Walking around the streets of Yangon can be quite eerie at times. The overall state of the city is in slight disarray from the abandoned crumbling colonial-era buildings, to the minimally paved streets (which is a huge upgrade from the dirt roads it just so recently boasted), to the sidewalks that have more potholes, gaps, and holes then the roads themselves. The city relies on typical Southeast Asia traditions and one being the plethora of street food readily lining streets for you to order, if you can decipher what it is exactly you’re ordering. The streets are crowded with old exported white Toyotas- trucks and cars alike, and traffic is tragic. At first glimpse, Yangon is a mess in itself, but the charm and allure will soon surface.
Whether it’s the deserted toilet bowls surrounding the trees growing out of the pavement you just saw, the washing machines and dryers stacked high on the sidewalk next to you, the ten to twelve children standing in the back of an old Toyota pick-up truck as the parents drive around, or the extremely dilapidated barely functional city buses with locals hanging out of them that seem to have no real route, Yangon can be hard to fathom at first. Or second. And to be honest, it may just take a few days to process Yangon in and all together.
For a great number of years, the country altogether closed its borders to foreigners and made visiting Burma slim to non-existent. The country remained in strict military control, censoring their citizens in every way imaginable from the press, to the media, to the internet. And even though the Internet became readily available to the Burmese people in 2000, most websites including Yahoo were unavailable and censored. The government didn’t allow anything negative to be published about itself, and had to pre-approve all media updates before they were released.
But fast forward to today April 2016, and Myanmar is rapidly changing with a new democratic government. The country itself renamed itself from Burma to Myanmar, built a completely new capital city from the ground up, and renamed the former capital from Rangoon to Yangon. The government began to un-censor many websites previously inaccessible, opened up their borders to tourism, and invoked a feeling of democracy within their people. A new Myanmar is developing, and it has a promising horizon.
Upon reading numerous blog posts online about to what to expect in Myanmar before I actually arrived, most of these inconveniences have already changed, even though some of these blogs were written just last year. For example:
- Myanmar does not have ATMs. This has continued to be proved untrue, as just about everywhere in downtown Yangon has an ATM in one nook or cranny. The main Pagodas themselves- Shwedagon and Sule Pagoda alike even have ATMs located inside of them.
- The roads are unpaved and dirt. In the city of Yangon itself, the roads are all paved as far as I’ve seen. Something that may have been true just a little while ago, shows a major improvement in the city’s development, and you no longer have to hold on to the handlebars in the taxi as the driver tries or doesn’t try to dodge the holes in the road.
- The locals don’t have cellphones. While many still don’t and phone books are still a common practice in hotels, more and more locals are buying into the cell phone culture. Two major cell phone brands have popped up, and even offer data packages (take that for what it’s worth), to their customers. You can also purchase a local SIM card here for about $1 USD.
- There is a lack of western establishments. But the question I have for this one, is isn’t that what you came to Myanmar for; to experience a country that is unique and holds on to their own cultures and traditions? However recently a KFC has opened up in the city center, which definitely shows signs of expansion and development.
While the city itself has made an extreme amount of improvements from what I’ve read online, there are still many more that could be made. For example, the wifi here is dismally slow, painful at best. Perhaps the absence of the Internet here is a leading factor in slow development of the city, and the ability to hold on to their cultural norms, values, and traditions. Additionally, the city itself is very dark and it is hard to navigate the sidewalks at night with all the holes, crevices, and gaps in them. The city seems to be lacking an abundance of streetlights, which could do them some help. It seems that the lights they have are few and sporadic in between, making for an extremely dimly lit city. And lastly, the city is extremely dirty. From the household trash lining the streets, to the litter just abundantly roaming, it could use a sanitation department to help it get cleaned up.
All and all, my experiences in Myanmar have been un-paralleled. It’s amazing to believe a city could develop and improve so fast. If you really want a taste of Southeast Asia, I would recommend adding Myanmar to list of your places to travel to next. But I wouldn’t delay, as Yangon moves towards a more international city, more and more tourists will start to realize the beauty in it and start to visit. As for my week here in Myanmar, I basically had the country to myself to play in. With a seldom tourist here and there, I really got to experience the rich culture of Myanmar, and see a country that not up until all the long ago, did not even let foreigners in its borders.
Until next time, XOXO.