Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Estate of Grace: A romantic stay at the colonial-style Governor’s Residence in Yangon, Burma

First a big ‘thank you’.

I’ve been so touched by the warm-hearted and thoughtful messages you’ve sent in the last two weeks, in response to my posts on my recent visit to Burma/Myanmar. Everyone commented on my photos of lovely Burmese ladies in country markets— and Myanmar scenes at the Schwedagon pagoda, selling lilies in the market, and a chic young woman carrying bundles of vegetables on her head. Oh, and the pretty girl with pigtails wearing a straw hat was a favorite.

Thank you for your great feedback—including from friends who have Burmese family ties. I loved every word. 

I have one final Burma post, this week, on the sublime hotel I discovered in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital. It’s a hidden retreat, calm and verdant. Very Burmese and at the same time a crossroads for travelers on their way to Mandalay or returning from Bagan.

Think of it as a place where the winged energy of delight flies overhead, and bedrooms are adrift with slumbered sheets. Come with me for a visit. 

My flight (flights) out to Burma was long—from San Francisco, via Narita (Tokyo), and Bangkok, and then finally touching down in Yangon and swiftly negotiating formalities. I slept most of the way, but still I was swooping around the globe, mentally and physically. I could not wait to get there—and was uncertain what was in store.

Research on present-day life in Burma is rather scarce—this is a country that has been closed off from the world since the fifties. I could not get a sense of it, could not tap into the zeitgeist.

Googling ‘Burma’ brings up all the unfortunate last half-century of misrule and juntas and wacky governance (buying Japanese cars with right-hand steering wheels in a country that drives on the right is rather odd—and no-one wanted to contradict the general, for example).

On arrival, the airport was brisk and well-organized and I sensed no sign of heavy-handedness. My passport was stamped by a smiling young woman.

I’m not going to get all political—I’m a design writer not a pundit—but I reassure you that I saw nothing at all untoward in the weeks I was there. 

The Governor’s Residence sent a guide and driver to greet me at the airport. Moments later, we swept into the driveway of the hotel—and I knew I was going to love Burma. I walked over a covered bridge, frangipani and jasmine fragrances hovered in the warm air, and the manager lead me to my suite. I felt at home. 

The Governor’s Residence, a fortunate discovery
A designer friend who had recently returned from Burma happened to mention The Governor’s Residence. She had enjoyed dinner there, and knew I would like its Burmese style and eccentric individuality.

I was traveling alone (a luxury and the perfect way to encounter new friends), and wanted a hotel that would be welcoming and tranquil—and especially with a management and staff that would take care of me. Before I left I was not certain how easy it would be to negotiate Yangon or whether I could venture out alone to explore temples and pagodas, visit the Bogyoke market (to find pearls), or simply go for a walk. I wanted to be met and greeted and for things to be easy and smooth. 

The Governor’s Mansion has European management, and is part of the Orient-Express group. My friend Ruth reported that the staff is polished and very cosmopolitan. And Ruth was right.

The hotel, with its 1920s colonial-era fretwork-trimmed verandas and windows curtained with vines, feels uniquely Burmese.

It had been the residence of a regional governor. It’s in the leafy ‘embassy row’ neighborhood and had been redesigned and decorated a few years ago by the French designer, Patrick Robert, a Yangon resident now, who is constantly updating and refreshing. 

Burmese arts and crafts are on display--lacquer bowls, handmade silver pagodas, wood sculptures. I loved peering at the framed old sepia photos of women in nineteenth-century Burmese dress and scenes of idyllic country villages (that still look the same today).

The Governor’s Residence is set in rain-drenched acres of tranquil tropical gardens, with a lily pond and a decorative swimming pool (that looks more like a pond than a dive-in pool and a hidden corners for sipping fresh ginger tea or a gin and tonic. 

The brilliant chef is Australian, and he makes magical breakfasts with all the Burmese tropical fruit (mangosteens, lychees, mangoes, papaya with fresh lime juice) and arrays of breads and everything possible delicious.

For lunch there was fresh ginger-scented lemon-grass and fish soup, a colorful platter of spicy tiger prawns and vegetables, and papaya and lime. Fans whirred overhead, rattan shades fluttered gently, wait staff in elegant Burmese costume were utterly decorative, and the temperature was a perfect 75 deg F.

The hotel shop offers books on Burma (that’s where I found ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell) as well as lacquer boxes, silk skirts, embroidered shawls and pretty things to take home. 

I had plans—visiting pagodas, walking around the hotel neighborhood, Bogyoke Market, the old Colonial buildings, poking around the old and funky parts of town, and seeing as many temples and Buddha statues and quirky architecture as I could. I wanted to see old Rangoon.

I must say I did not especially feel like leaving the hotel. I’d linger on, reading, watching the Koi slithering around the lilies in the pond, meditating, breathing the floral air, gazing at dew-damp banana palm leaves shimmering in the August sun, and listening to the turning of the universe. It’s that kind of hotel.

