Myanmar is a country of contradictions. The country once drove on the left, only to abruptly switch to the right under its military junta, even as right-hand drive vehicles continued to predominate. Once Southeast Asia’s most isolated country, Myanmar quickly emerged as a regional ‘it’ destination. More depressingly, Aung San Suu Kyi, once a symbol of hope and peace, has fallen into disrepute upon being seen as complicit in sectarian violence which has resulted in up to 1 million Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country.
I recently visited the country for the second time, with my only previous visit coming in 2012. With a few notable exceptions, I hardly recognized the city. Yangon has ostensibly changed little since 2012. The dilapidated colonial buildings, longjis, and thanaka-painted cheeks all remain. remain. Other phenomena, however, such as telephone ladies, black market money changers, and rickety public transit vans are long gone. Despite the recent opprobrium being heaped on Myanmar by the Western world, its other-worldly nature is now largely a thing of the past.
I witnessed this upon boarding the circular train. Yangon Central Station, rebuilt in Burmese-style in 1954, had clearly seen its better days, as had the trains themselves, old Japanese hand-me-downs with the doors removed. Tickets were dirt cheap and vendors and riders from all walks of life made for a colorful ride. However, about half of the circular train’s riders were foreign tourists, many no-so-subtly snapping photos of locals with their DSLRs. Perhaps because of poverty, Myanmar has clearly held allure to foreign visitors. Perhaps it was sense that, like the telephone ladies, much of Yangon’s current life could soon be gone.
There are clean signs of optimism. KFCs, up-scale shopping malls, and a Shangri-La Hotel now dominate the downtown. Yangon is now filled with tourists, and not just the intrepid backpacker variety I encountered on my first trip in 2012. Mobile phones, practically non-existent in Myanmar in 2012, are now ubiquitous, as are advertisements for mobile brands such as OPPO and Vivo. We caught a glimpse of the fruits of development when wandering through a rather basic shopping mall, the type catering to Myanmar’s still-nascent middle class.
One thing that has been a Yangon constant is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Originally build in 1372, the golden spire stands a full 105 meters (344 ft) and still dominates Yangon’s skyline. The impressive compound continues to attract ogling tourists and devout locals alike. We visited around sunset on our first day and Yangon. Despite the main stupa being under repair, Shwedagon did not disappoint. Its staff graciously allowed us to stow our shoes near the entrance as we made our rounds. We took in the scenes as day turned to night and basked in the meditative serenity.
Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Myanmar National Museum. Having visited a dozen national museums, I was not quite sure what to expect. The museums of some countries, such as China and Vietnam, bombard you with very specific national narratives. Others, such as Cambodia’s, merely collect artifacts and let you attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Myanmar takes a different approach, offering five floors, each covering a specific aspects of the country’s history and culture. The written script royal implements, paleontology, jewelry, and clothing were all covered thoroughly, offering a comprehensive, yet rather apolitical, look at the country. One could come away impressed with Myanmar’s long-running civilization, regardless of the country’s current political economy.
One item I was unable to check off the list was a visit to the U Thant House. U Thant, who served as United Nations Secretary General from 1961-1971, lived in the house during the 1950’s and it now serves as a museum to the diplomat’s achievements, including helping to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. On the day we visited, a large security presence surrounded the premises. Apparently, the museum was closed for a private party with visiting dignitaries. After trying in vain to communicate with the rifle-wielding security guards, we opted to head to the waterfront of the mighty Irrawaddy.
We arrived just before sunset, rush hour for the longboats ferrying passengers across the river. We watched the sun set across the river as fluttered overhead and passengers crammed onto water taxis. As a large tanker lumbered up the river, longboats adjusted course, moving swiftly yet circuitously to the other bank. We inquired about taking the trip ourselves, only to be sternly rebuffed. No foreigners allowed. No one wants to bear the liability if something goes wrong.
Instead, we decided to wander along the harbor-front. After being barked at by stray dogs and almost joining a pickup soccer game, we wanted toward the famed Strand Hotel. Outside, we came across a great flea market, featuring all types of old electronics, glasses, pens, dishes and memorabilia of various vintages. We didn’t buy anything, but were impressed to see that, perhaps outside of necessity, Yangon’s denizens had taken a keen interest in preserving whatever physical items they had come to possess.
Prices in Myanmar are still quite low by regional standards. The circular railroad ticket was a mere 100 kyat (below 7 US cents). A three-course meal for two with drinks at an up-scale downtown restaurant set us back a mere 24,028.96 Kyat (~US $16). With the influx in tourists, however, opportunism abounds. We found this out first hand when trying to buy a river ferry ticket. Crossing the river for locals is a mere 100 Kyat (under 7 US cents), virtually the same price I paid to cross in 2012. Now, however, foreigners must pay a full 2,000 Kyat ($1.32), still quite cheap, but 20 times the price locals pay.
Objecting in principle to tourist gouging, we conceded that we were best off wandering back into the city centre. We passed China Town, then in full swing for the pre-Chinese New Year celebrations. The same dilapidated colonial-era buildings were largely all still present downtown, as were the numbered streets along the grid. We caught a Grab taxi to a more expat-heavy part of the city, before eventually conceding that our time had run out and taking another Grab to the airport.
Overall, the brief trip to Yangon was well worth the time and money. We were able to catch a glimpse of a country in transition, seeing many things which will undoubtedly be gone in the years to come. Although many rightly have qualms about supporting Myanmar’s current government, the interaction with locals, many engaged in the informal economy, just escaping poverty and interacting with the outside world for the first time, surely does more good than harm.