Myanmar producers of indigenous textiles eager to export but lack infrastructure

Published in Twist International, 2014

A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.
A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.

As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry. It currently relies largely on tourists for small-scale revenues.

But that could change. Myanmar is unique in the region, because its most renowned ‘silks’ are actually not made from silkworm threads, but from lotus buds. The tourist hot spot of Inle Lake in Shan State is currently the only location in Myanmar where lotus fibre is extracted and used to create textiles on any significant scale. Its soft texture is similar to a mixture of standard silk and linen.

According to Khine Jiu Jiu Lynn, sales manager at Khit Sunn Yinn, a lotus, standard silk and cotton weaving centre at Innpawkohn village, Inle Lake, Shan State, a product made from lotus bud is seven times more expensive than regular silk due to its many qualities, which include being naturally stain resistant, waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free.

“A single stick of lotus bud costs Burmese Kyat MMK4,000 (USD4.05) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around USD75 [retail],” she told Twist International.

While about 80% of scarf purchases are made by international tourists, Ms Lynn said the majority of lotus products are currently spun into robes for monks and sent to the cities of Yangon and Mandalay for commercial sale. Although lotus silk is rare and expensive, monks acquire the robes through donations in the Buddhist majority nation.

Myint Thein Htun, the owner of Khit Sunn Yinn, a fourth generation family-run business, said that he is keen to export his products and has the capacity with 120 skilled workers, but fears a lack of quality control could be a problem.

Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.
Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.

“We can’t export because our products because they’re hand-made. Customers want their textiles to be uniform, and we can’t guarantee that, particularly for the finishing and colours,” he said.

He pointed out small imperfections in scarves, explaining, “A weaver can only use their eyes to see whether a thread has broken. If we were using machines, the machine would automatically stop when a thread breaks. Also, hand-woven mistakes can’t be fixed. Likewise, because we hand-dye the colours, we can’t ensure the colours are uniform.”

Mr Htun added: “We could buy machines but this is a local industry and a lot of people would lose their jobs.”

For the time being, he said he is content to sell to tourists – visiting the beauty-spot Inle Lake in increasing numbers since political reforms began in 2011. His business gained international recognition by winning several awards at the ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion Design Contest ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion contest, staged in Bangkok in 2010. “No such awards exist in Myanmar,” he lamented.

Mr Htun added that a significant number of tourists refrain from purchasing indigenous silk products because, “They see scarves being sold on the streets of Thailand and Cambodia for an absolute fraction of the price that ours sell for – but what they don’t realise is that those products are made from polyester.”

An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.
An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.

U Kyaw Aye, general manager at Injynn Development Company, a Myanmar trading company selling garments, oil and gas and telecommunications and a former industry ministry technical planning officer said: “None of the traditional forms of textiles are mechanical,” so as regards bulk mass exports, “there’s not much to hope for because it’s so time-consuming and output is low. Unlike commercial textiles, Myanmar’s indigenous textiles are not made by the bale of 30 to 50 yards, but rather in short pieces.”

But he warned, if the industry were to mechanise, “the quality and texture wouldn’t be the same again.”

So the likelihood is that Myanmar fabrics will remain a scarce item, of potential use for luxury apparel brands and manufacturers. As yet that potential has yet to be realised, he said: “It’s unlike Thailand’s silk industry, which makes good money selling items such as neckties – Myanmar’s are more of a novelty item which a few tourists and businesspeople take out.”

Nevertheless, Mr Aye stressed the potential. Production costs in Myanmar are currently low compared to potential competitors in Thailand, India and China.

The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Furthermore, the diversity of products created in Myanmar is staggering: each of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups has its own unique patterns and traditions, and powerful customs associated with various textile products.

In Chin State culture, for example, it is customary for a bride to weave a large blanket with homespun cotton and silk, dyed with herbs and woven in a back-strapped loom, maybe containing herbs and leaves. When one partner dies, the blanket is cut in half and wrapped around the body. The other half is stored until the other spouse passes away – it is believed that the blanket serves to unite the spirits in the afterlife.

As for standard silk from silkworms, much of the silk is grown in Mandalay, with key weaving centres in Rakhine state, based in the ancient capital of Mrauk U. Thandar Win works at a silk and cotton shop in downtown’s Yangon’s bustling Bogyoke Market, selling local handicrafts, gems and artwork. She told Twist International: “Burmese silk isn’t as shiny as Thai silk and much of Thailand’s silk products are made with machines. It’s the same in China. The Burmese regard the quality of Chinese silk as inferior to ours, which is why we never sell it, even though it’s cheaper.”

As for traditional cotton weaving, there are also regional craft industry centres such as Kachin state, as well as in Rakhine state.

Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.
Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.

The patterns of indigenous textiles, whether made from cotton, raw silk, pure raw silk and lotus bud silk, differ greatly from one region to the next. Mandalay is famous for criss-crossed designs, which are washed and dyed before spinning to create a softer fabric. Meanwhile, Inle Lake manufacturers are well known for ‘ikat’ dyeing techniques used to pattern textiles that uses a resist-dyeing process similar to tie-dye textiles, which was initially developed in Indonesia.

As Mr Htun explained, “Before 1932, Myanmar artisans just made plain stripes. My great-grandfather went to Thailand to learn how to make ‘ikat’ – the Thais had previously learnt it from the Indonesians. And it spread from that moment on.”

Nyan Lynn Aung, director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar, (most often regarding garments), said he received his first inquiry about importing Myanmar’s indigenous silk products, from a buyer in New York, this month (February 2014).

A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s indigenous textiles definitely have potential. Of course, like anything, it depends how you sell it and how it’s set up, but much like free-trade coffee beans, buying ‘Made in Myanmar’ indigenous textiles could be seen as very trendy and ethical,” he told Twist International. Mr Aung suggested that repurposing traditional textiles into bags and belts could become a boom industry.

