The current trend to turn to nature to nourish, nurture and promote well-being, pushes us towards Ayurveda, the science of self-healing that enables a balanced existence in the universe. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian specialized system of natural medicine that helps to relieve diseases of both mind and body, and is even today a highly relevant medical science despite being 5000 years old. As one of the best methods of alternative healing, Ayurveda improves our quality of life even as disillusionment with allopathic and western medicine pushes us towards trying out less painful alternative remedies.
Myanmar is touted as one of the top tourist destinations for 2015, and the year drawing to a close, 2014 has seen 2.7 million tourists already. By the end of December, the number is expected to touch the targeted 3 million. People from overseas, love the quaint beauty of Yangon and Bagan, enjoy the local food as much from upscale restaurants, as the street hawkers, and are awestruck by the magnificence of the pagodas, especially the unmatched beauty of the Shwedagone Pagoda. A day, a week, a month, in this exotic land, is a treat of a different kind, where one sees untouched natural beauty, simple, friendly people, though products and services seemingly belong to an era long forgotten elsewhere.
For as long as I can remember, the mention of furniture and wood used for making it, inevitably included mention of “Burma teak”, with a bit of awe, reverence and a hint of exclusivity. Obviously, at even a tender, young age, I realized Burma teak was a cut above the rest. I had never dreamt that one day, I would be living in the land of Burma teak, see meters’ long logs of superior quality timber moving to borders and ports, to be exported to neighboring countries, see exquisitely carved wooden structures, many of gigantic proportions, and admire the distinctive grain of wood that add character to furniture adorning our homes.
Thankfully, as of 31st march 2014, timber logs can no longer be exported, and only export of value added wood products is permitted. The motive being, to encourage the growth and development of a wood processing industry, which will yield higher revenue, improve tax collections and offer employment opportunities to the locals. This will also prevent drastic climate change and soil degradation. Hence, sawn wood, and finished food products can be exported. This is of course, limited to the legal export segment, the illegal export sector continues and smuggling of the finest quality timber is rampant, almost as much as before. The illegal export segment accounts for 75% of Myanmar’s timber trade and accounts for over $6 billion, as stated by the Environmental Investigation Agency.
It is rather sad, that natural national treasures weave their way into foreign lands, and some of the finest woods like padauk and tamalan, face the threat of being completely logged out in 3-13 years, according to current demand trends, if drastic measures are not taken to protect these top wood varieties. Both padauk and tamalan are no longer available in abundance. Even the grades and girths of teak are seen declining over the years.
Chinese imports of redwood and rosewood continue and most of the Tamalan and Padauk end up in China, making them endangered. Teak is not far behind, and experts are fearful of its supplies dwindling rapidly too. According to Global Witness Research, nearly the entire forest land along the China-Myanmar border has been completely logged out, and Chinese logging companies are moving further inland into Kachin state for sourcing timber, albeit at higher extraction costs.
The import ban imposed six months ago, should help, if government authorities implement it sincerely. Hopefully, the age of exploitation of Myanmar natural resources of wood especially, might just be nearing its end.
Myanmar offers some of the finest timber from natural forests, and the government is mulling over the idea of curtailing timber extraction. Teak plantations are expected to grow and expand in the coming years, unfortunately though, plantation teak is nowhere close to naturally grown teak, in terms of beauty, hardness, and durability.
Myanmar Wood Varieties
Myanmar’s forests covering 70% of the country’s land still, offering wood varieties like, teak, padauk, thinlwin, tamalan and many others. Both hardwoods and softwoods come from natural forests and plantations, the former being way superior to the latter.
- Teak – Over two-thirds of the world’s teak resources lie in Myanmar, which remains the most forested country in the Greater Mekong Sub-Area. Teak is beyond doubt the most preferred wood for indoor furniture and outdoor use due to its inherent strength, while remaining light in weight. It has a naturally high oil content that makes it resistant to pests, does not rot and even holds up against the elements, bending but never breaking. Teak does not splinter and therefore does not need to be sealed. Its grains are distinctly straight, and occasionally interlocked. Teak is golden in color, tending towards brown, and darkens as it ages.
The trees grow nearly straight up to a height of 130 ft, and yield timber of three grades- A, B and C. Teak of A grade quality is representative of mature hardwood, that has been well seasoned besides coming from at least a 20-year old tree, and is of the highest quality, and therefore also the most expensive. A-grade teak shows grains that are closer since this quality comes from the most dense innermost section of the trunk, the color is golden and a hint of oil appears on touch. A harvested tree yields only a quarter of the total wood of A-grade quality and this partially explains its high price.
