RANGOON — The same breeze blowing up through the wooden decking ripples the surface of the lake outside, around which umbrella-shaded couples and families amble along the tree-lined waterfront, pausing to pose for photos under softly rustling fronds.
Kandawgyi Lake is one of Rangoon’s best-known time-out spots, and inside Nervin’s Café and Bistro—propped up 10 or so feet above the water by a combination of timber stilts and sawn-off tree trunks—a handful of well-heeled locals and laptop-entranced Westerners linger over slowly sipped lattes, frappes and juices.
It’s a more-pastoral-than-usual take on the typical downtown coffee shop—one of a handful of places in Burma’s commercial capital where a cup with crema rather than just added cream is available. “The bean is mightier than the bomb,” the tablemats here preach, a reference to 2010 explosions at the lake that killed 24 people and left scores injured.
Local businessman Chan Nyein Hock says it’s a good place to meet friends over a weekend. “We come here to relax and chat,” he says, pointing around to five designer-gear-clad pals sitting at the café’s edge. “The coffee’s good too,” he adds.
Coffee is the latest angle on Burma’s much-touted “emerging market”—one that Starbucks, the world’s biggest coffee-shop chain, hopes to tap into. Speaking in Bangkok on May 13, CEO Howard Schultz said Starbucks hopes to set up shop in Burma “within the next couple of years,” following recent chain openings in India and Vietnam.
“Coffee is getting more popular here in Myanmar,” says Myint Lin Aung, manager of Santino Café, a coffee shop and restaurant on a busy side street close to some of Rangoon’s main hotels.
“I think it will become more so in the coming years,” he adds, optimistic that he can open up another café in downtown Rangoon sometime in the next year or so.
It might take some time, however, for so-called “coffee culture” to take hold in Burma, where decades of military-imposed autarky and Western sanctions have left the country an economic outlier.
About a year ago, for example, almost all the cars on Rangoon’s streets were two-decade old Japanese rustbuckets, sputtering legacies of a rigged car import system that typified the opaque patronage dominant in much of Burma’s economy.
But economic reforms have brought some diversification to the make and vintage of cars on Rangoon’s increasingly clogged streets. Similarly, as Burma opens up to Western commerce and overseas Burmese filter home to cash in on the same “virgin market” vibe that is pulling in swarms of American and European would-be investors, there’s a slowly growing market for gourmet coffee, say some of the trailblazers.
Getting in ahead of Starbucks is Emmanuel Jaquet, a Canadian now living in Rangoon by way of a 14-year stint in Australia, and a self-proclaimed coffee aficionado.
“Back in Sydney, I was the type of bloke who would drive past a Starbucks and plenty of other places to get to a place where I knew the coffee was good,” he says.
His Coffee Club is just three weeks old, a work-in-progress on the first floor above an electronics shop about a mile from Rangoon’s golden-domed Sule Pagoda. “It’s not ideal to be up from the streetside,” Jaquet acknowledges. “But we’ll do some work outside and hopefully have the balcony ready for after the rainy season.”
“We’re getting a good crowd at lunchtime. There’s a lot of offices and a few embassies nearby, and it’s a mix of Westerners and locals who have money or have lived abroad,” he continues. “Otherwise it’s people sitting on their laptops.”
The weekend is different. “We’re busy Saturday and Sunday, when usually the crowds move through the place pretty quickly, stopping for a coffee and a sandwich and heading back out.”
A third of the way from Rangoon’s downtown to the airport, Coffee Circles is one of the best-known of the city’s coffee joints. A glassy shopfront just a soft-armed stone’s throw from the Savoy Hotel, it’s the busiest of the shops, pulling in a mix of suited foreigners talking over each other about possible business or NGO opportunities, as well as tablefuls of 20- and 30-something locals with cash to spend.
For visitors, the dearth of coffee hangouts is a marked contrast to Burma’s neighbors, particularly Thailand. The difference is noticeable to Ming Patananut, a Thai visiting Rangoon for the first time.
“Yeah, I go to Starbucks, to Coffee World [a Swiss-founded, Asia-focused chain], but the coffee here is just as good,” she says with a nod, sipping a lunchtime latte inside Coffee Circles.