However he added that “investment – as well as at least some technology – is needed for the sector to properly develop.”

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The export market potential for Myanmar’s seafood bounty

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 July 2014

Ocean Harvest's factory in Yangon
Ocean Harvest’s factory in Yangon

A leading player in Myanmar’s seafood export sector talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the industry’s future potential – which may only be realised if current constraints can be overcome.

Very few countries in the world can boast that crab is sold a cheap street food snack. Yet whilst Myanmar’s natural abundance of seafood is evident – both in terms of its availability and comparable affordability – the sector remains largely untapped in terms of export volumes. Much has improved since the European Union and United States lifted export sanctions against Myanmar in 2012, however ongoing challenges such as electricity shortages and weak infrastructure continue to hold back the country’s capacity to export enough of its beautiful bounty of seafood.

U Myat Aung Nyunt is the Managing Director of Ocean Harvest (Myanmar) Limited, a seafood cold storage, processing and ice plant factory in Yangon, which he set up more than two decades ago. He is also the joint secretary of the Myanmar Fishery Products Processors and Exporters Association, which was established in 2004 and aims to forge investment links between exporters and importers, as well as disseminating information about best practices in the industry.

“Myanmar’s potential to increase seafood exports is huge – but we need to set up prawn farms to obtain higher quantities to export. At the moment there’s only one prawn farm in the entire country,” U Myat Aung Nyunt told Mizzima Business Weekly.

However prawn farming is a highly skilled and labour intensive endeavour, and at this stage Myanmar is yet to even establish a seafood processing training centre. This means that Ocean Harvest’s 200-odd workers – had to be taught several different skill sets on the job.

While reports have recently surfaced in neighbouring Thailand about an illegal fishing industry that relies on slave labour and trafficked workers, U Myat Aung Nyunt said he’s never heard of fishery workers being ill-treated in Myanmar.

“I provide my staff with three meals a day as well as free healthcare and accommodation. My unmarried workers live in a dormitory at the back of the factory, while housing is provided for 20 families in North Dagon. I treat my staff as my family, because without them, how can I do this business?”

Although some of U Myat Aung Nyunt’s workers (most of whom are female – he says because they’re harder working) have been with the company since it was first set up back in 1993, he said that the demand for skilled workers has resulted in rife poaching among competitors. As Myanmar does not yet have a seafood processing training centre, each of his 200 factory workers were trained on site.

“I do everything I can to retain my staff, but there are several Chinese companies in Myanmar who have bigger budgets and operate with a local proxy. It’s causing a lot of problems for players in the local industry,” he said.

Myat Aung Nyunt, Managing Director of Ocean Harvest and Joint Secretary of Myanmar Fisheries and Seafood Exporters and Processors Association
Myat Aung Nyunt, Managing Director of Ocean Harvest and Joint Secretary of Myanmar Fisheries and Seafood Exporters and Processors Association

Although Myanmar’s seafood stocks have declined over the past five years, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that conditions in Thailand are far worse and that Myanmar’s industry could easily be sustainable if the right measures are put in place. In the meantime, quantities could be exponentially multiplied if prawn farming took off. At present, just one prawn farm exists in Myanmar. This is part due to the high overheads of operating the farming equipment (particularly if diesel generators are required as a back-up power source) and the complexities of round-the-clock maintenance and care.

Therefore, the overwhelming majority of prawns – which fetches some of the highest prices – are caught in the wild. U Myat Aung Nyunt explained that a net is used to seal off a sizeable population of prawns, who remain confined for two or three months and scavenge around for whatever food they can find. Once the prawns have grown bigger, the haul is seized and brought to various markets in Yangon, including Anawar Fishery, VMP Jetty, Anawar Hlwam Jetty, Shwe Zin Yaw Hein Jetty (the latter of which has been approved by the European Union). Other methods include small boats with trawlers, however in both cases, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that road conditions need to be improved so that travel times from Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region, which are the source of prawns and other seafood, can be reduced. This is particularly important because the boats lack refrigeration facilities, relying instead on ice to keep the produce fresh.

Frozen pink shrimps for export
Frozen pink shrimps for export

“Although there’s definitely a demand for prawns without their heads removed, most fishermen tend to cut off the head because it’s too easy for bacteria to spread from the head to the body,” he explained.

Despite ongoing infrastructural challenges, Myanmar’s Fishery Department is serious about ensuring that Myanmar’s sea produce meets international standards. Factory checks are carried out by department officials every month to ensure that exporters are complying with processing laws, which include stringent hygiene regulations.

In early June, the Ministry of Livestock Breeding, Fisheries and Rural Development announced that it will grant K1.5 billion (US$1.5 million) to livestock breeders and fish farmers to help boost capacity and export revenues, which in the last 10 months of the 2013-14 fiscal year fell by US$76 million.

Ocean Harvest is also registered with the FTA in the United States – which is important, because 80 percent of the 400 tonnes it exports annually (which includes shrimp, squid and fish) usually end up in restaurants in Los Angeles or Los Vegas.

“Until the sanctions were lifted, we mostly exported to Japan. However Japanese buyers tend to buy smaller quantities of a particular size or species. The US is a constant buyer, and often in bulk,” he said.

A hotel owner in Los Angeles was so delighted with Ocean Harvest’s produce and delivery service (which involves ice-trays of seafood travelling for 40 days on a container ship from Yangon via Singapore or Malaysia in refrigerated temperatures of at least -18 degrees Celsius) that U Myat Aung Nyunt’s entire family was invited for an all expenses paid holiday last year.

Indonesia and Australia are other popular export destinations, U Myat Aung Nyunt said.

“The Australians are clever – they sell the best of their seafood to Japan and then import for domestic consumption,” he said with a laugh.

