I first visited Myanmar in 1993. I was there working on an HIV/AIDS project for UNICEF. I remember feeling as if I had been transported via time machine to the 1940s. Slogans urging people to lead a ‘disciplined life’ lined the streets and welcomed us at government offices.

Back then the former hermit kingdom was still in the grips of a military junta. At that time, it looked like a nation the world had forgotten. So it seemed to be a remarkable destiny that I was back 20 years later on yet another project with UNICEF – this time a pilot project on education reforms.

Through the years when Myanmar was under military rule, only two nations did business with the generals: China and Thailand. Now, the floodgates have opened.

My return travels revealed just how much the country has changed since the military began relaxing its grip. Through the years when Myanmar was under military rule, only two nations did business with the generals: China and Thailand. Now, the floodgates have opened.

The current flow of visitors to Myanmar appears to have two diametrically opposite intentions. Travellers want to experience a land that is steeped in history and a Buddhist culture that has remained intact for hundreds of years – through colonization and war – while business men and women are keen to strike deals in a market that is large, underdeveloped and rich in resources.

Tourists and the devout intermingle at Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. Image by Thomas Z H Zhu via Flickr.

Tourists and the devout intermingle at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. Image by Thomas Z H Zhu via Flickr.

New era, new capital, new visitors

While the journey from military junta to token democracy was long, the transition itself was sudden. In 2010 the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party led by Thein Sein came into power via general election.

Since then thousands of political prisoners have been released, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. In April 2012, the U.S. and E.U. eased sanctions, marking the end of years of diplomatic and commercial isolation.

The generals were evidently preparing for this change. A brand new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, was built 320 km north of the former capital of Yangon (Rangoon) and inaugurated on March 27, 2006.

Even though a lot of new hotels are currently being built in Naypyidaw, there isn’t much to see or do there, unless you have meetings with government officials. During my visit in September 2013, our project team leader described the city as “a set of impressive buildings standing in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp.”

Nevertheless one need only look to the city’s airport to witness the commercial transformation in effect. Planeloads of Japanese, Australian, Korean and Indian business folks are descending upon the new capital city and are driving up hotel rates and taxi fares from the airport to downtown.

The new capital, Nay Pyi Taw remains under construction. Image by Alex Drainville via Flickr.

The new capital, Nay Pyi Taw remains under construction. Image by Alex Drainville via Flickr.

Myanmar opens its doors

The attractiveness of Myanmar to foreign investors comes from its ample natural resources and its young populace. The working-age population is estimated to make up 76 percent of the country’s 60 million people.

Myanmar is the only country in the world where the share of agriculture in the nation’s GDP actually grew in the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. All that is destined to change fast, however. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030, 10 million non-agricultural jobs will be created.

myanmar-investment-chart2-smallBy that year, the GDP is expected to quadruple from its current value to $200 billion. In order to achieve that growth, an investment of $650 billion is required – half of that in infrastructure alone.

Myanmar is a telecommunications greenfield. At the end of last year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, only nine percent of the population held a mobile phone subscription. The government wants to increase that figure to 75-80 percent by 2016.

The country is ready for investment, and foreign investors are hungry to fill the gap. Norway’s Telenor and Qatar Telecom were the first foreign firms to win the bid to develop the mobile communications industry.

International brands like Coca-Cola, British American Tobacco and Nissan have also moved in early. Last year’s largest investor came from Malaysia: Nissan’s Malaysian partner Tan Chong Motor Holdings Bhd is setting up a plant, and will be the first international automaker to assemble cars in the country.

But for now, the streets of Yangon are packed with reconditioned cars. I saw SUVs emblazoned with Manchester United stickers, while rickety public buses still transported the majority of daily commuters.

As Myanmar enters the global economy, old traditions meet modern technology. Image by Paularps via Flickr.

As Myanmar enters the global economy, old traditions meet modern technology. Image by Paularps via Flickr.

A wave of tourism

myanmar-tourism-largeBefore the new government came into power in 2010, Myanmar had the lowest number of visitors of any Southeast Asian country. The tourism industry contributed about $600 million to the economy, and employed about 270,000 people.

Last year, the arrivals figure had topped 1 million. Tourism provided employment to around 735,000 people. The Asian Development Bank estimates that by 2015 arrivals will reach 2.2 million, and 5 million by 2020.

McKinsey projects that by 2030 the tourism sector will employ 2.3 million people and contribute $14.1 billion to the economy. How’s that for a windfall?

Like bees to honey, hotel chains are scrambling for a piece of the pie, even as land costs rise in the blink of an eye. The luxury hotel chain Shangri-La operates the 305-room Traders Hotel in Yangon and has two additional properties lined up for 2016. American chains Marriott and Best Western, meanwhile, are looking to enter and are in search of local partners.

But for now, most new hotels – some 56 in number – are being built in Naypyidaw. Events like the World Economic Forum East Asia, which was held in June 2013, and the Southeast Asian Games, which took place in December 2013 at the brand new Zabuthiri Stadium, have created an unprecedented demand, which will continue to grow along with the economy.

New world meets old city

Sule Pagoda in Yangon amidst rush hour traffic.

The Sule Pagoda in Yangon towers over rush hour traffic. Image by Kunal Sinha.

The changes are coming fast and I certainly felt them in the former capital of Yangon. Myanmar’s largest city and home to some five million people, Yangon is a simultaneously calm and chaotic metropolis. The commercial composition of the city had completely transformed in the 20 years that had passed since my last trip.

Swanky furniture and interior decor showrooms, some selling chandeliers and carpets, have taken the place of roadside teak-furniture makers.

Bogyoke Aung San Market, where traders have sold their wares uninterrupted since 1926, remains an Aladdin’s cave of fabrics, gold and precious stones. But next door, a new department store, the Singapore-based Parkson, occupies FMI Centre.

Inside, brands like Lancôme, Estée Lauder, Clinique, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Lacoste, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger welcome the newly wealthy population.

As recently as a year ago, if you felt the urge to spend a small fortune, you’d have to change money from one of the many touts who prowl the marketplace whispering “good rate for your dollar.” But now, there’s an ATM right near the entrance.

There are beauty parlours and foreign language schools in every neighbourhood, with English, Japanese, Korean and Thai courses in high demand.

Still, amidst the economic flurry, the locals are in no hurry to give up their traditions. The longyi remains the preferred attire, even as brands like Giordano make their appearance on the high street.

Mendicants from the monastic school continue to collect rice and fruit just before lunch time: That no child ever goes hungry is a testimony to the charity and kindness of a people who stay proud as they emerge from nearly five decades of military rule.