My return to Rangoon after 40 years
By Chandroo D.
One day, out of the blue moon, my buddy Capt. Cyril Dawson called up to inform me that he was going to visit Yangon after 40 years. He had just come out of his heart surgery and besides looking forward to a reunion with his old school mates he was determine to meet his siblings after a very long separation. “Life is short, my friend” he said. His call woke me up also, because many a time, during the past 40 years, I have always dreamt of my memorable childhood days in Yangon where I was brought up. I just had to make my dreams come true and the best way was to join him also and ‘walk down memory lanes’.
My life began in Hyderabad Sind; W. Pakistan, where I was born. During the India/Pakistan partition in 1948 and at the age of 5 - I, along with the family, migrated to Rangoon (now called Yangon) to join my father, Gopaldas D. I clearly remember arriving at the sea port on a ship. There was Dad waiting to take us to our permanent home. After settling down, I and my siblings were enrolled into the Methodist English High School. Completing my full 13 years of education without a single failure, I graduated in 1961 and took up a course in Radio Engineering. Soon, I established a Radio Shop to service and sell radios. Those days radios worked with large glass valves, resistors and condenser parts and repairing them was a painstaking affair. With General Ne Win taking over the country in 1962 along with our main office and shop, as part of total nationalization policy, I left Rangoon during June 1964 for Hong Kong to join my elder brother. Ever since then I never returned back to Rangoon, except for my occasional visit to the past in my dreams.
Cyril and I planned on meeting in Yangon. He would reach Yangon the first week of January 2004 and I, a week later. Tourist Visa was obtained easily. Myanmar encourages tourists to boost their economy. International mobile phones do not work and if found or declared, they would be held by the Customs until you return. Laptops are allowed and registered on your passport for re-export during departure. However, with slow unpredictable telephone lines, carrying laptops was not recommended. “Let us go back to basics, exactly as we lived before in Rangoon”, I said to Cyril and he laughed and agreed heartily.
I departed Hong Kong on a Thai International flight to Yangon via Bangkok. I was excited and happy. As we were about to land around 6.30 PM, I noticed the absence of bright city lights that you normally see in other Asian cities. Later I learned that due to power shortage, the public are reminded in the newspaper, every single day, to cut down on the usage of power. Except for the landing runway and the terminal lights, it was very dark. The plane parked away from the terminal and we had to board a bus which shuttled us to the terminal. There was a total absence of Airport traffic – with only 3 other small local planes parked nearby.
The Airport terminal is small and a simple hall. After passing through the health check, I was greeted by Win Win, my airport escort hired by Cyril and his school mate Capt. Win. She took my passport and smilingly cleared me through the immigration. She mentioned that I did not have to exchange US$200- into the local FECs, as was mandatory at one time. Baggage arrival took around an hour, as informed in advance by the airline purser. All baggage goes through a strict X-Ray screening and is marked with a large X, should any suspicious item be located. After approximately an hour I, my suitcase and Win Win whisked passed the customs without any hassle. It was good to be back!
Entering Capt. Win’s car, a characteristic smell in the air hits me reminding me of my old Rangoon. It was a 30 minutes drive into the city via Prome Road. The air was thick with traffic fumes, but less polluted compared to other Asian cities. Palm, vines and tropical plants filled every free space. Cars drive on the right (Government got rid of the colonial past!). This is unusual because there are still old imported Japanese cars which are right-hand drive.
We arrive at Eastern Hotel at Creek St (now called Bo Myat Tun St). Eastern Hotel is a decent small hotel. Room rate US$15-. Reception and staff were extremely warm and friendly. Every one was wearing the traditional longyi, a sarong type of clothing. Before entering my room, I was quite skeptical on the comfort especially where the air-conditioning and the bathroom was concerned – but thank goodness both were bearable. I unpacked and joined Cyril and Capt. Win for dinner at a pub/grill at Bo Aung Kyaw St. opposite the central Post Office, near the Jetty. It was nice to see young local waitresses and listen to their Burmese dialect. I could gradually understand what they spoke. Meanings of their sentences were slowly downloading from my memory bank. Still not sure of the value of the Kyat, I refrained from ordering my usual Bombay Sapphire Gin tonic and instead ordered the local Myanmar draught beer. It was light and not so bitter. We ordered finger-snacks and called it an early night. Back at the hotel, I had difficulty in falling asleep – perhaps due to a change in pillow and excitement of finally landing in Yangon.
