Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, which is Southeast Asia’s largest country, is changing by leaps and bounds as international businesses and hotel chains, glossy shopping malls and fast food outlets expand, but it still retains its colonial charm and historic patina. Just an hour’s flight from Bangkok and two and a half hours from Singapore, major Asian and Gulf carriers fly into the new international airport, and regional carriers shuttle between the main tourist hotspots of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
Yangon Excelsior Hotel is the city’s first downtown, five-star boutique hotel, and it ticks all the right boxes. In a refurbished old building, which was once the headquarters of the Steel Brothers trading company, it delightfully retains many of its original features and heirloom atmosphere. On a side street with local shops, it is just around the corner from the magnificent Sule Pagoda and many of Yangon’s colonial heritage buildings, while the modern Sule Square and Junction City shopping malls and the sprawling covered Bogyoke Market are all within easy walking distance.
This is a hotel with a story to tell, and it starts in the bold black and white Art Deco lobby with its arresting ceiling mobile of fluttering paper, and a wall of filing cabinets of the kind once used in the old offices. There is also a stuffed peacock, introducing the peacock blue theme color that elegantly pops up in the public areas and guestrooms.
Much attention has been given to preserving the old building and reviving its era, with carefully chosen legacy pieces like old-fashioned typewriters, vintage newspapers and black and white photos telling the story of 20th-century Yangon. Respecting the building’s original layout, each of the 74 rooms and suites has a different shape and size. Good to know: On the corner of each of the floors there are two connecting Superior Rooms with either king or twin beds, and some rooms on the third and fourth floors have good city views.
The top Executive Floor has a Club Lounge and 16 Superior Executive, Deluxe Executive, Junior Suites and The Loft. All have soaring ceilings and the signature peacock blue that gives the stylish rooms real panache on the heavy curtains, the upholstery on the charming curved sofas and the bespoke carpets that enhance the herringbone parquet floors. The white marble bathrooms have bathtubs and showers, a large glass window in common with the bedroom and the black and white spotted tiles on the walls are a cheeky touch. The four Junior Suites — with numbers ending in 5 on each of the four floors — at 580 square feet, run lengthwise toward the soaring windows, and have a comfortable seating area with a sofa and armchairs.
The Loft, at 700 square feet, has a mezzanine living area with a desk and two lounge chairs, and a bathtub next to the bed. Like all the rooms on the fourth floor, it has a vaulted ceiling, while the Deluxe and Superiors on the same Executive Floor also have skylights. Tip: For honeymooners, ask for the Loft with its cozy atmosphere and quirky bathtub, or Deluxe Room No. 102, which has a freestanding bathtub and an “industrial archaeology” feature of exposed iron girders.
Although it is ultra-chic, there is nothing standoffish about this property and, fronting a commercial street, walk-in visitors are given as warm a welcome as resident guests. Of course they come to gawk — the glam is a big draw — but the main attraction are the two restaurants: The upmarket Steel Brothers Wine & Grill and the bistro-style Newsroom with its beckoning windows on Bo Soon Pat Street.
Open from 6.30 a.m., for breakfasts and early-bird coffees, until 11.30 p.m. the Newsroom is a trendy addition to Yangon’s downtown all-day dining. On the menu are deli-style and Asian plates, British afternoon tea, French patisserie, fresh tropical juices and classical cocktails. Resident manager Raphael Martin ([email protected]; 011-959-425-779-083), who can be contacted for VIP requirements, explained that from the extensive list of premium wines, 19 are also available by the glass, and that there are monthly Wine Buffets with a jazz band, free-flow wines, tapas and charcuteries.
The Hotel has 74 rooms and suites, each decorated with touches from 20th-century Yangon.
The Steel Brothers Wine & Grill is all about classical columns, crisp white table linens and ritzy elegance, with a sprinkling of peacock blue chairs and water glasses on the tables setting the scene. Many of the international dishes on the menu have Asian twists, like the spelt risotto with coconut milk. Others are culinary masterpieces, like the Iberico pork cheek Burgundy-style with mousseline potatoes, but pride of place in this classy eatery goes to the prime cuts of meat and the finest of seafood from the Josper Grill.
The Spa has three treatment rooms and spa manager Thaw Thaw Zin ([email protected]; 011-951-925-3861), aka Henry, recommends booking treatments in advance. On his advice, we had a Touch of Myanmar massage that used traditional pressure and rhythmic techniques. Henry told us about the benefits to be had from using fresh herbs, and said the most popular treatment is the 90-minute Splendours Ritual consisting of a scrub with warmed herbs and spices followed by an aromatherapy massage.
Kyaw Thura Maung ([email protected]; 011-951-925-3861) is the guest relations officer and concierge and can point out the must-sees and also the best new things to do in town. First-time visitors will want to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the 217-foot Reclining Buddha and the Bogyoke Market, which is a colorful Eastern bazaar.
It is equally rewarding to stroll through downtown Chinatown’s alleys with its food stalls, walk along the Strand Road to admire the heritage architecture and take the Yangon Circular train that departs from the old Railway Station to mingle with locals and get a glimpse of daily life. Another way to see how locals live is to hop on the ferry, cross the Yangon River to Dala, and then take a trishaw for a dose of unadulterated countryside and village life.
Rental cars or taxis are the best way to get around this traffic-clogged city, said Kyaw Thura Maung who can be contacted to arrange airport transfers, plan city visits and engage English-speaking guides.
Yangon is modernizing fast and efforts are being made to preserve its heritage. One local conservation association called Doh Eain (www.doheain.com) has started sprucing up off-the-grid public areas for both locals and visitors. For its Alley Gardens projects, a formerly rundown alley close to the hotel now has colorful street art and green recreational areas where children play.
General manager Philippe Arnaud ([email protected]), who is also in charge of the stunning sister property Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle lake, told us not to miss the weekly Friday Night at The Strand (011-951-243-377), the cocktail hour in the fabled heritage hotel, which is a short walk away. He also said we had to try two of Yangon’s top restaurants, both of which are on Inya Lake, heading out of the city on the way to the airport.
The first is Seeds Restaurant, where Michelin-star chef Felix Eppisser and his wife Lucia delight guests with their innovative cuisine and romantic lakeside venue. The other is their neighbor, L’Opera, where Giorgio Fedeli’s first-rate menu includes pizzas and is on-par with the finest Italian traditional cuisines.