I took one of the most memorable trips in my life at the end of 2012. The highlights: Bangkok, Yangon, Macchu Picchu, and New York for the 2013 new year.
I took that trip partially as a response to Myanmar just opening up, and after the trip I wondered just how much Myanmar would change the next time I’d visit, whenever that’d be.
My memories from my last visit are really just impressions that I remember from before now. Honestly it’s boiled down to a few points:
- Massively more developed than before… as expected (I literally came as soon as I could after the country opened up to see it it as “pristine” state as possible). More buildings. taller buildings. There’re now KFCs and McD. Big hotels and malls. The last time I was here, there were barely any buildings taller than a handful of floors.
- A lot more traffic. I don’t recall any congestion last time. Now, an ostensibly 40 minute drive from downtown Yangon to the airport can take 2 hours!
Ironically, I think the driving quality has actually improved? People are more likely to follow lanes (even despite the craziness still) than I remember.
- Air quality has definitely worsened significantly. I’d like to back this up with data… But I just don’t remember smelling smoke all the time and sunrises/sunsets being so hazy.
- Massive modernization and connectivity. 5 years ago, a SIM card cost 2000USD. Now it costs 1. The most vivid memory I had from my 2012 visit were the old ladies along the streets sitting next to phones connected to overhead phone lines. These manned payphones were how locals connected to the outside world. Now, it seems like everyone (in urban centers) has a phone. (And worse yet, they’re all only using Facebook!)
Another vivid memory is of Yangon’s airport. 7 years ago, the international terminal had 2 gates (from my recollection). I remember being so surprised I exclaimed that it must be the smallest international airport in the world! Now, a shiny new airport building stands next to the old one (now in the process of being demolished, I think).
Getting around has also become ridiculously easy for foreigners, as a result of Grab (SE Asia’s Uber). 7 years ago, I remember traveling primary on foot, and navigating with maps and signs.
- More trash. I don’t remember Yangon being so full of trash before, and the worst kinds of trash too, like plastics and styrofoam, being thrown into beaches and mountaintops.
- More English. Yes, there was enough English to get by in 2012, and the level of English among locals varies a lot now. But there’s definitely a lot more now.
- The existence of scammers. In 2012, the common wisdom was that, because Myanmar was so new to foreign tourists, professional scammers would be few and far in-between. There still aren’t many, that I’m aware of. But I did have an encounter with a scammer at Sule Pagoda.
- Still lots of delipidated/deteriorating buildings. Not uncommon across Asia though.
- Lots of street vendors and “poverty”. Also, not too different across SE Asia either.
- The same beautiful Burmese culture, unique to Myanmar.
People often compare Myanmar with Thailand, Yangon with Bangkok. While 7 years ago, I think Yangon was some 20-30 years behind. Today, I think they’re more like 10-15 years behind. That said, I’m not sure if “more hotels”, “more tourist” infrastructure is the best way to compare “progress”. I have no idea how political, education, public health, energy, healthcare, etc systems have changed or not changed.
What I do know has changed is their pace of life and connection to the outside world. I was told on two occasions to “slow down”, once by my group’s driver to Mandalay, and once by an airport employee. Why rush? Why do everything now? But the growth-obsessed Western idea of development — faster, bigger, fancier — is here to stay in Myanmar.
08 January 2020, 8:17am. Taipei, Taiwan.