Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar, formerly Burma, is an exotic sounding name. In the early 1900s, it was one of the most developed and sophisticated cities in Southeast Asia. The elite sent their children there for school, commerce was booming, British, Indians, Burmese, and people from around the world mixed and mingled. And then things changed. In 1948 Burma got independence from the British. Then in 1962 the military took power for almost 50 years, finally loosening their grip in 2011.
Trevor: I’ve only been to Myanmar once, in 2002, before the country stepped out of isolation. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, the world had Myanmar under sanctions, and travelers were generally told not to go. Most people will still calling it Burma back then!
But I did some research and some of the democracy activists weren’t in agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi about the travel boycott and we had recently discovered Siem Reap and Angkor, which wasn’t all land-mines and bandits like the guidebooks would tell you back then either. So I wanted to go. So I’ve only seen Myanmar “before” not after: Oh, and back then, Yangon was still the capital of Myanmar.
My reflections then included the fact that there was one bar, The Strand, which was also one of two places in the country that took credit cards: there were no ATMs. We needed a cash advance at the end of our trip and they couldn’t do it because Singaporean banks were celebrating Easter. Go figure.
I was surprised by a lot of capitalism. Markets everywhere. Lots of street markets. I was surprised by a lack of censorship. We watched Operation Desert Storm on CNN and could buy the New York Times on the street. What was most striking was how DIFFERENT the culture was. Men mostly wore longhis (a sarong-like skirt) rather than pants. Sidewalks were stained red from the spit of women who chewed betel nut. And, on the censorship front, there was no way to access your email and there were no cell services to speak of.
Scott then gives a quick overview of how the country was closed and when and how it opened up. He then talks about his latest visit in August 2017, including modern shopping malls, business towers, traffic that included way more cars—and Uber— and more people in jeans, t-shirts, and modern clothes, although traditional longis and women’s dresses were still very prevalent.
Some of Scott’s favorite things from Yangon included Jogging on Kandawgyi, Tea at Scott’s Market, Tea at Raffles’, eating Biryani, Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, and the Colonial Area downtown, where a new park has opened. What he noticed was distinct about Yangon relative to other Southeast Asian cities: a lot of Indians and Muslims, how people dressed—feels like a very different place than any other country near it—no motorbikes in the downtown because of a feared assassination attempt years ago, and a waterpark!
Trevor talks a bit about meeting proprietors who have created a hipster/foodie nightlife and dining scene now, including Kevin Ching’s Port Autonomy, which was one of the earlier ones back in 2013 or 2014, though he’s not sure what’s happening there now.
To listen to the rest of Trevor and Scott’s impressions of Yangon, Myanmar, Listen to Episode 70.
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