Living off the fat of the land at the STRAND Hotel, Rangoon
In the 1970s and 1980s foreigners could live quite well in Burma with black market money! A luxury suite in the Strand Hotel? Maybe even with a private bathroom? No problem! Instead of a hundred dollars, it cost only ten – if you knew how to avoid entering your stay in the “form”. I had befriended a cashier at the Strand Hotel – and was allowed to settle my bill without having to put it in the Money Declaration Form. Of course he expected something in return and so I put a bottle of Johnny Walker on his counter. Or a nice shirt . That was still considerably cheaper than paying the official rate! Although rats could be found in the luxury suites, too. In this regard the Strand – formerly the “Queen of the hotel industry East of Suez” – was no exception to the nationwide rule.
The food at the Strand was equally low-priced. Lobster Thermidor temporarily became my favourite dish! At two dollars fifty under the skylight one really couldn’t complain! However, not all that glittered in the Strand Hotel was gold: the hotel staff always tried to divert as much as possible for their own household – or the black market. When I got my tea one morning, the bottom of the beautiful silver (?) sugar bowl was just barely covered with sugar. I scraped it all out and called the waiter, “Please refill! And properly – there was hardly anything in it!”. He said “Sorry, Sir!”, took the bowl and returned after a few minutes – the bottom barely covered again. I played along and sent the poor fellow back until I had the required amount of sugar in my tea. Another day I was amazed at the strange taste of my favourite drink: it tasted strongly of coffee! I suspected that coffee had been served in the jug beforehand and that it hadn’t been properly cleaned afterwards. So I called the waiter and told him about my problem. He slinked off and it didn’t take long before he came back with a new pot of teA – the content of which tasted exactly like the previous one. So I summoned him again and asked him to inform the kitchen about my problem and to ask them to clean the pot properly before they poured the tea in. And what did I get? Again this strange brew! I gave up and walked away. When I told a Burmese friend about it, he asked me: ”Don’t you know that coffee and tea are being mixed here? This saves a lot of work and the tea drinker thinks he’s drinking tea while the coffee drinker thinks he’s drinking coffee! We call it Singapore Style!”. Amazing Burma!
Another highlight at the Strand Hotel was the glass cabinet with ‘Lost Property’ that stood in the lobby! An amazing collection of bric-a-brac – one could only marvel at the ancient brooches, rings, glasses, even a monocle. Some things looked as if they had been left behind by the guests of the opening gala there in 1901 … I always wondered if the management really believed that the travellers who had left these things behind would ever return to pick up their belongings. Or maybe their great-grandchildren? Or was it meant to demonstrate the respectability of the house? Although there would certainly have been better ways to do that. Such as providing clean bed sheets! A rumour circulated among travellers that not only the furniture in the room where W. Somerset MAUGHAM had stayed was the same as it was back in the 1920s! No, even the bed sheet was the same! As was the mosquito net! Absolutely credible! And the rats were probably the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the outstanding British writer’s roommates – if there had been any rodents in the rooms at the time. Which I doubt! Another highlight of the ‘Strand’ were its antique elevators – ancient cages with folding grilles. When I first saw the elevator coming down, I had a vision that I was going to meet Frank N. Furter of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – just like the scene in the movie.