The challenges of keeping Yangon’s street dogs alive

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 May 2014

Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just

The Yangon Animal Shelter was founded in December 2012 and since then it has provided refuge for hundreds of street dogs who were injured, at risk of poisoning or simply young and motherless. However despite the recent opening of a second, larger shelter, co-founders Terryl Just and Daw Roza Win, both of whom work full-time at the International School Yangon, said they are struggling every month to raise enough funds to feed and care for the dogs, who currently number around 250. They are assisted by a small but committed group of volunteers.

“The dogs end up at the shelters primarily because members of the public have called us pleading to take them in because they are in danger of being poisoned [by Yangon City Development Committee], or their neighbours are throwing rocks at them, or they are sick or injured,” Terryl Just told Mizzima Business Weekly.

“I realise I can’t help every street dog,” Terryl, a self-professed animal lover, concedes.

“My original plan was to help as many dogs as possible by taking them in temporarily, spading or neutering and vaccinating them, or providing any necessary veterinary care, and then to return the dogs to where they’d been found, provided it was safe enough – or to have them adopted. However that whole idea was blown out of the water because of the ongoing poisoning.”

Terryl Just
Terryl Just

Authorities have long used poisoned meat bait as an attempt to keep the number of strays down and thereby reduce the public health risk posed by rabies. However sources told Mizzima Business Weekly that in the lead up to the SEA Games hosted by Myanmar last December, the culling campaign notably intensified.

According to Terryl, an increase in tourist numbers is also a factor in poisonings occurring more frequently than in previous years, as authorities are naturally keen to present Yangon in the best possible light. However it seems the goal has backfired, as public outrage is mounting.

“Tourists have written to me saying, ‘I feel so bad for the street dogs here. How can I help? Can I send money? Many are aware of the poisoning,” Terryl said.

According to Humane Society International’s Asia Director Rahul Sehgal, culling is an ineffective means of controlling the number of stray animals.

“Culling has never eradicated an entire population of street dogs in any given city or country. The amount of resources needed to do that is something [developing] nations are not equipped or disciplined to do.”

He also said that scientific research has established that killing street dogs has no impact on the number of human deaths caused by rabies.

Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter
Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter

“Dogs move in packs and when certain pack members are culled, it creates an imbalance within their environment. The surviving dogs come together and quickly form new packs. With the temporary decrease in the dog population, there is less competition for food, which allows the new packs to eat and breed more. More puppies are born to the surviving animals, and more of them survive, and more dogs migrate into the area recently rendered dog-free,” he explained.

A far preferable alternative is what is known as animal birth control (ABC) – this involves dogs being briefly captured in order to be sterilised and vaccinated before being released in the same area they were found. However it must be carried out on a wide scale to succeed.

“Within a breeding season, you have to target 70 percent of the existing population of street dogs,” Rahul explained – because if one pair of dogs is allowed to breed successfully, they can produce up to 55,000 dogs within 5 years.

“If the long-term experiment of culling hasn’t yet solved the problem, other options should be considered,” he added.

India is considered the pioneer of animal birth control and in 2000 its parliament passed an amendment to the Dog Management Act, which stipulates that the only way street dogs are to be dealt is by sterilisation and vaccination. Any other method is illegal.

Humane Society International has been invited by the governments of Bhutan, India, The Philippines and Mauritus to carry out sterilisation campaigns, and Rahul said that the concept of ABC “is now widespread across many developing countries, including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.”

Fortunately for Myanmar’s street dogs, a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon. In late April the Bridget Bardot Foundation contacted Terryl Just to express interest in funding a sterilisation and vaccination campaign, as well donating money for necessities such food – which alone amounts to US$3,000 a month.

“However the foundation said that they won’t do anything until the poisoning stops,” Terryl said.

Terryl has since met with representatives from the French embassy in Yangon and a meeting has tentatively been scheduled with relevant YCDC personnel to discuss the idea of using sterilisation as a substitute for culling.

“It would be wonderful if other embassies here could get on board to lobby against it,” she said.

In the meantime, however, both shelters are “completely over capacity,” Terryl said. The first shelter, which is on a third of an acre, was built to accommodate 50 dogs but now has 120. The dogs at this shelter, which is located in Pele, Mingalardon Township, some 23 kilometres from the city centre, are mostly puppies and those with a higher chance of being adopted due to having affable personalities.

Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just

“The second shelter is a lot larger but it’s another 30 minutes drive away, which is why we keep the wilder dogs there – it makes it easier for those interested in adopting to come and meet them.”

When asked how many dogs have been adopted since the shelter opened at the end of 2012, Terryl – who herself owns 11 dogs – replied, “Nowhere near enough. Only 40 or so.”

She said there’s a common misconception among expats that it’s not possible to own a pet unless they are living in Myanmar permanently.

“But it’s perfectly possible to export pets – and I’m willing to do the paperwork for anyone who adopts a dog from the Yangon Animal Shelter. I’ve been teaching overseas for 25 years and I’ve always had my dogs and cats with me.”

She also pointed out that for those who live in apartments, older dogs make ideal companions.

“We have an old dog called Sadi who is blind but very sweet – she can work her way around but she gets picked on by the other dogs. Sadi would be ideal in an apartment – she just needs a walk every once in a while.”

And for those who for whatever reason cannot commit to ownership, Terryl said there’s a “desperate need” to find people willing to fostering a puppy for a short period.

She explained that puppies below the age of six to eight weeks can’t be immunised so the risk of them contracting illnesses is high, along with the fact that young puppies without a mother need more TLC than older dogs.

“We’ve lost a lot of puppies due to the fact that some [dogs] carry diseases but don’t show signs – notably canine distemper virus. Sadly it’s very common,” Terryl said.