The European Union is a less appealing destination, as it offers significantly lower prices than the US.

“I’m not sure why that is – it could be that buyers in the EU are sourcing seafood from markets elsewhere that are cheaper,” U Myat Aung Nyunt said.

After being cheated out of payment for an order of freshwater fish valued at US$200,000 last year, Ocean Harvest will no longer supply to any company based in the Middle East.

“I’m not sure whether it was the agent in Yangon or the company in the Middle East who was responsible for not paying me. After a few containers were released from the cargo, the company had told me they had a cash shortfall and asked if I could release the entire order – and that I’d be paid the following week. If I’d said no, I would have had to have paid extra storage costs until the entire amount came through. We had a gentleman’s agreement,” he said ruefully.

The company in the Middle East refused to even acknowledge U Myat Aung Nyunt’s demands for payment and his attempts to sue the local agent were unsuccessful because the agent lacks assets (“Not even a car!” he said).

Ocean Harvest's shrimp size classifying machine
Ocean Harvest’s shrimp size classifying machine

“Many exporters in Myanmar have lost money to Middle Eastern companies. Sometimes even their banks operate dishonestly – such as by allowing containers to be released before money has been deposited. And often it’s all done through brokers and we don’t know who the company at the end of the line is. When we supplied to Iraq, for example, our goods would be dropped in Kuwait and taken to Iraq by a separate transport company. We can’t exactly go to Iraq to find out what happened to an outstanding payment,” he explained.

Nonetheless, U Myat Aung Nyunt is upbeat about his future prospects and in June, his 26-year-old daughter Myint Myat opened a restaurant in Parami called – you guessed it – Crustacean.

“I supply all the seafood to my daughter’s restaurant – she worked at Ocean Harvest for five years and after getting an MBA, she decided she wanted to run her own business.”

In addition to Crustacean, Ocean Harvest sells to a German company that operates flights for VIPs.

“But we stick to exporting simply because the prices are better for us,” he said.

Myanmar’s tobacco industry ripe for growth

Published in Tobacco Journal International 2014 edition

Yangon's wide variety of cigarettes on sale
Yangon’s wide variety of cigarettes on sale

The market liberalisation of Burma is enticing global tobacco companies such as British American Tobacco (BAT) to sell and manufacture cigarettes in Myanmar – however rampant smuggling of duty-free cigarettes into the country and the dominance of low-end local brands pose a challenge to legitimate business ventures.

BAT returned to Myanmar this year following a decade’s absence. The British government requested BAT to leave Myanmar in 2003 following an investigation by Burma Campaign UK establishing that it had links to the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL).

The editor-in-chief of Myanma Freedom Daily, Thiha Saw, who is also deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, said that the introduction of political reforms in Myanmar over the past two years has provided opportunities for new players to emerge in the tobacco industry.

He said, “Before 2010 it wasn’t possible to manufacture cigarettes without having links to the military, because there were two military owned companies that had a monopoly over beer and tobacco. That’s changed now, but there’s still a huge black market in smuggling duty-free cigarettes.”

A Yangon tobacco retailer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he buys duty-free cigarettes from pilots and cabin crew. He said the practice is widespread and also involves major supermarkets.

The retailer said that major cigarette brands such as Marlboro Light – the most popular in terms of sales – are brought in from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, but that Myanmar people prefer those imported from Singapore because “People don’t want to buy a packet with a graphic warning about the effects of smoking.”

He also said that Chinese tobacco companies are keen to enter the market but are unlikely to succeed due to widespread concerns about the quality of Chinese products.

Fighting back against illicit trade

The government of Myanmar has stepped up efforts to counter illicit trade in a bid to attract more foreign investment. In late October, a team from the Ministry of Commerce raided a warehouse owned by one of Myanmar’s leading food and beverage distributors, Quarto Products. Quarto has since been shut down because it was unable to produce import declaration documentation, government officials said.

Rehan Baig, BAT’s managing director in Myanmar told Tobacco Journal International, “BAT is willing to work closely with the government and industry stakeholders… to counter illicit trade by raising awareness and providing information as well as experience in this area. At our own end, we take steps to ensure product stewardship, such as using track and trace technology to monitor the movement of our products within the supply chain.”

BAT has implemented the technology in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and is aiming to cover 42 international markets by the end of 2016.

BAT now has a majority stake in a joint venture with local partner IMU enterprise, which is a unit of Sein Wut Hmon Group. BAT will invest US$50 million over five years in a production factory in Shwe Than Lwin Industrial Zone in Yangon to produce its London brand of cigarettes, which were extremely popular in Myanmar but have since been overtaken by the similarly priced local brand Red Ruby.

Advertising ban and penetration rates

Local tobacco companies attempt to circumvent the ban on the advertising of tobacco products by providing tea shops and pubs with branded, complimentary napkin holders, ashtrays and sometimes even handing out free lighters and cigarettes to patrons. When asked whether BAT will use such tactics to regain consumer loyalty, Rehan Baig said, “We are a legitimate company selling a legal product and we conduct our business in a responsible way – abiding by the laws in all the countries we operate in. Furthermore, we also have voluntary international marketing principles in place, some of which are stricter than local laws.”

He added that BAT will “cater to any requests or requirements such as [providing] lighters and ashtrays from our trade partners by providing unbranded material where deemed necessary.”

Chinese cigarette brand Dubao flouts a ban on advertising, while a Grand Royal whisky ad advertises its line of bottled water underneath
Chinese cigarette brand Dubao flouts a ban on advertising, while a Grand Royal whisky ad advertises its line of bottled water underneath

Myanmar Survey Research conducted a survey of smoking penetration rates in Myanmar’s biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay in December 2012. The survey found that 30 percent of urban males are occasional or regular smokers, while 1-2 percent of women are in the same category. Another 15 percent of urban males smoke hand-rolled cheroots [traditional cigars] and 1-2 percent of urban females also smoke cheroots on a regular basis.

