My First Week in Yangon

Mingalapa – greetings from Yangon! It has been one week since I arrived in Yangon, after a long flight from Melbourne and a 9 hour stop-over in Singapore. I’ll be staying here for 12 days to undergo in-country induction and orientation, before relocating to Mandalay, where I’ll be based for the next 12 months.

It is the start of the monsoon season with temperature ranging from 25°C – 30°C (77°F – 86°F) with frequent rain and thunderstorm, especially in the afternoon. Most people seem to carry an umbrella in their bag, ready to be used to shield again the sun in the morning and the rain in the afternoon.

As I explore the city in between my language lessons and other briefings, the overwhelming impression that I have is having stepped back in time. I imagined that this is what many South East Asian countries would have looked like maybe 40 to 50 years ago.

  • Most of the locals wear traditional dress, which consists of ankle-length sarong, or longyi or htamein. Ladies wear their sarong with a traditional blouse and men wear their sarong tied with a knot in front with their shirts tucked or untucked. It is also common to see Myanmar women and children with thanaka on their cheeks. Thanaka is obtained from the bark of a small tree by grinding it on a grinding stone with water to form a pale yellow paste, which is used by females of all ages on their face, arms and legs as a sunscreen.
  • Monks (with their maroon robes) and nuns (wearing pink robes) are also a common sight throughout Yangon.
  • Even though there seems to be quite a bit of construction activity going on, the majority of the buildings look very archaic. In fact, downtown Yangon is known for the highest number of colonial period buildings in Southeast Asia. Sadly, a lot of these buildings look derelict and run-down but nevertheless still magnificent to look at. One can only imagine how these buildings would have looked in its original glory.

Although this is rapidly changing, services  and amenities that would be taken for granted in many countries are still not readily accessible here:

  • Utilities – no guaranteed access to 24 hour electricity, gas and water. Power cuts are a regular occurrence, even in Yangon.
  • SIM cards – as recently as 18 months ago, SIM cards were very expensive to purchase and not easily accessible.
  • Internet/wifi – increasingly widespread in urban areas but very, very slow and unable to support any video streaming.  Previous government internet restrictions have now been lifted so people are free to access most websites and services including Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and so on.
  • Taxis – plentiful and easily available in Yangon but there is no meter and all fares must be negotiated prior to getting into the taxi.
  • Pedestrian crossing – there are no designated pedestrian crossing so crossing the road is one of my least favourite activity and can be quite dangerous, especially with the exponential increase in vehicles over the last few years.
  • Banking – the outdated banking system is slowly being modernised. ATMs with Visa and Mastercard access have only started being available in the last couple of years in the major cities (i.e. Yangon and Mandalay). US dollars is widely accepted and it is prudent to keep a supply of US dollars on hand. Credit cards not widely accepted except at the few high-end hotels and restaurants.

Like most other places in South East Asia, food is plentiful with food-sellers lining the streets at all times of the day.

  • There are plenty of cuisine to choose from – e.g. Thailand, Chinese, Korean and Indian.
  • Western restaurants and cafes are also becoming more plentiful.
  • There are lots of tea houses scattered throughout town. These tea houses, a quintessential fixture of Myanmese life, serve tea, coffee and snacks. One of my highlights this week is sitting in a crowded tea house and people-watching.

It is still early days but already I’m starting to feel a sense of familiarity with Myanmar’s rhythm and vibe. I’m getting better at navigating the roads and avoiding the potholes. Crossing the road is still dangerous but feeling less treacherous. I’m learning more Burmese words/phrases and am getting more confident with using them with the locals. It is a lot of fun seeing their surprise and appreciation that I bothered to learn their language.

Yes certainly there are minor inconveniences such as the slow speed of wifi and having to carry lots of cash but I can only imagine that this is already a huge improvement over a few years ago.  At least I can now buy a SIM card and have reasonable access to the internet, very slow speed but enough for Skype to work sometimes and to update this blog!

Most of all, I feel very fortunate to be able to witness the rapid transformation of Myanmar at this juncture.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my first week in Myanmar and will love to hear your feedback.