Needless to say, funding remains an ongoing challenge for the not-for-profit Yangon Animal Shelter, which is a registered NGO in Myanmar and the United States. Donations of any amount are gratefully received and can be deposited at Royal Veterinary Clinic, which is located at 221 Shwegondaing Road in Bahan Township. Phone: 0986 160 037

Help is always needed
Help is always needed

The clinic’s vet, U Myat Oo, is one of two vets who provides treatment to the shelter’s dogs – and he does so free of charge.

For more information, visit the Yangon Animal Shelter’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yangon-Animal-Shelter/323142894458502?fref=ts

An ongoing experiment – The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 May 2014

The Lab in Yangon
The Lab in Yangon

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche spent last year’s Thingyan break travelling across Myanmar and during a particularly pleasant evening in Bagan, the Tunisian duo hit on an idea: to open Yangon’s first tapas bar.

“We were having a few nice bottles of wine and suddenly we said, ‘You know what, let’s start a business together,’” Mr Zlaoui told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Almost exactly a year later, The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar flung open its doors to the public. A couple of hundred patrons poured into the medium-sized venue and its bar staff should be commended for somehow managing to keep up with the demand to pour them all a drink.

It’s even more impressive considering that The Lab’s service staff were recruited just 10 days before its opening on April 25.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“I know it’s quite hard to find skilled staff so I was stressed – but we were lucky,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Whilst it’s still early days, both managing directors are unanimously confident that their staff are a cut above the rest among the hospitality industry. Each of the 12 employees were headhunted following some strong recommendations from their contractor and executive chef – who also happen to be brothers-in-law. Executive chef Thura (who also goes by Tom) spent 12 years working in kitchens in London and is no stranger to international cuisines. Other candidates were put forward by The Lab’s operations manager, who spent three years in Dubai and is now working alongside several of his former colleagues.

“Most of our staff spent many years working abroad,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Converting the former garments shop into a stylish night venue also went without a hitch, despite the fact that a kitchen, bathroom and water tank needed to be installed, a wall demolished and its drag white walls made over. The brick walls, chairs, tables and light fixtures are custom made, and made in Myanmar.

“Renovations were finished in just six weeks because our contractor is excellent,” Mr Baccouche said.

“Setting up any business in Myanmar isn’t easy – but as you can see it’s possible. In actual fact, our biggest problems weren’t related to Myanmar itself. It was the administrative side of things that took a lot of time. We’d had no advice about how to set up a company,” he added.

However the pair, who were raised in Tunis and have known each other since they were 15 and also later studied together in Toulouse, France, share a strong vision of what they’re offering their clientele: something that can’t be found elsewhere in Yangon – an authentic tapas experience with an international component.

Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“Tapas isn’t a Spanish concept – it’s a Spanish word. The idea of bite-sized foods with a nice glass of wine also exists in Tunisia and other parts of Northern Africa, as well as France and the Middle East. But it’s known by a different name, such as mezze in the Middle East or kamia in Tunisia,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Tapas is well known for encouraging conversation, as diners may stand while sharing plates and aren’t focused on consuming an entire meal placed before them.

“Sharing is caring,” Mr Baccouche said with a laugh.

Needless to say, The Lab’s tapas selection, which at 26 items should please any palate, isn’t limited to Spanish cuisine alone. It also features scrumptious samples of North African fare, such as Mechouia salad with tuna chunks (K3,500), Middle Eastern classics such as falafel (K3,500), houmous (K,3000) and baba ghannouch (K3,000), as well as European, Asian and American.

“Yangon has virtually nothing in the way of Middle Eastern food, so we really wanted to bring that here,” said Mr Baccouche.

Ditto for the music, which are Middles Eastern and African beats. There are also plans in the works to have a Burmese guitarist play acoustic sets from 6.30pm during the week, and further down the track, on weekends as well.

For the foreseeable future, The Lab is only open for dinner – from 5.30pm until late.

“Firstly, I don’t believe in tapas for lunch. And I don’t think it would be worth it because The Lab is in a busy area and parking is difficult. So for now we’re focusing on nights. But if operations run smoothly we could do a Sunday brunch. I’d really like to be able to do that,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche
Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche

The only compromise made on classic tapas dining is not displaying every item on a platter for customers to peruse – a decision made necessary for financial reasons. Almost all The Lab’s produce is sourced locally and arrives fresh every day from the markets, whether it be the squid, shrimp, pork, beef, chicken or veggies. The cold cuts – Italian prosciutto and salami – are imported, as is salmon and tahini, as no other alternative yet exists. Fine cheeses will be added to the menu in around a month’s time, and the entire menu will change as regularly as the seasons.

The Lab is closed Mondays, but on the other six days of the week there’s a two-for-one happy hour for cocktails from 5.30pm until 7:30pm. Its wine selection includes 14 standard wines, seven of which are offered by the glass, plus two of the sparkling variety, the latter of which are produced using the champagne method of double fermentation (K28,000). There’s even champagne itself: a bottle of the best bubbly will set you back K80,000 or 90,000.

Something emphasised above all else is that The Lab aims to provide a new experience – not just during the first visit, but continuously. Its logo has more than a passing resemblance to laboratory equipment sketched in the shape of a wine bottle, and the branding is deliberate.

“Our concept is new and people have responded well to it, which is great,” Mr Baccouche said with a grin.

The Lab is at 70/A Shwe Gon Daing Road, Bahan Township, Yangon.

For bookings, call 09250018200 or 09250537979

For more information, visit The Lab’s Facebook page 

Deep down and dirty – A weirdly fun weekend in Bangkok

After too many weekend jaunts in Bangkok’s Khao San Road area, we finally discovered the perks of staying in Sukhumvit. 

