Myanmar, Yangon: Tour the city in an antique bus

It's very hard to pull off a pith helmet. But sitting in the driving seat of our reconstructed antique bus, with the moss-covered Colonial shopfronts of downtown Yangon as a backdrop, our driver pulls it off.

The Elephant Coach tours the former Burmese capital in retro style. It is modelled on an old troop carrier, but the seats have been reduced to accommodate half a dozen people. The interiors are fashioned from local teak and rosewood, with carved elephants as doorhandles, tiny chiselled hands to hold your curtain aside and sculpted faces to blow cool air on to you. It is a reimagined colonial extravagance that manages to be both whimsical and comforting, overindulgent and lot of fun.

And we are not even the most interesting thing on the road. The byways are packed with party trucks full of revellers, hanging off the backs of the vehicles, beating decorated bamboo drums and pumping out dance music. It is the end of Yangon's Tazaungdaing Festival, the end-of-the-rainy-season festival of light, and the parks are strung with lanterns and fairy lights are twisted into sculptures of animals. On the busy streets the devout queue along the city's pavements to donate new robes to Buddhist monks.

Myanmarhas been playing peek-a-boo with international tourism as it takes faltering steps towards an inclusive democracy. When I was first in Yangon a few years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was yet to be elected and a tourism boom was mooted. It has not fully arrived but this complicated city in a still-troubled country is a study in faded grandeur.

Our first stop is the Yangon Heritage Trust the organisation tasked with preserving the crumbling past and charting a new future that includes a bold new development to open up the riverside and port.

But for now we leave the bus and walk along relics of the city's colonial past. Some are looked after as office buildings while others are in ruin, filled with squatters. One, which we are encouraged to explore the interior of, has Italianate bannisters surrounding a central atrium. I venture closer and a bucket of dirty water is cast down from somewhere up above. Our guide, Chan, tell us that it is difficult to trace the ownership of some buildings and harder still to have their residents move on.

Back on the bus we make a grand entrance to the Former Secretariat office, driving our Elephant Coach past guards and along the tree-lined walkways on the 14-acre property. Built in 1890 the Secretariat was only recently renovated and had been off limits to the public for decades due to its notoriety. It is hard to believe, as the sun hits the blazingly gold facade and locals take selfies on the ornate double spiral staircase, but this building is the birthplace of Burma's woes.

In July 1947 armed thugs broke into the Secretariat and assassinated Bogyoke Aung San, the man credited with freeing the country from the British, along with his cabinet ministers. They died just six months before Burma was to gain independence. Chaos and a military regime followed.

Now you can stand in the ghostly quiet chamber where the assassination took place and look at black-and-white portraits of the victims lining the duck-egg-blue walls. A tattered national flag looks over the long-empty wooden pews.

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We board our coach in a sombre mood and  drive past the Yangon Stock Exchange, home to just six listed stocks. The Secretariat is a chapter in Yangon's history that was closed from locals and tourists alike, but is now open for all to see. It's not the solution to the country's problems but it is progress.

THE DETAILS

Paul Chai was a guest of Memories Group and Thai Airways.

MORE

traveller.com.au/myanmar

tourism.gov.mm

FLY

Thai Airways has regular flights from Australia to Bangkok with connections to Yangon. See thaiairways.com

VISIT

The Elephant Coach cost varies according to the destination and group size. You can take the retro drive through Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay or Mon and Karen state. Explore options at elephantcoach.com

STAY

Awei Metta hotel and golf resort has double rooms from $US140 including breakfast and access to the country club. Pun Hlaing Estate in Hlaing Tharyar Township, Yangon. See memoriesgroup.com

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