Myanmar – the Golden Land – has been on my must-visit list since the ‘70s when friends posted to the then Burma returned with rapturous reports of delightful people and a rich, captivating culture. The loosening in recent years of the generals’ political grip, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and my new-found freedom from the shackles of work combined to create opportunity and impetus to tour this past month.
It’s fascinating to witness the early stages of a country, locked away for so many decades, emerging blinking into the 21st century. A bit like watching the protagonist Daniel Holden in the current SBS series Rectify reacquaint himself with the modern world after almost 20 years in prison. You get the picture before even arriving at Yangon’s Mingladon Airport. Descending over the dark countryside you’re aware of the paucity of development, especially after the incandescent high-rise intensity of Singapore.
But there’s a genuine charm in experiencing a pre-high-rise city. For the new arrival Yangon’s darkened, low-rise cityscape affords the perfect view of the glittering, illuminated golden spire of the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda which dominates the horizon. Obviously the city’s citizens, to whom the pagoda is precious, appreciate its uninterrupted dominance because when developers wanted to build a high-rise nearby there was a great outcry and the project was abandoned.
The so-far undeveloped charm of Yangon allows the city to have a lush, green air with an abundance of trees, parks and water. Markets laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, and an profusion of locally made produce and merchandise, still abound. So much more interesting than supermarkets and department stores. But city blocks are being razed and it’s obvious the developers are moving in.
Development will obviously bring advantages such as a 21st century internet, and telephone and banking systems. Before visiting we were advised that ATMs did not exist. Yet already that advice is becoming out of date as machines pop up around the country, particularly in tourist hot spots. Credit card use is also virtually impossible but once the internet improves that should be rectified. Then the Burmese will be able to enjoy trying to keep the credit card debt in check just like the rest of us!