Tag Archives: nightlife yangon

Father’s Office brings community pub culture to Myanmar

Published in the August 2016 edition of Myanmore

Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar
Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar

Hnin Yee Htun opened up a bar in downtown Yangon a little over six months ago and has already had her fair share of ups and downs in starting a new business. However she’s well-placed to face the vicissitudes of life with a smile on her face, because the 27-year-old is no stranger to drama.

Hnin was born in Mawlamyine, Mon State, two days before the 1988 Uprising, the series of nationwide demonstrations and civil unrest against Myanmar’s military dictatorship. When she was 48 days old, her father, who was a prominent member of the opposition group, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front ABSDF, had to flee the country to escape imprisonment. Her mother left Myanmar a year later to search for her husband, leaving Hnin in the care of her maternal grandmother. She wouldn’t see her parents again until she was a teenager.

“Until I was 12, I’d only spoken to my mother about three times on the phone. I saw my parents’ wedding photo. That was it,” she told InDepth.

Her parents lived in Thailand, both in Bangkok and a refugee camp, where Hnin’s younger sister was born.

“It didn’t occur to me that I was in a strange situation. My grandma took care of me as if she were my mother and father. I had a great time as a kid but obviously now when I look back I think, ‘My god.’”

Hnin’s grandmother was extremely protective of her granddaughter and refused to allow her to be reunited with her parents, who were engaged in the dangerous pursuit of achieving democracy in Myanmar from the other side of the border.

When Hnin’s grandmother died, her parents were able to start making arrangements for Hnin, who was then 14, to travel overland to Thailand.

She began the journey with her uncle, who knew part of the route and had local contacts to help them stay safe along the way.

“I had to cut my hair short and dress like a boy because there was a chance that I could have been raped. It was scary.”

Hnin Yee Htun in her bar. Photo credit: Hong Sar
Hnin Yee Htun in her bar. Photo credit: Hong Sar

Hnin and her uncle spent one night sleeping at a stranger’s house, and another two nights on a floating bamboo raft. She was then transferred into the custody of a detective who had been paid to help her make the final part of the journey. Hnin was excited about being reunited with her family, but also apprehensive as they were virtual strangers.

“I hadn’t seen my parents for 14 years – I didn’t even really know what they looked like,” she said.

Hnin arrived at the refugee camp and heard her father’s name being called.

“My father had long hair but I recognised him from the wedding photos. Mum rushed towards me and a little girl came along with them – that was my sister.”

“There was a spiky security fence between us. My dad simply lent over and picked me up and put me on their side. Mum told me not to feel weird, that we’re family, and she started crying.”

The next six months were spent in a refugee camp which was relatively comfortable. However the government of Thailand shut down the camp because there were too few people and they were relocated to a refugee camp closer to the Burmese border.

“The conditions there were really bad. At least in the first camp we had electricity, our own family room and concrete walls. The shelter in the second camp waas made of bamboo and palm leaves. We got a certain amount of rice, oil and salt and that was it,” Hnin recalled.

Hnin’s aunt was living in the United States and wired money to the family so that they could buy clean water and food. Hnin and her sister did not go to school and she couldn’t speak Thai.

“At the time I was just focused on what I would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said.

A life less ordinary: Hnin Yee Htun
A life less ordinary – Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar

Then in 2001, government officials informed Hnin’s father that he had to leave Thailand. The family elected to go to the United States as refugees, but their plans were scuppered when the 9/11 terrorist attack took place and the US temporarily stopped accepting refugees.

Hnin’s family arrived in Melbourne in 2002. Hnin had missed two years of schooling and didn’t speak a word of English, but she was grateful to be living in a fully furnished house provided by the Australian government.

The ever adaptable Hnin said she didn’t experience culture shock in her new home.

“I just remember that it was cold and that my mum made Burmese curry with kangaroo meat!” she said.

The family moved into an area with a large Burmese community and they began attending six months of English language classes.