Day 2 (Sunday)
Our room rate included breakfast and therefore it was a comfort to just go down to the dining room and enjoy a hearty breakfast. The waiters were extremely friendly and offered to even go out to bring me my favorite Mohinga or Khawswe. A little cautious for my tummy on my first day, I ordered fried eggs and toast. Coffee or Lahpe (tea)? Of course Lahpe! David the waiter smiled knowing that I had lived in Yangon before. Cyril had already pre-announced my arrival at the hotel. Looking around I saw German, English and French tourists. Excited about getting started, I and Cyril decided to walk down memory lanes.
From Creek Street, we walked towards the Thein Byu Rd to visit the Sikh Temple opposite the St. Paul School. The Sikh Temple is still standing intact and looks exactly the same as I last saw it during the ‘60s. I have fond memories of this Sikh Temple, because it was routine for me to drop my parents every Sunday around 9am at this Temple and then head out to Thompson Road, close by, to meet up with my friends. Except for three Bhajan singers, the Temple was completely empty when I entered.
Not far from this temple is the Khalsa School. Despite the old marble name plate on the building, it is now a Burmese school.
Strolling along the Maha Bandoola Road, towards the Sule Pagoda, we passed the new location of YMCA on the left. It was previously on the right side of the road. Moving on, we got close to the shop, I owned before I departed. At first it was difficult to recognize it. Everything suddenly looked small to me. Perhaps, at that time my shop was my pride and looked huge and challenging to look after. I found it and entered to verify if it was the correct one. My gaze went straight to the loft first, because I remembered having it built specially for my radio repair service, away from the front of the shop. This is where I and my 2 employed engineers used to repair radios and easily view any customers entering the shop. Yes this was the shop and I was excited! Back in time! It seems time had stood still! In Myanmar it’s hard to know what year it is let alone what time it is. The country is stuck in 1962, when it invented a brand of socialism that’s a bit like the abandoned sandals I saw lying on the main road – as if one day the Burmese simply stopped walking with the rest of the world.
I picked up a conversation with the shopkeeper and explained to him that I had owned this shop 40 years ago and he mentioned that he was aware that this shop was a Radio Shop one time. His wife and children were happy to pose with me.
While Cyril was engrossed in purchasing a handbag, I went next doors. I had noticed the old photo studio, ‘R. A. Ahuja’ signboard. They were still operating. I ran up stairs one floor and shocked the owner, Mr Ahuja. I remembered him as a handsome young man with a camera slung on his shoulder, clicking away at many parties. Mr Ahuja was happy to see me and asked about my family. Most of his family had moved to India, except him. He was quite content with his small business and refused to migrate.
Cyril and I continued on our journey and passed by Tejoomal House at the corner of Maha Bandoola St and Pansodan Street. This is a large building, where a prominent family, Tejoomals ran a departmental store at the corner and owned a large apartment on the top level. I had many unforgettable memories of fun with the sons of Tejoomal.
Moving forward we passed the City Hall, where my elder sister Mohini (now Laj Gobindram) got married. Her wedding was the first Sindhi wedding in Rangoon during ‘50s.
Walking on, we got closer to the ever-shining and well maintained Sule Pagoda, standing right in the centre of the city. Half the size of the main Shwedagon Pagoda, and half as impressive, it still strikes a fine landmark. The area is a commercial district. The pagoda is said to have been built around 2,250 years ago and in its vault is believed to be enshrined the sacred hair of Buddha. It has a height of 48 meters and with its numerous surrounding structures; the pagoda forms a beautiful traffic island.
On the left side is the Independent Monument in Maha Bandoola Garden. This is an extensive garden, close to our house, where as a child I used to frequently visit for enjoyment. The garden was well kept and manicured.
Walking forward, I got closer to my apartment. I stood at the corner of my street Maung Taulay Street (now known as Bo Soon Pat Street) and gazed in. Our building was still standing. The huge verandahs were very prominent. My memories go back to early 1962 when one fine day, while the family was having lunch, army trucks and tanks rolled in and parked at the corner of our street. Army officials had come to take over all the companies, under the new sudden nationalization law. I rushed back to my Radio shop and found an officer sitting on my chair. He claimed that he was the new owner and I was the newly appointed manger of my own company. This was a great shock for me at that time, but thinking of it now, this major event actually opened up a new chapter in my life overseas.