Guests arrived and departed, to and from goodness knows where. Time passed. I was in Burma now. I was in no hurry. 

Rooms are not overly decorated. It can be humid and hot in Yangon (and damp in the rainy season) so the bare teak floors and simple window coverings and linens are a blessing. It’s rather monochromatic décor, and easy for a travel-dazed guest to step into, sleep in, take time.

Every amenity was there—but I focused on the setting, the architecture, and the lovely staff. I could not have been happier to be there. 

I hope you will plan a trip to Burma. I took a cruise up into the northern gorges of the Irrawaddy River on the Road to Mandalay, climbed the tottering towers of temples in Bagan, encountered novice nuns in Mandalay, and discovered a country that time forgot.

Except that now, contact with the world is accelerating and travelers are hungry to visit. Set out now and stay as long as you can (28-day visas are now available).

I wish you a calm and magical stay at The Governor’s Residence.

Travel well, travel safe, travel far—and I hope you land in Burma. 

Photography of The Governor’s Residence courtesy of Orient-Express.
For more information on the hotel:


katiedid said...

What an absolutely beautiful hotel! I can see why you lingered here....why go anywhere else?!

columnist said...

I had lunch here during my stay in 2004. Like all things in Burma then it was in need of a bit of TLC. I have been looking at returning, but the prices have escalated, so the kerching factor is catching pretty quickly.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Katie-

Thank you. Yes, the mood at Governor's Residence is so romantic and otherworldly (well, Burma is like that).
Patrick Robert has created architecture and decor (based on the original colonial-era residence) that is like 'oriental fantasy' times one hundred.
Even in a tropical rainy season downpour it was so romantic. I did not want to depart.

Dear CorCol-
I think you'd be happy to know that The Governor's Residence has been really spiffed up. It gleams--and indoors and outdoors are all very refreshed and wonderful. It is sometimes a surprise to find that hotels in places like Jaipur or Hyderabad or remote places in Brazil...have price tags that are remarkably similar to hotels in Manhattan or Paris. That is the hotel world. I felt that the Governor's Residence tariff was not so high (included a superb breakfast, in the European manner or pricing) and a fantastic experience. Burma prices will inevitably rise (as they have in Bangkok.) One a 'new hotel' note--have you dropped in to the new THE touches being made. Have lunch there beside the old Jim Thompson houses...chef is Blair, say hello to him...he is fantastic and very talented and engaging.
happy days, DIANE

columnist said...


No, I haven't (yet) been to the new Siam, but will do so and meet Blair. As we're about to be deluged again, I shall perhaps wait until the rain has abated, and hope the Siam survives. Living by the river has its hazards in Bangkok. Actually in many areas too, but luckily in Sathorn, next to The Sukhothai it's dry, as last year.

smr said...

I have been readng your posts on Myanmar with interest and envy.

I was there at last christmas and new year.

I visisted the Govenror's residence for dinner..but stayed in a hotel the middle of Yangon.

We were lucky enough to spend New years Eve on the Road to Manadaly ..I loved our voyage on her.

Myanmar now has my heart/..the most fantstic place I have ever been.

A Super Dilettante said...
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Frances Schultz said...

Dear Dianne,
I would love to repost this and link to your other posts on Burma. It is a keen interest of mine at present and your wonderful photos and writings would delight my readers. Let me know - and we'll communicate on our regular emails?
From an ardent fan,
Frances Schultz

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear SMR--!!
I love hearing this.
Road to Mandalay is a rare experience...New Year's on board must have been wonderful.
Thank you for your vivid memories.

Dear Griffin-
Thank you for your wonderfully poetic and warm comments and notes. Rangoon Cottage, indeed! I hope you meet the owners.
you are right that I want to take my lovely readers along with me...and especially for my readers to be inspired, to let go of inhibitions about travel (fearing traveling along for example...I would say it is the world's greatest luxury...though I love to see friends when I arrive or on the way...but I love adventuring relying on myself and the great people I meet along the way).
Yes, WINGED ENERGY OF DELIGHT...that is my motto when I travel. The delight was constant in Burma...i can't wait to return.
Please post and repost and place on FACEBOOK...and send out the word. Burma is not scary and it is not North Korea and if the generals are horrible that is not my interest. I go searching for beauty and human-ness and creativity and people doing great things. I look at historic buildings and appreciate the culture in Burma. I am not an NGO and I don't have a political agenda...never when I travel. I don't go to India looking for political angles. Far from it. In Burma--I am looking at the culture, the people (wonderful), and I immerse myself in the highest expressions of a and spirituality, the landscape, people living their lives, and meeting heroes like the school teachers and Dr Hla Thyn whom I wrote about.
Just go there. pleased you liked and want to pass on to friends--best DIANE

Jeane M. said...
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