About 20 years ago, I crossed the Burmese border through the Chinese frontier town of Muse and at one of the checkpoints along the route, I heard the tap-tap-tap of a Morse code machine.
This time, flying into a new and expanded Yangon International Airport that looks like it could be anywhere, there’s access to free WiFi and I am able to get a local 4G SIM card for 3,000 kyats (about US$3).
Ask anyone and they will tell you that mobile, WiFi and access to affordable data have been the biggest game changer in this country of 54 million people in the last four to five years. It’s given the Burmese people access to all the trappings of the connected world – social media, messaging, ride-hailing, online shopping, video games, even payments in this largely cash-ruled society.
A city with new aspirations
Johnnie Walker has stepped aside for Samsung. Oppo, Mi and Huawei are the new trio on the block. Cafes are popping up everywhere, with colonial buildings being re-interpreted for modern use.
Recognised for Best Adaptive Reuse by Yangon Heritage Trust, the Burma Bistro has become a must-visit much like China House in Penang. Its eclectic mix of colonial and contemporary is made for today’s breed of travellers looking for experiences. Plus, its food is not bad at all – both Burmese and Western dishes – and I particularly like the sugar cane mixes.
Burma Bistro: Eclectic mix of colonial and contemporary.
Another place worth visiting is Hla Day, a non-profit social enterprise retail outlet supporting local artisans. Indeed, Yangon today has all the ingredients of a weekend getaway – food, spas, shopping, culture – for urban folks living in South-east Asia looking for affordable escapes beyond the staples of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
Get on a 50-minute flight to Loikaw in Kayah state though and it feels like you are stepping back in time. Okay, not quite to the age of Morse Code – even the small provincial airport at Loikaw offers free wifi – but a couple of hours out of the main town and you’re in frontier territory of remote hills and mountain ranges, lakes and ethnic tribes, where roads have to be navigated with four-wheel drive and permits needed to enter certain territories.
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