Perspectives on Myanmar pt1

After many years of isolation, the country that poets have described as being a land of “blood, gold and dreams” is emerging … fast. History, religion and culture run thick through the country and now there is a budding enthusiasm in the people for trade, enterprise and openness. There remain tensions in society although it feels that this is as much about an internal establishment of ‘identity’ than anything directed to outsiders. The work of organisations like the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) supported by a number of former foreign diplomats is encouraging the mood to transparency. It is clearly not easy and there are still a number of attitudes and institutions from the era of military control that are challenging the new regime to make a difference – particularly in some of the more deprived regions.

Sunrise looking out over the temples of Bagan, Myanmar (Christopher Reeves/TravelSnapper : Christopher Reeves Photography)

The selfie arrives:

A key feature that stands out, alongside the 2016 election and political change has been the dramatic reduction in the cost (and access to) getting mobile phone SIM cards (Bloomberg: Myanmar opens it’s mobile market) with a drop from several hundreds of $USD to less than $1, has had a visible transformation to all walks of life. From shopkeepers to the monks, everyone seems to be doing just as any other country and embracing social media and the selfie challenge …and the access that also brings to other media, news, information and ideas.

Development challenge:

Primary industry is looking to progress and the infrastructure, periodic power outages and creaking legacy is starting to be updated. This does give some enormous charm and parts of downtown Yangon are reminiscent of parts of Havana; in a similar way, another country with great natural wealth starting to re-emerge and to work out what path to take …and where to leapfrog others and avoid some of the development pitfalls that others have faced. Gems and mining is a part of the Myanmar history and recently there have been a number of oil & gas finds off-shore with the promise of energy independence for the growing needs of the economy. The teak logging industry seems to have taken it’s toll on the forests and there are a number of programs for replanting, although as this is a slow-growing hardwood, it will be some time for many regions to recover. Drugs and all the associated illegal activity remain a concern for the country and the legacy of “Golden Triangle” remains a battle that the government is having to tackle.

Travelling around:

Tourism and the backpacking route is in full flow from Thailand with some great beaches along the south, through to the incredible temples in Bagan and evocative heartlands of Mandalay and Lake Inle. Even the tougher regions to the North have started to (slowly) let in the independent travellers, but the ability of the government to address the strong drugs cartels and illegal industry that has flourished in teh jungles away from the cities will meant that mainstream tourism is a while away. The ability to travel on a couple of dollars a day remains and across the country there is a reasonable gap between this and the number of good hotels and restaurants. Interestingly the tourism industry is doing well at taking the eco-challenge to heart and, for example, around the Bagan temple region the introduction of electric E-Bikes seems an inspired move (and does help keep the peace as you explore the thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas).

Looking beyond the headlines:

“Mingalaba” as a multipurpose greeting / hello / blessing will be the word most heard by visitors, all challenging some initial expectations of legacy police presence and tensions. Undoubtedly there are some challenges to face in the structures for government and doing business but the country and people seem ready to embrace the opportunity. Well worth a visit to find out more for yourself.

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