When I was asked to provide training to my Myanmar colleagues in early July, I agreed without hesitation, as that would give me the opportunity to visit Yangon, which I would never have visited on my own. I had been so busy during that period that I forgot to check on visa requirement, until I was alerted by my Singaporean colleague just days before I was scheduled to fly. Henceforth, it was a mad scramble trying to get the Myanmar office to issue me an official invitation letter, the local HR letter and getting the photo and visa forms ready for submission. Malaysians travelling to Myanmar for business is entitled to apply for visa-on-arrival but I didn’t want to take the chance.
In this post, I will write on some general observations on Yangon and the Burmese people and culture. First trivia fact – do you know that Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar? I didn’t until I did some research in preparation for this trip. Since November 2005, the capital of Myanmar was shifted Naypyidaw but with a population of over 5 million people, Yangon remains the largest city and main economic hub of Myanmar.
First thing I did upon arrival was to change some local currency, the kyat, as none was available at the money changers in Mid Valley or KLIA. Credit cards are rarely accepted but USD can be used at hotels and upmarket restaurants. When bringing or exchanging USD, be sure to take only clean, crisp notes; best if they are new notes. Cashiers really scrutinize the USD notes and will reject those with even the slightest pen stroke and crease marks. This doesn’t apply to kyat notes though.
I also had to rent a local SIM card, as Malaysian SIM cards do not work there. In addition to the SIM card, I also had to buy prepaid credit cards – different cards for local and international calls. I bought the credit for international call, yet it was so difficult to call to mobile numbers back home – either the line can’t get through, or the line dropped half-way.
Burmese is made up of predominantly Bamar people, with a relatively large Indian minority. There’s also a small Chinese minority and ethnic groups such as the Shan and Karen. The trademarks of the Burmese people has got to be their men wearing a sarong-like garment, called the longyi, and their betel nut chewing habit, resulting in friendly smiles reddened by bloody red juice. Women put thanaka, a sun protection cream made from extracts of a tree branch. Monks can be seen anytime of the day wandering the streets in their burgundy robes.
Men in longyi and women with thanaka on their faces
Chewing betelnut is so common that there are stalls like these selling pre-packed, ready-to-chew betelnut leaves
From Wikitravel: “…Yangon is the city where Toyota cars come to live out the rest of their days. Plenty of old white Toyota Corolla taxis ply the streets…Be warned that almost all taxis are in an appaling condition, they're old, dirty and run down. Don't expect aircon or seat belts that work.” And this is so true – however, occasionally I could spot some new Honda/Toyota cars on the street. With the opening up of the country and the expected boom in economy, I’m sure more new cars will be on the roads in the near future.
I went on a field visit with the Myanmar team and had the opportunity to visit the local shops. Shopping in Yangon is pretty much limited to the traditional small grocery shops and few small supermarkets. The only hypermarket in Yangon is the Capital Hypermarket, established in 1998. There’s a newer, more upmarket supermarket with lots of imported goods, called Marketplace by City Mart. Spotted quite a number of expats shopping there during my visit. The latest mall to hit Yangon shores is Junction Square, opened only in March. This is probably the coolest mall in Yangon right now, and it’s only here that I spotted many familiar brands like Bata, Iora, SKII, Ipanema, Giordano, Bonia and Face Shop, among others.
Photo from here
The latest mall in Yangon, Junction Square
Housing in the city
And of course, the most famous produce from Myanmar is its gemstones. Myanmar is well known for its rich mineral deposits that produce some of the world's finest rubies, blue sapphires, imperial jade and many other semi-precious items like peridot, amethyst, garnet, spinel, tourmaline, pearls, etc. I bought these earrings for myself and mum - the ruby and sapphire ones for me and the jade ones for mum.