I walked up to our building and enquired about the new occupant of our third floor residence. The ground floor shop manager was not quite helpful, so I ran up the staircase and knocked on the second floor apartment below ours. I had heard that the Power family was still occupying it. Bingo! Neville, son of Late Mr Power opened the door and was totally shocked and at the same time happy to see me. We sat for a few minutes catching up on the past. He mentioned that our third floor apartment had totally changed and that it was now a day-school. He took me up and introduced me to the teacher. I was allowed to look around. The apartment was totally changed, except for the bathrooms, kitchen and our specially designed marble flooring. The living room is now a classroom. I also noticed that they had added a staircase leading up to the fourth floor. If only walls could speak, it would reveal so many memorable events during my stay there.
After a thorough look around the apartment and meeting with Neville, I and Cyril decided to proceed towards Mogul Street (now Shwe Bontha Street) where my father had an office. I located the office. The aged building was still standing. Being Sunday, the office was closed, but looking through the grill, I noticed that it was now a silver ornament factory. One of the staff answered my knock and requested that I return the next day in order to enter. We then walked down Mogul Street all the way to Scott Market (now know as Bogyoke Aung San Market). It was a sunny day, but there was a cool January breeze, which made it comfortable for us to walk passing many street vendors crowding the sidewalks, selling all the usual items – clothing, watches, radios, batteries, flowers, vegetable, etc.
Bogyoke Aung San Market is a huge shopping complex with around 2,000 shops selling a wide range of items from local foodstuffs to jewellery, antiques to handicrafts. Open from 0930 to 1630 hours seven days a week. Prices are relatively cheap considering the unofficial rate, which is far more superior and people tend to be honest in their dealings. Capitalism is everywhere, at least unofficially. In the market money changers calculate kyat into dollars into Thai bhats with the hustle of Wall Street traders. We browsed around and decided to return back to shop seriously.
We proceeded towards Traders Hotel. I went up to the front desk to enquire on the room rates. I was given the rate card and informed that credit cards were not acceptable for payment and only foreign cash, especially U.S. dollar was ‘king’ here.
I wanted to eat in a traditional Burmese restaurant and we managed to locate one after enquiring around. It was a cheap small restaurant and served mainly rice with chicken, mutton, fish or vegetable as main dish. We sat on a long table with a Burmese family, who were enjoying their lunch, using fingers instead of spoons. Everything moved fast in this place and we were out within 45 minutes after a hearty meal.
We headed back to the hotel and rested. In the evening, I invited Cyril, Capt. Win, his family and a friend to a buffet dinner at Karaweik Palace restaurant – a tourist attraction. This is an exotic boat shaped restaurant on the Royal Lake (now known as Kan Daw Gyi Lake). Food was great and the Burmese cultural show was enjoyable. Cyril and I got back early to bed by 10pm and since I intended to take it easy, agreed to meet for breakfast around 9am.
Day 3 (Monday)
I seem to inherit an odd body-clock behavior from my father. No matter what time I go to bed, I tend to wake up at 6 am. At around 7.30am, I called Cyril and told him that I was up and ready to go down for breakfast. Half asleep, he muttered, “what happened to your taking it easy, my friend?” I went down and ordered a mohinga, a traditional Burmese noodle soup, for breakfast. It had been long, since I last ate this delicacy. Cyril came down around 9am and after breakfast, we planned to visit my school Methodist English High School on Lancaster Road (now known as Ah Lan Pya Pagoda Street). This street has been turned into a one-way street with traffic coming up from the zoo and moving towards Sule Pagoda and Yangon River.
We got off close to the main entrance gate and walked up to the guard and requested to see the principal. He was very helpful and took us straight to the principal’s office. She was not in, but teachers Doris Ba Chit and Pyone Cho Myint met us and I explained that I was a ’61 graduate and would love to see the school, for old memory sake. They were extremely co-operative and took me around the class rooms, hall, canteen and the grounds. It was a fantastically great feeling! My memory bank was suddenly opening up and giving me instant flashbacks of my past good times at the school. I did not go to the Methodist Church, but it was prominently visible. Finally, after a thorough inspection and walk through, I and Cyril posed for a picture with the teachers in front of the main entrance and bid them farewell.
Cyril and I then walked towards the Sule Pagoda Road. We came up to York Road (now known asYaw Min Gyee Street). I remember my close friend Cecil Wagstaff had stayed at a house on this street. I clicked a few pictures of his house and emailed it him. He was surprised and at the same time very happy to see the pictures. I have never seen Cecil so sentimental, but then it did make sense when those pictures brought him good memories. Cyril and I stopped by a small shopping mall close by and found many foreign goods were easily available. Considering the unofficial rate, we found everything very reasonable. There are no Mac Donald’s or other food chains here, but we did see a food chain called Mac Burger. We did not try it. There are a few high rise buildings everywhere in Yangon. The Burma Railways building still stands but the traffic circle roundabout has long been gone.
