Jessica’s top tips for Yangon, Myanmar

Whether you’re contemplating moving to Yangon, planning a trip as a tourist or already living here, my top tips will help you make the most of your experience in Myanmar’s bustling commercial capital.

These days, Yangon is a city on the move. It also has some incredible street art, such as that pictured.
These days, Yangon is a city on the move. It also has some incredible street art, such as that pictured.

A few months ago I was asked to do an interview with Jetstar’s inflight magazine. By mistake I answered every question instead of just a handful (oops), but as I receive quite a few emails from people who are about to move to or visit Yangon, I thought it might be handy to add a few more tips and post them here on my blog.

Artwork at River II Gallery, Yangon
Artwork at River II Gallery, Yangon

Where can I find reliable info on Yangon?

The absolute best source of “real-time” information is a Google group called Yangon Expat Connection. It has thousands of members – both expats and locals – and its forums contain a rich reserve of advice (tip: try searching before posting). I wrote an article about its history for The Myanmar Times, which you can read here. If you are looking to rent a flat, buy a car/motorbike/furniture, find a Myanmar language teacher etc it is incredibly helpful – and it also keeps you up to date with what’s going on in the city – whether it be a new gallery opening or a sporting team created. For event listings, try myanmore.

The latest edition of Lonely Planet Myanmar came out in September 2014 – and it’s a worthwhile investment because the changes that have taken place since the previous edition was published in 2011 are vast. Click here to read my interview with coordinating author Simon Richmond, who spent a great deal of time updating the guide for our benefit.

Rest assured that Perfect Guesthouse didn't make the cut for Lonely Planet's recommended hotel recommendations
Rest assured that Perfect Guesthouse didn’t make the cut for Lonely Planet’s recommended hotel recommendations

Another welcome new release is a book called “Expatriate in Myanmar: A Guide for Newcomers” by Janice Merchant. Frankly, the title undersells the content, which spans 200-odd pages and took 18 months to research. In addition to providing advice on planning your move, the shopping, entertainment and services directory is a boon for longish-term expats and has also been praised by locals (so I’ve heard!) for condensing need-to-know info in a very readable form. It’s stocked in Yangon’s popular bookstores such as Bagan Book House and Monument, and an e-book is on its way. Click here to read more about what it offers.

Scour local artwork at Bogyoke Market and find yourself a treasure
Scour local artwork at Bogyoke Market and find yourself a treasure

Should I move to Yangon? This is a question I’m frequently asked because as Myanmar’s economy rapidly expands, an ever increasing number of foreigners are being offered the chance to relocate. The short answer is yes. Why? Because Yangon is unlike any other city (at least those I’ve known) and anyone with an open mind will be amply rewarded by the experiences you’ll acquire. Until quite recently, Yangon was more of a town that a city, but so much has changed in a commercial sense (and will continue to at a rapid rate) that many of its infamous hardships (such as hundred dollar SIM cards, zero international banking and censored internet browsing) no longer exists. To me, the best thing about Yangon is that it has retained its unique charm and element of surprise. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent hours commuting in taxis (due to the dire state of public transport) yet I still find myself looking out the window rather than reading a book or checking my emails – just because Yangon’s street life is so interesting. And each township has  its own distinctive quality – to the point where you may begin to wonder whether you’re still in the same city.

Best bars: Yangon’s best known watering hole is 50th Street Bar and Café on (no surprise) 50th Street. The cheesy-sounding Friendship Bar on Dhamazedi Road isn’t at all cheesy – and it’s also an easy venue for large groups. Union Bar is a swanky alternative – there’s two for one martinis on Friday nights and they pack a punch. Its “sister” bar and cafe, Gekko, is also beautifully designed and opened in March 2014. Water Library and Cask 81 caters for high flyers – The Water Library reportedly has the widest selection of spirits and liquors in the country (see photo above for proof!). Other great places include Sapphire Lounge, Mojo Bar (which has a terrific dance floor and is always packed on weekends), Flamingo Bar, Gossip Bar and Escape Bar. I did a bar crawl recently for My Magical Myanmar in search of Yangon’s hottest nightspots, which you can read here.

The Water Library
The Water Library

Though it’s more of a beer station [pub] than a bar, Kaung Myat is fantastic. It’s next door to the well known Ko San bar, which is a cheap, cheerful and increasingly popular hangout for locals and expats alike. There’s a Ko San at Hledan junction but I prefer the Chinatown venue, which is on the upper block of 19th Street (also known as ‘Beer Street’). At Ko San, you can sit out the front and soak up the atmosphere, or soak up your beers inside with aircon.

