A return visit to Myanmar’s principal city reveals a place that has barely changed over the past two decades. Yet below the surface, a growing sense of optimism only adds to the time-warp appeal of one of Southeast Asia’s most underappreciated destinations
I’ve visited Myanmar five times over the past 20 years, and every time I go there, people welcome me to the New Myanmar. No place ever got rebranded as “new” so many times without appearing to change much. For the traveler, no change is a good thing. In Yangon, the nation’s great city, businessmen still wear longyi, the traditional plaid sarong, as they hurry down crowded sidewalks to their appointments, clutching attaché cases. Many women wear thanaka, ghostly patches of pollen-yellow makeup on their faces, as they have done since time out of mind. The garish crimson betel smile, banished as an embarrassing vestige of the past in most tropical Asian cities, is ubiquitous in Yangon.
A visit to the Shwedagon, the vast, soaring gold-plated stupa, fluttering with Buddhist flags on its high hill, still immerses the visitor in a surging sea of the faithful, coming to make offerings and seek di-vine succor. The shopping malls in most big Asian cities now purvey the same global brands as their counterparts in North America and Europe, but Yangon has no luxury malls. You can wander the city all day without seeing a single international brand, apart from a certain soft drink: no designer-initialed clothing, no trendy sneakers, no celebrity-endorsed beauty products for sale. (Even more remarkable, trademark piracy is unknown.) No change is a bad thing, too. The main reason Myanmar has preserved its traditional ways to such an extraordinary degree is that it’s an outcast nation. Since 1999, most Western countries have observed strict sanctions against trade with Myanmar, a policy intended to undermine its authoritarian military government and promote the cause of democracy, epitomized by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A holiday from American fast food and US$2,000 handbags (and the $20 knockoffs thereof) imposes no hardship on most visitors, but the impact of the sanctions goes far beyond consumer culture.
What can be a good thing for the visitor is a terrible economic liability for the country. You never feel trapped in a mob of tourists in Yangon; indeed, you rarely see foreigners there. The government recently reported 295,174 arrivals in 2010, and projected a rise to 350,000 by 2012—still a trickle compared with other major cities in Southeast Asia, some of which have much less to offer the visitor.