Is Myanmar Asia’s next expat haven?

IT has been widely reported that Myanmar (aka Burma) is experiencing a tourism boom as the government continues to relax its iron grip on the nation and introduce reforms. In 2011 numbers jumped 30 percent and as a whole numbers have been on the increase since Aung San Suu Kyi dropped her call for tourists to boycott the country.

Changes are now beginning to take place in the country and there is much talk of the range of business opportunities and investment that could open up. It is thought that both this and the other factors attracting travellers — well-preserved colonial cityscapes and a culture unaffected by tourism or mass development — will also bring an influx of expats.

A Buddhist monk sits as a foreign tourist takes pictures of Shwedagon Pagoda, in Yangon. Pic: AP.

From Associated Press:

For now, Myanmar is the sort of time-warped place that adventurous travelers love. It is an Asian Buddhist wonderland with red-robed monks and bicycle rickshaws where British colonial relics line the streets. There are no Starbucks or McDonald’s or name-brand Western hotels, but some of that will soon change.

So what would it be like to be an expat in Myanmar and will Myanmar become Asia’s next expat haven?

To answer this burning question, I’ve used comments sourced from blogs and other reports because, while I am a repeat visitor to Myanmar, I have not lived in the country. Let’s take a look.

Thorntree, Lonely Planet:

From Nikom:

I would say GO! But:
1. Many expatriates complain about the heat so you have to consider this and how your body handles the weather.
2. Nothing works/happens in Myanmar as it does anywhere else in the world. Those who know about this in Thailand will understand but Myanmar gets the prize for this. You have to rethink how to get something done and how to think about different situations.
3. If you go with an open mind and with the goal of learning as much about the country and culture as you can you will be well on your way!
4. If you need a break the airfares to Bangkok are good!

From Purple G:

I lived and worked in the Goon for 2 years 2003 – 05, and regularly go back. It was one of the best places to live and work, and one of the hardest. Ex-pat life is very different to the locals’ – you can live well there.

Things have changed recently for the worse as it has been reclassified from E to F by the ECA classification. Power cuts even more common, massive inflation etc etc.

I have friends who have lived there for 10+ years, and will probably never leave. I would definitely say take any opportunity to live and work there.

Thai Visa Forum (new Myanmar section):

From dagling:

What do you think about Myanmar?

Personally, I think Myanmar will be an open country where it wants progress and development.

When, not if, the big change comes with Suu Kyi’s seizure of power.

Large heavy international companies, as well as strong economic countries worldwide have started to invest in Myanmar.

This is just the beginning that Myanmar will eventually develop into economic prosperity, and also looks to me that Myanmar will become a major tourist country.

I predict that Thailand will lose many tourists and locals alike if Myanmar allows for a more open society and better conditions for resident foreigners, it is rumored that one can buy and own their own land and houses.

Tourists will certainly find the Mergui Archipelago comp rises over 800 beautiful islands. http://www.mergui.org/

I have great faith in Myanmar, and has already made ​​some very small investment, will come back to this later.

Myanmar, the future tourist destination in Asia.

A Buddhist novice walks past posters of Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic: AP.

From Sing_Sling:

We have some business with the rubber industry in the southern regions – it is still all corruption, nepotism, poverty, filth and impassable roads during the rainy season.

Myanmar won’t be ‘open’ as we know it for a long while and – despite most people’s prognoses on this thread – won’t be a Chinese vassal state. There have been some excellent articles lately outlining China’s worry that its allies are falling by the wayside and falling into the US’ hands.

From Aristide:

Many people I know have been to Myanmar and from what they said, the infrastructure is pretty much not ready yet and certainly not good to bring up family. I suggest you take the trip around SEA I personally think Vietnam rocks!

From Berkshire:

Have to agree. Suggesting that Myanmar will surpass Thailand is like saying Mexico will surpass America. Yeah, right. Maybe in a couple of centuries. Burmese migrants are still flooding Thailand looking for work. Will never be the other way around in our lifetimes.

Turning to actual printed accounts of people who have lived in Myanmar for extended periods, there are but a few offerings. However with changes happening so rapidly, many of these are now a little outdated even though some were written just a few years ago.

One of the best is The Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle, that has little vignettes about life in Myanmar that are told through compelling cartoons.

Pic: Amazon.com

Each chapter explains a single experience such as finding articles snipped out of magazines by government censors, not being able to walk past Suu Kyi’s house with his child in a stroller, an experience in a monastery and so on.

Delisle on Buddhism:

“Merits can be obtained in any number of ways: by making temple offerings, helping to maintain a pagoda or, better yet, building one. As did Win, the first in a long line of generals who have ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962. After spending one whole lifetime oppressing a nation, he wanted to avoid coming back as a rat or a frog in the next.”

Delisle on censorship:

“The propaganda is laid on so thick that you wonder whether a single person in the entire country believes it.”

Do note that now there is far less censorship of the snipped-out-article type, or online, and you can walk past Suu Kyi’s house.

Then there’s the Australian journalist Peter Olszewski’s Land of a Thousand Eyes, about his time spent training journalists at The Myanmar Times. Again told through his own experiences, it reveals much about life in Myanmar. Here’s an excerpt:

The moonlight is flooding into my bedroom and, as I lie there, mentally noting that I must track down Janette for a chat sooner rather than later, I contemplate the plant I bought a few days ago in the nearby Bogyoke market, which now takes pride of place on my window sill. It’s an intriguing plant with soft,luscious green leaves hiding vicious one-inch-long thorns, similar to large geranium flowers, have thick, waxed,fruit-like, pulpy petals which, unlike most Western plants, don’t close at night but instead broaden out and come alive, almost visibly pulsating with energy or perhaps even fructifying in the moon’s soft serene light. A Myanmar woman giggled when she saw the plant. ‘Very good plant, Ko Ko Chit,’ she said softly, sweetly. ‘Very good. It is our famous Kiss Me Softly plant.’ I love the Myanmar naming process. It is so lyrical, yet so unerringly literal. And I love my Kiss Me Softly plant because to me it’s a living analogy of life in Yangon. Kiss softly at first. The surface can be sensuous, sweet and luscious, but under the surface lurks vicious, needle-sharp danger.

So to answer the original question, if I have at all, it seems yes it’s a great time to go but you will be hot, your electricity might be patchy, you could or will encounter corruption and you may meet some shady characters – not much different to some other countries, some might say.

Whether there’s a mass influx of tourists and expats or not, there are some things that seem certain; there should be conservation methods put in place to preserve the colonial centre of towns like Yangon (crumbling though they are), and an attempt to avoid both the mass tourism inherent in other Asian countries that has created a backpacker and sex tourism market and the unsavoury elements of an excessive expat population. Hopefully Burma will learn from the example of others.

This comment from travel agency owner Su Su Tin in the Associated Press seems spot on: “Although we’re way behind, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We want to handle Myanmar with care. It’s like a fragile thing.”