Amid the capital’s rush for modernisation, the Governor’s Residence is keeping it colonial
By Massimo Morello
While smoking a cheroot, the thin Burmese cigar, on the terrace of the Governor’s Residence in Yangon, your thoughts float into the air with the thick, grey smoke, allowing the mind to momentarily slip back in time.
The golden dome that dominates the city – once described with such awe by Rudyard Kipling – is Shwedagon Pagoda. For 2,600 years it has been the spiritual magnet of the country renamed Myanmar, at the gates of its former capital city Rangoon, now called Yangon.
Just like the place names, lots of things are changing in the country – except the Governor’s Residence. It was built in 1920 by the British government as Kayah Gehar, the Kayah state governor’s residence, in the embassy quarter. At the end of the last century, it was converted into a small luxury hotel: an exemplary model of the late colonial style, with elements of Victorian design and local tradition. This style was retained when the hotel was bought by the Orient Express group and seems destined to remain, even as the Yangon skyline prepares to be indented by the silhouettes of global hotel chains. What will likely change is the perception and sense of the hotel. Until now, it was the almost obligatory choice for those looking for luxury accommodation. Now it will become a cultural choice, for those seeking a feel for the Burma of a bygone golden era.
Guests are plunged into a colonial atmosphere as soon as a gong signals their arrival in this elegant teak residence surrounded by a pool, lotus ponds and tropical gardens. The rooms are elegantly yet simply furnished using natural materials and local craftsmanship. The restaurant offers an impeccable menu and service, while the Kipling Bar is one of the city’s classic meeting places to chat about the day’s events while sipping a gin and tonic.
In the evening, enjoy the mysterious sights and sounds of classic Burmese dance, accompanied by a harpist from the Yangon academy. Slipping back in time has rarely been such a pleasure.
Road to Mandalay
For the perfect trip in Myanmar, embark on the Road to Mandalay, a ship belonging to the Orient Express group that sails along the Irrawaddy River in the 185km stretch between two of the country’s most important historical and cultural cities: Bagan and Mandalay. Rates for a three-night cruise start at $2,400.
You will find two top-quality cheroots on the table at the Mandalay Restaurant, the main dining destination at The Governor’s Residence. These cigars are the perfect way to conclude a Myanmar Curry Table, a buffet dinner featuring the best traditional local dishes, from koon yuat pazun thoke, a salad of betel leaves with prawns, galangal and honey-lime dressing, to the delicious nga myin hsi pyan, butterfish curry.
“I’m not an architect, I am only a dreamer,” says French designer Patrick Robert. It is thanks to his ability to dream that a beautiful old mansion called Kayah Gehar was converted into the Governor’s Residence. Following that project, he opened a workshop, where his design concepts are turned into objets d’art. His wonderful home cum showroom is well worth a visit. Address: 24 Inya Myaing Road, Golden Valley, Bahan, Yangon. Tel: +95 (0)95 003 591.
Those wanting to gain a feel for the old Rangoon will find plenty to see in the area between Sule Pagoda and the Yangon River, where many of the most interesting buildings from the colonial period are located. The Port Authority, the Division Court and the Custom House are among the highlights. A useful guide for this walk is 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon, edited by the Association of Myanmar Architects (Serindia Publications).
Website: governorsresidence.com. Tel: +95 122 9860. Email reservations (early booking recommended): firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates: from $320 to $600 per night. Suggested accommodation: Governor’s Room on the second floor.