“I listened to a lot of music and watched the news and movies to help me learn as well. When I started going to school I was the only Burmese student there so I had to just suck it up,” she said.

Hnin’s new school was multicultural: “Half of my girlfriends were Asian. I couldn’t speak English properly but I’d just sit with a group of girls at lunch time and listen to them talking. I think I shut my Burmese side down during that time so that I could absorb everything.”

She was also an active member of the Burmese community in Melbourne, helping her mother run a food catering business for parties, temple donation ceremonies and the like.

Fast forward to 2011, when Hnin made her visit back to her homeland. She couldn’t stay with her relatives because it was illegal for foreign passport holders to stay anywhere but in a hotel. Hnin returned to the home she grew up in Mawlamyine, but found herself too overwhelmed with emotion to even go up the stairs.

Hnin made two more trips back to Myanmar before deciding to return permanently.

“My aunt and uncle had just come back from a holiday in Europe and had fallen in love with the small cafes in laneways in Paris. They said they wanted to invest in a bar – there weren’t many in Yangon back then. I saw it as an opportunity for me to run my own business but said I’d go home and think about it.”

Hnin was nervous about telling her parents that she wanted to move back to Myanmar.

“I thought they wouldn’t support me but it turned out to be the opposite. They told me to go for it.”

Hnin left her job as a retail store manager in Melbourne to return to Yangon in August 2015 and spent the next two months renovating a former mobile phone store on Bo Aung Kyaw Street.

“The father of the nation Bogyoke Aung San used to work in the secretariat opposite – that’s how I came up with the name,” she explained.

Her vision was to create a neighbourhood pub with a “community vibe” – the bar hosts bimonthly trivia nights and the monthly Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club drinks. She prides herself on knowing the preferred drinks of her regular customers, who she knows by name.

“We don’t have a lot on the menu – it’s just one A4 page. It’s about quality not quantity.”

Hnin’s background in customer service shines through in her friendly approach to both patrons and staff, although in the case of the latter, this can be somewhat problematic.

“Burmese people work as either the employee or employer – that’s the only relationship they’re accustomed to. But here we are all equal. That I also clean the toilets is quite shocking to my staff. They can’t accept that everyone is working towards the same goal. Some of my staff quit because they couldn’t accept that system of working – they wanted the hierarchy.”

However Hnin is determined to persist and is currently in the process of hiring fresh crew.

“I’m not going to change my approach – I don’t care if I have to keep hiring people. In Australia, people work side by side. It’s a good system and I don’t see why it can’t work here. But what you typically see at tea shops is one guy sitting in a chair giving orders.”

Hnin said she’s pleasantly surprised by how quickly Yangon’s nightlife scene has evolved.

“When I first came back in 2011 there was only 50th Street Bar, but when I came back in 2015 I could see things were starting to build up. I can’t believe how many bars and restaurants have popped up,” she said.

When Father’s Office first opened, 90 percent of its clientele were expats. The ratio is now 70:30 and Hnin hopes that it will eventually be a 50:50 split.

She’s also noticed that young women are frequenting bars, but that a certain reservation still exists among local patrons.

“The culture of not going out at night if you’re a woman is changing, and I like that. But meeting new people is a different story – people are still too shy. It’s not like in Melbourne where you just start talking to people you haven’t met before.”

Hnin said that regardless of the hurdles and hazards she’s faced in opening a new bar, including complex drinking laws and coming very close to being electrocuted when Father’s Office flooded on the first day of the monsoon season, she “wouldn’t change a thing.”

“It’s like solving a maths puzzle every day. It’s rewarding because I learn a lot by having to deal with so many different situations.”

Hnin plans on continuing to grow her business and said her dream is to eventually bring her mother back to Myanmar and for them to open a Burmese restaurant together. For a family torn apart by the events of 1988, there could surely be no happier ending.

