Myanmar has become famous as the road less traveled attracting tourists from virtually every country. Its breathtaking, untouched natural beauty against the backdrop of which we see countless pagodas in every city, town and village, has led to a flurry of tourist activity. The number of tourists entering Myanmar in 2014 has touched 3 million, and the numbers are only increasing every month. Most of them explore Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle, Mytkyina, Taunggyi, and Kalaw.
For the third year in a row, I can sense the excitement in the air, a sense of waiting building up, enthusiasm to switch off from work, close offices, while making plans for all that is to be done during the week long Thingyan break. Already, the first piles of wood planks and bamboo sticks are reaching roadsides where pavilions are going to be erected. Water guns and powerful water hoses are on sale, clothes and offerings for the monks, gift hamper and traditional Thingyan foods, stacking shelves. Gradually the cityscape will be transformed, with 35-40 large pavilions erected, road blocks placed, traffic rerouted, and water connections kept ready to draw water from the lakes around. This may not be everyone’s idea of fun and enjoyment, but the feeling of merriment is infectious and ropes us all in.
Look east, and two of the most exotic tourist destinations appear on the horizon- our mesmerizing Myanmar and its immediate neighbor, Thailand. One exudes an old world charm, and the other is cosmopolitan and modern, with tourism as its biggest industry. Both countries have a predominantly Buddhist population, and the tropical climate implies similar agricultural produce is cultivated, both being considered as rice bowls to the world in the past even as they works towards becoming the world’s largest rice producers again. Thailand is also the most popular gateway to Myanmar, offers employment to over 2 million Myanmar nationals who migrated across the border legally and illegally, and is one of the largest foreign investors in the country.
A new wave of consumerism, buying and spending, has swept cities like Yangon ever since the country opened up over two years ago. Needs and wants are multiplying, much to the delight of retailers, in new shopping malls, standalone brand outlets, traditional stores in downtown Yangon, and also in the famous oriental Bogyoke Aung San Market in the heart of the city. Considering the wide range of products it offers, it is only natural for it to be the most popular shopping destination, and its popularity is only growing by the day. One would have expected the newer malls to supersede this 89-year old market, with the latest designs in fashion and home accessories, but as of now, none can match the wide range of goods available in Scott Market, at competitive and affordable prices. Its location, old world charm, warm and friendly shop owners, and compact size make it extremely convenient. There is no other place that comes anywhere close, since it houses the smallest to the biggest, cheapest to the most expensive, and hence is a one-stop place for all Myanmar products.
The belief in turning to nature to heal and cure, is strong in nearly all Asian nations, and in Myanmar, even more so. Traditional medicine treatments have been followed in Myanmar for generations and continue to be popular even today, though more in remote rural areas, not least due to non availability of western (allopathic) medicines. Herbs and medicinal plants are found in abundance in this largely agrarian country, and serve as highly affordable remedies for diseases.
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?