The view from the epic obelisk in Maha Bandula Park, with the High Court looming in the background.
This could also have been more aptly titled as 28 days in Yangon (the duration which a tourist visa lasts). But I wanted to stick with what I wanted to show about this post – the city once named Rangoon beyond its white elephant: Shwedagon Pagoda. So in the fewest of words (and mostly verbs) and mostly images, I wanted to share with you the best that the city has to offer outside of those main tourist bits.
Right: Start your day right with a bowl of mohinga, and follow it up with chicken and waffles for dinner at Port Autonomy.
The high and the low. The Indian, the Shan and the Myanmar. The street and the city down. This city has it all. Much of it is hidden, but whether you are looking for a pop-up turned brick and mortar from a bunch of international upstart hipsters to the best local breakfast in the city, there is only one rule: go by the numbers. A packed stall or resto means business. Plus tummy troubles will hopefully be avoided.
The freshest roti on Bo Yarn Nyunt Street for 250 kyat a piece.
The best savoury pancakes are next to the freshest rotis. These wheel cakes are best fresh and dipped in crushed peanuts right out of the frier.
This will happen. You cannot avoid it. That is all.
My pal Dustin was looking for a gramaphone. I also couldn’t say no to the invitation to go antiquing in Yangon. Across the country lay treasures waiting to be discovered. Whether they are vestiges of the colonial era and the trading that happened between colonies, or native artifacts which would be preferrred to kept in-country (or brought back in the case of Jojo and Jerome), there is so much to discover.
There is something to be said about the Westerner wearing the local garment. But judgers beware, the longyi is the best thing since sweat pants. From the moment I landed, I knew I could adopt this look. And on men? Even better.
Just another night out at Hummingbird.
The city is filled with secret watering holes. From The Blind Tiger to Hummingbird and Gekko – they range in price and some would say quality. But one thing is certain: they definitely all adhere to a post-colonial, classic frame of mind. Great conversations at the bar are a must.
All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.
Deep in the Yangon community of Yankin, down an assuming alley and a sweaty climb up to the sixth floor in an apartment block only filled with Myanmar script, you will find the home that Jojo and Jerome built. And I couldn’t have been more lucky to have done that climb one night when friends invited me to a small get together that Jojo and Jerome were hosting. I knew I had to come and hear the story behind their beautiful home filled with equal parts elbow grease, a keen eye for beautiful old things and the good sense that walls should get knocked down.
Looking for a change, and a place that wouldn’t make too much trouble about the paperwork involving a bi-national relationship, Jojo, an American, and Jerome, who is from France, were attracted to Myanmar by friends who described the place as a “blank canvas.” Both left their lucrative finance and consulting gigs in London and made their way over to Yangon in 2014 and have since built careers and reputations as serial entrepreneurs. And what a little empire they are building with Jojo opening Yangon Yoga House and designing the interior of downtown bespoke bar, Hummingbird and Jerome providing key business development and marketing services local firms. But this wasn’t necessarily a huge leap from what they were doing before. Before moving to Yangon, Jojo helped to develop, design and build wine crate shelving solutions at Le Petit Monster, and the pair grew a huge collection of collectibles and pretty things throughout all of their homes around the world. Art history, economics and some knowhow around a toolbox goes a long way.
When they first arrived in Yangon, Jojo and Jerome knew they didn’t want to blow all of their money on an expensive condominium or indulge in the upswing of real estate values since Myanmar has slowly opened up to the world. Instead, they chose to invest in a place they could call home, a respite from the chaos of emerging Yangon. To do that, they had to knock down a literally legally binding wall, strip off the unfortunate lime green laquer adorning their doorways, rearrange some electrical outlets, and endure the pains of DIY in a place where tools of the trade are still scarce and local tastes may conflict. Nearly one year after moving into their Yankin sixth floor walk-up, the hard work has paid off. Jojo and Jerome wanted a vintage meets industrial Brooklyn chic apartment in the heart of Yangon and that is exactly what they got.
With Jojo’s hustling skills (as Jerome describes), the pair also quickly made fast friends with Htet, the owner of Rangoon Tea House. Through Htet, they met the man who is now their most trusted antiques dealer in Yangon. That hustle has resulted in one of the most gorgeous homes cum showrooms in the least likely of places. And as a result, Jojo and Jerome have a constantly evolving home. Every few months, they acquire a trove of new treasures their new friend keeps an eye out for, immediately contacting them when a new piece arrives that he knows they will like. And after some of their own refurbishment and a short stay with them, the collection of benches, chests, side tables and other coterie originating from Myanmar’s colonial era, make it onto the web for the fastest bid. Though they do experience some seller’s remorse after the money is handed over.
