Sarkies Bar at the Strand was almost full when my companion and I arrived. It was a Saturday evening and the first time I’d seen the hotel’s most recent renovation. The century-old drinking establishment was still familiar, and it was easy to see that a great amount of time and money had gone into preserving the building’s colonial aesthetic. The previous year’s renovation was the hotel’s first in more than two decades. It was an important occasion for the hotel, bookended by the military junta’s coup d’etat against the military leader Ne Win in the ’80s and 2015’s monumental parliamentary victory for the National League for Democracy (the first nonmilitary majority leadership for the country in over 50 years). Sarkies Bar has been, for better or worse, lovingly shoved into the 21st century.
The staff seemed to have grown younger as well. In the place of the ancient bartender I recalled from my first outing, a brigade of young, well-kempt mixologists were busy fussing over cocktails. The drinks list had swelled to over 30 international and local-blend cocktails. Supplementing these was an impressive wine selection and a list of dainty appetizers. My companion and I worked our way through a good chunk of the cocktails and a variety of small plates. Each drink was well crafted and pleasantly strong, while the food can be most aptly described as fine.
I doubt that Sarkies Bar will ever be considered lively by anyone under 50. A good mix of besuited singles, casual couples, and the occasional family or large group populated the room. The tone was quiet and elegant with a layer of ambient lounge music resting over the thrum of bar conversation. I can imagine it would be the type of place to have an intimate conversation on a second date or be engrossed in a novel with your phone turned off. Even the occasional tinkle of glass or loud guffaw from the bar didn’t seem to resonate as loudly as it would in the real world.
Of course, Sarkies Bar is at its heart an escape from Yangon. It is a place to elude the heat of the day, the madness of afternoon traffic, or the general grubbiness intrinsic to a Southeast Asian city of over 5 million people—especially one that has only just recently opened its doors to the wider world and is, thusly, under construction. It is a place to wallow in the air conditioning and forget where you are, if only for a little while. In that sense the bar has stayed true to its vision: providing an elegant oasis for expatriates when they want to look back home.