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The Taj is no masterpiece, but still worth a try

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 18 June 2015

The Taj in Yangon
The Taj in Yangon

Once upon a time not so long ago, Yangonites looking to satisfy a craving for authentic Indian cuisine in pleasant surrounds had but one option. And while the Coriander Leaf certainly remains a very good option, the recent opening of four new fine dining Indian restaurants – The Taj, Tadka, Bawarchi and India Kitchen, gives reason to rejoice. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

Like two of the other new Indian kids on the block, The Taj sports a cute Hindi-styled font signboard above its entrance. It caught my eye as I whizzed past Aung San Stadium one afternoon, and has no doubt succeeded in catching the attention of others who are always on the lookout for a great Indian eatery.

Based on the rave reviews we’d heard from friends – among them a Bangladeshi who swore that The Taj’s biryani is the best in town – and the fact that it was a Saturday evening, we made sure to book a table to avoid either being turned away or shunted into a pokey corner.

Although our table was presented no less beautifully than any other, it was nonetheless a back corner in which we were seated, in what was clearly the section designated for couples located towards the rear of the ground floor. Of course there’s nothing at all wrong with such an arrangement, but the gap between the row of four tables was awkwardly negligible. The couple to our right must have shared some of our shyness at being so close because within five minutes they’d switched from speaking in heavily American accented English to Burmese. Things were so tight, in fact, that when the gentleman next to me later got up from his seat to leave the premises with his date, his bottom inadvertently brushed our plate of naan as he strode past. Another downside was that the tables were unusually long (though not wide) so I had to strain my ears to hear my husband over music that echoed from above.

Seating arrangements are a little tight at The Taj, though the presentation overall was lovely.
Seating arrangements are a little tight at The Taj, though the presentation overall was lovely.

I was much more enamoured by the design and layout of the more brightly lit upstairs area (which I discovered during a trip to the lavatory) but was informed that it is reserved for parties of five or more.

The Taj’s staff were attentive, equipped with touch-pads and kitted out in red tunics with a black sash around their waists – they reminded me a little of Santa’s elves as they scampered from diner to diner.

The food arrived promptly and the pakoras (K3,500) and accompanying sauces were an absolute delight, with top marks for presentation. However the palak paneer was simply too rich to finish and the butter chicken (K5,500) was confusing because it deviated so far from the classic dish that I know and love. It contained not chunks but threads of chicken so thin that it took on the texture of grated carrot. The murgh vindaloo (K5,500) was surprisingly devoid of spice, which meant that the tastiest dish of the night was the oh-so-tender mutton rogan josh (K6,500). We took home the mutton biryani (K7,000) as a parcel and whilst my palate isn’t discerning enough to separate the good biryanis from the great, my husband’s certainly can: he ranked it somewhere in between.

The Taj offers regular lunchtime promos such as complimentary Lavazza coffee, while its dine-in weekday vegetarian thalis are reasonably priced at K4,500 and K7,000 for non-vegetarian. Naturally, it’s cheaper to have the food delivered or collected (prices are K3,000 and K5,000 respectively), although a minimum order of 10 boxes is necessary. The Taj also offers an express menu for those who are strapped for time.

Our bill came to almost K50,000 – which seemed a little pricey considering we’d not ordered any alcoholic beverages (the reason being that none are served). Overall however, it was a pleasant dining experience, with the only caveat being the need to ease up on the ghee and consider tweaking parts of the floor plan.

The Taj is open from 11.30am until 10.30pm and is located on B-9, Aung San Stadium, North Stand, Upper Pansodan Road, Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.

Phone 09972662518 or 09252451353 or email the.taj@miffmyanmar.com

For more information, visit The Taj’s Facebook page 

Footnote: My favourite of the five Indian restaurants is India Kitchen, which I also think is the best value for money (and pssst – beer is available if you sit upstairs, though sometimes you’ll be told that it’s full, which may or may not be true!).

Do you have a different fave Indian restaurant? Please go ahead and leave a comment below 🙂

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