Bogalayzay Street [Streets of Yangon]

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Bob Percival walk the streets of downtown and finds deep-fried kyar kway, Gentrification and the poetry of Pablo Neruda.

There is something different about this street. You almost feel like you are in a different city. There isn’t the hustle and bustle of 37th Street with its bookshops and street vendors, or the sights and sounds of the Indian Quarter or Chinatown. Instead there is an atypical calmness and order, wrapped up in a streetscape of freshly painted buildings, frontages with tended gardens, and newly opened upmarket restaurants. What is happening here is Gentrification. The rich are moving in and the established locals are eyeing the changes with a cautious curiosity.

Bogalayzay Street 5

On the bottom block coming up from Strand Road there is the busy stall run by Kyat U Hta Min Kyawvare pumping out early morning sweet tea latpatyay (300 Ks), fried rice and egg (500 Ks), and wood fired woks deep-fried kyar kway (100 Ks). He has three kettles on the boil to keep up with his regular customers. The adjacent freshly renovated office of Khiri Travel is a sign of the new Bogalayzay Street. Old buildings like the languishing four-by-four-storey 1922 apartments at No. 21, once luxurious and now rundown, have a much greater chance of survival here than in most other downtown streets. An interesting Sunni mosque is just opposite. Go around the rear side to enter. Check out the back lane on the way! At No. 37 there is a cheap Indian ‘Rice & Curry’ joint, and at No. 40 there the striking Berbodhanwala Building, a fine 1929 three-storey structure also ripe for renovation. On the right hand side of the street just before you reach Merchant Road are more old apartments, built with a huge light well. Crossing Merchant Road you reach the upper block. On the left is what used to be the grand Royal Hotel where everybody who was anybody would stay in the 1920s. At No. 88 you will see a fine example of gentrification, with original iron fence covered with vines, and at its base a picturesque flower garden. The terrace has been fully restored inside and out – cosmopolitan lifestyle at cosmopolitan prices. Further up at No. 100, the former home of Pansuriya photo gallery is again being renovated, this time into another upmarket restaurant. At No. 108 there is some beautiful metalwork on display with the front door, and at No. 108 there is the newly established Tin Tin Yangon, Mexican food in a beautifully restored old building, where you can sit upstairs and look across to the historic 1902 headquarters of Yangon’s YWCA. The rest of the block offers you a fine example of a 1920 streetscape of once luxurious apartments that will hopefully be restored to their former glory. On the left at the southwest corner of Bogalayzay Street and Mahabandoola Road you will find the magnificent 1928 H. A. Soorty Mansions. In 1929 it housed the Chilean Consulate, and it was here that a 22-year-old Pablo Neruda worked for eighteen months as a junior official. His poems of a passionate love affair with ‘Josie Bliss’, a young Burmese secretary at the consulate, must be read! One of the poems is titled The Widower’s Tango.

Buried next to the coconut palm you’ll find the knife I hid because I feared you’d kill me and now suddenly I would like to smell its kitchen steel so accustomed to the weight of your hand and the shine of your foot …

Enjoy, and languish in the heat and passion of 1920’s Rangoon.

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Bob Percival is a travel writer and historian now living in Yangon for over a year, after spending four years in Yunnan doing research for a novel. He is presently completing his PhD in Creative Writing. He loves Yangon and regularly does walking tours.
Bob can be reached on 0925 0116543 or [email protected]

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