Bright lights, big city: Yangon’s evolving nightlife

It doesn’t feel like Yangon.” So proffered an English friend on our first venture to Gekko, a recently opened bar and restaurant on the city’s Merchant Street.

We got what she meant as we gazed at the quirky ceiling fans – giant propellers that look as if they might have been taken off the front of a WWII plane – the outsized sepia snapshots of Tokyo street scenes, and the perforated lamp-shades casting a moody, up-market, opium-den light.

But her observation raised an interesting debate, our enthusiasm for which was no doubt fuelled in part by the sprightly saki-based cocktails and Japanese whiskies we were downing at the time: “If this isn’t it, what exactly does Yangon nightlife feel like?”

Despite further experimentation with the cocktail list – created by Singapore-based friends of Gekko’s managing director Nico Elliott – we failed to come up with an answer. Nor did we get any further after attempting to counter the alcohol with various plates of octopus, dumplings and other Japanese-inspired bites from the menu.

Sated? Yes. Merry? Decidedly. But able to conjure up a definitive summation of Yangon’s burgeoning bar and restaurant scene? No.

Eventually we agreed that while Gekko might not yet be particularly representative of Myanmar’s largest city, it could be one day. We just didn’t know.

Like most other forms of business in this rapidly changing country, no one’s quite sure which direction Yangon’s drink and dining culture is heading. But a growing number of bars and restaurants aimed at a cosmopolitan clientele are springing up alongside the city’s myriad traditional beer stations and snack stands.

I returned to Gekko to meet Elliott and discuss the topic over more sober refreshments of green tea .

“You’re not going to be able to create in Yangon what’s happening in London’s Soho right now,” he says. However that doesn’t mean there’s not some exciting possibilities ahead.

Having established Gekko and its elder sister Union on Strand Road – two of downtown Yangon’s most popular bar and eateries – and with a new wood-oven pizza joint set to open in Parami later this month, Elliott is familiar with the challenges of creating an urbane dining and drinking experience in a country where alcohol imports are difficult and access to international ingredients are limited.

“Even simple things. Lemons are expensive here. So if you want to make a lemon-juice-based cocktail, that’s going to push the cost up. And people here don’t expect to pay those prices in Yangon. If you want to get a range of spirits, you have to bring them back with you on the plane,” he says.

Like most who appreciate a decent drink, he’s unimpressed by the authorities’ clampdown on alcohol imports, which ended Myanmar’s enviable position as “the best place for drinking in the region after Hong Kong”, as he puts it.

That city and other Asian metropolises, rather than European or US cities, gave him the inspiration for Gekko’s look.

“There’s a concept [restaurant] in Hong Kong called Yardbird which is not Japanese-run but based around Yakatori [grilled and skewered food]. It’s very modern and trendy with cocktails. I know the person who’s involved with it there, and I was very impressed with it. It’s booming in Hong Kong,” he says, explaining Gekko’s Japanese theme, which may have seemed an unusual choice for an English entrepreneur, especially given the considerable number of Japanese restaurants already operating in the city.

But “most of them are Burmese-run”, he points out, although another recent arrival, Maru Bar and Grill, is a Japanese original that’s also helping ramp up Yangon’s night scene.

On a busy evening, Gekko customers are a mix of ages with Myanmar locals mixing with Japanese, South Korean and Western expats, business travellers and the odd tourist.

Is it difficult to meet the demands of such a varied clientele?

“Not really. I just go with how I think things should be,” says Elliott.

So what’s his vision for how things should be in Yangon’s wining and dining sector as a whole? How can entrepreneurs tap into something that will help the city’s nightlife develop a characteristic style?

At the moment, Elliott says, Yangon’s bar and restaurant culture is still “embryonic”, though he welcomes the increasing number of new additions which he sees not as competition but as good for business in general, helping draw customers to a particular part of town.

“You could have ten times as many bars downtown,” he adds.

“I hope more people come, and I hope they [use] the old buildings,” he says, identifying Yangon’s architectural heritage as one of the city’s most attractive features, and something that could really shine through as the sector develops.

He says he’s a big fan of downtown, where some of the most impressive colonial era buildings can be found – but the complications of renting property here don’t make it easy to take advantage of them.

The city’s port region is a case in point.

TS1, a gallery-cum-pop-up-store on Wardan Jetty that has attracted international interest, is set to open a cafe next door within the next couple of months, bringing a new style of dining to what is still a busy working docks.

But realising visions of those who want to see the wider area develop into a hip spot for socialising appears to be some way off.

“I want to show you a photo,” says Elliott ruefully.

He’d found a former rundown hotel, complete with riverside swimming pool, just 100 yards from TS1 that was crying out for conversion into a bar and private pool club, he says. Alas, for those who dream of sipping cocktails while gazing over the Yangon River, it was not to be.

Elliott lost out on the tenancy to the maritime police. His would-be-glamour spot is, he says, currently sheltering “five sleeping policemen”.

Similarly, Elliott says he would be keen to open a boutique hotel, but licensing, bureaucracy and investment issues have made doing so impractical.

But despite some of the frustrations of business, he believes the next five years will bring huge change.

“It took a long time to find our new [Neapolitan] chef, but he’s exactly the kind of person who wants to be here.”

He speculates also that it’s not just more international arrivals, but the growing numbers of Myanmar “re-pats”, who will help develop Yangon’s hospitality scene.

For the moment, he says, it still takes a pretty “unique person” to decide to come and set up business here.

Perhaps that is what makes a definition of Yangon so difficult to pin down – and such an interesting place to live, after all.


To learn about how easy it is to get a Western lunch in Yangon go to article Getting a Reasonable Lunch (< US$5) in Yangon’s Western Restaurant

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