Around the turn of the last century, the Strand was one of the finest hotels in Asia, a project from the hoteliers behind Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, two other grandes dames. But after Myanmar went through decades of troubles, the riverside Strand stood proud yet understandably beleaguered. Tired, for sure.
But at the same time, ever since the revered dissident Aung San Suu Kyi revised her stance on tourism and began urging foreigners to come, there’s been an influx of visitors and new hotels that lean toward an over-the-top style of Eastern “luxury” that leaves many Westerners baffled. It’s about time that tasteful, classic and historic hotels like the Strand doll themselves up to get back in the game. (It’s also about time that international hotel brands are tapping into the massive interest in Yangon: Belmond’s resort-like Governor’s Mansion is looking tired but still plugging away, Peninsula is rehabbing a heritage building to become a hotel, and Kempinski is turning the former colonial Police Commissioners office into another. Sheraton, Dusit, and indies like the Lotte and the Hotel G are on the way.)
Good hotels matter because an increasingly wide swath of travelers (including luxury junkies) is eager to check out this country that’s on the verge of major change. “There is no greater reward than discovering a nation as it opens up to the outside world,” says Edward Granville, the chief operating officer at the tour operator Red Savannah who often plans Myanmar trips for clients. “That time is now for Myanmar, whose residents could not be happier to greet inquisitive travelers. More than her breathtaking sights, it is the charm of Myanmar’s people that creates the most lasting memories.”
Hotel-wise, he adds, “Things are definitely bubbling in Yangon, and the reopening of the Strand is very well timed. She was in desperate need of a revamp, as the rooms and public areas were all very tired, and this very much reflects what is going on around the colonial heart of the Yangon, where many of the crumbling, atmospheric-but-dilapidated buildings are gradually being acquired and restored. The Strand was once known as the finest hostelry east of Suez, and she is currently the only top-quality hotel located in the colonial downtown. Her regeneration captures the same hope for the country’s regeneration after years of stagnation, so it is hugely significant.”
Although a pool and outdoor space are still forthcoming, the first phase hit a lot of high notes. Artisans preserved the abiding sense of history in the original chandeliers, lacquerware, and teak and marble flooring in the public spaces and 31 suites, then updated them with more inviting colors and softer textures. Air-conditioning, sound systems, and communications channels—things you shouldn’t have to think about in hotels—have all been upgraded.
But the sense of history remains. There’s no forgetting that the Strand was the early 20th-century social epicenter of Yangon for local elites and travelers; John Murray came out with that “finest hostelry” bit in his Handbook for Travellers.
Six months in the making, the extensive refurb wrapped all the charming historical elements in contemporary trappings. The new suites are expansive and inviting, with wide teak floors and a palette of white and gray. The occasional Burmese antique is strategically deployed, but nothing is over the top. And because the staff was retained through the closure, service is as personalized and flawless as ever.
The one-room spa (to be expanded, but really all you need) is the setting for massages and bathing rituals. An updated casual café overlooking the downtown bustle of Yangon Road serves breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. The formal restaurant is under the new leadership of chef Christian Martena, who has trained in European Michelin-starred kitchens.
And Sarkies Bar, an institution for 116 years and the historic meeting place for adventurers and storytellers like Noël Coward and Rudyard Kipling, will be refurbished (with a selection of fine whiskeys and single malts added) for new generations of creative thinkers to come together.
From $335, hotelthestrand.com