"No glove, no love."  Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok
“No glove, no love.” Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok

My husband and I have been to Bangkok at least 10 times over the past few years and it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve always stayed near the tourist ghetto of Khao San Road. Whilst it’s fun and oh-so-easy, the novelty does wear off (not to mention a growing curiousity about what else is on offer in Bangkok). So before our most recent visa run from Yangon, I asked my Facebook friends where we should stay – and the resounding answer was Sukhumvit, which is also uber farang friendly. One friend specifically recommended the area between Soi 2 and Soi 18 because it’s close to the BTS Skytrain and shopping malls. I was grateful for this advice because Sukhumvit itself is so big that booking a hotel in the “right” spot still felt like rolling a dice and hoping for the best. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up in Soi 3, which unbeknown to us (of course!), is known as “Little Arabia.”

“When did you say your husband is arriving?” my taxi driver asked as he dropped me off at Grand Inn Hotel.

“Tomorrow morning. Why?”

“Ah, nevermind, you’ll be fine,” he said with a grin, and flicked me a 10 baht coin.

Up until then, I’d been gazing out the window at the droolishish range of food on offer (much of which is promoted in trilingual signs comprising Thai, English and Arabic) and hadn’t cottoned on that the Grand Inn Hotel is slap-bang in the middle of a red light district and  a stone’s throw away from the seediest of sex pot destinations in Bangkok, Nana Plaza.

With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza
With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza

After throwing down my bags in our suite (we got upgraded!) I sauntered out at around midnight in search of some big bites to eat. I didn’t want to limit myself to experiencing just one place, so I had half a shawarma at one place before being convinced to have a double with with fries at Dubai Kitchen. As I chatted to the Lahori waiter, I kept swerving around on my seat to take in the exotic array of foot traffic, which included women in burkas and men in shalwar kameez, women with headscarves and huge Amy Winehouse-style hairdos and shockingly bright shades of lipstick, as well as plus size prostitutes who appeared to be both from Thailand, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. According to Lonely Planet, “plus size” is more… erm, popular, in this area… Anyhow, while chowing down my sharwarma,  an elderly man started walking towards me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Uh oh, he thinks I’ve been sizing him up, I thought to myself.

Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!
Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!

“I am a doctor from Lebanon,” he said by way of introduction.

I just nodded, waiting for him to leave or continue.

“Lebanon is a country. It’s near Syria. Do you know Syria? It is a very famous place,” he said.

I was so dumbfounded by how dumb he thought I was (or perhaps women in general?!) that I didn’t know what to say. When I finally gulped out that I was aware of Lebanon’s existence, he seemed not to register.

“We speak Arabic in our country,” he said, while very obviously looking at my legs.

So I dropped the H-Bomb.

“My husband can speak Arabic, though he’s actually from Bangladesh,” I said with a smile.

The man heard that and honestly turned on his heel right away. Within five minutes I saw him engage more successfully with a Russian looking woman – they exchanged numbers.

The Lahori waiter winked at me and I paid up and went home.

Sherpa arrived Saturday morning – he hadn’t been able to come sooner because he couldn’t risk taking a Friday flight in case his newspaper, Myanmar Business Today, hadn’t been put to bed on time. He’d been up at the crack of dawn (and singing at a KTV bar til late!) so he took a nap while I took the train from Nana BTS Station to Siam Square and Siam Parragon – which I know and love for their shopping options. After what seemed to me a very futuristic lunch at Siam Parragon (“The Food Republic” food court doesn’t accept cash – you pay a 10 baht deposit for a card which you put credit on and can use anywhere) I went straight to H&M. However I didn’t fail to notice quite lustily that almost every store on the far more affordable second level appeared to be having a mid-year sale. I adore living in Yangon, but there are certain drawbacks to it. I have large feet so I find it difficult to find shoes that fit me, and as the market is flooded with cheap and not so cheerful Chinese items that can’t withstand much wear and tear, I was down to just one pair of “working girl” shoes (smut intended, ha ha). I rectified that very quickly before turning my attention to purchasing the “basics” I needed to upgrade my sorry wardrobe. Zara and Mango were also having sales – how thrilling to own something from these stores for the first time (which is pretty sad at the age of 33!).

I came home laden with bags and excitedly showed Sherpa. We were heading out to Sirocco Sky Bar – which at 64 floors up, is the highest open air bar in the world! But before that, we needed a reasonably priced dinner and drinks, so we ambled across a few blocks to Gulliver’s Traveller’s Tavern. We sat underneath a revolving red vintage car and drank Redbull and vodkas with our okay-but-not-great meals.

Drinking a "Hangovertini" at the world's highest open air bar
Drinking a “Hangovertini” at the world’s highest open air bar

We weren’t sure how formal the dress code at Sky Bar would be, so it was a relief to see a big sign saying that due to customer feedback, smart casual is alright with them. I presume it used to be stricter in the past – and FYI – management draws the line at singlets dogs, prams and backpacks!

Our ears were popping as the elevator raced up four floors at a time (at least that’s what the electronic sign inside the lift was telling us – plus the fact that it took an incredibly short time to reach the top).

The New York Times described Sky Bar as “the most stunning rooftop bar you’ll ever see” – which is a big call, yes? But I assure you that it cannot disappoint – it’s such a visual treat that it takes a few seconds to take it all in – the view, the circular bar on a precipice that changes colour every 90 seconds, the orchestra, and the glamorous waitresses and clientele. Despite the hype around, it wasn’t packed out, which made it possible to have a drink at the bar and take in a 360 degree view of the behemoth city that is Bangkok.

