Clubbing in Yangon with the Party Guy of Myanmar
A night out in Yangon will probably start on a rooftop somewhere, watching the sun set over the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. This will likely be followed by a few drinks at one of the city’s sprinkling of surprisingly cool bars. It will almost certainly involve a trip to Chinatown, where good cheap food is plentiful and a litre of whiskey will set you back around three American dollars.
On this particular night, however, my Canadian friend and I were sipping cocktails at the absurdly well-heeled Piano Bar, watching the clientele of largely Chinese business types while we waited for our new friends: a trio of dapper Burmese boys we had met at 3am the night before. The luxurious bar – complete with a rooftop pool overlooking the city and a gorgeous singer performing smooth jazz – had been their suggestion.
Harry, the obvious leader of the little gang, arrived in style, with a big show of greeting all the staff with handshakes and backslaps. This would be a regular occurrence everywhere we went. He was on first-name basis, it seemed, with everyone in the city involved with showing people a good time. His two friends made a beeline for us: straight to the bar. One of them, a Filipino doctor named Marvin, leaned in confidentially. “He is the party guy of Myanmar,” he said, nodding solemnly at Harry. Harry made his way over to our table, placing a self-assured hand on each of our shoulders. “So,” he said, “shall we go?”
He had promised the night before to take us to the “elite club,” a venue usually as inaccessible to backpackers as the ethnic guerilla fighter-riddled provinces of the countryside. We knew this because we had tried to get in the night before. “We’re closed,” the bouncer insisted firmly, while blatantly waving Burmese new arrivals through the doors. With our new friends in tow, however, our obvious outsider status was no problem.
Inside the club, which was called Brave, we were met with the level of service I imagine you would get at places frequented by Wall Street moguls. To start with, we were told to pick a table. We surveyed the selection of little tables and stools mushrooming around the centre of the club and selected one close to the dancefloor, which would become a convenient locus for us to leave our stuff for the rest of the night. Theft was a non-issue, as the security-to-patron ratio of the packed venue was nearly one-to-one.
Next, a procession of waiters appeared and filled the surface of our table with two bottles of spirits, mixers, bowls of dried noodles, and a fruit platter. A waiter poured a drink for me. Another pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit my cigarette (indoors). A third pulled up a chair. I could get used to this.
It was a scene that stood in stark contrast to the rest of Myanmar, where the standard dwelling is a one-room banana leaf hut, sans electricity. I found myself thinking of the club with a sort of nausea a few weeks later, when I was taken to see a cashew nut factory: a big two-storied room that was stiflingly hot and filled with steam. One corner of the factory was taken up by huge vats of bubbling black cashew-filled water, stirred by a sweating woman whose job I do not envy. The vats were hypnotising; the water gurgled and heaved and sent streams of nuts turning over in its jet-black depths. It was over 40 degrees outside, but that felt downright wintry compared to the temperature inside the suffocatingly humid room. Everywhere, women – all women – shelled cashews with nimble, rhythmic little movements. They ranged in age from children to the elderly, and they are paid 500 kyat, or 50 cents, a day.
At Brave, you couldn’t put your drink down for more than ten seconds without a waiter materialising from out of nowhere to fill it up – making it guaranteed we drank more than the equivalent of what a typical Burmese farmer would make in a month, although my friend and I paid for none of it. Outside it is a strictly adhered to social norm to dress with shoulders and knees covered at all times, but here girls gyrated in front of the DJ booth in minidresses and booty shorts. In Myanmar, starkly different rules apply to the rich.
At the time, though, the injustice of wealth inequality was not on my mind. I was having a ball letting loose in South-East Asia’s most unknown big city. Partying all night with Myanmar’s jet-set crowd was not even slightly what I was anticipating when I got on a plane to Yangon. We danced to heavily remixed Western pop hits until around 4, at which point we went back to our hostel to keep drinking and hanging out. The night ended at around 6, when Harry – who had never given us a reason for his obvious wealth besides the vague explanation of “entrepreneur” – said he had to go.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I have a meeting in an hour with investors from Taiwan.”
Cover by Emil Vilsek