YANGON, 11 November 2019: I enjoy walking tours, but I always keep one eye open for the corner coffee shop a couple of hours into the tour as the sun’s tropical glare intrudes on sidewalk shade.
Yangon is no exception as I follow the guide through a warren of stalls that make navigation of the city’s oldest market an obstacle course.
I can smell the freshly ground coffee as we approach the stylish coffee shop entrance. It looks promising. This could be the perfect mid-tour pit stop for a pick-me-up espresso with an Italian style ‘biscotti’. The guide, possibly reading my thoughts, calls a time-out for coffee.
Myanmar is not the first country that comes to mind when you mention coffee in Southeast Asia. It is usually overshadowed by its neighbours particularly by the highland terraced plantations in Laos and Vietnam and to a lesser degree in North Thailand.
But all that is about to change according to the country’s boutique coffee enthusiasts who are winning awards for their organic coffee grown in the highlands of Shan State.
Just last week the ASEAN Business Award went to Myanmar’s Genius Coffee, also known as Aung Nay Lin Htun, for the second year in a row.
The award, presented in Bangkok on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit honoured Genius Coffee for its speciality grade Genius Shan Highlands and Blue Pond Specialty coffees.
Founded in 2012 Genius Shan Highlands Coffee started processing and roasting coffee beans in Ywar Ngan in southern Shan State. Encouraged by the award success, the man behind Genius, founder U Ngwe Tun, will open some of his plantations for a coffee tour to build brand awareness among international visitors who can buy the coffee as a souvenirs.
The award-winning coffee beans according to a recent report in the Irrawaddy News first went on sale in 2014 and the company has never looked back. Today, Genius has expanded to involve more than 25,000 farmers in southern Shan and Kayah states and has set a production target of 300 tons this year and plans to start production in Magwe Region and Chin State soon.
Ultimately, the premium organic coffee ends up in chic coffee shops in Yangon, more likely in districts popular with tourists who embark on the city’s walking tours.
If you check TripAdvisor reviews touring on foot with a guide navigating the route in downtown Yangon is now one of the top five things to do in the city and the four-hour hike can cost as little as THB400. There is even a free walking tour on offer, but expect the guide to pass around his hat for a generous tip.
Walking tours explore the streets close to the river and around the Sule Pagoda landmark following a heritage trail that highlights the colonial buildings, many of which are protected by Yangon Heritage Trust.
Walking tours appeal to visitors passionate about history and the outcome depends on the guides being both knowledable and entertaining. They create the storyline, supply the humour and navigate the journey that starts at Cafe Secretariat in Thein Phyu Rd and ends at the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Bo Gyoke Rd
In between, there are stops on the route mostly linked to the heritage and history of the city. The first stop is at Bogalay Zay to visit a traditional wet market where locals buy and sell all kinds of products from fresh produce, meat, grains and fermented fish paste. Over time, the market has grown to include heaps of homeware and utensils, even shoes and clothes.
History buffs will appreciate the significance of the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist, the second stop on the walking tour.
It’s the last remaining Armenian Church in the middle of Yangon steeped in history and stories that illustrate the powerful influence of Armenian merchants and immigrants enjoyed in the city.
A stroll to the Central Post Office in the heart of old Yangon follows and then on to Strand Road that skirts the riverfront and is best known for the colonial period Strand Hotel and other once impressive buildings.
A stop at Yangon Heritage Trust is a highlight of the walking tour where visitors can appreciate the efforts to ensure heritage buildings are protected from “commercial urbanisation”.
The Yangon Heritage Trust introduces visitors to the impressive 19th-century colonial buildings many of them the few remaining examples of architectural styles described as Victorian, Queen Anne, art deco or British-Burmese neoclassical.
The walking tour closes at the city’s Bogyoke Aung San Market the oldest and biggest bazaar in Yangon. Now it’s time for a coffee and biscotti to recharge the batteries, hopefully brewed from award winning organic beans supplied by Genius.
Private walking tours are popular in the neighbourhood near Sule Pagoda. The routes offered by various tour companies are almost the same, but the trick is to book a knowledgeable guides proficient in languages and gifted with impromptu narrative skills. They make the tour fly or fail.
(Don Ross checks out Yangon’s tour options on a TTR Weekly editorial trip)