However, there is one piece the pair will absolutely not handover. Unless you’re willing to finance their acquisition of several new Chesterfields. Knowing the difficulty of finding high quality pieces in southeast Asia, Jojo and Jerome searched high and low in the UK for the perfect vintage Chesterfield sofa with the perfect spread of patina from a history of warmed bums. This precious item was subsequently driven 400km around the UK before being stowed away in a shipping container bound for Myanmar.
Top: An original Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Bed. Bottom: That pre-loved chest of drawers comes with its own original lock. Sadly no key, though, so that adornment is there to stay.
Left: The Chagall frame that came all the way from New York when Bernie Madoff’s estate was auctioned off and Jojo bore the winning bid. It sits on one of their most recent local antique acquisitions (right), painted light blue to let the wood shine through.
Upper Right: The impromptu sketch of Jojo by director Michel Gondry. Lower left: Jerome shows off a recently acquired lock box.
Jojo and Jerome’s home is filled with similar prizes collected from sheer will to serendipity. Like the 25kg antique sewing machine they found in Bordeaux, which was hauled by bicycle (and Jerome), plane and train to London and now sits as the legs for their dining room table. There’s a sketch of Jojo by auteur Michel Gondry which sits proudly framed on a bookshelf. Another piece for conversation fodder is the antique and genuine Chagall that Jojo acquired when Bernie Madoff’s estate was auctioned away.
Likewise, there are the gems they have collected here. Jerome proudly shared an antique lock box they recently found. And then there’s their equally pre-loved bed, which was fashioned by the historic colonial era Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and bear’s the company’s well known fan-shaped logo.
The 25kg antique sewing machine base that traveled by bicycle, plane, train, taxi and shipping container from Bordeaux to Yangon via London. With a teak table top, it now carries all the dishes during Jojo and Jerome’s fabulous dinner parties.
Right: One of two Myanmar masks the pair found at Augustine’s Antiques in Yangon during their first visit to Yangon in 2013. They were toted around Asia, lived in a box in London for a year, and are back home in Myanmar adorning the couple’s lovely living room.
So having given this home some skin that’s been burned by paint solvents, the anxious heart palpitations of hauling antique pieces up twelve flights of stairs and the joys of sourcing DIY tools, and all that jazz, Jojo and Jerome have built themselves a most beautiful home that is so perfect for being shown off during dinner parties, game nights, or tiny little design blogs. I hope you find their home as inspiring as I did.
All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.
Just a tiny glimpse of the chaos that’s being thrown into my bag. Travel tip: charcoal pills in tummy-risky countries are a must.
When I announced to friends this week that I’d be flying off to Myanmar for the rest of July and most of August, the general reaction was “I thought you had kissed public health goodbye?” My response to that question has been, well if someone is going to pay me to go somewhere really cool, then why not? So when an old boss asked me if I could be in Yangon, stat, my response was an unwavering YES!
Seven (slightly stressful) days after that fateful email, I’ve got an Airbnb waiting for me, a smattering of pals who moved there from Phnom Penh that I can’t wait to see, so many tips from Cait, and this wonderful lady (in the most beautiful of coinky dinkies) is holding a Disappearing Brew Bar at Port Autonomy in Yangon this weekend!
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”
On one hand, it’s like that quote from The Godfather. Paid work from a very large international body has its benefits. And if it’s going to satisfy a part of me that spent seven years invested in a topic, and take me to cool places that I can share with you here, I’ll say yes to that. I don’t mind staying hyphenated because it somehow opens up so many more opportunities. But there are some key rules that I’m following: only if it feels right.
And I can’t wait to pop my Myanmar cherry.
Photo by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.
Last week, I took a trip to Inle Lake, in Myanmar. I have lived in this part of the world for more than three years, and I have been to a few pretty places in SE Asia. Inle Lake is the first place to truly amaze me in a long, long time.
