Heaven in the hills

Published in the September edition of Myanmore InDepth Magazine

A weekend at Aythaya Winery in Shan State can rejuvenate and restore

Lucky the retriever in the vineyard
Lucky the retriever in the vineyard

When Yangon becomes too wet, hot or just plain busy, take comfort in the knowledge that a serene weekend retreat awaits in the cooler climes of Shan State.

While the wine produced by Myanmar 1st Vineyard is ubiquitous throughout Myanmar under the Aythaya label, the accommodation at the winery, for now at least, remains something of a well kept secret among those in the know. The Monte diVino Lodge’s three luxurious, timber and glass paneled bungalows were designed by SPINE Architects’ Amelie Chai and overlook the rolling mountains and the winery below. The bungalows flow seamlessly into the side of the mountain and each is shrouded in a riot of tropical flowers: visitors at the winery’s restaurant could be forgiven for missing them altogether. Each bungalow is equipped with a king size bed, indoor and outdoor showers, vast balconies, a well-stocked mini-bar and chic furnishings. Mr Leiendecker said that plasma TVs and wifi are coming soon. Whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend away or a secluded spot to polish off that manuscript, the Monte diVino Lodge is hard to beat in the tranquility stakes.

The lower decking of Aythaya's Sunset Garden Restaurant
The lower decking of Aythaya’s Sunset Garden Restaurant

Nowadays, the winery itself attracts up to 300 visitors a day: however things weren’t always so rosé. When the 100 percent foreign-owned vineyard and winery first opened in 2004, Taunggyi locals were reluctant to even approach it.

“Myanmar was a completely different place eight years ago: Myanmar people actually seemed scared to come to a foreign business. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, if they won’t come inside, I’ll go outside and show people what we have to offer.’ We actually put tables and chairs on the side of the road – that’s how our business began,” said the director of technical operations Hans Leiendecker.

Despite initial doubt from Aythaya’s founder, a fellow German called Bert Mosbach, the experiment worked and the pair haven’t looked back since. Although they initially assumed that the winery would appeal more to foreign tourists than locals, today the latter far outnumber the former. Mr Leiendecker said that locals comprise around 80 percent of all visitors – a fact he attributes in part to a sizeable population of wealthy Taunggyi residents and Yangonites who are keen to escape the heat and bustle of the commercial capital.

Le lodge
Le lodge

As for the foreign clientele, they too have changed over the years thanks to the end of the tourism boycott led by a UK-based rights group and the lifting of EU and US sanctions against the former pariah state in 2012.

“The nationalities visiting Aythaya have changed quite bit over the years. In the beginning we used to get a lot of Austrians and Germans, but nowadays they are outnumbered by the British, Americans and French,” said Mr Leiendecker.

Last year Aythaya recorded an impressive 8,000 foreigners, while local day trippers totalled 25,000. With its Sunset Wine Garden Restaurant starting to overflow, its owners have decided to build a café and a second bar. Along with an enormous menu that features Myanmar, Chinese, Shan and European culinary treats – as well as a Mongolian-style barbeque on Friday nights and daily specials – guests can sample Aythaya’s wine varieties for K2,000 and take a free, 30 minute, guided tour of the vineyard and winery. Mountain bike hire is also available, and stand-up paddleboards will be coming soon. The winery is located just 25 kilometres away from Inle Lake, which means there is lush hiking in the nearby surrounds.

The outdoor shower
The outdoor shower

From October, Aythaya will open a spa and sauna retreat, which will be managed by Thin Thin Yu, a licensed acupuncturist and certified holistic healing practitioner with 10 years’ professional experience in Canada and the US.

“The idea is to add a wellness spa to the wine country visit to make it like Napa Valley in the US,” she said.

Rates per night at Monte diVino Lodge start from US$120 a night from September until April.