Top three shopping spots: Bogyoke Aung San Market is geared towards tourists and has a fantastic range of jewellery, lacquer ware, paintings, clothes and antiques – it’s reasonably pricey though. Junction Square shopping mall has a huge range of fashion and it’s possible to buy Lacoste and other top range brands for almost half the price of Singapore or Australia. I like a clothing store downstairs called Rag and Denim, and it also has Etude House – lovely cosmetics and beauty care from South Korea. Citymart Marketplace on Dhamazedi Road is Yangon’s best supermarket – almost any craving can be satisfied here and it has specific portions of aisles for foods from Australia, Italy, Japan, Korea, and so forth. That said, stocks tend to change from week to week so buy in bulk!

Facebook Fashion?!
Facebook Fashion?!

Top three places to catch a live band: Since MTV organised a concert at Peoples’ Square in January, a number of international bands are beginning to tour in Yangon. The outdoor venue has a backdrop of a 2000-year-old, 60 tonne gold pagoda, which is magical.  50th Street Bar and Cafe has regular gigs and it’s a beautiful building with a spiral staircase cutting through the middle. Allaince Francaise is probably the only other venue available for live music. Yangon also has a vibrant hip-hop and metal scene. Concerts by Myanmar artists are usually advertised on billboards. Open mic sessions are held at Nawaday Gallery. Myanmore and Yangonlife provide comprehensive nightlife guides on their websites.

Gekko Bar and Cafe
Gekko Bar and Cafe

Best day trip from the city: Dala village – take a ferry from opposite the Strand Hotel and 15 minutes later you’ll find yourself in another world. Hire a  trishaw or motorbike to get around. Visit in the afternoon and you’ll see women carrying huge containers of water on their heads after pumping water from the wells. Ask your driver/trishaw to stop off at a palm toddy drinking station. Toddy is a local brew across Southeast Asia and India that has quite a kick. NGOs neglect this area for a variety of reasons, so please make a donation if you can. Hope School and Orphanage is one of many worthwhile causes here and it’s well known to trishaw/motorcycle drivers.

Where can I get a great steak? Onyx Restaurant (opposite Savoy Hotel on the corner of Inya Road and Dhamazedi Road) is fantastic. The wines are wonderful and the prices impressively low.

Best place for outdoor exercise: The pavements in Yangon aren’t at all reliable for jogging – you could end up a foot deep in sewerage! So I recommend Kokhine Swimming Pool – a complex with two 25-metre pools, plus a great restaurant and bar (to pack a few calories back on!). There’s a 50 metre swimming pool on U Wisara Road (the National Swim Centre) but you need to sign up for a monthly membership (which is about K25,000 and you need to bring your passport).

Enjoy family fun at Happy World Amusement Park in Yangon
Enjoy family fun at Happy World Amusement Park in Yangon

Best local nature spot or park: Kandawgi Lake is 110 acres and it’s great during the night or day. There is a boardwalk around the lake, which has a stunning royal barge (also a restaurant) and there is also a public swimming pool. Quite popular with joggers and people having a picnic – there’s also a large selection of lake-front restaurants. Inya Lake is also beautiful.

If you need a giraffe with a scarf, head straight to Pomelo! It's my favourite handicrafts store in Yangon - and it's all fair trade.
If you need a giraffe with a scarf, head straight to Pomelo! It’s my favourite handicrafts store in Yangon – and it’s all fair trade.

Best coffee: Hard question… Sharky’s probably has Yangon’s finest coffee (and delectable ice-cream and paninis), though there are now multitudes of places serving great coffee. As you’ll see in the comments below, a reader called Ian suggests that the swanky Boon Dutch Deli and Espresso Bar, which is next to Bogyoke Aung San Market, trumps anywhere else in Yangon. Yangon Bakehouse in Pearl Condo is another excellent choice – and it’s a feel-good one too, because the social business trains women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coffee is also widely available at streetside eateries, though it’s sometimes made with two-in-one sachets. Try asking for “coffee kaka” which is stronger and less sweet.

Is Yangon a safe city? Yes – it may be one of Asia’s safest cities. Incidents of crime are very low, particularly against foreigners. I’ve had friends visit from Cambodia and Vietnam and they were shocked to learn that you don’t have to keep a close eye on your bag while drinking at a beer station or whatever. Traffic is possibly the biggest danger – but it’s far less nerve-wracking or congested than in places such as Jakarta, Delhi, Dhaka or Mumbai.

