hotel Group to turn the mansion into a boutique hotel. Ten years later, Belmond hotel group acquired Pansea Hotel Group and the property.
Today, the structure of the main building is exactly the same as the original, now housing the popular Kipling Bar and Mandalay Restaurant.
Eight buildings have been added in the same style.
Belmond Governor's Residence, 35 Taw Win Rd, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar; +95 1 229 860

Savoy Hotel Yangon

Built in the 1940s, the hotel has played host to artists, foreign ministers and film stars, including French actress Catherine Deneuve, who visits annually for the Yangon film festival.In 1996, Savoy Hotel became a boutique hotel, with a teak-wood reception and antique clocks that mark the time around the world.
Konstantinos Dessis
Nestled near the city's iconic hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda, the Savoy Hotel Yangon began life as a peaceful private residence.
The hotel's general manager Patrick Peukert estimates that the colonial-era building was finished in the 1940s, when it served as the home of an American doctor whose name is today unknown.
Some details were lost along the way, as the building changed hands over the years. But at one point, it was rented to the US Embassy and served as a residence for US expatriates.
In 1993, Yangon businesswoman Daw Kyi Kyi Tun purchased and renovated the property. It reopened as the Savoy in 1996. Since then, the hotel has hosted artists, foreign ministers and filmmakers.
"The colonial architecture comes through very well in the amount of traditional wood used in the construction and fittings of the hotel," says Peukert. "We considered implementing an elevator, but we prefer to keep the unique wood staircase."
Upstairs, Kipling's Restaurant showcases traditional textiles and views of the Shwedagon Pagoda from a wooden terrace.
Savoy Hotel Yangon, 129 Dhammazedi Road, Yangon, Myanmar; (+95) 1 526 289

Kandawgyi Palace Hotel (1934)

The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel might not have been a royal residence but the hotel has had a sober brush with Myanmar's sovereignty. According to local legend, the palace is built on a holy site, where a Burmese queen of passed away.
Kandawgyi Palace
The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel began life in the 1930s as the site of the Rangoon Rowing Club, a popular haunt with British officers and elite expatriates. During World War II, the two-story, red-brick building was used by the Japanese as a welfare department.
A few years later, in 1948, the property became the National Biological Museum. A life-sized replica of a tyrannosaurus in the hotel's tropical gardens pays tribute to that period.
In 1979, the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism took over the site and converted it into a hotel, featuring 10 teak bungalows, which in 1993 were replaced by a larger lakeside building.
The building that stands today was designed in the spirit of golden-teak Thai architecture, as operators Baiyoke Group of Hotels hail from Bangkok.
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Kan Yeik Thar Road, Yangon, Myanmar; +95 1 249 255

Sule Shangri-La Yangon (1996)

The exterior of the Sule Shangri-La is modern.
Sule Shangri-La, Yangon
In 1993, the military-ruled Myanmar government razed a series of coffee shops near the 2,500-year-old Sule Pagoda that had been frequented by political activists.
In their place, the 26-story Traders Hotel was built. It became a popular meeting point for merchants, ambassadors and industry leaders, and was for a time the UN's base in the Myanmar.
After a 2.5-year renovation, the hotel was rebranded to Sule Shangri-La, in 2014, and refreshed in a colonial style. Inside the lobby -- with its high ceilings, towering columns, grand stairwells, Burmese vases, and romantic balconies -- attempts to capture the atmosphere of a bygone era.
Sule Shangri-La Yangon, 223 Sule Pagoda Road, GPO Box 888, Myanmar; +95 1 242 828
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