For the better part of a year, I have been trying to find some free time to go and visit Myanmar. My good friend Chris Mayer seems to have beat me to it and in the first of what I hope will be many entries (keep writing Chris!!) posted some initial thoughts on his Capital & Crisis website.
“The heat rolled from the earth like the breath of an oven. The flowers, oppressive to the eyes, blazed with not a petal stirring, in a debauch of sun. The glare sent a weariness through one’s bones… The evil time of day was beginning, the time, as the Burmese say, ‘when feet are silent.'” — George Orwell, Burmese Days
Dear Capital & Crisis Reader,
I read Orwell’s Burmese Days on the plane ride over here. The heat is almost its own character in the novel. Orwell’s vocabulary gets a workout describing its oppressiveness.
He knows of what he writes. Orwell was a colonial policeman for a time in British Burma. In my first day in Burma (now Myanmar), I learned to respect the sun. For example, I was going to walk to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in the morning. But a friend told me I was crazy. “Remember you have to take off your shoes and walk barefoot,” she said. “It can get uncomfortable in the heat. Go in the evening and see the sunset and the lights afterward. Or go at 5 a.m. and see the sunrise.”
I went to see the sunset. In that 15-minute walk, a mere stroll, I was sweating through my shirt as if I had run 3 miles. It was still so incredibly humid, I can barely describe it. But the visit was well worth it. The towering golden stupa dominates the city. As the sun sets, the colors change around it. The mix of color and light, and the surrounding scene of worshippers and tourists from all over Asia, as well as the hundreds of smaller stupas at its base, make for a photographer’s dream.
Earlier in the day, sweating through rattling taxi rides without air conditioning, I met with the country’s largest private oil tycoon and its largest property development company. After a few days in Yangon, I visited Mandalay, Bagan and Ngapali. I’ll more on the investment scene here in a future letter. For now, some impressions on the city that was once Rangoon.
I took a taxi to downtown Yangon, near the river. I wanted to walk around the old part of the city, famous for its crumbling colonial architecture. In the 50 years of military rule, there has been practically no development here at all. It is a city trapped in time, a kind of Havana of the East.
Motorcycles are banned in Yangon, which gives the city a very different feel than other Asian cities, where seas of motorcycles clog the streets.
I couldn’t walk too far without working up a good sweat. So I tucked into a bookstall on the street and picked up a copy of Sir James George Scott’s Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information. It was a reprint of the 1921 edition by a small Bangkok press. Scott was one of those rugged Victorian adventurers of the British Empire — tireless, brave, resourceful. He was a journalist who traveled throughout Burma. Scott learned to speak Burmese and donned native dress. His books are still read today, as he was meticulous in his research and descriptions of Burma, its people and cultures. Scott also introduced football (or soccer) to the Burmese, which today remains a national favorite.
I would enjoy dipping into Scott’s book as I traveled through Myanmar, reading his take on places and people. (He also gives sound advice: “The sun should be treated with constant respect and covered head.”) Scott spends considerable space on the commercial activities of the Burmese. There are headings for ruby mining, boring for oil, the extraction of jade, tea plantations, opium growing, teak exports, rice cultivation, finance and more.
The population of Rangoon in 1921 was about 340,000 and it was a busy port thanks to access to the sea as well as 900 miles of navigable river to the north. Today, Yangon has a population of 4 million and remains a busy port.
I also wanted to visit the Strand Hotel, the famous old colonial haunt where Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling stayed and drank. I stopped in for a drink at the bar, to cool down after walking around hot Yangon and to soak up the atmosphere of the grand hotel.
I have to say, my first impressions of Yangon were not what I expected. After 50 years of military rule, I was expecting worse. (This is not to excuse the many crimes of the thuggish generals and their cronies. It, instead, is a tribute to the resourcefulness of the people.) The Burmese are poor, no doubt. But it is not a desperate poverty. Yangon gives at least the surface appearance of normality. I saw plenty of seemingly prosperous little shops. I was not approached by any beggars, as one is when in India.
The place has its charms. There are no McDonald’s or Wal-Marts — thankfully. I met an expat that moved here recently after a stint in Saigon. She told me that it was the little things you miss. There isn’t a good coffee shop in Yangon, she said, and finding a good cup of coffee is difficult. There isn’t the night life you find in a typical big city. The number of good restaurants is relatively small.
But all this will change pretty soon. That’s the opportunity, of course. There is already a pressing need for hotels, which are expensive and not so readily available at the upper end. There is already a shortage of apartments, too. As business opens up, as the investment dollars flow in and as the cranes go up, the old Yangon will change forever.
I was glad to get an early look.