Western style dress is still relatively uncommon and men and women wear the traditional longyis (sarongs) and sandals. Buddhist monks are a very common sight. For the colonial architecture buff, there is a whole street full of either derelict or magnificently decaying colonial buildings, covered in tropical soot.
Taxis are the easiest form of transport and there are thousands of them. They are cheap and range from wrecks to very clean and reliable. Pedestrians have no rights in Yangon and they cross streets at great peril. People behind the steering wheels are the empowered ones, the powerless have to fend for themselves, crossing streets dodging the cars that don't appear to slow down for any moving objects. We were amazed to also find trishaws operating till now. These are bicycles with two passenger seats on the side.
For lunch, we enquired around and located a restaurant serving nothing but Indian Biryani, a rice dish mixed with either chicken or mutton. In front of the restaurant we noticed huge king sized pots filled with nothing but Biryani. Got to be good, we figured! We entered and were ushered upstairs to a cleaner area. Staff recognized as foreigners (not wearing the traditional longyis)! Great finger licking dish and we thoroughly devoured it.
I found the locals very friendly and helpful. Many of them were keen to talk to foreigners and to learn about the outside world. One reason was to practice their English – learning English seems to be a national obsession. People are camera shy. Fortunately, I met some exceptions, like the two little girls who sold us postcards. They followed us all the way to the Yangon River Jetty. When we first refused to buy their postcards, they smiled and simply said, “Have a nice day”. Cyril and I immediately turned round simultaneously. That was an unexpected magic sentence we expected to hear from them. We both purchased their postcards. They claimed that they went to school in the morning and sold postcards in the afternoon.
The Yangon River Jetty still looked the same, as I last saw 40 years ago. Those days, it was customary for me to accompany my father to this jetty every afternoon for a walk, before retuning home for dinner. The old sampans are still used for commuting, and I understand they are revised versions. They are now powered by a motor at the rear.
Right across the jetty is the fabulous Strand Hotel. Built in 1901, as one of the group of grand hotels by the Sarkies brothers, the Strand Hotel is recognized as national landmark. Recently renovated to reflect the epochal era of 1920’s and 1930’s, the hotel reopened in November 1993. The lobby lounge with its colonial cane furniture and marble floors was the centre of all activities at the Strand. It was a popular meeting place for a drink or business discussion. The lounge is now reduced in size giving way to a dining room on the left as you enter and a bar on the right. Cyril and I entered the bar and relaxed with a drink in hand, day dreaming of the past. There were four others at the bar and after picking up a conversation, we found out they too had dropped in at the Strand to have a drink like us. None of us were hotel guests. I paid in U.S. dollar cash, as local currency was not acceptable.
We returned back to our hotel and ordered a light meal in the restaurant.
Day 4 (Tuesday)
Cyril graduated from St. Paul’s School and was meeting up with his school mates for a dim sum breakfast in the morning at 8am. I was invited to join him. We were picked up by Capt. Win and drove to a Chinese restaurant at the Royal Lake. The breakfast was hosted by Dr Robin Chan of Ancona, Italy - an Albertian. Robin was a perfect host and a very entertaining conversationalist. Coming from Hong Kong, I considered the dim sum quite tasty in comparison.
After a hearty breakfast, we returned back to the hotel to await Cyril’s younger sister to join us to shop at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. I was interested in buying gem stones like ruby or jade for my wife and daughter in law.
Shopping has not remained the same pleasurable experience as it was earlier, still there are good options. Bogyoke Market or Scott Market is one of the best shopping centers in the country. Burmese handcrafts like Mandalay silk longyis (skirt-like pieces of cloth), beautiful Shan woven bags, Burmese slippers, wood and ivory carvings, lacquer ware, silverware, Bassien parasols, paintings, cigarettes, and cheroots. Gems, rubies, sapphires, jade, pearls, etc. are also available from the government run shops. Burmese drums, puppets, papier-mache toys, and masks of all sizes and styles can also be purchased from this shopping centre.
