The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, her later by-election success, visits by Hilary Clinton and David Cameron, the Lady’s overseas trip and more recently President Obama’s show-stopping** appearance in Yangon have signalled clearly that Myanmar is no longer off limits, not that it ever was if you really wanted to come.
Tourists, whilst not yet flooding in, are here in greater numbers than ever before. Next door Thailand had almost 16 million visitors in 2010, over 19 million in 2011. Myanmar will see fewer than one million this year but that’s up a lot on the couple of hundred thousand that came just a few years ago. Myanmar’s London embassy is processing two hundred visas a day. Last year it was twenty.
In Yangon there are some 8000 hotel rooms licensed for foreigners but more tourists are looking for a place to sleep. In Bagan and at Inle Lake, the prime sight-seeing spots, it’s a similar story and booking well ahead is the game of the day, even for budget travellers.
Prices are up. I used to stay in a downtown Yangon hotel for $15 a day. That place now charges $45 for the same room and I’ve found a new place to stay.
New places are coming on-stream only slowly and while that’s the case hoteliers who struggled through the barren years following the monk protests of 2007 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 are making hay while the sun shines. And the sun shines every day (though winter-fog is blamed for this week’s Bagan Air plane crash in Heho).
Ex-pats, many of them language teachers, are reporting hard times finding a decent place to live. If you want running hot water it’s going to be $1000 a month. Up market residences out of the city centre with pools and gyms could always be expensive but what was $2000 can now be as much, or more, than $4000. A month.
For many the company is paying. Western taxpayers and charity donors funding embassy and NGO staff, and the International Schools their kids go to, are also paying. Crazy prices.
Yangon is now one of the more expensive cities in Asia to be paying for a western standard lifestyle.
Business is booming. Or at least starting to boom. One Singapore based company active in real estate development traded at 7 cents a share last January. Now with long-standing, long dormant, deals and contracts coming alive they are trading at 70 cents. Along with the sight of so many hard-hatted (if still flip-flopped) construction workers at roadside cafes, that’s as good a measure of the change happening here as the arrival of a smart new, temperature controlled store selling good quality wines from right across the world.
But the single most noticeable change in Yangon (I’ve not been up to Mandalay in my first four weeks here, hopefully next month) is the number of new cars streaming from the docks onto the streets and into the new-phenomenon traffic jams that have turned the thirty-minute ride to the airport into an hour’s journey at the worst of times. These new cars (right hand drive as ever despite driving on the right) are obvious for there newness but also for their still having the auction lot numbers written on the windscreens; a status symbol of sorts?
Ten years ago there was barely a motorcycle in sight. Now wherever you go (except central Yangon where, along with bicycles, they remain banned) they are ubiquitous; I met one guy in small-town Hpa An (of which more later) who is selling seven a day.
Is there a trickle down effect from all this new money flowing through the economy of a country always rich in natural resources and sitting neatly at the crossroads between China, India and Thailand?
Tour guides of course benefit quickly from the tourist boom (come soon, it’s changing fast) and my friends in that business are upping their day rates and picking up some hefty commissions from the shops the tour buses call at. I first got a hint of the change when emails from a friend I helped with his $25 a month rent a couple of years back said ‘sent from my iPad’.
Inflation never helps those at the bottom of the pile getting by on a few dollars a day which is how most people still live and will do for some time to come. Through troubled times Myanmar’s people have looked out for each other. Despite lots of very real poverty very few go without something to eat, somewhere to sleep. How this communitarian spirit survives an increasing economic polarisation of society will be as key a test of Myanmar’s future potential as how long-standing political, religious and tribal divisions, long held together by fear and force, stand the test of new times.
On a scale of one to ten friends say Myanmar has changed something between one and two, much less than the impression the presidential and prime ministerial cavalcade may give. But the most significant change they acknowledge as real, that I sense tangibly on this my eighth visit to this fantastic country, and that they describe as felt at all levels of society is that the fear is gone. People have real hope now. They have room for optimism.
I think I can see it in the way people carry themselves in the street, the way they engage with each other in the tea shops. Of course they worry about sliding back towards the bad old days, that the military-powers behind the civilian-scenes may become frightened by change running away at a pace they cannot control. I think probably not, not with so much money to be made.
Ashin, my monk friend of ten years, has a whiteboard that he uses for teaching in his room.
Two words are never erased.
*Ten years ago Westlife posters were on sale on Yangon street markets. They’re gone, replaced by One Direction (those boys get everywhere).
** Obama’s visit was big. But if Manchester United were to turn out here that would really be something.