Every time I return from a trip to Myanmar, especially during the past two years, friends and customers at my shop will ask me: “Do you see any changes happening there?”
Normally I shrug my shoulders and say: “Not really.” And that’s the truth. Any changes in the past have either been non-existent or very subtle ones. But this year the changes are more readily apparent and, for the most part, positive ones. If you follow the news, you obviously know that Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest last year, ran for a seat in parliament this year and was elected. She also seems to have finally accepted the fact that allowing tourists to visit her country is not such an evil thing. As I noted in a post last month, her once-banned image can now be seen everywhere around the country, and her name is in all the papers. Citizens can also now express themselves more openly when talking politics — in public, in newspapers, on radio, and on the Internet. Things still aren’t as “free” as they are in Western countries (or, shall we say, “appear” to be in those countries) but the changes are for the better.
Two things of note have become much cheaper in Myanmar this year: cars and cell phones. The price to buy a new car has suddenly become affordable for many, so drivers are ditching their old clunkers and buying new Japanese models. The downside to this is a lot more traffic. Yangon is increasingly becoming paralyzed by Bangkok-like traffic jams in some areas. The ability to buy a cell phone is also now within the budget of more people, and access to wireless Internet is also becoming more common. I’m already annoyed by all the loud, chatty morons I see — and hear — in local restaurants. I mentioned in a post last month about seeing the “Free Wi-Fi” sign at a teashop. The gadget revolution in Myanmar has begun. And credit cards and ATMs — yet more common conveniences that Myanmar never had — are now on their way too. Changes, changes, and more changes.
As expected, after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the government engaged on a vigorous series of reforms, Myanmar started making the news and more foreigners became curious visiting the country. And since “The Lady” no longer forbids such excursions, tourists are now descending on Myanmar like the proverbial locusts. But this increase in arrivals is offering a mixed bag of results. Hotels are raising their rates to alarming new heights. A room in Yangon that cost me $18 a year ago is now $32 … and will probably be even more before the end of the year. At “nicer” hotels, I’m sure the rates are outrageous. The price of air tickets is also going up (even though there are more domestic airlines this year) and other transport options are also more expensive due to the cost of petrol and the increased demand.
The influx of more tourists will certainly offer more economic perks for the locals, but the extra demands from some overly picky western travelers — many of whom are used to being pampered in more traditional tourist havens — are creating headaches for local guides and tour operators. People working in the Myanmar tourism industry have become used to dealing with laid back, knowledgeable, and very reliable travelers; people who did their homework before visiting Myanmar and knew what to expect. They weren’t so demanding or prone to changing their minds or breaking commitments. The “new breed” of curious tourists, locals tell me, are proving to be much more difficult to deal with.
Myanmar is now seen as a “hot” new investment opportunity by many businesses. But I fear that this bevy of greedy developers and investors will do more harm than good. I look at what’s happened in Cambodia — where the rich are getting richer and the poor are as desperate as ever — and I fear the same fate will befall Myanmar. In the past several years, many poor people in Cambodia have been forced out of their old neighborhoods and “relocated” by the government, who use the seized land for new developments such as condos, office buildings, and shopping centers. Other residents can no longer to afford to live or operate small businesses in these prime locations and are also forced to move. And that’s what I fear is going to happen in Yangon and Mandalay, and even in small towns like Nyaungshwe. When the big cats come to town, how much longer can my friend Htein Linn afford to rent a shop on the main street in town? Say goodbye to lovely old neighborhoods, rich with tradition and a sense of community, and welcome another ugly high rise building or mall. Maybe that’s progress in the eyes of some of these greedy creeps, but not in mine.