It’s a long haul game for those with a big appetite for high risk frontier markets.
Rich with resources, with the benefit of an efficient British administration, Myanmar was the envy of other Southeast Asian countries in the late 19th century up to the 1940s. It is even home to the Strand, one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire during those halcyon days. Opened in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers, the Victorian-style hotel had hosted famed British writers like Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and W. Somerset Maugham.
The Yangon of today vastly different. It is no longer the envy of any nation but is sought after by investors for its sky high potential. As the last Southeast Asian nation to open up, there was a stampede by foreign firms to gain a first mover advantage back in 2012. Five years later, laws to deal with the liberalisation of the country after the historic 2015 election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi are still not finalised.
There is nevertheless some progress on the ground. The country’s WiFi network is surprisingly fast – at 4G, it is faster than many other parts of ASEAN, thanks to telecom operators like Qatar’s Ooredoo.
At Junction City, the latest shopping centre to open – there are 3D movies screened at the JCGV Junction City Starium Theatre which is modelled after South Korea’s Starium cinema, reputedly home to the world’s biggest movie screen. At about USD4 per seat, the price is reasonable given its spacious leg room and good acoustics. Movies in English language do not come with subtitles – this gives a very good indication of the level of English proficiency among its growing middle class comprising private sector workers and business people.
Junction City even has a food court that has international restaurant brands such as Ippudo Ramen and Loterria. You can even find luxury branded outlets like Coach, Hugo Boss and Versace.
But what sets Yangon apart is the sheer number of religious buildings – you can find mosques, Indian temples, churches, a synagogue, Chinese and Buddhist temples and of course the mother of all pagodas, the Shwedagon Pagoda. You get a sense there is a lot of religious and ethnic tolerance in Yangon city itself although it might reportedly be a different story in some other parts of the country.
Yangon streets are quiet compared to other bustling Southeast Asian cities – that’s because motorcycles are banned within city limits. Most people however reach their destinations with no problem – on bicycles, rickshaws, buses or taxis.
Ride-hailing service Grab and Uber are also present – rates are almost the same or sometimes higher than if you had just hailed any taxi off the street. With more than 400,000 registered vehicles in Myanmar, the majority of which are in Yangon, don’t be surprised to be caught in traffic jams during peak hours.
And as in most developing countries, you can see cranes in some parts of the city – a good reflection of the pace of economic activity. Although there is currently an oversupply of high end condominiums, partly due to uncertainty in the market, there is general optimism that things can only get better from now. This is despite some big challenges such as overpriced properties compared to its neighbours and the lack of certainty in its housing laws.
In the final analysis, Myanmar might just grow on you – “Yangon has an exceptional opportunity to become the most liveable city in the region,” argues Thant Myint-U, founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust.
Most observers reckon it would take another 5 to 10 years for the infrastructure to mature and the legal and financial framework to stabilise.
Still, for those with an appetite for high risk frontier markets, deep pockets and saintly patience, Myanmar might prove rewarding in time to come.
Text & Photography by Jan Yong.