Our first night, we landed in Nyaung Shwe and cruised around the great little town. We stayed at La Maison Birmane, a lovely hotel with with kind service, pretty bathrooms and yummy welcome drinks. After dropping luggage, our afternoon-large-meal took us around the corner to Green Chilli, a Burmese/Thai restaurant where we ate everything. Due to incredible levels of hunger, I forgot to bring my camera, and even if I had remembered, the food wouldn’t have lasted long enough to take photos. I assure you, it was nice. One pleasant surprise was that Green Chilli carries copies of the Saffron Guide, which we picked up and purchased immediately. It’s sort of a high end, curated Lonely Planet, and does a great job explaining what’s what, and what’s worth it, in Myanmar. If you are in the neighborhood, I highly recommend picking one up.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering through town in the rain, where we stumbled upon a tomato ripening warehouse. I was happy to put this on the list of thing I have never seen, or expected to see, and have now. It was gorgeous, and smelled like a million green tomatoes, which makes sense. There is probably a lot more relevant information I could add here, but I know nothing about tomato processing, and we have a lot to get through here.
The next day, we woke up early to catch our boat to the lake. The long boat we jumped in took us through a few misty canals before getting to Inle, where we were greeted by traditional fisherman (who apparently have the best balance in the universe.) Most of the local economy is supported by fisherman and farmers of fresh water seaweed, and it was amazing to see it all in action. It was a chilly and quiet morning and I took about 389557920 photos before breakfast.
Thanks to a local tip, we stopped atThahara Inle Heritagetraining school, located lakeside. The breakfast was silly good. Everything was homemade, local, and delicious and the staff was incredibly competent and attentive. They grow all their produce on site, and offer gorgeous accommodation in bungalows along the river. I’m staying here next time. They also have a Burmese cat sanctuary, but I feel like that deserves a separate post.
We made our way to a local weaving collective, where they use lotus root fibers to spin into silk. I may have purchased a few things here. It felt a little touristy, but to be honest, that’s a good thing. It’s good that people are coming here to support an art that is unique to this tiny region. I think it’s great that they can trick tourists into over-spending on scarves and hats and ties. The more money goes into this art, the longer the art will last.
A few hours later, happily windblown and broke, we took of from Inle Lake to the Aythaya Vineyard, 45 minutes away near a town called Taunggyi. Vineyard? In Myanmar? Yep, and it looked a lot like southern France. We pulled up, gawked at our accommodation, and decided to never leave. The vineyard has three rooms, and mine had doors on all sides that could be pushed to make the room completely open air. It was not terrible. We drank a very respectable Sauvignon Blanc, watched the sunset, and ate cookies. There was a party at the vineyard that night, where I learned that elderly Burmese men find it amusing when lanky blonde girls do the robot.
The morning after was lazy, we walked around the grounds, I tried to convince the resident golden retriever to come home with me, and ate a bunch of Shan noodles. If you made it this far in this long-winded post, congratulations. The point of all this is that you should go to Inle Lake, eat everything, drink everything, and try not to fall in.
Bonus points! Here is a video of the lake that I didn’t film.
A bunch of Phnom Penh friends have jumped ship for the newer, more exciting emerging market of Myanmar, and now live in the Yangon. Those guys are the worst. But it means that I travel to Myanmar every few months to catch up, eat a different kind of noodle, and explore a new place.
Honestly, in the 10 or so times I have been here in the past two years, I have never really loved it. The people are amazing and kind and smart and funny, but it has been tough for me to be excited about the actual city. It’s a working city and not made for tourism. So in my struggle to find cool things that make the city fun, my buddies Laura and Bill pointed me to an old glass factory that had long since collapsed. The prospect of wandering through a condemned building and overgrown vines to dig for chunks of broken glass sounded like the best treasure hunt ever to me. It was.So this past weekend, we did just that. After being warned of the massive mosquito/spider/possible giant snake situation ON THE WAY THERE, we arrived and bathed in Deet. It felt like equal parts Indiana Jones and Terminator, but with looking for decorative vases. I found a few vases and glasses I love, but my favorite things were the fused glass chunks that I dug out of the dirt. When I brought them up to the very lovely lady managing the little shop, she laughed and gave them to me “as present.” Apparently no one else wants glass garbage.After this field trip, I am coming around on Yangon. I think I am spoiled a bit in Phnom Penh, as it only takes 20 minutes to get anywhere, and it’s easy to get around in English. Yangon might be more difficult to get navigate, but there are treasures here that are well worth the trip.
I will go back to the glass factory, and next time with more water, more bug repellent, and a big old basket. If you are in the neighborhood and want to check it out, you can find the factory here: