From plague, to meals, to piles and piles of poo — Andrew Selth on the former capital’s resident rodents.

When I was posted to the Australian embassy in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1974, I spent my first six weeks living at the Strand Hotel. This was before the grand old building was renovated and turned into one of the city’s most exclusive hostelries.

As I was sitting in an enormous bathtub one night soon after my arrival, I was surprised to see what I thought was a mongoose run across the bathroom floor. On investigating further, I discovered that it was in fact a large rat. This was my introduction to the former capital’s most prolific form of wildlife.

I was reminded of this incident recently when reading Bad Lands, a memoir by Tony Wheeler, who co-founded the Lonely Planet guide book company. He described a similar experience in the Strand Hotel in 1979:

What was a problem was that at 10pm not only did the bar shut, but also the rats came out to play. Soon they were bounding across the lobby, leaping from sofa to table to chair. Occasionally, they’d short-cut right across your lap, which reduced our Dutch friend to crouching on top of his chair with his feet drawn up, uttering unhappy squeaks.

The American travel writer Andrew Harper once claimed that, during the 1980s, the Strand’s rats were almost as legendary as the ducks at Memphis’s famous Peabody Hotel.

Tourists who visited Burma (now Myanmar) during the Ne Win era (1962—1988), and the small community of foreigners resident there, rarely came away from the country without a tale or two about its ubiquitous rat population. They were counted among the standard ‘war stories’ circulated by veterans to impress those who had not been there. I remember being encouraged by my colleagues to emphasise the extent of Rangoon’s rat problem in my reports back to Canberra, as a way of deflecting attempts by public service inspectors to reduce the embassy’s hardship allowances.

Please click here to read the full “The rats of Rangoon” article in the New Mandala by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Andrew Selth.