Mr Y had recommended, based on his hotel stays prior to taking up permanent lodgings in Yangon, the Strand and the Chatrium, in that order. The Strand was pricing out at over US$300++ per night, whereas the Chatrium was offering a “solo traveler” package for merely $82++. Without much hesitation, I booked 4 nights at the Chatrium.
I’ll take a moment to offer praise to the Chatrium for recognizing the needs (and throwing a discount) to the lone wanderer. This rate for lone wolves included breakfast, an early check-in, a late check-out, and minibar privileges for a few bucks per night less than the going room-only rate.
Arrival at RGN airport was a breeze, and Mr Y ran me to the hotel after a quick lunch stop. [We met his co-workers for a bite at a small Japanese restaurant attached to the Super Hotel in Yangon. Both were oases of Japanese life in SE Asia. Everything was set up perfectly by Japanese expatriate businessmen for their fellow Japanese. The food was the best Japanese I’ve had since leaving Tokyo, and the prices were exceptionally reasonable – US$7 for a salmon & ikura don.]
While I had reserved the room on my AMEX via the Chatrium corporate website, I required a Visa or Mastercard to check-in. Not a problem, but a bit odd – I would have expected some fine print or a pop-up ahead of check-in saying that AMEX isn’t accepted at the Yangon property.
My room was in good order, though the design was quite dated, which isn’t uncommon in Yangon, it seems. The most obvious sign? The dearth/placement of power outlets. The set-up of the room was very 2005 in that regard.
I decided to treat my host Y to dinner at my hotel, as they were doing a Japanese buffet. We’re both Japanese food addicts, by the way. I was content enough, though like any Chinese foodie, he had a litany of critiques. We enjoyed a bottle of divinely smooth sake, though it came at a price…
The next day, I woke up early to hit the gym, have breakfast, and swim. Running close to sea level after being at 2000m in Kunming felt a bit like being doped (I think) based on speed and stamina versus my “normal” in Kunming. The Chatrium’s gym is set up in an L shaped building separate from the main hotel. One side of the L is the hotel spa, the right angle is the pool bar, and the other side in the gym. Therefore, the room is long albeit rather narrow. I found the machinery to be somewhat dated Precor models, albeit in good condition.
After a run and subsequent washing-up, I dressed and went down to breakfast. The hotel offered a buffet of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Western, and Burmese options ranging from grilled saba, to dim sum, to chicken curry, pad thai, omelets, and pastries, to name a few. Notably, barista coffee was included in the buffet. Overall, I was pleased. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the more substantial options like Pad Thai or (Indian and Burmese) curries, as I wanted to do some lap swimming later in the morning.
Before my swim, I took care of some client work for a few hours – just the remaining bits before everyone breaks for Christmas/New Year holidays. The Chatrium’s internet connect was quite fast and stable. I never had any problems during my stay, even though Myanmar has an abysmal reputation in the WiFi speed department.
The Chatrium’s pool proved to be my favorite thing about the hotel. It was also in an L shape and offered a solid 25m swim if one wanted to do laps. Olympic? No. Better than the usual hole in the ground that passes for a hotel pool? Yes. I found it very relaxing to swim under the coconut palms and found myself doing 1.5-2.5 km swims, just for the hell of it.
Mr Y collected me around noon, just after I finished at the pool. We went out for dim sum (we’re also dim sum addicts). He found a Cantonese restaurant that seemed promising. His verdict: excellent duck, passable char siu, mediocre har gow, excellent siu mai. I was rather turned off by a starchiness in the har gow (always a hallmark of mediocrity in dumplings). I did enjoy the mango-sago-pomelo pudding!
We then went on what my old neighbor in Auckland would call a “tiki tour” around Yangon. He apologized for the paucity of attractions, but I found it quite interesting. I find the process of economic development fascinating, so a newly-opened country starting from (close to) zero is a dream come true. An oddball’s dream, but still a dream.
He showed me the new development north of the lake close to my hotel. A large and shiny Wyndham hotel had just opened. Perhaps I should book there next time? Downtown Yangon was run down. Were it restored, it would be a jewel of Asia. A great many buildings date back to the colonial period and would be stunning were they not blackened and crumbling. The Strand hotel is an example of what the city would look like with some TLC and scrubbing.
Afterwards we ended up at his favorite bar in downtown. I couldn’t believe the prices – a liter of Glenfiddich 12 cost US$37 at the bar. A spirit-lover would descend into a dissolute alcoholic within weeks. I tried some Burmese food this afternoon and a few days later, and I wasn’t too impressed by it. This was a surprise, as I love Thai and Indian food (two significant culinary influences in Burmese cuisine).
Having rambled on a bit, I want to compress some tl;dr findings:
Do go to the Schwedagon Pagoda complex. It’s great, and tourists are rare. Compared with “templing” in the rest of SE Asia, it’s very unusual to have the opportunity to visit an “active” religious site where worshippers and clergy are the overwhelming majority of those onsite. Compare this with a Thai temple where I am at pains to recall seeing a Thai Buddhist adhere.
Do eat great food. Many cuisines (particularly Thai, Japanese, and Indian) are well-represented in Yangon. The izakayas and sushi spots are amazing value for money. I’d highly recommend the mini-chain “Ren” (three locations) or the Japanese restaurant at the Super Hotel.
Consider staying outside of downtown. If you aren’t used to very low levels of development (central Bangkok or KL, this is not), the roughness could be very off-putting at first. A cab ride is US$2-4 on Grab. On the other hand, Yangon is extremely safe. Violent crime against tourists is virtually unheard of.