After the cast of The Hangover trilogy graced the Sky Bar with their undoubtedly hilarious presence, the Hangovertini cocktail was created and named in their honour. Of course we had to have one of those and it was green, weird and lovely – and set us back almost US$20 apiece.

Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok
Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok

We then moved to the outdoor lounge area and had a glass of wine on gorgeous leather pillows before heading to Soi 11, which has the biggest concentration of bars and clubs catering to the expat crowd in Sukhumvit.

We ate German sausages and watched half a World Cup match before calling it a night – well for that night, anyway…

A funky store in Siam Parragon

A funky store in Siam Parragon

We did some “Sherpa shopping” on Sunday (again at H&M) and then checked out MBK mall, which is just a BTS station away. While waiting for my business cards to be printed, we got our hair cut and then made some bargain basement style purchases and seized the rare chance to eat junk at Maccie D’s, which isn’t available in Myanmar.

Such was our innocence the night before that when a girl thought I had asked a cab driver to take us to Soi Cowboy, I had to ask what that was.

“Um, it’s a hotel,” she said.

Not true! An internet search revealed that Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s three naughty zones – the other being Patpong (which I had been to years ago) and to our utter surprise – Nana Plaza (which could actually be the world’s largest sex complex). So we decided to check out the latter, which is apparently the most adult of all, on our final night in Bangkok. I’m not sure that I should try to justify it, but will simply say that as journalists, we’re curious people and if anything exists, I tend to want to see it…

These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok
These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok

And boy did we see it. Amsterdam has nothing on Nana Plaza (to Amsterdam’s credit, that is). We had a beer in a bar called Hillary 4 (I have no idea why there were so many bars called “Hillary” other than a wild speculation that it’s a zany call-out to a stateswoman…), where the waitresses wore hot pants that were skimpier than the width of a belt. Really. One guy kept getting kisses from what seemed to be every woman walking past. It was intense – but we didn’t realise that we weren’t even actually inside Nana Plaza itself.

Nana Plaza is a three storey complex of go-go bars – it’s hard to guess how many, but I think around 50 isn’t an unreasonable estimate. We practically ran inside one of the bars (each with a curtained entrance) because the touts were trying to pull us in different directions. It was almost completely empty and the bored, skinny girls made half-hearted attempts at dancing – some were checking their phones. As we pretty much all know, ping-pong tricks are arguably the hallmark of Thailand’s sex industry. Five ping-pongs cost 100 baht – so I bought one off a waitress (yep, I had had a few drinks by this stage). It seems that these days, the patrons do the “tricks” – I was told to throw one at a girl. I REALLY gulped and shamefully did as she told me. At that moment the five or so girls removed their tops and the one I hit smiled at me. We ran out with our tails between our legs.

We took a breather on the balcony outside before venturing into Temptations Ladyboy Bar. In some ways, this was an easier experience because a “hostess” called Ellen talked to us the whole time and no one got naked. Although Ellen was very full on and we ended up buying her some drinks and a tip to boot, we weren’t scammed or overly intimidated by anyone there. But 30 minutes was enough and we lacked the appetite to check out Soi Cowboy because the scene had made us sad in many ways. We had a sombre late night supper in an Iraqi restaurant and as the quietly spoken young waitress in a headscarf wrote down our orders, I realised that Bangkok is if nothing, an incredibly diverse city.

That night I had a dream that I killed someone – a friend told me later that it was my sense of morality kicking in…

We had time for lunch before our return flight on Monday – and doggedly decided to keep going with the “sexy” theme of the weekend. So we went to Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, which is an initiative by the Population and Community Development Association to promote safe sex and family planning. The food is terrific and the gift shop has some excellent stuff (though Sherpa says I may have overdone it with coasters that say “No glove, no love” and placemats adorned with daisy-shaped condoms!). Oh  and don’t expect to get a complimentary mint with your (reasonably priced) bill – the waiters slip in a couple of condoms instead.

While walking back to our hotel, we stopped in at Pink Pvssy (yes that is the correct spelling) – which is less of sex shop than an accessories store really. In addition to buying a gorgeous wallet and kaftan, we also got silver, heart-shaped identity tags for our dog (who recently went missing for a night and our cat (or “pussy” if I’m being gross…). I was thrilled to be able to get them because my vet in Yangon had told me she’d have to order them from Thailand.

So to wrap up, we flew back to Yangon feeling a bit better dressed, a bit fatter, and a bit less wide eyed and bushy tailed than we were when we arrived.

 

Writing the travellers’ Bible: An interview with the coordinating author of Lonely Planet Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 30 May 2014 

Simon Richmond at Naung Daw Gyi May Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha in Bago.
Simon Richmond at Naung Daw Gyi May Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha in Bago.

Simon Richmond is the coordinating author of several editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks on Myanmar, including the most recent edition of 2011, as well as the upcoming edition, which will hit bookstores on 1 July. The British-born writer talks exclusively to Mizzima Business Weekly about what it takes to produce the world famous guidebook in Myanmar, which is a country that has swiftly emerged from being an isolated pariah state to one of the new “it” destinations for travellers.

You’ve written or contributed to 50 Lonely Planet titles since 1999 – how did you first get this much coveted job?

Actually, I’ve lost count of how many Lonely Planet books I’ve worked on! I first contacted the company about working for them when I was working in Sydney as a freelance journalist in 1994. I had to do a writing test – which is still the case for would-be authors today – and having passed that I was then eligible to pitch to editors for guidebook gigs. However, soon after I started working for Rough Guides (writing the first editions of their guides to Japan and Tokyo, where I’d lived previously) – so I actually didn’t do my first job for Lonely Planet until 1999, which was covering Kazakhstan for their Central Asia guide.