Marita Schimpl, head of marketing research at MSR said, “In rural areas, which are where 70 percent of Myanmar’s population resides, betel-chewing is more widespread than conventional cigarettes. Due to being cheaper, cheroots are also more popular than cigarettes in rural areas.”

She added that penetration rates of factory made cigarettes in Myanmar is relatively low. Therefore, in theory at least, there is a large amount of room for growth in Myanmar’s tobacco industry.

 

A delicious kick in every dish: A review of Padonmar Restaurant

Published in the February 2014 edition of Mann Yatanarpon Airlines Inflight Magazine

U Sonny Aung Khin, the owner of Padonmar restaurant in Yangon, stands beside a portrait of his mother in the Padonmar dining room.
U Sonny Aung Khin, the owner of Padonmar restaurant in Yangon, stands beside a portrait of his mother in the Padonmar dining room.

Few restaurants have mastered the ability to cater to hundreds of people in as intimate a manner as Yangon’s Padonmar Restaurant. On a Sunday evening, with 200 diners present in the outdoor garden alone, restaurant owner Sonny Aung Khin leisurely makes his way from one table to the next, chatting to diners and fine-tuning the arrangements of his staff (many of whom sport headpieces), and even stopping to breathe in the scent of an idle pot of coconut infused rice. He is tall, dressed in an immaculate suit, laughs heartily and speaks in a baritone.

Despite the fact that Sonny spends day and night with tourists in Myanmar – who at this time of the peak tourist season, are largely from Western countries, as well as a busload of Thais – Sonny doesn’t hesitate in admitting that he’s not one to take a vacation himself.

“I’m not a holiday person,” he shrugs. “But I like work-related travel.”

In the cooler months of October to February, when it’s possible to sit outside at any time of day in Padonmar’s lush surrounds, the restaurant can serve 300 people at a time during lunch and 400 in the evening. Yet it doesn’t feel crowded because there’s such an array of tropical vegetation (and even the odd squirrel) that divides the driveway of this 80-year-old mansion into separate dining sections. Some of the vines were planted by Sonny five years ago after his restaurant moved from Inya Road to this larger establishment, and he continues to tend to them even now, he said.

Wall painting in Padonmar Hall
Wall painting in Padonmar Hall

The largest outdoor section is spread across the lawn, which is softly lit up at night with red and purple lamps. Inside, there is the annexed Padonmar Hall, which can seat up to 140 people simultaneously, and its walls are adorned with a mural depicting – you guessed it – nature at its loveliest. There’s also a “hall of fame” – which are framed and autographed photographs of some of Sonny’s most high profile guests.

“US Senator John McCain came alone the first time but returned for another meal with three senators,” he said with a smile. Singer Cliff Richard, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell and a chance meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on a plane are just a few of at least a dozen other portraits on display.

The restaurant is also popular among businesspeople – who have been coming to Myanmar in ever increasing numbers since the country embarked on a range of democratic reforms in 2011.

“Myanmar has been flooded with tourists since 2011 and we’re now seeing a huge increase in the numbers of businesspeople. I don’t know how successful they are during their visits, but they do need to eat!” he said with a laugh.

Inside the mansion itself are four rooms, which can be hired exclusively for dinner parties of 10 to 28 people.Padonmar also hosts wedding receptions for around 80-100 people in its gardens. Buffet dinners are also an option and traditional musicians provide nightly entertainment. There’s some very eye-catching art on display – both photography and paintings (such as the Naga warrior tribe mid-flight with spears) however Sonny said, “I didn’t want to exhibit so much art that it gives the impression of being a gallery. The art on display for sale, which is done to support local artists,” he said.

Surprisingly, whilst the setting is grand, the prices here at Padonmar are very, very reasonable – particularly considering the quality and care that goes into preparing the food. Mains are around US$4 and cocktails are around $3.50.

Padonmar promotes local wines such as Red Mountain and Aythaya, as well as keeping a well stocked cellar of foreign wines. Unless you’d prefer to opt for a freshly squeezed juice over an alcoholic refreshment, trying the rediscovered Pegu Club cocktail – which dates back to 1920 – is a must for any diner at Padonmar.

U Sonny's Hall of Fame, including a photo with US Senator John McCain
U Sonny’s Hall of Fame, including a photo with US Senator John McCain

The menu itself literally weighs a kilogram (in part due to the red leather binding) and it has more vegetarian options than most vegetarian restaurants – and there’s an even split between Burmese and Thai fare.

“We have separate kitchens for the Thai and Burmese chefs because the cuisines are so different from one another,” he said. Sonny said that Burmese food is closer to Indian than any other he knows of, yet many visitors assume it will share the qualities of its ASEAN neighbours.

Sonny spent 16 years living in Bangkok and grew fond of its healthy cuisine, which he said is extremely popular among his local guests in particular.

“Myanmar people come here to eat Thai because they can have local food any night of the week at home,” he said.

“And often tourists tell me that they’re glad to eat Thai because they’ve spent the last 10 days straight eating Myanmar food!” he said with a chuckle.

Nonetheless, the refreshing difference about eating Burmese food here is that while maintaining the traditional flavours, it’s light on oil and free of MSG and cholesterol.

“We use sunflower oil which contains no cholesterol,” he added by way of explanation.

According to traditional Myanmar values, the more oil that is added to a dish, the more welcome a guest is and the wealthier the host is – however this notion is slowly beginning to change as people become more health conscious. The widespread use of MSG, however, remains a problem, particularly at street stalls in Myanmar. It was introduced relatively recently as (an unnecessary) flavour enhancer and people such as Sonny, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Myanmar Restaurants’ Association, is one of a handful of the prominent members of the local hospitality industry trying to send a message about MSG’s harmful health effects.