My husband and I with traditional Burmese dance performers at Karaweik Palace
My husband and I with traditional Burmese dance performers at Karaweik Palace

Best date restaurant (or spot for intimate dining with a partner): L’Opera serves wonderful Italian food and the wine glasses are generously filled. The candlelit interior overlooking the garden dining area is particularly romantic and the service is really good. The French restaurant L’alchemiste, which faces Inya Lake, is also very beautiful.

Where can I buy furniture for my home? MK Furniture at Excel Treasure Tower has nice some really nicely designed pieces from Thailand – it’s located under the Shwegondine flyover. If you have deep pockets, head straight to Marchetti close by, on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road. Cooking appliances, plastic ware and furniture at lower prices can be found at Gandamar Wholesale, which is on the corner of Waizayandar Road and Gandamar Road in Mayangone Township. On the ground floor is a supermarket – there’s not a massive range of imported foods but it’s perhaps a little cheaper than Citymart and the alcohol range is excellent (ie a case of 24 Dagon beer cans costs around $12). You can also try posting on YEC or checking the forum regularly, although things are sold pretty quickly due to the high number of members it has (around 2,000). Ocean super stores are also good and popping up in different parts around town.

Most beautiful view in Yangon: It has to be the gold and glittering Shwedagon Pagoda – it’s Yangon’s most iconic structure hands-down, and fortunately it’s so enormous that it can be seen from most parts of the city. The restaurant on the 17th floor of Sakura Hotel has a 360 degree view – it’s a good place to get yourself orientated, though the food isn’t much chop (there’s a rule: no food = no camera). Vista Bar (next to Yves Rocher at Shwegondaing intersection) has a fabulous view and it’s a beautiful bar. Same goes for Sapphire Bar.

Myanmar fare
Myanmar fare

Best cheap eat: Lucky 7 is a chain of street eats that are reliably delicious and pretty hygienic. Lucky 7 serves everything from Shan noodles and avocado juice to Myanmar’s national dish, the noodle fish broth known as mohinga. It’s a little tricky finding Lucky 7 though, because the red, white and blue logo is in Myanmar.

A favourite or “secret” spot: If you turn left instead of right at Inya Lake from Kabar Aye Pagoda Rd, there’s a sweet little coffee shop (with plastic, child-sized chairs, which is actually pretty common in Yangon) overlooking the river and a view of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s house. It’s definitely a date spot for locals, who can be seen here and there cuddling under the privacy of an umbrella…

Best place to change currency: Yangon International Airport is a convenient option on arrival, now that black market rates are the same as the official exchange rate (the latter of which used to be a fraction of the black market rate). However there are so many places to change money these days, as well as ATMs for VISA and Mastercard holders, that you won’t find it a hassle. Downtown options to exchange money include Bogyoke Market and Summit Parkview Hotel. Make sure you bring pristine US currency though – anything older than 2006 will be knocked back, or if a note has the tiniest of marks on it.

Pansodan Scene is a beautiful gallery and it also hosts public lectures on Sundays, as well as Burmese classes, as pictured. Its located on the upper floor of 144 Pansodan Street.
Pansodan Scene is a beautiful gallery and it also hosts public lectures on Sundays, as well as Burmese classes, as pictured. Its located on the upper floor of 144 Pansodan Street.

Where to go if you want to party: GTR Club on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road (turn right as soon you approach Inya Lake Hotel) gets going from 10pm and is packed by midnight. There are two poles on small stages – usually occupied by a group of friends rather than hired dancers or anything saucy like that. DJ club is opposite, but gets a smaller crowd. Dress to impress at both. MBox is also fun – it’s opposite People’s Park (has karaoke too) on Ahlone Road. And there’s a newish club downstairs called Rehab that’s even better… It hosts a monthly LGBT night – FAB – which is a lot of fun.

Where to go if you prefer a quiet night out: The Curry Table at the Governor’s Residence is a buffet style meal in the grand, open-air teak building, overlooking the pool. It’s less than US$50 a person and includes unlimited beer and green tea. Gorgeous art, divine food and deeply atmospheric. I also love Coriander Leaf, an Indian restaurant very close to MBox (see above) and Alamanda Inn in Bahan Township.

Best cinema: Nay Pyi Taw Cinema shows US releases and has a 3D cinema. It also hosts international film festivals fairly regularly. There are also cinemas at major shopping centres, such Junction Square. Mingalar cinemas owns most cinemas and you can check timings on its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mingalarcinemas?ref=ts&fref=ts If you’d like to see a Myanmar movie, go to Thamada cinema downtown, on Alan Pya Pagoda St. It’s best to buy a ticket at least an hour in advance or you’ll find yourself in the lower circle. There’s no English subtitles but it’s great fun all the same.

