I remember travelling to Rangoon in March this year, a few months after President Thein Sein’s government declared that Burma was no longer a closed country. After my plane landed at the airport, it took a mere 15 minutes to go through immigration and 10 minutes to pick up my luggage, and within an hour I was resting at my hotel room near Inya Lake.
My latest trip to Burma in mid-December was completely different.
As more visitors arrive in the country’s biggest city, there are long lines now at check-in immigration booths, with the process taking about 30 minutes unless you walk quickly to get ahead of other arriving passengers. Once you’re out of the airport, these days it takes more than an hour-and-a-half to fight through morning traffic on your way downtown or to the Shwedagon Pagoda area, where low budget and five-star hotels are located.
The main thoroughfare, Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, is jammed with cars, both old and new. The drivers don’t honk their horns—a nice habit— but instead overtake other cars or cross lanes without warning, a Burmese style of driving that only locals understand.
Luckily there aren’t motorcycles in Rangoon. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, heavy two-wheeled traffic weaves between cars in major cities, often clogging roads and causing accidents. I didn’t see any accidents during my visit to the former capital, though in Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay, motorcycles are more common and the streets are busier.
Within the past 10 months, the number of cars on Burma’s roads has increased astronomically. On the streets in Rangoon I didn’t notice any expensive models—no Bentleys, Hummers or high-end cars from Germany and Japan. Still, showrooms are popping up in the city with foreign car models on display, and I fear that within the next few months, as more people make purchases, traffic will flow at a snail’s pace.
The cost of living has also shot up in Rangoon, especially for food and accommodation. The price of mohinga, a popular noodle dish, has jumped almost 20 percent at Bogyoke Market, up from 400 kyat (US 45 cents) to about 600-800 kyat, while a three-course lunch for two at a typical Burmese restaurant such as Aung Thu Kar can cost up to 20,000 kyat.
A single night in a five-star hotel can also cost nearly US $300, which is overpriced by regional standards. Budget hotels are about $60 per night, twice as much as older prices. Lower but competitive prices are available at guesthouses.
According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, there were 731 hotels and guesthouses last year in Burma, a far cry from the six hotels available in 1964. When students took to the streets demanding democracy in 1988, the country had only 86 hotels—half private and half owned by the state. As of 2006 there were 233 private hotels, according to a marketing report for the national hotel industry.
For the time being, foreign investors are putting money into extractive industries but the country needs more investment in tourism, along with agriculture, information and telecommunications. Most flights to and from Rangoon, including domestic services to major tourist destinations, are full or overbooked.
Medium-sized buses and vans are lacking but urgently needed as an alternative mode of transportation, though Rangoon thankfully still has plenty of old Toyota and Nissan taxis. (Newer taxi models with greener technology are still few and far between.)
Limited roads and heavy traffic are probably giving city planners a headache, but they should still prioritize future plans for rapid transportation systems like those in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Mobile technology is also developing. As prices for handsets and SIM cards drop, smartphones have become a necessity for efficient daily communication and business. The government has jumped in with e-government and e-commerce, while e-banking is also becoming popular.
Ironically, although most people still don’t have access to printed weeklies and journals due to poor logistic support, they can now read the latest news on their phones with Android technology. This leapfrog phenomenon is akin to the experience of other developing countries.
When Vietnam took up economic reforms in the mid-1980s, mobile technology was a key factor for economic development and nation-building. Before then, a call between northern and southern Vietnam had to go through a switchboard center in Moscow, but now the country is using 4G technology ahead of its regional neighbors.
Burma is lucky because it’s situated between the world’s most advanced internet communication technology countries, China and India. Clever business strategists will harness their expertise from the east and west to advance production and technology.