Photo by Aaron Ng
Asia-Pacific / Myanmar

There’s Something About Burma

Over the past few years, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has repeatedly made international headlines for its transition towards democracy. As opposed to the secretive, mercurial military junta that had been in power from the 1950s until 2011, Burma’s current government has seemingly embraced democratic ideals and cultivated more positive relationships with Western nations, including the US. Under president Thein Sein, the Burmese government has dramatically loosened restrictions on virtually all aspects of political and economic activity over the past three years. But with all this news coverage about foreign investment, tourism and political reform, how much has Myanmar actually changed? My impression from my journey through several areas of the country over winter break was that signs of foreign contact and development are much more obvious in Myanmar’s cities; in less-traveled areas it is almost as if nothing has changed.

Yangon, or Rangoon as it was once known during its past as the administrative center during British colonial times, is at the epicenter of the massive changes sweeping the large Southeast Asian nation. Upon landing in the gleaming international terminal at the Yangon airport, it was immediately apparent that the reforms have attracted many foreign companies seeking to expand into the country. “Mastercard—Now serving Myanmar” proclaimed the row of signs which confronted me in the arrival gate. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have begun their battle anew in this foreign land as well—the two soft-drink giants reintroduced their products to the market just over a year ago after six decades without a presence.  Exxon and Shell have partnered with local companies to exploit Myanmar’s rich oil reserves. The most visible indicators of this change, however, are on the roads. Where once automobile imports were heavily restricted, reforms and new wealth have made cars far more affordable and obtainable. Over the past few years, Yangon’s once empty streets have become clogged with factory-new Toyatas, leading to traffic just as bad as, if not worse than, that of the infamous LA motorways.

Foreign companies have jumped at the opportunity to sell their products to a population of 60 million and exploit the abundant natural resources, but Burma’s attractiveness to foreigners is not limited to multinational corporations.  Tourism has exploded, and the government has been actively encouraging it, offering visas-on-arrival to travelers making a spontaneous visit to the beautiful nation.  Burma is the new Thailand, a hip destination for travel aficionados. Two million tourists visited Myanmar in 2013, more than doubling the previous year’s figure of one million. The most popular destination is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, an awe-inspiring, towering construction plated in 24-karat gold that is the de-facto symbol of the nation.

Beyond the new products available to them and the blonde-haired foreigners wandering their streets, denizens of Yangon have also seen a massive shift in their urban landscape as money flows in from abroad. High rises and shopping centers are springing up at an astonishing pace, replacing many of Yangon’s old colonial buildings. However, all of this real estate development has raised concerns over gentrification and housing for the city’s poor. Yangon’s economic boom has also caused an influx of migrants, which has led to overpopulation and the need modernize Yangon’s antiquated and overburdened infrastructure. The Japanese government’s international aid agency, JICA, is coordinating with the Myanmar government to draft plans to deal with major problems of waste disposal, public transportation, and sanitation.

But as you travel farther from Yangon, the modest development Myanmar has achieved seems to shrink away. Even Mandalay, the second largest city, still greatly resembles a stereotypical Third World metropolis. Motorbikes, not cars, are the preferred method of transportation in this city, and it is almost terrifying how little the people navigating the chaotic streets care about (or perhaps, even know about) basic traffic rules. “Even people from Rangoon are scared to drive here”, my cousin, host, and tour guide Dylan noted. But Mandalay has its own charms—though not feeling the effects of modernization as acutely as the former capital to the south, it is vibrant and still at least recognizable as a semi-modern city.  When I journeyed to the remote town of Lashio, it was made clear to me that the changes that were so obvious in Yangon have yet to penetrate very far into the nation.

Upon entering Lashio after a miserable seven-hour drive over winding mountain roads, I was immediately struck by how rustic it was.  Despite being a sizeable town of over 100,000, Lashio is stuck in the past. The poorly maintained, dusty roads are lined with stray dogs and mainly traversed by rickshaw, tractor, motorbike, and the occasional ox-drawn cart. An electrical grid is shockingly absent; most businesses and residences each have their own gas-powered generator.

In Lashio and many small towns in Myanmar’s rural regions, it seems, life has continued as before, far removed from any outside influence outside of the occasional Coca-Cola billboard. Or at least for now, that is. As more and more foreign companies and tourists come to the once-isolated nation, it is inevitable that this will change. Perhaps the next time I visit Lashio, I will be able to take some photos and upload them to Instagram.