The restaurant’s signature dish is the hilsa fish, which is a medium sized fish that can also be found in the Chittagong region of neighbouring Bangladesh. The fish is cooked so slowly that the bones simply melt into the juices.

“We used to cook the fish in a traditional oven for eight hours, but nowadays we use a pressure cooker and it takes a bit less time,” he said casually.

The grilled aubergine salad – “everybody’s favourite” – as he describes it, which was accompanied by very finely sliced tomatoes with just a touch of dressing, was the perfect accompaniment to the pork and mango curry and mutton and potato curry (both of which are traditional Burmese dishes). Often at restaurants that cater to tourists, too much of the usual spice is left out on the assumption that a foreign palate would prefer it that way. Thankfully, this is not the case at Padonmar – while undoubtedly being less spicy than home-cooked meals, there’s still a delicious kick to every dish.

I was encouraged to sprinkle the “cheese of the region” over the dishes, which is dried shrimp flakes, although I fell short in courage of being as generous with the dried chilli flakes, which are also hugely popular in Myanmar.

As an entree I had the clear, traditional Karen fish soup, which Sonny said isn’t something found in many restaurants in Myanmar – unless of course, you’re visiting Karen State.

We finished off with banana fritters, which are cooked in a light batter and served with natural honey.

U Sonny Aung Khin with Senator John McCain
U Sonny Aung Khin with Senator John McCain

Somehow Padonmar Restaurant is able to serve up authentic meals that don’t take a couple of hours to serve and devour (in fact, you could be there less than an hour if necessary, the service is that good). This makes it the perfect spot for a tourist or businessperson on the go in Myanmar.

Padmonmar Restaurant is located at No. 105/107 Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar.

Phone: 01 538 895

Email: padonmar.restaurant@gmail.com

Credit cards are accepted.

The challenges of keeping Yangon’s street dogs alive

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 May 2014

Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just

The Yangon Animal Shelter was founded in December 2012 and since then it has provided refuge for hundreds of street dogs who were injured, at risk of poisoning or simply young and motherless. However despite the recent opening of a second, larger shelter, co-founders Terryl Just and Daw Roza Win, both of whom work full-time at the International School Yangon, said they are struggling every month to raise enough funds to feed and care for the dogs, who currently number around 250. They are assisted by a small but committed group of volunteers.

“The dogs end up at the shelters primarily because members of the public have called us pleading to take them in because they are in danger of being poisoned [by Yangon City Development Committee], or their neighbours are throwing rocks at them, or they are sick or injured,” Terryl Just told Mizzima Business Weekly.

“I realise I can’t help every street dog,” Terryl, a self-professed animal lover, concedes.

“My original plan was to help as many dogs as possible by taking them in temporarily, spading or neutering and vaccinating them, or providing any necessary veterinary care, and then to return the dogs to where they’d been found, provided it was safe enough – or to have them adopted. However that whole idea was blown out of the water because of the ongoing poisoning.”

Terryl Just
Terryl Just

Authorities have long used poisoned meat bait as an attempt to keep the number of strays down and thereby reduce the public health risk posed by rabies. However sources told Mizzima Business Weekly that in the lead up to the SEA Games hosted by Myanmar last December, the culling campaign notably intensified.

According to Terryl, an increase in tourist numbers is also a factor in poisonings occurring more frequently than in previous years, as authorities are naturally keen to present Yangon in the best possible light. However it seems the goal has backfired, as public outrage is mounting.

“Tourists have written to me saying, ‘I feel so bad for the street dogs here. How can I help? Can I send money? Many are aware of the poisoning,” Terryl said.

According to Humane Society International’s Asia Director Rahul Sehgal, culling is an ineffective means of controlling the number of stray animals.

“Culling has never eradicated an entire population of street dogs in any given city or country. The amount of resources needed to do that is something [developing] nations are not equipped or disciplined to do.”

He also said that scientific research has established that killing street dogs has no impact on the number of human deaths caused by rabies.

Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter
Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter

“Dogs move in packs and when certain pack members are culled, it creates an imbalance within their environment. The surviving dogs come together and quickly form new packs. With the temporary decrease in the dog population, there is less competition for food, which allows the new packs to eat and breed more. More puppies are born to the surviving animals, and more of them survive, and more dogs migrate into the area recently rendered dog-free,” he explained.

A far preferable alternative is what is known as animal birth control (ABC) – this involves dogs being briefly captured in order to be sterilised and vaccinated before being released in the same area they were found. However it must be carried out on a wide scale to succeed.

“Within a breeding season, you have to target 70 percent of the existing population of street dogs,” Rahul explained – because if one pair of dogs is allowed to breed successfully, they can produce up to 55,000 dogs within 5 years.

“If the long-term experiment of culling hasn’t yet solved the problem, other options should be considered,” he added.

India is considered the pioneer of animal birth control and in 2000 its parliament passed an amendment to the Dog Management Act, which stipulates that the only way street dogs are to be dealt is by sterilisation and vaccination. Any other method is illegal.

Humane Society International has been invited by the governments of Bhutan, India, The Philippines and Mauritus to carry out sterilisation campaigns, and Rahul said that the concept of ABC “is now widespread across many developing countries, including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.”

Fortunately for Myanmar’s street dogs, a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon. In late April the Bridget Bardot Foundation contacted Terryl Just to express interest in funding a sterilisation and vaccination campaign, as well donating money for necessities such food – which alone amounts to US$3,000 a month.

“However the foundation said that they won’t do anything until the poisoning stops,” Terryl said.

Terryl has since met with representatives from the French embassy in Yangon and a meeting has tentatively been scheduled with relevant YCDC personnel to discuss the idea of using sterilisation as a substitute for culling.

“It would be wonderful if other embassies here could get on board to lobby against it,” she said.

