Experience traditional English High Tea in exotic Myanmar
MORE than 60 years after the British were chased out of Burma, a country now known as Myanmar, a quaint British tradition survives at the old colonial Strand Hotel in Rangoon (Yangon).
In a teak timber-panelled cafe, under an old ceiling fan, we are enjoying High Tea of cucumber sandwiches and an assortment of cakes and pastries, served on a decked tray, with pots of tea, just as the hotel has been offering for more than 100 years.
Nothing can be more British than the homemade jam, scones and cream. And English Breakfast tea.
But as if to remind us where we are, a Burmese harp and xylophone are being played nearby in the hotel lobby.
On Strand Rd, close to the Rangoon River, and next door to the Australian Embassy, the hotel was once the hub of colonial social life.
In bygone days visitors arriving in the river by ship would disembark in front of the Strand Hotel.
It has hosted many luminaries, including writers Mark Twain, George Orwell and Noel Coward.
Legend says that Coward was inspired to write his satirical song "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun" while staying here.
And Rudyard Kipling was moved to pen his classic Road to Mandalay poem.
Not even a direct hit from a Second World War bomb or 50 years of military dictatorship can prevent the afternoon ritual in this grand old hotel, an oasis in the old city CBD.
With a rich and complex history, Burma/Myanmar is one of the most rewarding of Asian places to visit.
Its former capital and biggest city, Rangoon, a city of about four million people, is a captivating mix of crumbling colonial buildings, parklands and lakes, and rich Buddhist pagodas with their shimmering golden, bell-shaped domes.
Lost in a time warp and quietly isolated since 1962 under the military dictatorship, with a "do not disturb" sign on the door, Myanmar is unsullied - as yet - by tourism and western values.
Its very isolation may, in fact, have helped preserve a centuries-old lifestyle and values.
And the gentle Myanmar people are ready to greet you with broad smiles.
In a land where the latest model vehicles seem to date to the 1950s, we travelled in an old taxi surely made of spare parts.
I don't remember it having any springs or upholstery. Still it was cheap.
The old colonial buildings are decaying and some, like the former law courts, stand empty after the government offices moved in 1995 to the new, purpose-built capital city of Nay Pyi Daw, 322kms to the north.
It was easier, it seems, to build a new capital in greenfields than to try to resurrect the old.
Roads are "handmade" and gaping holes in pavements threaten to swallow you up. You have to watch every step. Overhead is a tangle of electrical wires.
By day, the CBD streets are packed with food markets selling everything from aromatic spice and hot chillies, from apples to zucchinis, from crabs to prawns and eels from the nearby river, and chickens butchered behind a nearby wall.
Residents in apartment blocks lower baskets on ropes to the vendors, together with an order and money, and then haul their shopping up several flights. Home delivery?
By night, the teahouses and bars prosper although locals, and tourists, complain that there is little night life in the city. At least there are few billboards and even fewer neon signs.
The place for shopping for everything that might interest a tourist is, however, Bo Gyoke Aung San Market, formerly known as Scotts Market.
Built in 1926 it is a huge space of, maybe, 2000 or more stalls selling furniture, jewellery, slippers, food, fashion and Burmese crafts including quality lacquer ware.
I buy a pair of sandals so I can remove them easily on the many occasions when we visit temples
The best-cared-for buildings are the pagodas, notably the Shwedagon, the most sacred Buddhist building in Burma.
A massive gold structure, believed to be more than 2500 years old, it was built over a chamber holding eight hairs of the Buddha.
Visible from almost anywhere in Rangoon, it glitters bright gold in the heat of the day. At dusk it turns crimson, gold and orange before being spectacularly floodlit at night.
The most popular tourist destination in Yangon, it's always busy with worshippers.
Every 10 years a new layer of gold is added to the huge structure from donations collected daily.
At its very top is an orb holding 4351 diamonds with a total weight of 1800 carats.
The centrepiece is a 76-carat solitaire diamond which casts a beam of light - white, blood red and jealous green.
I couldn't help thinking what that wealth might have achieved put to other uses in raising the quality of life of the people.
In a country where 95% of the population is Buddhist, monks in rusty-red robes and nuns in pink robes are everywhere.
In the morning we see them plodding the streets, carrying their food bowls going in search of a handout.
We are taken to see how monks live. About 36 monks sleep on mats in one large, fanless room, their meagre possessions piled against the walls.
Our driver takes us past embassy row and Yangon University and the well-fortified lakeside house of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, known universally here as The Lady.
Much-loved by the people, she spent 15 years as a political prisoner of the military dictatorship under house arrest.
Yangon, and Myanmar, is well worth a visit before the country emerges into the light and what is now a place of immense cultural interest becomes just another cheap Asian destination.
* The writer was a guest of Helen Wong's Tours.
A four-day, independent guided tour of Yangon with Helen Wong's Tours starts at $AUD660.
For more information go to helenwongstours.com.