Monk praying inside the Botataung Paya. Photo: Simon Richmond
Monk praying inside the Botataung Paya. Photo: Simon Richmond

Can you please explain what’s involved in being a coordinating author, the sections of Myanmar you researched for the upcoming edition, and how many other writers were involved?

Apart from me, there were four other authors working on the guide. My role, aside from covering Yangon and Around Yangon destinations, was to refresh the “Plan Your Trip” inspirational and planning front section of the guide and the “Understand” and “Survival” sections at the back. These latter two sections provide background information on topics such as politics and culture, general transport details and practical bits and pieces. I collaborated with the destination editor to create the initial brief, which we refined as went along, depending on what as a team we discovered on the ground. There’s often quite a bit of change to negotiate, as some researchers find that the areas they’re covering need either more (or sometimes less) space within the guide.

Is it fair to say that updating the previous edition was a mammoth task due to the political and economic changes that occurred since the December 2011 edition was published?

Yes, that’s pretty much true – large sections of the guide have been rewritten. Because the guide has been selling so well, we also had the luxury of being allotted more pages – areas that had been cut out of previous editions of the guide (because travel to them was either impractical or not permitted) have been reinstated.

What do you consider the biggest changes for travellers in Myanmar now as compared with the past, whether it be an increase in the number of more affordable hotels, the introduction of ATMs, new destinations that were previously off limits or providing better value for money?

I don’t think there was much so much of a problem with affordable hotels in the past – they were affordable but pretty basic (if not hideous to stay at!). In Yangon and Bagan we noticed that a few more decent hotels are opening up (though not nearly enough to meet peak demand). The introduction of ATMs and the ending of the black market for currency exchange is a real benefit, as is the government’s loosening of restrictions on where travellers can go – although there’s a long way to go before this really will make a difference due to a general lack of tourism infrastructure in these places. Overall, I’d say the biggest change has been in the atmosphere of Myanmar – the sense of fear, lack of trust and nervousness about everything in daily life that I’d witnessed on previous trips has dissipated – particularly in Yangon. Not to downplay ongoing human rights issues, but the change of atmosphere is truly wonderful and makes the country a much more pleasant place to visit.

Boy selling palm frond hats on Chaung Tha Beach. Photo: Simon Richmond
Boy selling palm frond hats on Chaung Tha Beach. Photo: Simon Richmond

What challenges remain in terms of Myanmar being able to attract a greater number of budget travellers?

Actually, as long as people don’t mind roughing it – that is, staying in the cheapest hotels, using buses to get around, or eating at street stalls – Myanmar is a breeze for budget travellers. The main problem at present comes during peak travel times, when demand for accommodation outstrips supply in the four main tourism hot spots of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. But there are plenty of other equally interesting and less busy parts of the country to visit instead. Myanmar isn’t great either for those who are looking to party late into the night – although the influx of expats and returning Burmese to Yangon is shifting the dynamic there.

Lonely Planet writers in the previous edition wrote under aliases, whereas the 2014 edition will include your real names. Could you please explain the reason for this?

When we researched the 2011 edition, Myanmar was just beginning the process of moving away from a military dictatorship that had ruled the country for decades. Applying for a visa back then took a month and saying you were a journalist of any sort would have meant being rejected. Although there were signs that the country was opening up and becoming more liberal, we couldn’t be sure that this process would continue in a positive direction. So we took the decision to write under aliases so that if the political situation did deteriorate again, we’d still be able to safely apply for visas in the future.

Today, Myanmar is thankfully in a position where the likes of exiled media groups such as Mizzima can now operate within Myanmar. International news organisations such as the BBC have also set up. It took just two days to get my visa this time and I had no fear about writing on the form exactly what my profession was. There is thus no need to use alias this time around.

What’s the best and worst part of being a travel writer?

The best is that I get to spend a lot of time in places I really love and can deepen my knowledge through meeting many interesting people – it’s an ongoing education and a huge amount of fun.

The worst? Having to trudge on with the daily demands of on-the-ground research regardless of the weather or my physical state – I really do try to pace myself these days, but we only have a limited amount of time and budget to work with and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the monsoon rains or scorching heat!

Cook on Yangon to Pathein ferry. Photo: Simon Richmond
Cook on Yangon to Pathein ferry. Photo: Simon Richmond

What do you love about travelling in Myanmar?

The people are Myanmar’s greatest asset – they are kind, friendly, gently curious about the world and outgoing. I’m a great foodie so sampling all the different kinds of cuisine here is also a pleasure. Some of the temples, which are so central to the nation’s spiritual life, are amazing and I really love the lingering historical legacy of the British Empire in downtown Yangon – there’s nowhere else like it in Asia.

Where do you predict will become Myanmar’s “hottest” new destinations?

Actually, after years of advising people to visit Shwedagon Paya and then hop quickly on from Yangon, I’d say that the city is certainly now a place to linger and experience – there’s a great buzz about it. Southern Myanmar is really opening up with overland access to the Tanintharyi Region and the beautiful islands of the Mergui Archipelago, and Mawlamyine deserves more attention from travellers. Trekking possibilities in Eastern Myanmar are also opening up as more of that region no longer requires travel permits. And using Pathein as a base to explore the lush Ayeyarwady Region is also worth a look – especially as a new railway line between Pathein to Yangon is set to open next year.

 

Turning Japanese: Yangon’s Gekko Restaurant and Bar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 15 May 2014

Nico Elliott
Nico Elliott

Following hot on the heels of the success of Union Bar and Grill is Gekko Restaurant and Bar, which officially opened in downtown Yangon on 27 March. The general manager of both establishments, Oxford-born Nico Elliot, talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about his latest addition to the city’s burgeoning drinks and dining scene.