In the meantime, however, both shelters are “completely over capacity,” Terryl said. The first shelter, which is on a third of an acre, was built to accommodate 50 dogs but now has 120. The dogs at this shelter, which is located in Pele, Mingalardon Township, some 23 kilometres from the city centre, are mostly puppies and those with a higher chance of being adopted due to having affable personalities.

Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just

“The second shelter is a lot larger but it’s another 30 minutes drive away, which is why we keep the wilder dogs there – it makes it easier for those interested in adopting to come and meet them.”

When asked how many dogs have been adopted since the shelter opened at the end of 2012, Terryl – who herself owns 11 dogs – replied, “Nowhere near enough. Only 40 or so.”

She said there’s a common misconception among expats that it’s not possible to own a pet unless they are living in Myanmar permanently.

“But it’s perfectly possible to export pets – and I’m willing to do the paperwork for anyone who adopts a dog from the Yangon Animal Shelter. I’ve been teaching overseas for 25 years and I’ve always had my dogs and cats with me.”

She also pointed out that for those who live in apartments, older dogs make ideal companions.

“We have an old dog called Sadi who is blind but very sweet – she can work her way around but she gets picked on by the other dogs. Sadi would be ideal in an apartment – she just needs a walk every once in a while.”

And for those who for whatever reason cannot commit to ownership, Terryl said there’s a “desperate need” to find people willing to fostering a puppy for a short period.

She explained that puppies below the age of six to eight weeks can’t be immunised so the risk of them contracting illnesses is high, along with the fact that young puppies without a mother need more TLC than older dogs.

“We’ve lost a lot of puppies due to the fact that some [dogs] carry diseases but don’t show signs – notably canine distemper virus. Sadly it’s very common,” Terryl said.

Needless to say, funding remains an ongoing challenge for the not-for-profit Yangon Animal Shelter, which is a registered NGO in Myanmar and the United States. Donations of any amount are gratefully received and can be deposited at Royal Veterinary Clinic, which is located at 221 Shwegondaing Road in Bahan Township. Phone: 0986 160 037

Help is always needed
Help is always needed

The clinic’s vet, U Myat Oo, is one of two vets who provides treatment to the shelter’s dogs – and he does so free of charge.

For more information, visit the Yangon Animal Shelter’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yangon-Animal-Shelter/323142894458502?fref=ts

An ongoing experiment – The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 May 2014

The Lab in Yangon
The Lab in Yangon

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche spent last year’s Thingyan break travelling across Myanmar and during a particularly pleasant evening in Bagan, the Tunisian duo hit on an idea: to open Yangon’s first tapas bar.

“We were having a few nice bottles of wine and suddenly we said, ‘You know what, let’s start a business together,’” Mr Zlaoui told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Almost exactly a year later, The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar flung open its doors to the public. A couple of hundred patrons poured into the medium-sized venue and its bar staff should be commended for somehow managing to keep up with the demand to pour them all a drink.

It’s even more impressive considering that The Lab’s service staff were recruited just 10 days before its opening on April 25.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“I know it’s quite hard to find skilled staff so I was stressed – but we were lucky,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Whilst it’s still early days, both managing directors are unanimously confident that their staff are a cut above the rest among the hospitality industry. Each of the 12 employees were headhunted following some strong recommendations from their contractor and executive chef – who also happen to be brothers-in-law. Executive chef Thura (who also goes by Tom) spent 12 years working in kitchens in London and is no stranger to international cuisines. Other candidates were put forward by The Lab’s operations manager, who spent three years in Dubai and is now working alongside several of his former colleagues.

“Most of our staff spent many years working abroad,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Converting the former garments shop into a stylish night venue also went without a hitch, despite the fact that a kitchen, bathroom and water tank needed to be installed, a wall demolished and its drag white walls made over. The brick walls, chairs, tables and light fixtures are custom made, and made in Myanmar.

“Renovations were finished in just six weeks because our contractor is excellent,” Mr Baccouche said.

“Setting up any business in Myanmar isn’t easy – but as you can see it’s possible. In actual fact, our biggest problems weren’t related to Myanmar itself. It was the administrative side of things that took a lot of time. We’d had no advice about how to set up a company,” he added.

However the pair, who were raised in Tunis and have known each other since they were 15 and also later studied together in Toulouse, France, share a strong vision of what they’re offering their clientele: something that can’t be found elsewhere in Yangon – an authentic tapas experience with an international component.

Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“Tapas isn’t a Spanish concept – it’s a Spanish word. The idea of bite-sized foods with a nice glass of wine also exists in Tunisia and other parts of Northern Africa, as well as France and the Middle East. But it’s known by a different name, such as mezze in the Middle East or kamia in Tunisia,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Tapas is well known for encouraging conversation, as diners may stand while sharing plates and aren’t focused on consuming an entire meal placed before them.

“Sharing is caring,” Mr Baccouche said with a laugh.

Needless to say, The Lab’s tapas selection, which at 26 items should please any palate, isn’t limited to Spanish cuisine alone. It also features scrumptious samples of North African fare, such as Mechouia salad with tuna chunks (K3,500), Middle Eastern classics such as falafel (K3,500), houmous (K,3000) and baba ghannouch (K3,000), as well as European, Asian and American.

“Yangon has virtually nothing in the way of Middle Eastern food, so we really wanted to bring that here,” said Mr Baccouche.

Ditto for the music, which are Middles Eastern and African beats. There are also plans in the works to have a Burmese guitarist play acoustic sets from 6.30pm during the week, and further down the track, on weekends as well.

For the foreseeable future, The Lab is only open for dinner – from 5.30pm until late.