Sunday brunch at Inya Lake Hotel is nothing short of fabulous
Sunday brunch at Inya Lake Hotel is nothing short of fabulous

Best theatre: The only theatre I know of is the National Theatre, which is on Myoma Kyaung Street in Dagon Township. There are also cultural shows with traditional Burmese dancing held each night at 6.30pm at Karaweik  Hall (the royal barge on Kandawgyi Lake). A friend said the shows were excellent. Dinner is served in the hall also.

Where to get pampered? There’s an abundance of hair, nail and beauty salons throughout Yangon and services are extraordinarily good value. Tony Tun Tun has a great reputation for hair and Fancy House (which has a few outlets, including at Citymart Marketplace and a very large one in Parami) – is wonderful and also offers massages and waxing. Men are welcome also. However I enjoy going to the family-run beauty parlour around the corner from my place – a one hour massage costs just $5 and together with a hair wash and blow wave, plus toe and fingernails painted, it costs me just $12 all up!

Best place to see live sport (and what sport): Myanmar people are crazy about football and although they’re less crazy about their own league than the English Premier one, watching a match during the Myanmar National League at Thuwana stadium is the best way to go.

Enjoy a lavish cultural show at Karaweik Palace
Enjoy a lavish cultural show at Karaweik Palace

Most unique tourist experience: The Yangon Circle Line is a really old train that does a 50 kilometre loop around Yangon – at parts the scenery is very rural and it takes about three hours to do the full loop. The train leaves from Yangon Central Station and costs a dollar, but it’s possible to jump off at any station and see where you end up (there’s an interesting pagoda close to Insein station, for example, which is at the halfway point of the loop). As well as watching vendors sell anything from bird feeders to cosmetics inside the carriages, it offers a glimpse of life in Yangon – particularly of those less fortunate and who eek out an existence by the side of the railway lines. Water buffalos can be seen swimming in muddy ponds during the wet season and there’s a massive ‘car cemetery’ where cars from the government’s car substitution program are stacked about 20 metres high, for about a mile.

Taking a trishaw for a short trip is another great local experience - expect to pay around K300 for five minutes or so. And they aren't powered by babies ;)
Taking a trishaw for a short trip is another great local experience – expect to pay around K300 for five minutes or so. And they aren’t powered by babies ;)

Best local dish: I love Myanmar’s salads – they’re like no other salad I know. Lahpethoke (pronounced lapeto) is a pickled tea leaf salad and it is considered a delicacy. Other ingredients included tiny dried shrimps, onion and sesame seeds. It’s served at most street cafes as well as restaurants. Try to scoop the meat or veg in your curry onto the plate of rice to avoid gaining weight from eating a tonne of oil (a mistake I made!).

Best restaurant to try local produce: Monsoon Restaurant offers authentic Myanmar, dishes in a very comfortable and elegant setting, and a three course meal with a few glasses of Myanmar wine is likely to cost less about $20. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair dined there during a quick trip to Yangon in November 2013, if that’s anything to go by! Its menu also includes Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Western fare. There’s also a chic yet cheap gallery upstairs that exhibits works by disadvantaged groups. It’s called Pomelo – I highly recommend getting souvenirs there. Green Elephant is another option, although it’s geared towards tourists and the curries lack enough spice and are quite oily despite recommending itself as a healthier Myanmar food option. Padonmar Restaurant has a very pretty garden for outdoor dining, as well having private rooms that are great for functions or special occasions. Click here to read my review of Padonmar.

Alamanda Inn in Golden Valley is a lovely French restaurant and boutique hotel
Alamanda Inn in Golden Valley is a lovely French restaurant and boutique hotel

Best way to get around: An air-conditioned taxi (it’s the only way really, as the buses are hugely overcrowded and difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Myanmar). The chances of finding a taxi with AC are increasing, although metred taxis don’t exist. Expect to pay 1500 kyats for a short trip and about K5000 per hour.

Best place to stay: If you book early and can afford the rooms that start at $400, the Governor’s Residence is a cut above the rest. It’s surrounded by lush gardens and the pool is spectacular. Word has it that it’s the number one choice for visiting celebrities as well. For the budget backpacker seeking a backpacker scene, try Motherland Inn II. I’ve heard really good things about the bed and breakfast at Bike World Yangon, which is located outside the downtown area. For longer visits (or even one night), try Yangon Home Stay – $40 a night and you have a home set-up with all the facilities that entails. Alamanda Inn (also a restaurant, mentioned above) gets rave reviews too.

