Not too long ago, obnoxiously loud ringtones and cellphone conversations were the signs of the wealthy and being well-connected in Yangon, Myanmar. In 2009 buying a SIM card in Myanmar would set you back around $2000 USD, and now gigs of data are available for less than $2. Emerging from decades of isolation and a military regime, the country has seen some big changes in a short time. We found Yangon, its former capital and largest city, to be on the cusp of it all.
Tradition and religion still dominate many public and private spaces. Centuries old pagodas are scattered throughout Yangon including the Shwedagon Pagoda renowned for its golden decor and even the Sule Pagoda in the center of a congested roundabout in the heart of the city. The locals are kind and receptive to unfamiliar faces, even as the crowds continue to grow. Many Burmese have not allowed its past global isolation to deter their thirst for knowledge of the outside world. Street-side book shops crowd corners and communicating in English was common.
Colorful buildings have aged with the patina of monsoons and pollution, but there is charm none the less. Murmurs of a touristic boom dot the city in the form of endless construction and "Coming Soon" signs from global hotel brands. Many other buildings like the Strand Hotel or Ministers' Office complex are being restored and preserved, while many neglected neighborhoods of the city sadly need attention. One of the biggest frustrations are the roads which sit in a constant gridlock as the infrastructure cannot keep up with the rising population, construction, and tourism.
Regardless of the growing pains, the city seems optimistic and ready for change. With one foot firmly rooted in its storied past, the bustling city is ready to move on. We are sure the Yangon we saw is not what it was ten years ago, and surely not what it will become in ten more. ◆