 

Gekko's upstairs lounge
Gekko’s upstairs lounge

How would you describe Gekko Bar and Restaurant?

It’s a Japanese cocktail lounge built around a charcoal yakitori [a Japanese type of skewered food] grill. I have a friend who owns a restaurant in Hong Kong called Yard Bird, which was the inspiration behind Gekko’s food and drinks menu. I love Japanese food and have spent a little bit of time in Tokyo, but I’m not an expert on yakitori. I just really like the concept of it. We’ve westernised the theme a bit, but as there are a lot of Japanese people in Yangon now, hopefully we can get some of them here. We also have a wicked sake menu. The name “Gekko” is Japanese – it has nothing to do with the animal – the two symbols are a direct translation of “moon” and “shine”.

Union Bar is very different from Gekko – Union is very much western food – simple comfort foods of pizza and burgers. Here it’s mostly Japanese items such as ramen, as well as a couple of Korean dishes. Gekko also has more of a sharing menu, a tapas style of eating. Except for the noodle dishes, everything can easily be passed around a table, rather than “Matt” is having this and “Ben” is having that.

Is Gekko more of a drinking den than a restaurant?

I’d say it’s turning out to be 50:50. It’s definitely got a loungey feel, but a lot of people are eating. But it’s the customers who will decide – we’re too young to know yet which way it will go.

Unlike Union Bar, which fairly recently introduced a non-smoking area, Gekko has no such limitations. Why is that?

For me, the noisy, smoky, drinking dens in Japan lend themselves to a smoky atmosphere so we’re going with full smoking and cigars are on the menu. We have proper ventilation – the air being sucked in and taken out as we have an open grill.

Gekko's tiled floors from Manchester
Gekko’s tiled floors from Manchester

Why did you choose this particular building for Gekko Restaurant and Bar?

Someone told me there was a stationary shop that was closing down, so I went to have a look. As soon as I walked in I fell in love with the space. The tiles on the ground floor are stunning – they were made in Manchester and shipped put to Yangon in the early 1990s. I also love the original steel beams, which are from Scotland. I’ve met the great, great grandson of the building’s original owner, who filled me in with lots of cool stories. The building itself was finished in 1906.

We’d paid the rent up front long before we walked out the back of the building and saw what a disaster it was. There was sewerage a metre-and-a-half deep. It was worse than anything I’ve ever seen, but by then I’d paid up front so I didn’t have much choice but to go ahead. So I showed the mess a sewerage expert and he took one look and giggled when he saw it and said, “Good luck with cleaning that.” Initially YCDC charged us to do a very bad job at it so we decided to do it ourselves. It took us a month and a lot of people to get rid of it.

The music is very eclectic – who chooses it?

I do. I have a huge collection and I choose songs from the 1920s to 1950s – nothing beyond that. I also choose some jazz and reggae tunes, always with a slow tempo. Union Bar is a bit more upbeat.

Was opening a second bar and restaurant in Yangon something that was always on the cards – and will any others appear?

I’ve been working with groups in Hong Kong – Kothai and Aylmer Capital – who are involved in restaurants and we came here with a view to doing more than one, assuming we could make one work. I don’t have a food and beverage background so it wasn’t certain, but as the first was doing reasonably well, we decided to look for number two.

And yes, a third restaurant is on the way. It’s going to be wood-fired pizza restaurant and it will be uptown, in between Pyay Road and Kabar Aye Pagoda Road in Parami. There’s a huge amount of offices uptown and there’s a lot of people who would like to come downtown but it’s become too much of a hassle. We hope to open it by the end of June and it will likely be called Parami Pizza. However while the rent downtown is still pretty reasonable, that isn’t the case further north. But it was a real challenge to get Gekko opened, because like many of the old colonial buildings, there’s no infrastructure. We had no lighting, power, sewerage or water, so we had to put all those basic things in ourselves.

And if the first three places are a success, we’d love to do more. We could also go into hotels if we found an opportunity.

Gekko
Gekko

Are you feeling any heat from competition, as an increasing number of food and drinks establishments open up in Yangon?

For me it’s a case of the more the merrier. The more places there are that people like to go out to – and having many in one area – is a positive. There’s a long way to go before it hits saturation point. Personally, I’d also like to eat at more restaurants than the dozen or so I do. I’m all for it.

If you don’t have a F&B background, what is your professional background?

It’s a mixture of things – I’ve set up education-based businesses in India and in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I ran a hotel school for two years. Dhaka is a tough place but I had great mates and good fun.

How do you keep your staff motivated to ensure great service in a city known for its lack of human resources?

Keeping my staff happy is key to making it work. I try to keep them challenged and we do a lot of training. I’ve brought in people from Singapore and Hong Kong to train local staff – having set up a hotel school in Dhaka, I have a bit of experience in training. And we try to have fun, not take life too seriously. Another thing is paying your people well. We try to pay the higher end of the salary scale and we charge a 5 percent service charge, the entirety of which we give to our 35 staff members here – we don’t charge 10 percent and keep five for ourselves as some places do.

Gekko Restaurant and Bar is located on 535, Merchant St, Kyauktada Township in Yangon

For more information, visit www.gekkoyangon.com

Public enemy number one: Drug resistant malaria

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 13 April 2014

Global health organisation Population Services International plays a leading role in preventing and treating malaria in Myanmar – treating about 250,000 people every year with the parasitic disease. PSI’s senior malaria adviser (Asia-Pacific) Chris White told Mizzima Business Weekly about  the critical effort to prevent drug resistant malaria spreading from Myanmar to the Indian Subcontinent, from where it could spread to sub-Saharan Africa.

What is drug resistant malaria?