Downtown Yangon
Downtown Yangon

Best local festival: The water festival, better known as Thingyan, celebrates the Myanmar New Year and provides a welcome respite from the April heat. Water-throwing stages are set up in all the major cities and towns. It’s virtually impossible to stay dry as only the monks are spared from the high-pressure hoses and super soakers… I also love Thadingyut, “the lights festival,” which takes place at the end of October.

Where do most expats live? In Golden Valley, Bahan township. I live further out in Parami (past Inya Lake) and I think it’s beautiful there too. I know people who pay as little as $150 a month for a flatshare in the downtown area, though I think $400 is about the norm. The best way of finding a rental property is through Yangon Expat Connection. The worst thing about renting in Yangon is that rent must be paid up front – usually a minimum of six months or a year. Paying a year ahead is advisable, because landlords frequently hike up the price after the six month lease has come to an end. If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard that in Jakarta, landlords demand two years rent in advance… If you go through an agent here (advisable), you will also need to pay a month’s rate to them.

Where to buy pets: There’s a pet shop on the ground floor of Yuzana Plaza, but conditions are fairly dire and depressing. I wrote an article about the pet import/export process, which you can read here. Better still, adopt a pup from Yangon Animal Shelter. They’re always on the look-out for people willing to foster a pup, even temporarily. I wrote an article about the shelter, which you can read here (my post also contains a list of vets in Yangon). For pet supplies such as cat litter and toys – even scratching posts – try Hello pet shop at Excel Treasure Tower, under Shwegondine overpass. You can also leave a donation for the Yangon Animal Shelter while there.

Yangon's Drug Eradication Museum is one of the city's quirkier attractions - and is possibly the creepiest!
Yangon’s Drug Eradication Museum is one of the city’s quirkier attractions – and is possibly the creepiest!

Best brunch: Inya Lake Hotel, without a doubt. The buffet range for every course is out of this world and the setting is really beautiful, particularly from the outside area, which overlooks a beautiful lake. It’s great value at $25 per person because it also includes unlimited sparkling wine and beer. From 11am to 2pm every Sunday. Other alternatives include Kandawgyi Palace and Sedona Hotel.

Where to take the kids: Either the Yangon Zoo or Happy World, an indoor amusement park. Keep an eye on your kids at the zoo because it’s pretty “interactive”! DON’T take your kids to the Crocodile Farm in Thaketa – it’s not even safe for adults!!

Best place to relax: Lunch at the Strand Hotel. It’s the epitome of old world charm and a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle downtown. Needless to say the food is faultless too.

The Yangon Circle Line train
The Yangon Circle Line train

Must-have souvenir: A set of Burmese currency from the old days, featuring a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San. Available at Bogyoke Aung San Market. November 2013 update – Aung San will soon appear on Myanmar bank notes – so get the vintage ones while you can! Traditional parasols are very beautiful (and lightweight) – as is Burma’s famous lacquerware products.

Tricks at Thaketa crocodile farm
Tricks at Thaketa crocodile farm

Where can I buy second-hand furniture? Beats me. Sure, there are regular “for sale” postings on YEC, but they tend to be sold in a flash for pretty high prices. Iit’s beyond me why there aren’t yet any second hand furniture stores in Yangon.

Best local art gallery or artist: The River Gallery at the Strand has Andy Warhol-esque monk paintings, plus a great variety of antique styled souvenirs. In October 2013 it opened a second gallery, River II, just up the road from The Strand itself. Its range also includes modern art sculptures for the French artist Robert Patrick, who has lived in Myanmar for about 25 years. As Gill the owner once told me, Myanmar is possibly the last place in Southeast Asia where it’s possible to buy art made by the best for less than US$10,000 (!). Nathalie Johnston’s blog, Myanmar Art Evolution, is a wonderful resource for getting the lowdown on all things Myanmar art.

Best local designer or boutique/menswear shop: There’s a men’s tailor at Bogyoke Market called Mantops that’s a hit with my male colleagues. The fabric and stitching is a real bargain for the price apparently. I myself have never had tailoring done in Yangon due to language difficulties and a friend who has lived here for nine years says it’s not worth the hassle of returning for re-fittings time and time again.

Look like a local and slap on the thanaka!
Look like a local and slap on the thanaka!