Thailand’s US$646 billion economy is the world’s 25th biggest, with a GDP per head of $10,000 (adjusted for purchasing power parity). That’s well above Burma’s US$90 billion GDP and average annual income of $1,400 (PPP) per head, and in Burma’s case, estimates are bloated by the country’s reliance on natural resource sales, the proceeds of which do not benefit the tens of millions of Burmese who depend on subsistence agriculture.
That means more people in Burma’s similar-sized neighbor have more money to spend on coffee—evidenced not only in Starbucks’ hundreds of outlets there but in the rise of local chain rivals such as True Coffee.
That will likely change over time, however, provided Burma’s glasnost continues and living standards rise. Looking up from a table at the back of Santino Café amid a pile of dockets and printed spreadsheets, Myint Lin Aung says nowadays 75 percent of his customers are foreign—but not so long ago it was the other way around.
He says Burma’s reforms have helped him grow his business. The logic is simple, he continues: “Since 2010 there have been more foreigners coming, tourists and people working here. So they like coming here for coffee and Wi-Fi.
“As the reforms keep going, I hope we will get more Myanmar people.”
He says that beyond the usual array of espresso, mocha and the rest, pulling in foreign clientele is not just about the coffee, or even the food.
“Wi-Fi is important. If connection’s no good, customers complain, ‘Your Wi-Fi [is] slow, your connection gone,’” he says with a wince. “But it is important to have free Wi-Fi. If not, then we lose business. I don’t mind people hanging around for hours using Wi-Fi.”
‘Burmese Don’t Like Those Strong Coffees’
Just a couple hundred yards from Santino’s, across a bridge over Rangoon’s circular train line and at the back of the Bogyoke Aung San Market, Ko Kyi Lwin has run his eponymous teashop for 17 years. Foot-high plastic stools just about wide-enough for a small child surround small wooden tables where locals sit and chat in the muggy open air over a cup of tea, a smoke or a beer.
“Burmese don’t like those strong coffees,” says Ko Kyi Lwin, referring to Arabica-based drinks sold at Rangoon’s few coffee shops. “Everyone likes tea I think, but for coffee, people like the softer taste, the packets.”
He’s referring to coffee mixes, or “three-in-one”—ready-made sachets of instant coffee, powdered milk and sweetener. These bear about the same relationship to real coffee as corned beef does to sirloin steak, but they are popular and, more importantly, affordable alternatives to “real coffee” for most Burmese.
Ko Kyi Lwin is confident that Burmese just don’t have a taste for coffee—not yet anyway, but
Jaquet is not so sure. “One morning when I was paying the taxi driver who dropped me at the door here, I asked him to come and try a coffee,” he recalls. “So he did. He had a cappuccino. It was the first time in his life he’d had a roast coffee drink, and said it was delicious.”
And at the newest of the new coffee haunts—the week-old streetside Bar Boon (“boon” is Dutch for bean) on the ground floor of the plush new FMI shopping mall—the manager, who asked not to be named, says 90 percent of his customers so far have been local.
“It’s a surprise, and an encouraging sign,” he said, adding that the Dutch chain went for the location because it was close to Rangoon landmarks such as the Bogyoke Aung San Market and Sule Pagoda, and therefore could pull in the small but growing tourist crowd.
But even if the taste of coffee grows on more Burmese, cost remains a problem. Burma’s legislature is currently finalizing a minimum wage law. Some lawmakers are saying the baseline should be around 60,000 kyat ($65) per month, well above what many workers in Burma’s pivotal garment sector currently receive—around 1,400 kyat a day on average.
Ko Kyi Lwin sells cups of tea at 300 kyat a go, so he’s fairly sure he won’t be seeing a mass migration to the air-conditioned surrounds of Rangoon’s new coffee places any time soon.
That’s partly due to price, partly image, he says. Not only are 1,000 to 2,000 kyat gourmet coffees beyond the means of most Burmese, it just doesn’t feel right, he insists, pointing around to his own open air teashop—a facsimile of thousands of other watering holes across Burma.
“Not only are they too expensive, but they are too exclusive as well. People who come here don’t feel they belong there,” he concludes.