The Times They are a’Changing

25.02.2011 The Times They are a’Changing
It seems we’ve landed in Myanmar at a time of great change. Despite only being here for two months now there is a palpable sense of the country ‘opening up’. I’ve just read a 2-week old local newspaper which tells me that Myanmar was voted Top Emerging Destination by Wanderlust magazine (Iran came second) and naturally the Tourism Minister is delighted.
Before we came I read online that last year Myanmar attracted 330 000 visitors. Not a great deal, probably the same amount of people that wash through the doors of the Natural History Museum in London on any given day I should think. But certainly there are a lot of hotels and restaurants to choose from and I’m told, by a totally unreliable source, that bookings are well up on last year.
We’ve noticed too a great deal of change in the property market. Not just that our own rent has gone up by almost $200 a month, but househunting is evidently a lottery with plenty of people looking for a very few available houses. The largest house in our compound jumped from $1200 a month to over $2000 in one fell swoop and this is not uncommon. There also seems to be an awful lot of building work going on, partly because of the government’s decision to sell off lots of land and properties as they moved the capital to Nya Pyi Daw (pron: nay-pee-door) about 5 years ago.
Similarly traffic has reached horrible proportions over the last 2 years (we are told by those that have been here that long and longer) and the amount of spanking new cars on the road is a real surprise in a country with crippling import duties, not to mention petrol rationing.
In fact I’m astonished by the amount of wealth around in Yangon. My eyes were out on stalks when I saw a lady with an iPhone – here where connection is a joke! – but this is common, as is seeing young people with iPads and all manner of iThings in their hands. We passed the son of the General’s house yesterday and he has a vast array of fancy cars, from Bentleys to Maseratis and even a Ferrari. God only knows where he drives them, not on these lumpy old roads that’s for sure! Though apparently in the capital (where Pete is today so I’m hoping for an eye witness report when he returns) there are 6 lane highways. Presumably so that the government bods can get out of there and home to their families left back in Yangon; no-one stays in Nay Pyi Taw (pron. Nay-Pee-Door) unless they have to.
To be fair, Myanmar restricted travel for its citizens for so long that any wealth that was made here stayed here. And I guess if you can’t spend money on travelling you buy what you can instead.
Communications are definitely opening up too. Only 3 months ago a mobile phone would have set you back $1 500 but now you can get one, with a permanent number, for only $500. Although foreigners are not supposed to have phones (allegedly, this is a country of rumours and it’s always hard to tell what is true, what is government law and what is expat gossip) you can get a cheapo phone for $50 with a 2 month sim card for $50 which is the preferred option as we all wait to see what happens with the price of the ‘permanent’ phones. 3G is also on its way at the insistence of the Chinese and Koreans who are of course doing wonderful business here while the rest of the world impose decades-old sanctions on an already beleaguered country. No comment from me as I have no idea of the ins and outs and achievements or relative success of such tactics. But the Chinese ain’t backwards in coming forwards and are doing very nicely thank you.
Internet, once so restricted, is more openly available, with many internet cafes advertising google, yahoo and facebook access. Everyone uses proxy servers and software like Your Freedom with impunity and many of the big hotels have satellite connections that are not restricted at all. The same with TV; often routed through Thailand you can watch pretty much anything including BBC World News and a swathe of rubbishy daytime programmes from the E! and Diva channels. The BBC World Service is also available via the TV and it’s easy to tune into the Voice of America or Voice of Australia on our little radio.
Travel remains a pain in the arse for many NGO’s who have to operate within certain parameters restricting the amount of travel per person and of course geographical areas. That said, there are many more NGO’s and international staff than before (52 NGO’s at the last count). Tourists are however free to roam around specific tourist areas such as Mandalay, Bagan and Ngapali Beach (pron: Napoli Beach, allegedly inhabited by an Italian some time ago). Astonishingly Myanmar has something like 4 airlines (Air Bagan, Yangon Air, Myanma Airways, Air Mandalay) which seems a bit much for a country that allegedly restricts travel for its residents, though again, what is fact and what is fiction is hard to say as I have met many Myanmar people with family living and working abroad and coming and going whenever they want. There’s even lots of advertising for the new online tourist visa though if this works, no-one has been able to say.
It’s a bit of a topsy turvy world this and we watch with interest to see what will happen over the next couple of years.

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