Grade-B teak is the less mature or immature heartwood forming the outer layer after the mature heartwood, but is enclosed inside the sapwood, that qualifies as C-grade teak. It is easy to differentiate with its less uniform grain, less oil and a duller appearance. This makes it cheaper as well.
Grade-C teak is called sapwood and forms the outer most layer of a harvested tree. It is the part of the tree that is still growing and carries nutrients to the rest of the tree. Its grains are further apart, and lack of a uniform color. It is neither as strong nor as resilient to the elements, and being inferior to the other grades, it is the cheapest type of teak.
The pros and cons of using teak for various purposes help in making the right choice.
- Padauk – This reddish wood is simply exquisite to look and work with. It is one of the more decorative hardwoods and some of the finest padauk is found in Myanmar. The reddish tinge turns into a brown over time. Its highly visible grain is interlocked and its texture quite coarse. Found in Africa, Thailand and Myanmar mainly, its higher density makes it tougher to work with. Of all these Myanmar Padauk is the toughest and heaviest, and comes from the upper mixed and dry forests in the country. It is highly durable, decay resistant and long lasting.
Padauk trees resemble the elms, gaining a height of 120 ft and a girth up to 7 ft. They flourish in tropical climates in both rain forests and dry plains. The reddish tinge changes to maroon when exposed to sunlight. It is ideal for carving and crafting into interesting shapes even while remaining sturdy and durable.
Unfortunately, massive logging and exporting of Padauk has led to a dwindling supply of this premium wood in Myanmar. It is highly sought after in Hong Kong and China, where a considerable proportion is sent illegally. With the new ban on timber, it is hoped that the small amount left in the country can be preserved through restricted logging.
- Tamalan – This is one variety of hardwood that one falls in love with, at first sight. It unique color and exquisite grain pattern is eye-catching, especially when seen in a hand crafted piece of furniture, polished to preserve its natural color and grain design. Belonging to the rosewood family, tamalan is an extremely high value wood variety, highly durable and resistant to the elements and termites. It is easily amenable to carving and ornamentation and its natural color adds to its beauty.
Tamalan grows in colder tropical regions and the Myanmar regions of “Mansi” and “Mankat” in the Sagaing Region, have the forest reserves where tamalan grows.
Tamalan, is nearly disappearing from Myanmar, the country that provides some of the best quality tamalan, due to huge demand from China where it is used for making the high premium, hongmu furniture. Experts believe that it may become extinct in less than three years due to the rate at which it is being logged and illegally exported.
The list of Myanmar wood varieties is long, but these three are by far the best, even as they face the threat of extinction in the next decade or so.
Rents and Yangon’s Real Estate Reality
Myanmar figures high on the list of governments, NGOs and companies, to set up offices and explore opportunities to capture a segment of the nearly 60 million consumers the country has to offer, till recently starved of the latest in products and services. This probably explains the full flights, overcrowded airport and an increasing number of expatriates looking for places to stay, not to mention the locals returning home, often after decades of being overseas.
Even a city like Yangon is not quite ready to provide quality homes and offices to so many people. Latest construction features are not easy to come by, and upscale, modern condominiums can still be counted in single digits. Bungalows are available more easily, but again, very few qualify as modern. It is disappointing to see run down places put up for rent, and owners ask for atrociously high rents. Many house owners, living in their houses, wish to move out and expect prospective tenants to move in to the house, as it is, without their having to spend any money to upgrade, renovate,clean or improve the premises. It is only the very few owned by Myanmar people living overseas that are better to consider renting.
In the last twenty months of being here, we have seen rents sky rocket, and have had to helplessly pay whatever the house owner demands, for an apartment that could be rented at 45% of our present rent in places like Bangkok.
The reasons for this, are not far to seek. There is a clear demand supply imbalance, with expatriates moving in with their families and wanting good homes…to make up for what seems to be missing in the city and country. As Myanmar opened its doors to foreign companies, scores of employees have been brought in, to fill key positions and spearhead the market invasion envisaged, to create a name and place for their products. Senior positions obviously mean that the accommodation provided is of a certain standard.