PSI’s senior malaria adviser in the Asia-Pacific, Chris White
PSI’s senior malaria adviser in the Asia-Pacific, Chris White

Think of drug resistance as an arms war between the parasites and whatever drugs we have available. This is not a new war – it’s a decades long war. Every time scientists find a new drug to kill malaria parasites, those parasites become exposed to the drugs over time and eventually, at some point, they develop a genetic mutation that confers some advantage to them. It’s widely acknowledged as a serious threat to global efforts to eliminate the disease.

The malaria-causing parasite that’s resistant to the most effective medicine available, artemisinin, is a subset of populations of Plasmodium falciparum. The type of malaria that is drug resistant is known as “severe malaria.” It kills more people around the world than any other.

When was drug resistant malaria discovered in Myanmar?

Drug resistant malaria was found during the last five years. That doesn’t mean resistance here is new, but that we’ve only become aware of it recently. Pockets of resistance have been found along south-eastern Tanantharyi Region near the Thai-Myanmar border, neighbouring Kayin State and in the highlands of eastern Shan State. The reason why it’s commonly found in border areas is because malaria is often transmitted by human movement. In the past, there were people moving from Myanmar to Thailand to the Cambodia border to work on gem mines and a lot of those people were Burmese. Then when they moved back, the parasites moved over the border. It’s human migration that moves the parasites around – obviously mosquitoes themselves can only travel a few kilometres. So what we are trying to do is put a wall up to stop resistant forms from reaching India, Bangladesh – and eventually, Sub-Saharan Africa. We have to stop the westward spread.

Malaria drugs for sale. Photo credit: Chris James White
Malaria drugs for sale. Photo credit: Chris James White

What has PSI been doing to stop drug resistant malaria from spreading?

Well, the first thing is just to try to bring down malaria as a whole. That means preventative steps, such as sleeping under mosquito nets. But the most important thing is taking good quality medicine instead of medicines that can drive the problem up. So we’ve been working with our donor agencies to distribute a drug that’s more effective, and importantly also, cheaper. Many people in rural communities buy medicines from the informal private sector – that is a kiosk style pharmacy – and most can only afford a partial dose of a mono-therapy drug, for about 500 kyat. From a curative standpoint, the mono-therapy drugs were effective. The problem is that they have one active ingredient. The way around this is to protect the miracle drug artemisen by combining it with another drug. The two anti-malaria drugs work in very different ways on the parasite, so the chances of a parasite developing a mutation are minimised, because the probability of two mutations is minuscule compared to having one active ingredient.

The really powerful part about this project is that we recognised that AA Medical in particular and another company dominate the anti-malarial market with about an 80% market share. So we persuaded them to work with us and we’ve had legally binding contracts in place for two years. Donor money subsidises the price of the more expensive combination therapies, which means we can outcompete them.

How do you measure tangible success?

A survey carried out by PSI in June 2013 at 3,500 outlets in the priority resistance containment region of eastern Myanmar found that the volumes of combination therapy being sold relative to monotherapy increased from 3 percent in mid 2012 to 73 percent in mid 2013. Our target had been ambitious at 50 percent, but we exceeded it. This was in just one year after we implemented it – it was a remarkable change.

We also have people coming in from the Chinese border and they are all saying the same thing – that they aren’t seeing the “bad” medicine. I challenge anyone to find it in the market nowadays.

Has the government been cooperative?

Yes, the Ministry of Health has been very supportive and the minister himself takes a personal interest in it. The fact that the Food and Drug Administration banned the previous monotherapy medicines was very important to our success. A few years ago, things weren’t so straightforward – it was much more difficult. There’s been dramatic improvement over the last few years and decentralisation is more common, which means that township officials have more control over what is going on, which is helpful.

Photo credit: Chris James White
Photo credit: Chris James White

Does regional cooperation also exist?

It used to be fairly fragmented but in recent years there’s been a tremendous push –  and there’s a global plan for fighting resistance malaria, along with a regional plan. Within the Greater Mekong Region there are country-specific plans, though each with a similar language, identifying consistent themes and approaches. In any given month I’ll go to one or two donor coordination meetings. Could things be better though? Yes. There are different agendas for combating malaria. What I’d say is that there’s always room for improvement, but there is an enormous effort on right now.

How is Myanmar succeeding as compared with other countries facing this threat?

In the past in Myanmar, we used to talk about drug resistance containment – but increasingly we don’t use the word “containment.” We talk about limitation. There’s a big drive in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole to move to elimination, such as in Cambodia, Nepal and Laos.

Myanmar remains in the containment phase, that is, bringing down the transmission to a level where it’s the pre-elimination stage. Pretty soon Myanmar will be recognised as being in the pre-elimination stage. That’s the goal we’re focused on for the next few years. But it’s not straightforward – there are lots of technical, epidemiological challenges. But we need to move in that direction.

Is there a risk the parasites will eventually become resistant to these new drugs? What happens then?

It’s increasingly recognised that the only long term solution isn’t new drugs – it’s wiping out the parasite population entirely (this is not to be confused with wiping out mosquitoes, which would be impractical). So while we’ve solved one particular piece of the puzzle, we are buying time until we have new alternatives. It’s an arms war remember, so at some point, we will need to change medicines. In the past we had the luxury of having an alternative drug in the pipeline. The reason why everyone is so worried is because there isn’t a new drug ready. It gets harder and harder to develop a new drug because it requires finding new compounds. That  said, thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, there’s more spending on scientific research than ever before. So we at least have potential options, but they aren’t ready for deployment.