For more information and to inquire about weekend packages, visit www.myanmar-vineyard.com.mm or email lodge@myanmar-vineyard.com.mm

Food fiesta at TinTin

Published in Mizzima on 27 August 2015

TinTin's elotes
TinTin’s elotes

The newly opened TinTin is self styled as a home-made Mexican street food and tequila bar and there’s no doubt that it serves up great Mexican grub in hipster-happy surrounds.

As to be expected from a 57 Below venture – the investment company that brought Yangonites the delights of Union Bar, two Parami Pizza branches and Gekko (the latter of which TinTin is most similar to architecturally) – the décor is top notch. Industrial styled light bulbs suspended from colourful rods give off a warm glow, while the ‘pipeline’ lights keep it cozy upstairs. The view of the glass panelled kitchen below is softened by sheets of metal armoury and the rustic wooden tables and the cheerily coloured seats and cushions achieve a relaxed sense of style. Place mats are made of sheets of brown paper with the odd stamp sporting the restaurant’s name. Perhaps needless to say, the only music lyrics you’ll hear will be in Spanish and the tempo upbeat.

Street food in Mexico is called antojitos (literally “little cravings”) because it is comprised of foods that are typically not eaten during the main meal of the day – corn is one such example. Mexico is widely regarded as having the most extensive variety of street food in Latin America – if not the world. UNESCO respects the cuisine enough to have labelled it an intangible cultural heritage of mankind. Having sampled other Mexican offerings in Yangon – some of which are stranger than others – I’d say that TinTin most definitely takes the cake for authenticity. Full credit to TinTin’s Chef Jorge Bernal, who hails from Mexico City , along with what must surely be his tightly run ship.

I ordered the burrito compadre (US$9), which comprises chorizo chicken, rice, pico de gallo (better known as salsa) and comes with a spoonful of deliciously spicy chipotle mayo. It was filling enough in itself – particularly for lunch, though I didn’t see any reason to stop there. The elotes (a.k.a. corn on the cob) was served with sour cream, two chunks of lime and sprinkled with cilantro (a.k.a. coriander). The mess it leaves on fingers and between the teeth doesn’t make it an ideal date dish – though it’s nothing a quick trip to the bathroom can’t fix. I was seated upstairs and headed to what I thought was the toilet. I saw a ‘staff only’ sign and a set of stairs leading to what looked like a back room, so I backed off and headed down the other set of stairs leading to the entrance. I felt a bit silly when I was then told by one of the smartly dressed staff that the first stairs I’d seen do in fact lead to the toilet (this is a rather long way of saying that a toilet sign would be useful). The stairs to the toilets are steep and the lighting dim – I wouldn’t recommend taking them on after a few tequilas.

TinTin's downstairs dining area
TinTin’s downstairs dining area

And speaking of tequilas – there’s no shortage of ‘em at TinTin. There’s even a coffee flavoured variety for $8, while the costliest (and no doubt loveliest) is the seven-year-old Fuentesca at a whopping $19 a shot. There’s also a host of mezcals on offer, which a Google search defined as a spirit made from the heart of the cactus-like agave plant (and is not be confused with the psychoactive, mescaline producing peyote). Cocktails range from $5 to $8 and include an intriguing ‘beer on the rocks’ with a michelada mix, lime juice, chili and salt.

The use of Spanish throughout TinTin’s menu is a little intimidating if you don’t speak an iota of the language. Substituting a bit more English would better whet a less cultured appetite such as my own, as my ignorance meant I had to automatically exclude ordering several items.

Top marks for presentation - the burrito compadre
Top marks for presentation – the burrito compadre

Friends had warned me that TinTin is pricey. Even the guacamole costs US$5 – and on top of everything ordered is a 10 percent service charge and a 5 percent government charge. Lord knows how expensive it is to run a restaurant in Yangon, but being charged US$7 for a bottle of water and US$4 for a cob of corn that costs K250 (for two!) at the supermarket – even with the delicious condiments on top – didn’t feel like the best value in town. And that says something, as this town isn’t known for being good value.