Till 2012, many expatriates would move in alone, and stay in serviced apartments at Sakura Residence, Golden Hill, Micasa or Marina, Inya Lake Hotel, and more recently, Shangri-la Residence. The Grand Mee Ya Hta in downtown Yangon, next to the Scott Market, was a favored residence for corporates, but it is closed now and likely to be pulled down. The trend has changed visibly with families moving in now, and there is a need for larger apartments that look and feel like home, not a hotel.
Bungalows or stand alone houses appeal to many wanting a taste of living with a garden, double storeyed living areas, and abundance of space. However, here houses pose challenges since there are power failures, which means having power backup that has to be switched on each time-it may not always be easy to find an automatic switch over. Internet connectivity, satellites for television programs, switching on water pumps to ensure continuous water supply indoors, keeping a bug free home, not reacting to lizards and snakes, are some of the challenges which many of us find daunting. Of course, we learn to live and let live, and we scale down our level of expectations of both standards and services.
There are endless stories of expats who rented landed property initially, moved out and shifted to apartments at the first opportunity. A few select condominiums appeal immensely. These include Shwe Hintha, Mindamar, Golden Rose, and a handful more, which offer facilities like gyms, swimming pool, security, and perhaps some English speaking service staff.
Things to remember while renting a property
- Rent for a whole year is to be paid in advance
- It is still an owner’s market and everything depends on his whims and wishes
- Demand for quality residences far outstrips supply
- International standards need to be forgotten
- A few house owners are kind and considerate
- A three-bedroom apartment can cost between $4000-8000 per month.
- Real estate agents play a big role in controlling the rental market and even pushing up rents.
- Multinationals needing scores of apartments are willing to pay any amount to secure good homes for their employees, or else, few may want to stay for long.
Plenty of new construction is visible, and as a friend said, “two years ago I used to see Pagodas all around, now I only see cranes”. People like me are waiting for supply to increase, quality homes to appear, and for us to have the luxury of choice. In another 12-18 months, some apartment building should be ready, and till then, we will have to accept the homes we are living in, and continue to pay sky high rentals.
There was a time when vegetarians had to literally hunt for safe places to get a palatable meat-free meal once they stepped out of their homes. Thankfully now, vegetarian options are available in varying proportions across the globe. Vegetarianism is becomingly increasingly popular for numerous reasons, at least one of which is health. Living in Yangon as a vegetarian, is not really a challenge, but interesting culinary experiences give us reasons to smile, even here.
Myanmar with its wide variety of earthy produce, a phenomenal variety of greens, tofu and lentils, has endless non-meat options. In fact, it is easier to survive in Myanmar with such preferences than other tourist friendly Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Myanmar cuisine has numerous vegetable-rich salads, soups that can easily be kept vegetarian as well as rice and curries that are delicious even without the addition of meats. Yet vegetarianism is not very common among the locals, since dried fish, meats and seafood are added to nearly every preparation to make them tastier, nutritious, and more of a complete one-dish meal. The word to know is “thut-thut-lau” pronounced as “tatalou”, which actually means ‘lifeless’ but implies vegetarian. Interestingly, eggs are not considered to be non-vegetarian.
The ever increasing class of vegetarians can be attributed to the greater awareness about cruelty meted to animals, and also those who avoid meats for religious beliefs. Buddhism does not impose food restrictions but Hinduism does. Many Hindus are pure vegetarians and many are selectively vegetarian on specific days of the week and at certain times in the year. Myanmar has thousands of Indians residing for generations and though many have adapted to local tastes, an equal number have opted to stick to their vegetarian food habits.
Still, as vegetarians, we end up with interesting experiences that become amusing narratives later, the dismay and anger long forgotten. These are almost universal, and anyone with specific food preferences would have been through similar experiences in any country, be it Canada, Philippines, Argentina or any other.
A few years ago, I would have been appalled at the prospect of finding a dubious chunk of something chewy, halfway through my soup. Today, I just put away my plate, take a deep breath, and not think of what has already gone in. It is no longer shocking to ask for fried rice ‘thut-thut-lau’ and find pink, curled pieces of shrimp stirred in. For many, being vegetarian simply means not eating pieces of meat, so soup, made of meat stock is fine as long as no pieces are visible. Adding fish sauce and shrimp paste to add flavor are also considered acceptable, much to the horror of those who would rather starve. Some people are highly sensitive to odors and smells and can make out if a ladle of a meaty preparation has touched their food. I am grateful that I am not one of them, or else eating out would have been impossible. Yet I find it difficult to share a table where steamed whole fish is ordered, since I am convinced the fish is looking imploringly at me, to save it…now I try to switch seats so that I face the tail and not the eyes!