“Firstly, I don’t believe in tapas for lunch. And I don’t think it would be worth it because The Lab is in a busy area and parking is difficult. So for now we’re focusing on nights. But if operations run smoothly we could do a Sunday brunch. I’d really like to be able to do that,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche
Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche

The only compromise made on classic tapas dining is not displaying every item on a platter for customers to peruse – a decision made necessary for financial reasons. Almost all The Lab’s produce is sourced locally and arrives fresh every day from the markets, whether it be the squid, shrimp, pork, beef, chicken or veggies. The cold cuts – Italian prosciutto and salami – are imported, as is salmon and tahini, as no other alternative yet exists. Fine cheeses will be added to the menu in around a month’s time, and the entire menu will change as regularly as the seasons.

The Lab is closed Mondays, but on the other six days of the week there’s a two-for-one happy hour for cocktails from 5.30pm until 7:30pm. Its wine selection includes 14 standard wines, seven of which are offered by the glass, plus two of the sparkling variety, the latter of which are produced using the champagne method of double fermentation (K28,000). There’s even champagne itself: a bottle of the best bubbly will set you back K80,000 or 90,000.

Something emphasised above all else is that The Lab aims to provide a new experience – not just during the first visit, but continuously. Its logo has more than a passing resemblance to laboratory equipment sketched in the shape of a wine bottle, and the branding is deliberate.

“Our concept is new and people have responded well to it, which is great,” Mr Baccouche said with a grin.

The Lab is at 70/A Shwe Gon Daing Road, Bahan Township, Yangon.

For bookings, call 09250018200 or 09250537979

For more information, visit The Lab’s Facebook page 

Deep down and dirty – A weirdly fun weekend in Bangkok

After too many weekend jaunts in Bangkok’s Khao San Road area, we finally discovered the perks of staying in Sukhumvit. 

"No glove, no love."  Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok
“No glove, no love.” Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok

My husband and I have been to Bangkok at least 10 times over the past few years and it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve always stayed near the tourist ghetto of Khao San Road. Whilst it’s fun and oh-so-easy, the novelty does wear off (not to mention a growing curiousity about what else is on offer in Bangkok). So before our most recent visa run from Yangon, I asked my Facebook friends where we should stay – and the resounding answer was Sukhumvit, which is also uber farang friendly. One friend specifically recommended the area between Soi 2 and Soi 18 because it’s close to the BTS Skytrain and shopping malls. I was grateful for this advice because Sukhumvit itself is so big that booking a hotel in the “right” spot still felt like rolling a dice and hoping for the best. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up in Soi 3, which unbeknown to us (of course!), is known as “Little Arabia.”

“When did you say your husband is arriving?” my taxi driver asked as he dropped me off at Grand Inn Hotel.

“Tomorrow morning. Why?”

“Ah, nevermind, you’ll be fine,” he said with a grin, and flicked me a 10 baht coin.

Up until then, I’d been gazing out the window at the droolishish range of food on offer (much of which is promoted in trilingual signs comprising Thai, English and Arabic) and hadn’t cottoned on that the Grand Inn Hotel is slap-bang in the middle of a red light district and  a stone’s throw away from the seediest of sex pot destinations in Bangkok, Nana Plaza.

With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza
With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza

After throwing down my bags in our suite (we got upgraded!) I sauntered out at around midnight in search of some big bites to eat. I didn’t want to limit myself to experiencing just one place, so I had half a shawarma at one place before being convinced to have a double with with fries at Dubai Kitchen. As I chatted to the Lahori waiter, I kept swerving around on my seat to take in the exotic array of foot traffic, which included women in burkas and men in shalwar kameez, women with headscarves and huge Amy Winehouse-style hairdos and shockingly bright shades of lipstick, as well as plus size prostitutes who appeared to be both from Thailand, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. According to Lonely Planet, “plus size” is more… erm, popular, in this area… Anyhow, while chowing down my sharwarma,  an elderly man started walking towards me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Uh oh, he thinks I’ve been sizing him up, I thought to myself.

Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!
Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!

“I am a doctor from Lebanon,” he said by way of introduction.

I just nodded, waiting for him to leave or continue.

“Lebanon is a country. It’s near Syria. Do you know Syria? It is a very famous place,” he said.

I was so dumbfounded by how dumb he thought I was (or perhaps women in general?!) that I didn’t know what to say. When I finally gulped out that I was aware of Lebanon’s existence, he seemed not to register.

“We speak Arabic in our country,” he said, while very obviously looking at my legs.

So I dropped the H-Bomb.

“My husband can speak Arabic, though he’s actually from Bangladesh,” I said with a smile.

The man heard that and honestly turned on his heel right away. Within five minutes I saw him engage more successfully with a Russian looking woman – they exchanged numbers.

The Lahori waiter winked at me and I paid up and went home.

Sherpa arrived Saturday morning – he hadn’t been able to come sooner because he couldn’t risk taking a Friday flight in case his newspaper, Myanmar Business Today, hadn’t been put to bed on time. He’d been up at the crack of dawn (and singing at a KTV bar til late!) so he took a nap while I took the train from Nana BTS Station to Siam Square and Siam Parragon – which I know and love for their shopping options. After what seemed to me a very futuristic lunch at Siam Parragon (“The Food Republic” food court doesn’t accept cash – you pay a 10 baht deposit for a card which you put credit on and can use anywhere) I went straight to H&M. However I didn’t fail to notice quite lustily that almost every store on the far more affordable second level appeared to be having a mid-year sale. I adore living in Yangon, but there are certain drawbacks to it. I have large feet so I find it difficult to find shoes that fit me, and as the market is flooded with cheap and not so cheerful Chinese items that can’t withstand much wear and tear, I was down to just one pair of “working girl” shoes (smut intended, ha ha). I rectified that very quickly before turning my attention to purchasing the “basics” I needed to upgrade my sorry wardrobe. Zara and Mango were also having sales – how thrilling to own something from these stores for the first time (which is pretty sad at the age of 33!).