Thing to do that will make you look like a local: Ladies can wear thanaka, which is a sandalwood paste that acts as a sunscreen and controls oil – most local women won’t leave home without it. Men can wear a lunghi, a one-piece wrap-around cloth. But there’s no buttons, zippers or ties so be sure to practice at home first! If you’re feeling adventurous, get yourself some betel to chew on. It’s a mild narcotic that you chew, not swallow. The “blood stains” you’ll see almost everywhere are courtesy of betel spitters.

Where to send your kids to school: International School Yangon has a strong reputation and I was very impressed by its (resort-like) grounds.

Where to buy a newspaper: It’s still not easy finding an English language newspaper on the streets of Yangon. Sometimes you’ll find what you’re looking for at Citymart or Family Mart supermarkets, or in cafes. The only daily English language paper is Myanma Freedom Daily (where I work part-time). English language weekly newspapers/magazines include Myanmar Business Today, Mizzima, The Myanmar Times and Irrawaddy. Most hotels have a good stock.

Where to see a doctor: SOS Clinic at Inya Lake Hotel is meant to be good – but a consultation costs around $40 I hear. When I fainted and fell on my head and needed stitches, I went to Yangon General Hospital. They did a good job – I had them removed at Bahosi Hospital on Lanmadaw Street and have but the faintest scar. If you need a pap smear, I believe Victoria Hospital in 9 Mile is the only place that can do that.  The Australian embassy also has a medical clinic.

Can I buy tampons? Nope, not yet. Although a reader told me there is a fairly expensive brand available at Citymarket supermarkets, I haven’t managed to find them… Condoms and contraceptive pills are widely available at convenience stores and are mostly limited to the Marvelon brand.

Where can I meet local and foreign journalists? The Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club has meet-ups on the first Tuesday of every month on Chinatown’s 19th Street (also known as “Beer Street”). Join our Facebook group for more details. It’s also a good forum for posting journo-related questions. I hope this helps, but things change so quickly in Yangon that this post will always be a work in progress. Please leave a comment if you find something different or better than the above…

Lending a helping hand to Myanmar’s upland communities

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 17 August 2014

Joern Kristensen, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development
Joern Kristensen, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development

Joern Kristensen is the executive director of Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, a non-profit research and development organisation he founded in January. MIID’s focus is on economic development, natural resources management, heritage preservation, governance and social protection and it works mainly in upland regions with large ethnic minority communities, many of which have suffered decades of civil conflict linked to the production and trafficking of narcotics. These communities are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods but have been affected by climate change, environmental degradation, food insecurity and a lack of social protection. Mr Kristensen, who has worked in humanitarian and development programs for more than 30 years, spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about his passion for improving the lives of some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable people.

Before establishing MIID this year, you served as a director of the Institute for International Development (IID) Myanmar for four years. Please describe the difference between the two organisations.

IID is an Australian-based network of consultants that operates in several countries. I supported the establishment of IID-Myanmar and assisted in directing a number of IID’s studies. Early this year, when IID’s directors decided to seek a partnership with a large international consulting company and to pursue bigger, commercial contracts, my staff and I felt the time was right to withdraw from IID and establish our own independent entity. However we continue to undertake projects for IID that are of mutual interest.

MIID focuses on Myanmar’s upland areas, where there are large ethnic minority populations who have often been affected by armed conflict and the production and trafficking of narcotics. How does MIID gain access to those areas, which are often not under government control?

Our field work is carried out in close cooperation with local authorities and civil society. Our relationships with Union, state and regional governments – as well as in the self-administered zones where we have worked since the new constitution established these new entities in 2011, is based on transparency and open communication. The invaluable knowledge of our Myanmar staff is key to building confidence in our projects.

Furthermore, the majority of areas where the production and trafficking of narcotics takes place is today under government control, and there is no particular danger in entering these areas. Last year, I found myself walking through a huge opium field in Shan State, together with a colleague, and nobody took any notice of us.

Mountainous Chin State. Photo supplied by MIID
Mountainous Chin State. Photo supplied by MIID

Describe the process that links MIID’s research projects with community-led initiatives, such as developing social protection measures.

Real social protection requires the involvement of government because it is responsible for protecting its citizens. Other stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, monasteries and churches also play an important role. Without the government taking on a role, social protection will remain weak and as a result citizens may suffer mistreatment and abuse. That has characterised the situation in Myanmar for many years, both in areas where there are a majority of ethnic minority communities and elsewhere. It was only after the change of government in 2011 that social protection in its true sense was placed on the agenda. While it’s encouraging to see that the government does want to give priority to social issues, it’s also important to understand that social protection is about more than improving health care services and education facilities.