The variety on offer in Yangon is much more than other places in Myanmar, which have lesser number of tourists. This helps since it no longer necessitates eating rice with chili paste as I would have done a decade ago. The abundance of fresh fruit is a boon since these can be picked up and eaten on the go. New eateries from noodle shops to international chains like The Pizza Company are transforming the food scene in Yangon and vegetarian options are offered as well. Fine dining restaurants, street stalls and tea shops all have something for the vegetarian. The list of options is endless, whether you walk down Anawratha Road in Downtown Yangon, or along the upscale Dhammazedi. Myanmar cuisine is vast, and delectably so. Its repertoire of salads includes the exotic tea leaf salad made out of fermented tea leaves, rich in caffeine, and mixed with sesame seeds, crushed nuts, cabbage, onions, lime and garlic. Lemon salad is a tangy mix of cabbage, red onions, chili, and sesame seeds. Tomato salad goes beyond traditional tomato slices, to include peanuts, sesame, onions and garlic. Even more sumptuous is the eggplant salad made out of the smoked vegetable that gives it a unique taste. Soups are often thickened with cooked chickpeas, and common ingredients include, tofu, vegetables and noodles. Steamed rice is served with curries that are rich and thick, and can be made with vegetables instead of chicken, fish or red meats. Easily available cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoots, beans, potatoes and pumpkins, provide numerous curry options. Noodles are prepared with sauces and vegetables, to be eaten as snack or at mealtimes. Fresh juices, jaggery and coconut sweets serve as perfect accompaniments to a vegetarian meal.
Myanmar cuisine has a strong influence of Indian cooking styles and many common ingredients like beans and pulses, curries and similar style of preparing vegetables. Walking down the streets in the Downtown area, reveals endless stalls selling the ubiquitous Indian ‘samosa’, the deep fried, potato-stuffed wanton. A large flat pancake called ‘dosa’ is served with chutneys, potatoes and a lentil curry called ‘sambhar’, and makes for a delicious meal at all times of the day. The number of Indian eateries is also expanding. All star-rated hotels in Yangon have Indian meal options, and standalone restaurants are opening up. It is easy to find places offering a reasonable vegetarian “thali”, which is a plate of rice with a lentil curry, vegetables and a pickle, or even chapatti and lentil curry called ‘daal’, which is a rich source of protein. Myanmar is a leading exporter of beans and pulses, so the quality couldn’t be better!
Today I am happy with a tea leaf salad or even the Myanmar tomato salad, followed by barbecued or fried vegetables, a tofu noodle soup, some stir fried greens and fried rice. Who can ask for more?
As you set foot in Myanmar the first thing you feel is the peace and surrounding serenity. It might initially be misconstrued , but soon one realizes that this is a mystical place, beckoning those looking for a soul stirring experience. Around 3 million tourists are expected to visit Myanmar in 2014, and many of them are not first time visitors. Is it just the untouched beauty of the place that attracts them? Partly yes, but the spiritually stirring experience is what they come to replicate. It is the land of Buddha, the abode of Theravada Buddhism for over a thousand years, and hence has won pseudonyms like ‘pilgrim’s paradise’, ‘spiritual haven’ and so on.
Across the length and breadth of the country, one finds hundreds of pagodas, chedis and monasteries, that house monks and nuns, and serve as educational institutions and sanctuaries for meditation where many locals spend a few days each year as monks, cut off from the world.
The epicenter of the spiritual journey is the all imposing Shwedagone Pagoda in the center of Yangon. It is the single largest tourist destination in the country and lures people not just with its golden beauty, but also with its ambiance of peace and calm, which actually penetrates deep, and one experiences a bond with all that is pure and sacred.
Yangon may be the country’s commercial capital, and more abuzz with activity than other cities and towns, but even then, there is an air of serenity, with smiling gentle locals ever ready to help despite language barriers, the mind soothing sight of monks each morning, and people going about their business quietly, and even vehicular traffic moving almost noiselessly.