I came home laden with bags and excitedly showed Sherpa. We were heading out to Sirocco Sky Bar – which at 64 floors up, is the highest open air bar in the world! But before that, we needed a reasonably priced dinner and drinks, so we ambled across a few blocks to Gulliver’s Traveller’s Tavern. We sat underneath a revolving red vintage car and drank Redbull and vodkas with our okay-but-not-great meals.

Drinking a "Hangovertini" at the world's highest open air bar
Drinking a “Hangovertini” at the world’s highest open air bar

We weren’t sure how formal the dress code at Sky Bar would be, so it was a relief to see a big sign saying that due to customer feedback, smart casual is alright with them. I presume it used to be stricter in the past – and FYI – management draws the line at singlets dogs, prams and backpacks!

Our ears were popping as the elevator raced up four floors at a time (at least that’s what the electronic sign inside the lift was telling us – plus the fact that it took an incredibly short time to reach the top).

The New York Times described Sky Bar as “the most stunning rooftop bar you’ll ever see” – which is a big call, yes? But I assure you that it cannot disappoint – it’s such a visual treat that it takes a few seconds to take it all in – the view, the circular bar on a precipice that changes colour every 90 seconds, the orchestra, and the glamorous waitresses and clientele. Despite the hype around, it wasn’t packed out, which made it possible to have a drink at the bar and take in a 360 degree view of the behemoth city that is Bangkok.

After the cast of The Hangover trilogy graced the Sky Bar with their undoubtedly hilarious presence, the Hangovertini cocktail was created and named in their honour. Of course we had to have one of those and it was green, weird and lovely – and set us back almost US$20 apiece.

Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok
Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok

We then moved to the outdoor lounge area and had a glass of wine on gorgeous leather pillows before heading to Soi 11, which has the biggest concentration of bars and clubs catering to the expat crowd in Sukhumvit.

We ate German sausages and watched half a World Cup match before calling it a night – well for that night, anyway…

A funky store in Siam Parragon

A funky store in Siam Parragon

We did some “Sherpa shopping” on Sunday (again at H&M) and then checked out MBK mall, which is just a BTS station away. While waiting for my business cards to be printed, we got our hair cut and then made some bargain basement style purchases and seized the rare chance to eat junk at Maccie D’s, which isn’t available in Myanmar.

Such was our innocence the night before that when a girl thought I had asked a cab driver to take us to Soi Cowboy, I had to ask what that was.

“Um, it’s a hotel,” she said.

Not true! An internet search revealed that Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s three naughty zones – the other being Patpong (which I had been to years ago) and to our utter surprise – Nana Plaza (which could actually be the world’s largest sex complex). So we decided to check out the latter, which is apparently the most adult of all, on our final night in Bangkok. I’m not sure that I should try to justify it, but will simply say that as journalists, we’re curious people and if anything exists, I tend to want to see it…

These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok
These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok

And boy did we see it. Amsterdam has nothing on Nana Plaza (to Amsterdam’s credit, that is). We had a beer in a bar called Hillary 4 (I have no idea why there were so many bars called “Hillary” other than a wild speculation that it’s a zany call-out to a stateswoman…), where the waitresses wore hot pants that were skimpier than the width of a belt. Really. One guy kept getting kisses from what seemed to be every woman walking past. It was intense – but we didn’t realise that we weren’t even actually inside Nana Plaza itself.

Nana Plaza is a three storey complex of go-go bars – it’s hard to guess how many, but I think around 50 isn’t an unreasonable estimate. We practically ran inside one of the bars (each with a curtained entrance) because the touts were trying to pull us in different directions. It was almost completely empty and the bored, skinny girls made half-hearted attempts at dancing – some were checking their phones. As we pretty much all know, ping-pong tricks are arguably the hallmark of Thailand’s sex industry. Five ping-pongs cost 100 baht – so I bought one off a waitress (yep, I had had a few drinks by this stage). It seems that these days, the patrons do the “tricks” – I was told to throw one at a girl. I REALLY gulped and shamefully did as she told me. At that moment the five or so girls removed their tops and the one I hit smiled at me. We ran out with our tails between our legs.

We took a breather on the balcony outside before venturing into Temptations Ladyboy Bar. In some ways, this was an easier experience because a “hostess” called Ellen talked to us the whole time and no one got naked. Although Ellen was very full on and we ended up buying her some drinks and a tip to boot, we weren’t scammed or overly intimidated by anyone there. But 30 minutes was enough and we lacked the appetite to check out Soi Cowboy because the scene had made us sad in many ways. We had a sombre late night supper in an Iraqi restaurant and as the quietly spoken young waitress in a headscarf wrote down our orders, I realised that Bangkok is if nothing, an incredibly diverse city.

That night I had a dream that I killed someone – a friend told me later that it was my sense of morality kicking in…

We had time for lunch before our return flight on Monday – and doggedly decided to keep going with the “sexy” theme of the weekend. So we went to Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, which is an initiative by the Population and Community Development Association to promote safe sex and family planning. The food is terrific and the gift shop has some excellent stuff (though Sherpa says I may have overdone it with coasters that say “No glove, no love” and placemats adorned with daisy-shaped condoms!). Oh  and don’t expect to get a complimentary mint with your (reasonably priced) bill – the waiters slip in a couple of condoms instead.

While walking back to our hotel, we stopped in at Pink Pvssy (yes that is the correct spelling) – which is less of sex shop than an accessories store really. In addition to buying a gorgeous wallet and kaftan, we also got silver, heart-shaped identity tags for our dog (who recently went missing for a night and our cat (or “pussy” if I’m being gross…). I was thrilled to be able to get them because my vet in Yangon had told me she’d have to order them from Thailand.

So to wrap up, we flew back to Yangon feeling a bit better dressed, a bit fatter, and a bit less wide eyed and bushy tailed than we were when we arrived.

 

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