Yangon: Comparing the old and new

FIVE years ago in Yangon you would have been hard pressed to find a block of cheddar cheese, an ATM, an English newspaper or any western brand. Today glittering sky scrapers, malls, art galleries and supermarket chains are as much a feature of the new country as the old.

Recently we featured some of the country’s more ancient attractions (Touching the Ancient Past in Myanmar). In this article we draw attention to five modern counterparts that are springing up in the new Myanmar (Burma) offering an alternative to traditional or older options. While some may argue that not all the development is positive it is true that the face and makeup of the cities in the country are being transformed.

Yangon’s markets a real highlight on any trip to Myanmar. Pic: Jo Lane/Visited Planet.

Markets vs malls

Every city and town in Myanmar has its local markets. Indeed every neighbourhood has a streetside area where flowers, dry goods, clothes, vegetables and other food items are sold from the dusty streets. In Yangon the sprawling Theingyi Zei market gives a real taste of the quintessential madness and chaos of a Burmese market, while the Bogyoke Market has always been considered the more manicured tourist option with handicrafts and souvenirs.

But both are still a world away from some of the feature shopping districts that are starting to appear in Yangon, particularly in some of the districts just north of downtown such as Junction Square or Hledan. Here you’ll be amazed at the glittery array of modern, air conditioned shops available full of western brands and high prices.

One of the many new malls in Yangon. Pic: Jo Lane/ Visited Planet.

Supermarket chains are also becoming a feature of Yangon. City Mart is just one of the main city supermarkets with branches across the city including Gyo Phu Street, Anawrahta Road, cnr Mahabandoola Road and Pongyi Street and Insein Road (Tamine) where you can pick up tuna, mayonnaise, Ovaltine, Nutella, sliced bread, cheese, yoghurt and more.

Street food vs fast food
The street food of all Myanmar cities has long been one of its gems and a fantastic opportunity for tourists to try local foods – bowls of noodles still go for as little as 300 Kyat (US$0.30), rice and chicken for 1,200 Kyat, Chinese tea for 200 Kyat and so on. For many years these streetside stalls or basic tea and coffee houses were the only options for budget tourists, while those with a bit more to spend would head to the Strand Hotel or the Rangoon Tea Shop. While there are still no major international chains operating in Myanmar (rumours of KFC approaching have begun to gather) BBQ has appeared, a kind of Nandoo’s Chicken style chain and there are also donut stores like J’ Donuts in Yangon, perhaps before Dunkin’ Donuts or Wendys finally appears, and other fast food burger joints like Lotteria and New Burger.

While teashops abound more upmarket cafes for the hip and happenng are appearing. In Yangon these include Cafe Genius opposite Bogyoke Market, Bar Boon (Bogyoke Aung San Road) and Parisian Cake and Coffee (Sule Pagoda Road).

Traffic vs transport
English expat Melody, 39, an education consultant who has lived in the city since 2005, told me about how she once found herself clawing her way back through a taxi door after it flew open when she leaned on it. This experience was several years back when the condition of vehicles on the road was decidedly poor. In the new Myanmar she’s happy to say the quality of vehicles has vastly improved and the situation has not been repeated.

Trishaws are still a common sight in Yangon. Pic: Jo Lane/Visited Planet.

Indeed most taxis are now air conditioned, and some buses are as well. Andrew Rogers, working on sustainable development through MyKids Australia and Myanmar Vision, noted a Ferrari on the road during recent travels near the Yangon airport and said increased freedoms have also generated wealth which people are now using to buy vehicles. He said the condition of the roads have also largely improved – a new highway between Mandalay and Yangon has particularly reduced travel time significantly in recent years – “but you still need to four ways when crossing a one way street because you do not know if bikes, trishaws, buses or taxis are coming or what side of the road they might be”.

While these change are perhaps inevitable local tour guide Saw Hla Moe bemoans the number of vehicles on the road now and the old reliable buses and cars resigned to the scrap heap in favour of more modern looking cars.

The amount of traffic has increased so rapidly that a lot of Yangon is often gridlocked or so slow, additional time must always be factored in to getting anywhere. Indeed Melody often uses the local suburban train – a meandering, rattling option once disregarded for its slowness – because it now actually beats the buses into downtown and is a far more relaxed experience.

One of the more modern transportation options in Yangon. Pic: Jo Lane/Visited Planet.

Staff from Myanmar Deitta also moved their gallery downtown from Inya Lake this year, when they discovered their usual clientele could no longer justify the long commute across the city to see their photographic exhibitions.

Shared taxis and vans are also becoming a feature both in Yangon on some routes and between cities – Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw for example is one route. While you pay a little more for these than a bus you can still usually get off where you like along the route and they are far more convenient and air conditioned.

Gardens and public spaces
There has been a concerted effort to improve Yangon’s public spaces and create lungs for the city as in other big Asian cities such as Seoul and Kuala Lumpur. The Mahabandoola garden by Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon is now renovated and complete with well clipped and lush lawns, fountains and clean sitting areas. Entry here is free, while payment is expected at the recently completed The People’s Park by Shwedagon Pagoda. Other public projects are also underway.

Commercial developments vs old buildings
Talk to most expats and they will express a desire to conserve, renovate or salvage Yangon’s old colonial buildings. However while they are certainly charming with an age-old, worn, romantic look, the reality is that a lot of money is required for their upkeep. And while some and are being salvaged, many of Yangon’s old teak houses and old districts are being transformed. Myanmar Centre and The Lake Suites are two huge building projects currently underway in Yangon. These feature office towers, residential apartments and hotels.