Everywhere you turn, the tapering dome of a pagoda gold or white, catches the eye. Besides the Shwedagone pagoda, there are so many others in Yangon itself like the Sule pagoda, the Kaba Aye pagoda, Botataung, Chaukhtatgyi, Ngahtatgyi, Maha Wizaya, Kohtatgyi and Maha Pasana pagodas. The number of monasteries with their own chedis adds to the charm of the city. All these structures are architectural marvels with elaborate and intricate carving, liberal use of pure teak wood and gold leaf and paint.
However, it is not just these places of prayer, relics of Buddha and monasteries that define the spiritual experience. It is as much the attitude of the people, as yet relatively unexposed to modern ways, the concept of prayer and medication followed by them, the habit of meditation retreats, and a calm, peaceful way of life that transform the air and feel of the city. One can sit for hours in the Shwedagone Pagoda that is crowded at all times, but still so quiet. It is almost an evening or weekend ritual of the locals to spend evenings there.
The lakes and the scenic beauty, besides the lush greenery all around, soothes the mind and provokes purer thoughts, and there is time to introspect, which is impossible while walking down the streets of Bangkok or Singapore. There is no rush, no hurry, nothing to create anxiety, and one feels far removed from the world of materialism, ambition, targets and tangible results, even as the focus becomes the inner being. There is something in the air, that transforms the way we think and feel, and peace penetrates our soul.
“The sun set, but set not his hope:
These lines by R.W. Emerson come to mind every evening as I see the setting sun in Yangon. Not only is it a breathtaking sight, but also because Yangon is one place that shows promise of progress. A quiet walk by the lake, admiring the mild ripples of the water and the dying sun rays, I remain mesmerized at the beauty of nature that surrounds me. And makes me remember, how appropriate Emerson’s words are for me-each day the sun sets, but hope remains eternal, and by the time the stars come up, my faith in goodness and beauty is up long before.
Yangon is catching the world’s eye as the gateway to Myanmar, and as its commercial capital, the place to consider living in, for all those eyeing a customer base of 52 million people. It has been home for 20 months now, and every single day, I admire its natural beauty, the silver lakes, golden pagodas, the flora and fauna, and above all, the sunrise and sunsets.
Every evening, the sky is a riot of colors, sometimes in shades of grey and blue, and often enough in bright shades of red and orange, almost as though blazing embers are hidden on the horizon. Irrespective from where you see it, with domes of golden pagodas, Inya Lake, the Yangon river, or just the city’s skyline, this is beauty unsurpassed. It is difficult to turn away till the sun goes down, and as the city plunges into darkness, a solemn quietness and calm seeps into the very depths of my being. Every single day, I wonder why I have never felt this before. Obviously because, no other place has this aura of peace that is so conspicuous here.
Every other city that I have lived in, has been beautiful too, but too crowded, the pace of life too fast, and noise of manmade conveniences making it difficult for us to think and observe. Yangon, is indeed, far from the madding crowd, not less crowded in parts, but with many an oasis of tranquility that serve as balm to tired minds and bodies. As of now, concrete structures do not obstruct the city’s skyline, till now lined with tall tropical trees.
Myanmar is also called the Land of Buddha, with Buddhism the most popular religion. It is here that thousands of foreigners come to begin their spiritual journey, and those already on the path, keep returning for a taste of the peace and tranquility that they have devoured before.
I came to Yangon twenty months ago to make my next home here, while my husband explored business opportunities for the conglomerate he has been working for. As we settled in, we made a list of places to visit, where to go, what to see and generally know what to do in our free time. Information on Myanmar is not as detailed on travel sites as other places, and like most tourist information, we were skeptical whether the hype about Yangon would also be more than what meets the eye.
After some research we set out on our sightseeing jaunts every weekend (almost), and came up with our favorites, which should qualify as the best five places to see in Yangon, not just for their beauty, but also because they are unique and reflect the character and charm of the city.
- Shwedagone Pagoda- The Shwedagone Pagoda is by far the best monument not only in Yangon but in the country of Myanmar. Regal and majestic, as it stands 320 ft above the ground, in the center of Yangon, the pagoda is one the biggest religious monuments to be constructed. It was built sometime between the 6th and 10th century AD, though it was not as gigantic to start with. Today, it is spread over 14 acres of land, with 90 tons of gold and its dome topped with over 2000 carats of precious stones including an 87 carat diamond. The stupa is regilded every year. There are hundreds of Buddha statues that can be reached by the four gates and four walkways. Visitors must be barefoot (without socks too) and suitably attired-no shorts or sleeveless shirts are permitted. Foreigners have to pay an entrance fee of USD 8, while locals can go in free of charge. Expatriates with stay permits are issued passes which allow them free access to the pagoda as well. It remains crowded at all times, but serenely quiet, with hundreds of tourists and locals sitting quietly or walking around. Numerous monks can be seen in prayer in various parts of the pagoda. What strikes outsiders is the look of peace and calm as they sit in penance, as if transported to another level of existence.
- Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence- Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is the world’s best known Myanmar citizen, and naturally her house, located on University Avenue, evinces tourist interest. This is also because she continues to reside in the same house where she was kept under house arrest since 1989 till 2010 with a few breaks of freedom. As the leader of the National Democratic league she is also the most acceptable leader for the country’s various ethnic groups. The old colonial house is not open to tourists, and all that is visible is a high-fenced structure with a locked gate, but carrying the NLD flag. Tourists pose at the gate, and like us, are disappointed since they cannot even get a glimpse of what lies inside. From the side, a small lake, a small pagoda are visible behind the house, and one presumes, these offered solace and comfort to Suu Kyi during her years of confinement.
- Scott Market- Also known as Bogyoke market (Bojo for short), it is sprawling colonial structure lined with small shops selling everything from food and clothes to gems and antiques. It is a one stop market providing everything any tourist may want, be it the traditional attire of Lungyis, net and lace, or the famous Lacquerware, paintings and other artefacts. The cobblestone streets are narrow, and it is a treat to see tiny holes in the wall manned by pretty Myanmar women, most with tanaka painted cheeks. Most of the passages are covered, so walking around in the rain is not difficult. The market does have sections with specific alleys for dress material, gems, handicrafts and also food. It is the best place to find local fruits and preparations and eating typical Myanmar delicacies is quite an adventure, not to be missed. Located on Bogyoke Aung San Road, it lies in the downtown area, not far from the Sule Pagoda, and the Sule Shangri-la Hotel (previously called Traders’ Hotel).
- Strand Hotel – A touch of class, a taste of the old world charm, British Victorian-style architecture, and a journey back in time visualizing Somerset Maugham sipping his tea in the coffee shop overlooking the Yangon River. For those interested in history and literature would be happy to know that this hotel has had personalities like Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and Oliver Stone reside here on their visit to Yangon. This 113-year old hotel exudes its old world charm and its marble floors and teak interiors add to its rich splendor. The perfect place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea in the evening, though ships passing by are no longer visible.
- Inya Lake – This is not any lake or water body, and I consider one of the places worth seeing simply because of what one sees around the lake. As the largest lake, it is located six miles from downtown Yangon, and has a beautifully manicured park, and walkways where locals come at all times of the day for rest and recreation in the midst of natural beauty. Having travelled a fair amount, I cannot think of any other lake in other countries, where one still sees youngsters, strumming the guitar, singing in groups, ambling along lazily without any rush, and eating under the shade of the tree even during the day. Could it be the need for open space, or is it its beauty that brings hundreds of people both young and old, to Inya Lake…I still do not know. But I see it crowded from dawn to midnight. A walk around the lake can take up to two hours.
There are tens of other places of tourist interest, but for someone wishing to see to see a select few, or running short of time, must see these, to get the real flavor of Yangon, and its culture.
Yangon features forty-fourth in the list of the world’s most expensive cities, with living expenses over double of those in Bangkok, Thailand. The cost of living in the erstwhile Rangoon is ironically comparable to cities London, Oslo and Tokyo though the quality of goods and services ranks nowhere close. For an expatriate, the prices of most imported products we use, seem exorbitant. It takes a while to get used to the prices quoted or printed, even more so since almost everything costs thousands of Kyat. It may seem a lot, but taking the exchange rate, it is not so much after all-the exchange rate is approximately 1 USD equals 970 Kyat. Carrying multiples of tens of thousands of kyat becomes a habit, for fear of running short of cash, in a country where only a handful of places accept credit cards.