Most of the gem shops were still not open at 11 am and so we proceeded to the Traders Hotel to check out the better class jewellery store. By 1pm we were exhausted already and therefore returned to the hotel for lunch. After lunch, I excused myself and went to relax in the room, leaving Cyril with his sister and family to catch up on the past. During the evening I stayed at the hotel, ordered in a sandwich and sat with the staff talking about the present life in Yangon. One important thing to note is to avoid discussing politics in public, especially considering Myanmar’s recent history, including the heavy handed suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and the military’s refusal to relinquish power in 1990 after national elections.
Day 5 (Wednesday)
Cyril and I met for breakfast at 9am and I ordered in Khawswe, a traditional local noodle soup made from coconut curry. I wasn’t happy with the taste, perhaps spoiled by my wife’s version back home.
Cyril and I decided to take a different route and walked along Merchant Street towards Mogul Street. Unfortunately most of government office buildings were surrounded by barb wire and armed guards. The Indian Embassy still stood at the same location, unchanged. The U.S. Embassy which took the whole block was cordoned off with barricades where you are not allowed to walk or drive along. The High Court behind the U.S. Embassy was active with barristers and police buzzing around the building. Continuing on Merchant Street, I located a tall white building close to Maung Taulay Street. I distinctly remember it as “Ideal Nursing Home” a maternity hospital. The hospital sign was nowhere to be seen. I stopped a middle aged passerby and enquired about it. He confirmed that the building I was looking at was indeed the “Ideal Nursing home” and that now it was an office building. This is where my nephew Suresh and nieces Heeru and Lavita were born.
Next to Mogul Street, and close to Merchant Street is 29th Street. I located the Hindu Temple “Shri Satyanarain Temple”. This is the temple where my mother used to visit quite frequently. The front looked exactly the same and colorful.
We had a lunch appointment with Capt. Win and walked back to his place in Botahtaong area. There is a great private club like restaurant called “Level 10” on the 10th floor close to his place. Food was basic but of good quality. Ambience and view too was great, since we overlooked the Botahtaong Pagoda and Yangon River.
We got back to the hotel around 3pm and rested. In the evening Neville Power, picked us up and took us to a Chinese restaurant. We had a wonderful meal and caught up with a lot of news on the family. The best part of the meal was the fantastic view of the fabulous Shwe Dagon Pagoda. This 110 m high Pagoda, is the main attraction in Yangon and overlooks the city from a hill. Its surface is plaited with over 30 tons of gold, brought since hundreds of years by pilgrims. It dates back 2500 years. According to the legend, it was built by two merchant brothers that received eight hairs of Buddha. With the help of a number of heavenly creatures and the king they discovered the hill where in a small chamber the relics of other Buddhas had been enshrined. They added the new hairs and covered the chamber with a golden slab.
Day 6 (Thursday)
This was my last day and I planned to relax. Cyril had miscalculated his daily medicine doses and therefore wanted to locate replacements. We decided to walk through Anawratha Road (street with night market) all the way to Mogul Street which was full of doctor’s clinics and pharmacies. Medicines are available freely without even a doctor’s prescription. Shopkeepers sold medicines by names or brands and did not require doctor’s prescription. Many pharmacies did not even have a chemist to answer to our enquiry on accurate replacement of one type of medicine which was not available. Eventually, we located the correct medicines and then later picked a South Indian restaurant, run by a Burmese, for lunch. ‘Dosai’ was spelled as ‘Toshay’. We walked back through the busy night market to our hotel and rested.
In the evening, tired to venture out, we picked up a bottle of French red wine at a nearby supermarket and stayed at the hotel restaurant to have a light meal. Next to our table sat a Burmese couple with their three children from Perth, who like us had returned to Yangon after many years. The husband was entertaining his old time local friend with a bottle of English Scotch on one table, while his wife and his children sat with family friends on the other table. While Cyril and I were discussing a few things, we suddenly noticed the local guest slowly dozing off. He was not used to the foreign whisky and it was obviously taking control of him. The children were giggling and trying to wake him up. No chance! We were having a free show! Eventually, since he refused to budge and wake up, they had to carry him intact on his chair and transfer him into a taxi and took him home.
Day 7 (Friday)
My visit had come to an end. I headed for the airport at around 8am to catch the 10am flight to Hong Kong via Bangkok. Clearing through the immigration and customs was smooth. I flew away from Yangon with a distinct impression of this capital city. It is one of the most memorable Asian cities I have ever visited - wide, tree-lined boulevards, spacious parks, charming colonial architecture, and towering above it all, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Would I return again? Perhaps yes! And this time probably with my wife and family to show them around. Would I return to settle there? Not possible now! Yangon has unfortunately lost me to Hong Kong where I have built new roots.