I came to Burma for the first time two years ago. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest two years before that, and the country was opening up to tourism. We did the typical tourist route - Yangon (which I still think of as Rangoon), Kyaiktiyo (famed for its pagoda of the Golden Rock), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. We were traveling with a Taiwanese tour group (there are direct flights between Taipei and Yangon); the few Western tourists we saw were German or French. No Americans. There was no internet, credit cards were not accepted anywhere, and no foreign cell phones could be used. All the domestic airports were the sort that had one large waiting room with rows of seats, and two “gates” that were simply doors onto the tarmac through which passengers surged in a wave and walked towards the plane. However, they had progressed to the point of $200-a-night hotels and $320 sunrise/sunset balloon rides (the latter at Bagan). We were reminded of Siem Reap, in 2000, before everything changed.
Two years ago, Yangon, like Mandalay (the next largest city), had an air of dusty neglect. The newer hotels, mostly Singaporean-run, were large and modern and totally impersonal. The older hotels (like the one we stayed in at Kyaiktiyo) reminded me of Moscow in the early 90s, or Shanghai in the 80s, before the economic boom. And two years later, we were back in Yangon. The airports were still the same. Most of the city still seemed dusty and neglected, but everywhere we looked there were signs of new money - stuccoed villas, shiny office buildings and condominiums, more luxurious hotels, more Americans (though still, tourists seemed to be predominately German or French). We stayed at the gleaming new Trader’s (part of the Singaporean Shangri-La hotel group); our guide blithely told us over lunch at Monsoon (clientele: mostly foreign) that there had been a bombing on the 9th floor of our hotel three months ago. No one was injured. The bombers were protesting the progress of a newly open society.
For investors coming from the outside - China, Taiwan, Japan, all the wealthier Asian countries, or those from the West - the streets are paved with gold. Burma is a small country, but rich in natural resources - oil, minerals, bamboos, gemstones, the mining of which all basically ended under the military rule of the last sixty years. Rangoon is fast becoming a boomtown, which is great for foreign investors, but perhaps not so much for the people of Burma, which I find slightly terrifying. The word ‘infrastructure’ was not really part of my vocabulary, until I saw a country that has none. What happens next, I cannot predict with any measure of certainty. But the people I have met have been open, friendly, calm, laid-back in a way I haven’t ever experienced anywhere else. Until this changes, I will keep coming back.
We had just one day in Rangoon on this trip, and I had missed the morning because of a sudden, terrible cold. But after lunch our guide took me to the “Private Market,” which was cool and dark and filled with the scents of fish paste and spices, where sellers hawked vegetables and fruits and meat and fish and teas and all sorts of things. Quite suddenly, I recognized the temple we’d visited two years earlier, and the shopping arcade with its white-painted wrought-iron trim. It was a strange feeling, this familiarity, even amongst all the other changes since my first visit. Just before sunset, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the highest point in the city, with its gilded stupas and streams of worshippers and tourists. As night fell, they lit candles and oil lamps that snaked around the base of the central pagoda, and it looked like a river of fire. People knelt in prayer, as they have for thousands of years. May it continue for thousands more.