With financial support from DANIDA [the Danish International Development Agency] and UNICEF [the United Nations Children’s Fund], MIID is currently preparing an Economic Development and Social Plan for Chin State. By working in close cooperation with the Chin State Government and civil society groups across the state, we have identified a range of social protection issues. In addition to the most common problems of a lack of access to education and health care services due to poverty and isolation, other issues include the exclusion of people with disabilities, child labour, gender discrimination, domestic violence and elderly people without any family support. The Economic and Social Plan for Chin State will be the first of its kind in Myanmar. MIID will present a number of project ideas for interventions at the community level to be implemented in cooperation with the state government and civil society. The project will help to enable the Chin State Government to seek funding from the Union Government and international donors, as well as prioritising the state government’s own resources for social protection.

 

Continue reading Lending a helping hand to Myanmar’s upland communities

Lifestyle changes linked to alarming rise in diabetes in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 11 September 2014

The Department of Endocrinology at North Okkalapa General Hospital, Yangon
The Department of Endocrinology at North Okkalapa General Hospital, Yangon

With the first nationwide survey on diabetes prevalence in Myanmar set to launch in September and a public awareness campaign already well under way, the country’s ability to effectively address one of the most common non-communicable diseases is gaining strength. However diabetes experts have expressed concern that prevalence rates will increase at an alarming pace as a result of changing lifestyles among urban populations and a widespread lack of knowledge about the disease.

“We’re seeing more and more cases of Type 1 diabetes among younger people – some are as young as 10. A decade or so ago, the vast majority of diabetes patients I treated were always over the age of 40. I’m also starting to see a lot of cases of Type 2 diabetes among pregnant women in their twenties,” said Professor Than Than Aye, who is head of the department of medicine and endocrinology at North Okkalapa General Hospital.

Professor Than Than Aye said that wealthy Yangonites are most at risk.

“People in Yangon are much less physically active than those in rural areas and their diets are rich in calories. The number of fast food chains opening really worries me, because most are unaware of the dangers of a bad diet. People are also spending more time on the internet or just using a computer and lead sedentary lifestyles,” she told Mizzima Business Weekly.

According to the World Health Organisation, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in Myanmar. Its estimated prevalence is six percent nationwide and 12 percent among rural populations. The number of undiagnosed cases is estimated at over a million people.

However obtaining concrete data that is representative of the entire country is necessary to effectively address the public health risk, said Dr Ko Ko, a professor at Department of Medicine at North Okkala General Hospital.

“The results from the survey will show us the magnitude of the problem. At the moment all we know is that diabetes is a big problem.”

Dr Ko Ko
Dr Ko Ko

The survey is being funded by the International Diabetes Federation and will be carried out by the Ministry of Health, with WHO providing technical assistance. Preparations for the survey have been underway since last October and it will include random sampling of almost 10,000 people in 52 of Myanmar’s 350 townships.

In 2003 a survey of 5,000 people was carried out in Yangon – a sample set that Dr Ko Ko said is too small and socio-economically selective to be reliable. Although in 2009 a nationwide survey on non-communicable diseases was undertaken, diabetes was excluded because the budget allocated by the government was insufficient to cover the cost of blood tests, which is the only means of providing an accurate diagnosis of diabetes.

Fortunately, care standards have been improving since 2012, when Myanmar’s first Department of Endocrinology opened at North Okkalapa General Hospital. The specialist department adheres to guidelines set by the American Diabetes Association and is able to provide the comprehensive care package that other general hospitals lack.

“The benefit of having a separate department dedicated to the treatment and prevention of diabetes is huge. Staff at general hospitals have so many duties to carry out and they’re overburdened. Here we’re able to provide specialist treatment, particularly for life-threatening complications that occur as a result of not managing the condition properly,” said Professor Than Than Aye, who has more than three decades of experience in treating diabetes, including two years at a hospital in the United Kingdom.

A young monk receives treatment at North Okkala General Hospital in Yangon
A young monk receives treatment at North Okkala General Hospital in Yangon

The department treats around 100 patients every week and as many as a third have never been diagnosed with diabetes. Professor Than Than Aye said that her patients fit broadly within two groups: the first are those who arrive with acute complications, such as dangerously high blood sugar levels, urinary tract infections, ulcers, hypertension and fevers.

Others require treatment for minor associated illnesses, or have been recently referred by their GP after being diagnosed with diabetes.