Pump up the volume: Yangon’s hottest night spots

Published in the May edition of My Magical Myanmar

Flamingo Bar
Flamingo Bar

If an award existed for the “City with the Most Improved Nightlife,” Yangon would be highly likely to take home the trophy. In less than a year, Yangon has transformed itself from KTV capital to eclectic party town, with an ever increasing number of options for night time revelers. So why not swap a sedate beer station for one of these exciting options next time you’re venturing out?

Escape Gastro Bar

Despite the fact that it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood far north of the downtown area, Yangon’s party people are making a beeline for Escape Gastro Bar. Arrive early and enjoy a Thai fusion meal, or skip that and start with one of the 20 or so cheekily named shots presented to you on a laminated chart, such as Bong Water or Motherfuc*ker. Gastro also serves whole watermelons filled with liquor. Yum.

Address: 31D Kan Yeiktha Street, Bahan township

Union Bar and Grill

Martinis at Union Bar and Grill
Martinis at Union Bar and Grill

When “Union” opened in 2013, it became the first establishment to seriously rival 50th Street Bar and Café. This is a chic nightspot that regularly throws parties (ie Halloween) and consistently serves up great food, speedy wifi and two-for-one deals, such as its menacing margaritas and tasty pizzas. While other spots may come and go, Union feels like a permanent addition to the city. And guess what? Union’s owners opened a second establishment in a converted colonial building last May. Gekko Bar serves up sake, yakatori and cigars (in addition to having a well stocked bar and tapas style dishes).  Gekko’s managing director, Nico Elliot, describes it as a “Japanese drinking den, with a Western touch.”

Union Bar and Grill – 42 Strand Road, Botahtaung township

Gekko Restaurant and Bar – 535 Merchant Street, Kyauktada township

50th Street Bar, Restaurant and Café

A 50th Street pizza
A 50th Street pizza

If you love drinking beer while watching rugby or cricket, then this place is your home-away-from-home. “50th Street” as it’s affectionately known, has been around for ages and it has big screen TVs, pool tables and a stunning spiral staircase leading to the upstairs lounge area. Well known local bands such as Side Effect play on occasion upstairs and the acoustics are great. 50th Street has been under new management since January 2014 and now focuses on serving up great pub fare (which as we know, also does wonders for those already hungover!). Last week I chomped down a chicken burger dripping with melted cheese and bacon and a generous side of chunky fries with salsa. Was fantastic!

Address: 50th Street (just off Merchant Street)

Captain’s Bar

Captains Bar
Captains Bar

Captains in the Savoy Hotel used to be one of the very few places in Yangon to sip a gin and tonic and it still maintains a crowd of regulars. However its popularity among the 20- and 30-something crowd is virtually non-existent these days. Perhaps it’s time for the nautical theme to be overhauled?

Address: Savoy Hotel on Inya Road

Mojo Bar

Mojo Bar
Mojo Bar

Across the road from Captain’s Bar is the recently renovated Mojo Bar, which sports exposed brick walls, long timber tables with candelabras, with an overall industrial look that’s very hip indeed. It has an upstairs area with a loungey feel and plenty of comfy sofas, and the music in the downstairs bar is sure to get you inching for a dance (for which you will need to visit a club, listed at the end). Recommended: an electric blue Smurf Kiss shot.

Address: No.135, Inya Road (corner of Inya and Dhammazedi roads)

The Strand Bar 

Though it seems implausible now given its stately feel, this bar was actually once used to stable Japanese troops’ horses during the Japanese occupation of Yangon. However for who knows how long, this bar has attracted Yangon’s wealthiest clientele. Happy hour lasts all night long on Fridays.

Address: 92 Strand Road

Sapphire Bar and Lounge

Sapphire Bar and Lounge
Sapphire Bar and Lounge

The oppressively hot staircase from the top floor of Alfa Hotel opens up to a bar with stunning potential. Like Vista Bar at Shwegondine intersection, Sapphire Bar and Lounge has magnificent views of Shwedagon Pagoda and generous outdoor seating. With the addition of fans and a wider variety of food available past 9pm (the menu limits itself to noodles at this time), this could become one of Yangon’s most popular night spots.

Address: No. 41, Yawmingyi Quarter, Nawaday Road

The Water Library

The Water Library
The Water Library

With two branches in Thailand already hugely popular, this high-end establishment is truly impressive – but expect to pay premium prices. Although there are apparently some issues with finding and keeping the right chef, The Water Library arguably has the widest selection of spirits and liquors in the city. And the staff behind the bar really know how to toss a cocktail mixer.

Address: 83/95 Corner of Manawharri and Pyay Road, Dagon township

Vista Bar

Arguably the best place to soak up the view of the Shwedagon Pagoda by night (minus the noise of the intersection below), this sleek little spot has a lot to offer. During inclement weather – that is to say, during the monsoon season, a glass roof is rolled across the open air space like a major sporting venue hosting a tennis match. Even when it’s raining the views are still spectacular because it’s located on the rooftop of the building next to Yves Rocher (remember this olive green store as a landmark because Vista’s sign is rather small and the venue is new in town) and the side partitions are entirely made of glass. Sit in a spacious booth for four to six or at a long table to the left of the well-stocked bar. The food and drinks here are on the costlier side, but the service is prompt and the music is loud enough to make yourself festive without being a barrier to conversation. Tapas is on the menu too. Dig in!

Address: 188 West Shwegondine Road

Nightclubs

Take your pick! While Yangon isn’t on a par with the likes of Bangkok or even Phnom Penh, there are several options for nightclubbing these days, and the number of people heading out late for a good time is on the rise. Try LV Pub, The Flamingo Bar, The Music Club (at Park Royal Hotel), Pioneer, Paddy O’ Malley’s or GTR and DJ’s Bar, both of which are in the sprawling Inya Lake Hotel.

 

 

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