A word of warning: TinTin is small and popular. Do not, as I did, turn up on a Saturday night without a booking, as you’ll likely be turned away or asked to return for the second sitting at 8pm. I’m certainly glad I didn’t give up after my first attempt to have a bite of Mexican in Yangon a la TinTin style.

Tin Tin Bogalazay is located on 116-188 Bogalazay Street (middle block) in Bohtataung Township, Yangon

Phone: (01) 245 904

Visit Tin Tin’s Facebook page for more information

Digging deep – An interview with Ophir Energy

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 23 July 2015

Ophir's senior adviser in Myanmar, Andrew Chapman
Ophir’s senior adviser in Myanmar, Andrew Chapman

Ophir Energy plc is an upstream oil and gas exploration company which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is headquartered in London, with operational offices in Australia, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Kenya. Ophir Energy was awarded the AD-03 offshore block in Myanmar’s Rakhine Basin and signed a Production Sharing Contract (PSC) with Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy in December 2014. Andrew Chapman is Ophir Energy’s senior advisor in Myanmar and he talks to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about the company’s progress to date.

What do you attribute Ophir’s Energy’s success in being awarded a coveted production sharing contract?

Our success is due to a number of factors: our track record in deep water gas plays – [exploration activities elsewhere in the world] and our industry-leading deepwater drilling time and costs – we’ve always been very competitive as compared with other operators. We also have a very strong commitment to ensuring that local communities benefit from our investment. We decided to partner with the local Myanmar company Parami Energy Group, which has strong social and environmental engagements, which is aligned with Ophir’s values.

How would you describe the tender process itself?

The entire tender process from our perspective was excellent. It was carried out in a very transparent and efficient manner and compared favourably with other jurisdictions. The process was very smooth and it was undertaken without any suggestion of impropriety on any level. We were very happy with the speed in which it was carried out, which from start to finish was 12 months.

Please provide an update on Ophir Energy’s activities in Myanmar.

Last week we completed our 3D seismic data acquisition programme. It went without incident and was finished on time and under budget, so we’re very happy. The survey was carried out by [Norway-based] Dolphin Geophysical across the entire 10,000 square kilometre block. The results from the survey will tell us what’s possibly there, but we don’t know at this stage of course. The next step will be the interpretation of the data that’s been collected and that’s a process that will take several months. The data will be sent to either Perth or London for interpretation.

What are Ophir’s Energy medium and long-term goals in Myanmar?

The entrance of Ophir Energy in Myanmar two years ago was its first step in a Southeast Asian footprint. We see our investment in this particular block as a platform from which we hope to build up interests in additional acreage in Myanmar over time.

How is Ophir Energy ensuring that its presence in Myanmar is a positive one?

Ophir regards the local communities where we operate as valuable stakeholders and we treat them responsibly, with sensitivity and respect. Contributing towards the development of the economic and social conditions of these local communities is a key commitment of ours.

We will be funding the doctoral studies of a Myanmar geologist at Oxford University, who will begin her studies in October. Ultimately the idea is that what she will learn will benefit the country.

We are also evaluating a number of corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in Rakhine State, as our block is located in offshore Rakhine State. The CSR component of Ophir’s activities is a very important one and will be ongoing; whether that means further scholarships or CSR-related projects.

To what extent, if any, has the drop in global oil prices affected Ophir’s enthusiasm for exploration in Myanmar?

The drop in global oil prices is of course affecting Ophir; as it as affecting all oil and gas companies. However our commitment and undertaking to Myanmar remains strong and intact. We have to ride through the storm – as everybody does – and take whatever measures we can to make sure that our costs are managed properly.

Are there any inherent challenges in doing business in Myanmar?

Naturally, each country and region has its own specific challenges. However Myanmar has undertaken a series of remarkable reforms over the last five years which have made doing business here significantly easier than it was previously.

For more information, visit www.ophir-energy.com


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