The cost of living encompasses the entire range of expenses incurred to survive in a place. The biggest expense in Yangon, is accommodation. Real estate prices are sky high, and rents seem so unreasonable, and certainly not value for money. Space comes at a premium in the city, and the high rentals affect all, locals and expatriates. The reason primarily being the demand – supply imbalance. The locals seek small rooms with basic facilities, which cost a big percentage of their earnings, and increasingly, have to accept a lower quality accommodation than before. Foreigners look for modern homes as an ever increasing number are opting to live here. For all property owners, it has been a Godsend, an ideal opportunity to make up for times of deprivation, and the desire being to encash on investments while the going is good, that is, while demand still outstrips supply, and rentals can be demanded even on a whim far beyond the market trends. There is of course an end in sight, with new condominiums and office complexes under construction, and probably hundreds of apartments ready to flood the market in another couple of years.
Yangon is the commercial capital of Myanmar and the current 5.94% inflation rate in the country gives an indication of price levels. But as expatriates, we buy an entirely different range of products, opt for imported foodstuff, select familiar brands even though they may be double the rate of close substitutes, and hence find even monthly food bills much higher. Buying at supermarkets pushes costs up to 20% higher than local outlets-the price of buying in a clean, hygienic, air-conditioned environment.
For the locals, the cost of living is constantly going up, but they are content with local produce, that is comparatively reasonable. The use of dried fish for many of their meal options protects them from seasonal price fluctuations, and the convenience of small patches of land to grow vegetables, is another money saver. But ask the locals, and they admit to feeling the pinch. Not only is it due to the salaries remaining the same and the prices of products they use, going up, it is also because markets are now flooded with new products which they can only look at, and not even dream of buying.
Most expatriates continue to assess prices in dollar terms to be able to compare. Most prefer buying at supermarkets, with the numerous Citymart outlets remaining the favorite. Citymart carries local as well as imported foods and toiletries, and each branch is always crowded.
I came here from Bangkok and tend to compare prices with supermarkets there, and have found Yangon to be approximately 25% more expensive, for our daily needs. Where I spent 100 USD on one trip to the market, here I spend 125-150 easily. But rates vary. Eggs costing 1400 kyat for a tray of 10, are just 10% more expensive than Bangkok, while coconut milk at 950 kyat is nearly double. Kraft cheddar cheese and pasta packets are just 7% more. Milk and bread prices vary according to brands and flavors, but do cost more. Local fruits and vegetables are often at par with Thailand’s local produce.
The level of freshness and hygiene is reason for concern and pushes us to often needlessly pay more. Those of us who are more adventurous end up saving, and many feel that with limited availability and less options to spend on, we might as well spend on good things of life…like food!
Yangon has been home for eighteen months now, and typically we miss home each time we step beyond Myanmar’s borders. The scenic beauty, the quiet peaceful life, the warmth of friends, all makes us wish to get back soon, wishing to end the noisy, action-packed, hectic and stressful holidays we end up going for.
The quiet landing and the blissful sight of lush greenery, serene lakes and water bodies are thrilling to start with, but it takes less than a week to realize that Yangon may just be going the western way. The roads have more traffic than when we left, water logging, power cuts, and poor telecom connectivity, become frustrating even as we realize that there is still limited availability of goods and services of quality.
Change is imminent and evident too…but the pace is too slow for most of us. We wish to see quick results, a race to catch up with the west, at least for services and facilities, and many of us are here to participate in the progress as well. But Myanmar is a country that needs help from all quarters, in organizing, managing, planning and implementing. The common man needs help too. Education having suffered for decades, the quality of graduates remains inferior to their counterparts in other countries, English language skills are a desperate need, and access to the latest research, important.
Yet people keep pouring in, just as much as the rain. Flights are full of tourists, and hundreds are making Yangon their home as they explore business opportunities. The hype in the foreign media about Myanmar leads to hope for us residents, both expatriates and locals. There are new retail outlets, more international brands, and new restaurants…but still have to figure out whether they carry the leftovers from other markets, or display the latest styles and creations. The gap nonetheless is too broad, and we would like to see it bridged, not for more material or modern ways, but certainly to enjoy a more comfortable, and better quality of life. If only we could do without the panic buying each time we step abroad, for fear of having to do without bare essentials we have become accustomed to, but are not always available here.
Often, there are disappointments, since living here is like undertaking a journey back in time. A trip abroad is like travelling in a time capsule and being pushed two decades ahead.
Life is smooth sailing, relaxed, and quietly peaceful. You miss the rush and the frenzied pace of activity, noise and chaos, multitasking and juggling. But then, this is what provides for better health, an ideal environment for spiritual elevation, recognition and understanding of the true purpose of life, that is lost and often never discovered in a lifetime elsewhere.