“When a patient arrives for treatment for the first time, we carry out a comprehensive medical checkup that reveals any complications, such as numbness in the feet – which can lead to a permanent disability. We also provide education about how to manage diabetes, such as changing their diet to avoid a lot of carbohydrates such as rice, as well as leading a more active lifestyle. Patients also need to understand that even if they feel healthy, regular check-ups to test glucose levels are vital to delaying complications setting in for as long as possible,” Professor Than Than Aye said.

However the costs of managing this lifetime disease are too high for many of the general hospital’s patients, and although the government began providing free medicines to in-patients in 2011, this has not yet been extended to outpatients.

“In the past, Myanmar’s health budget was just o.4% of the GDP [gross domestic product], while now it’s 4 percent – and the ministry has promised us it will be increase in the future. It’s given us some breathing room,” said Dr Ko Ko.

However donations from private individuals remain the lifeblood of the entire hospital’s ability to care for its patients – who consistently outnumber the number of beds available.

Up until two years ago, North Okkalapa General Hospital lacked an elevator: patients were carried up flights of stairs on stretchers – and were then required to pay for the labour involved. Continue reading Lifestyle changes linked to alarming rise in diabetes in Myanmar

Myanmar’s construction boom spurs rapid growth in paint and coatings

Published in Asia Pacific Coatings Journal in March 2014

A UPG Premier showroom in Yangon
A UPG Premier showroom in Yangon

Myanmar’s booming construction industry is spurring rapid growth in the paints and coatings sector, as a steadily increasing number of foreign firms attempt to stake out a share in a market that was until relatively recently, decidedly lackluster.

Myanmar’s construction industry is currently valued at US$3bn and is forecasted to grow to US$4.2 billion by 2016, according to a February 2014 report by the financial advisory firm New Crossroads Asia.

According to Paris-based global market research firm IPSOS, 49 percent of construction projects in 2013 were residential. The domestic market is currently worth US$1.5 billion, according to New Crossroads Asia.

Next comes infrastructure, which comprises 28 percent of all projects, while industrial construction makes up 14 percent, commercial 6 percent, and “other” 3 percent.

While many investors remain hesitant to invest until the 2015 general election has passed, analysts predict stronger growth in the long-term: “Growth will average 10.8 percent per annum between 2016 and 2023, making [Myanmar] one of the fastest growing construction markets in Asia,” according to London based research firm Business Monitor International (BMI).

However unlike many of its ASEAN neighbours, a paints and coatings industry association is yet to exist in Myanmar. The closest equivalent is the Chemical Industry Group (CIG), which falls under the Myanmar Industries Association.

A spokesperson from the Myanmar Industries Association told Asia Pacific Coatings Journal, “We don’t know the value of the paint and coatings market in Myanmar because we can only obtain figures from our association’s member companies.”

“Having a specific body set up would definitely help develop Myanmar’s paint and coatings sector,” said Kansai Paint’s Managing Director Aung Nyunt Thaung.

He said that whilst the Myanmar Investment Commission now requires the submission of environmental impact assessments, there remains no ban on paints and coatings which are harmful to the environment or human health.

“Some of the smaller companies lack knowledge about the contents of raw materials and potential risks,” Aung Nyunt Thaung said.

Local company dominates

Aung Kyaw Myint, Business Coordinator at United Paint Group Co., Ltd (UPG) told Asia Pacific Coatings Journal that UPG has a staggering 85 percent market share in Myanmar.

“UPG’s products are all over the country, even in the smallest of shops – we’re sending out trucks every day.”

Kansai’s Managing Director is well aware of UPG’s dominance in local market share, but suggests that the data may be a little overblown.

“We accept that UPG is the market leader, but I think its market share is lower; perhaps around 65 or 70 percent. After all, there are so many competitors, including many local ones. Businesspeople in Myanmar don’t seem to see the need for robust data – ‘statistics’ are often based on rough calculations,” said Aung Nyunt Thaung.

He partly attributes UPG’s dominance to retailers being given shares in the company: “That’s why they are all over the country.”

Recent additions to Yangon's skyline
Recent additions to Yangon’s skyline

UPG was established in 1995 and is wholly Myanmar owned. It imports raw materials from Germany and locally manufactures decorative paints, wood coatings, automotive primers, thinners and tinting systems. It has several seals of approval from regulatory bodies (including the International Standards Organisation) for environmental management and occupational health and safety.

Continue reading Myanmar’s construction boom spurs rapid growth in paint and coatings

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