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March 2020

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Travel to Yangon

 
 

Out of the rough

1 March 2020

As Yangon plants itself on the tourist map, its favourite sport is getting a 21st century makeover

Kyi Hla Han was just a few years old when his diplomatic family packed their bags and left his native Yangon for the UN in New York. It was the early Sixties, and Myanmar – then called Burma – had been independent from Britain for under two decades. The country was largely closed to the world, and its military leaders lived distant lives, sequestered away from their citizens.

Golf was one of few exceptions. A hangover from British rule, the sport was loved by Burma’s apparatchiks, many of whom built golf courses in towns and cities they ran like atavistic fiefdoms. Young people who took a shine to the game were encouraged. When Kyi Hla returned in the mid-1970s, having spent time in Kuala Lumpur and Manila after the US, he was an accomplished golfer. Aged 16, Burma’s selectors gave him a spot on the national team.

He never looked back. Kyi Hla won his first PGA event in Malaysia in 1983, before starring on the Asian Tour for over a decade. In 2006 the “Burmese Bandit” became chairman of the Asian Tour. Many credit him with its surge in popularity. At the same time, Myanmar was opening up. A new constitution in 2008 lifted state monopolies on information, and welcomed foreigners. Suddenly people were coming to Yangon. Kyi Hla, and his brother Chan, also a golf teaching pro, switched their attention to the domestic golf scene.

“Even now, if you ask people what the main sports are, they’d say football and golf,” Kyi Hla tells me. And he’s right. It may sound surprising, but golf courses litter Myanmar, a sprawling nation of 53 million people wedged between South and Southeast Asia on the Bay of Bengal. Golf fashion is a popular look on the streets of Yangon, its biggest city – and other major hubs like Mandalay and Taunggyi. It’s little surprise given how tightly the sport is woven into the country’s modern history.

In 1852, after the Second Anglo-Burmese War, British troops captured the Burmese kingdom as far north as the town of Thayet. Its golf course was conceived as a leisure spot for colonising soldiers, alongside hockey fields and a polo ground. Thayet still exists, albeit browbeaten, as Myanmar’s oldest golf course. Its most storied, however, is Yan- gon Golf Club, built in the nation’s only metropolis in 1893. Back then Yangon, then named Rangoon, was a vital sea trading post between the Indian subcontinent and Asia, and its downtown boomed with grandiose, multi-storey merchant halls and homes redolent of the British Raj.

Yangon Golf Club’s nine-hole course would eventually be torn down and incorporated into the sprawling People’s Park, just north of the city centre. Its second, however–an 18-hole venue erected in 1909 – remains. Its clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1943, as Japanese bombs rained down on Yangon in the Pacific theatre of World War II. But today it’s a quaint and enjoyable place to play golf, in the heart of the city.

That is the selling point for Chan Han, who is trying to stimulate golf tourism across his home country. “Our courses are lay-of-the-land, natural,” he says. “You’re going to play in a very laidback environment, on a course carved out of the land a hundred years ago.”

That history is everywhere in Burmese golf, from courses that wind around ancient temples in Bagan, to challenging spots in the highlands of Shan State, where lakes, monasteries and vineyards rub shoulders. Since the nation opened up, some facilities have upped their level to that of Southeast Asia’s premier golfing venues.

Among them, Pun Hlaing Golf Resort – which sits on a languid spit of land just minutes from the city centre – is possibly the best. Its 18-hole, Gary Player-de- signed course opened in 2000, when its main clientele were Myanmar’s politburo. Now it welcomes around 4,500 golfers a month to parkland tees that snake around a collection of high end hotel rooms that exemplify Yangon’s shift to a bona fide tourist destination. Only half of the club’s visitors are Burmese.

“You know what you’re getting in Thailand,” says Stephen Chick, the course’s director. “Myanmar is definitely a little unknown. But with that comes huge potential.”

Pun Hlaing is known as the “Pride of Myanmar,” and was recently voted the country’s best golf resort. Since arriving in Yangon just over three years ago, Chick has renovated the club’s hotel, practice facilities and residential properties. As Myanmar’s only British PGA pro, he says, “it’s a bit of a personal misson for me to be the guy to really put golf on the map in Myanmar.”

When he first arrived in the city, having spent years in Thailand’s tourist capital of Phuket, Chick thought Yangon was “a bit raw.” But, he adds, “once I opened my eyes a little bit and took the canvas off, I was like, “Wow, actually. Look how much potential there is here... there’s such an entrepreneurial feel as an expat living in Myanmar, because you’re constantly achieving things – and you feel there’s so much more to achieve.”

The same can be said for Yangon itself – especially its clamouring downtown – where new shops, bars and cafes are opening at a frantic pace to cater for a growing middle class and tourists. Its colonial architectural masterpieces are a reason to visit the city alone. Some, like the Strand and Rosewood hotels, have been given 21st century facelifts. Both five-star stays now sit proudly at the city’s southern most point,staring out at the Yangon River – and a brighter future.

Whether that brings more golfers, or whether golfers bring more tourists, Chan and Kyi Hla Han don’t know. What they, and Stephen Chick, do understand, is that if more courses are built, more golfers will arrive with a hunger to experience something different and off the beaten path. “You get a course like Pun Hlaing, which is the kind of course you see in other countries in the region,” says Chan. “The time has gone when you come to the country and you see it in the olden days.”

Kyi Hla now spends his time working to build new courses across Myanmar. He doesn’t doubt that people will come to play in his country. “It’s positive,” he says. “The land’s really good.” He spends his time between Myanmar and Singapore. Chan lives in Yangon, and runs Myanmar’s largest golf store. Being in the city, at such a pivotal moment – for golf and so much more – thrills him. “I don’t want to miss this,” he says. “The development of the country is so fast... Myanmar is the last frontier.”

Three for Tee

Yangon is home to several of Myanmar’s premier golfing venues. But the country has a few more venues outside the city – and they’re as unique and steeped in history as any in the region

SHWE MANN TAUNG GOLF RESORT, MANDALAY
Mandalay was the last royal capital of Burma before the British annexed it in 1885. And while the centre of Myanmar’s second-largest city is an inglorious tangle of commercial and administrative buildings, its monasteries and palace are more than worth a visit. Located on its edge of Mandalay’s central square, the Shwe Mann Taung Golf Resort is a tight-woven, 18-hole course that wends around the foot of wat-studded Mandalay Hill.

BAGAN NYAUNG OO GOLF CLUB, BAGAN

Bagan sits atop most travellers’ lists of places to visit in Myanmar, and for good reason: the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s collection of 9th to 13th century temples, pagodas and monasteries were once the seat of an empire, and remain stunning to see from the earth or the air in an iconic hot-air balloon. Yet weaving around the temples is something about which fewer people know: the Bagan Nyaung Oo Gold Club, a simply-designed course, with little to challenge talented players except, perhaps, swooning at the surroundings too hard.

BAYETHARYAR GOLF RESORT, TAUNGGYI
Nestled in the hills beside the pretty, temperate city of Taunggyi, the Ayetharyar Golf Resort is a gorgeous, 18-hole course that sweeps around hills in a climate so comfortable it has become Myanmar’s premier winemaking hub. There are plenty of Buddhist religious sites in the city itself, while the resort boast 74 teak-built rooms, villas and suites to cater for upmarket travellers

Words: Sean Williams
Illustration: Finn Dean

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