An old government building no longer in use
Unfortunately for Ana and me, entering the second day of the Myanmar trip meant the end of our true tourist activities and the beginning of my business meetings. In order to avoid driving away Ana’s great following on this blog, I won’t bore you with the details of my work. Instead, I’ll give you my opinions on the highlights of trying to start up business operations in a third-world country that is fresh out of more than 50 years of military oppression. More importantly, I think, I’ll give you a history lesson that, while boring to some, may make you feel a little more worldly and educated when it comes to Southeast Asia (no promises because I don’t consider myself an engaging storyteller).
As a background on the country, Myanmar used to be the number one exporter of rice in the world and its textiles were sent across the globe. In the middle of the 20th Century, you would have placed it right alongside its neighbors in terms of development and potentially even assumed it would be one of the most advanced economies in Southeast Asia in the future. However, if you’ve never read anything about Myanmar and have no idea about its current state, I can sum it up in one word: abysmal.
Around 1960, Myanmar was technically a democratic state and could be considered prosperous by the standards of the region. However, with many ethnic groups folded into Myanmar’s borders and a broken “democratic” government, it was near collapse. Regular uprisings and violence from rebel groups triggered Myanmar’s prime minister to ask the military to step in and temporarily oversee the government. A few years later, however, the military staged a full coup d’état and transitioned the country to Socialism (a very corrupt and, to reuse my terminology, “broken” version of it).
This military junta sought self-sufficiency through the country’s abundant natural resources. Everything was controlled by the military, from what crops farmers planted to which industries would receive government focus and funding. With all this power and the output of its people forcibly controlled by the military, the wealth and influence became concentrated in the hands of generals and what are now known as “crony” businessmen. Since 1960, the consolidation of all power, including the control of all industries and international relations, has left Myanmar extremely undeveloped, uneducated, without proper infrastructure, and exceedingly corrupt.
As for what happened that caused Myanmar’s leaders to begin opening the country in 2010 and heading towards democracy, the true motivations may never be known. Some people believe the leaders saw uprisings and overthrown governments in the Middle East as the future of Myanmar. Some people say China’s relentless pursuit of Myanmar’s natural resources and geographical advantage as a shipping thru-point were worrying Myanmar’s leaders as they felt China’s influence and control bearing down on them (Myanmar is known to have economic and military ties to both China and North Korea, and Chinese businesses are notoriously unethical and abusive once embedded in their operations). Others say Myanmar’s “crony” businessmen and wealthy generals believed that by involving the West and having the U.S. remove its sanctions, they could become even richer as they positioned themselves as the partners for new activity from multinational corporations.
Democracy Monument in the center of Yangon
Whatever the reasons, Myanmar held its first elections since 1990 in which Democratic Party members were allowed involvement and were actually granted the seats in parliament that they won (another quick history lesson, in 1990, the Democratic Party actually won the elections and should have taken the presidency. Instead, the junta put the party’s leader on house arrest and only released her in 2010). With that, my company, along with almost every other international organization you can think of, now seeks access to the 60 million-plus population.
So you know, I work in a business unit that is involved in agriculture. It’s estimated that roughly 60-70 percent of Myanmar’s population earns their living through agriculture, so it’s very important to the government and the people. My time in Myanmar involves meeting with government officials and businesses that are involved in this area and looking for partners that can facilitate our operations there.
Leading into Monday afternoon (my first day of meetings), I met with my team for lunch. We then went on to meetings with other companies there. While I can’t provide details, I can tell you that Monday afternoon involved a business meeting and a trip about 1.5 hours away to facilities used for our type of business. The meetings in downtown Yangon were nothing eventful, but the facilities were another story.
As you can imagine, working for a chemical company means being around products and materials that scare most people, even when handled properly. I’d like you to picture what this might feel like in a third-world country, where the facilities are nowhere near the standards of the U.S. I’ve been around chemicals quite a bit now. I’ve watched my technical colleagues run tests. I’ve even been in one of the largest and most integrated chemical manufacturing facilities in the world, but never have I walked into an area or building where I could actually TASTE the chemicals. While we were given white gloves and masks you’d see a surgeon wearing, my mouth, nose, and eyes were filled with what I can only describe as a very sharp sensation. The workers in the facility appeared to be completely unaffected by it. They walked around shirtless, shoeless, and without anything covering their hands, even as they climbed over pallets of products and handled them.
Now to be fair, this is actually exponentially better than what it could be. Another colleague of mine has been to Myanmar on behalf of other business units and visited “warehouses” where these companies store products. I put quotations on the word, because they were actually storing them in converted houses in residential areas. For chemicals, this is completely ill-advised as proper ventilation, drainage, distances from one another and other safety precautions are key to worker health and contamination prevention. Needless to say, my company takes this very seriously and, therefore, has to be extremely careful in how we work in other countries.
Coming back to our day and the facility we were in, it is by no means a reflection on the business people in Myanmar. They are, simply put, some of the nicest people you’ll meet. They just aren’t sophisticated as it pertains to business practices and safety (yet). Their sunny disposition is in direct contrast to their country’s condition, so my company remains hopeful on improvements in the infrastructure there now that the leadership is finally allowing Western companies to come in and help improve Myanmar’s companies. In any case, they welcome companies like mine and openly provide information that should help us better serve them and, in turn, better serve the farmers in Myanmar.
Speaking of farmers, the ride back from the facility was also very interesting for me. We actually had the opportunity to pass directly by some farms as we took a different route to avoid traffic. In the U.S. many farms will have their fair share of older buildings. However, the homes the farmers actually live in look modern enough and have sewer and power running to them. In Myanmar, this is definitely not the case. Farmers’ houses look like makeshift wood and metal shelters with sheets fixed to block rain and wind. There is no running water, no sewer, and no electricity running to them. It’s an incredible sight to see when you’re only about 50 kilometers outside of what is supposed to be a major metropolitan area with electricity, sewer, internet, and many of the modern conveniences we find in the U.S. These farmers, however, don’t get to enjoy these conveniences. Instead, the people that grow the food and provide sustenance for millions of people are left to live in squalor. If you find this ridiculous and unfair, you’re not alone. However, the military junta purposely kept these people oppressed for many years in order to benefit from their work, both in terms of the food that’s eaten and the money that can be made from its trade. Off my soapbox…
This basically ended my first day as the several hours of meetings, travel, and a facility tour took us to the early evening. My team and I had dinner that evening with an individual in a consulate that has been helping us, but the only eventful thing I have to tell you from this is that we ate local rice, and it was EXCELLENT. This is the only rice they really serve in the country and it comes directly from the fields and processing facilities to the dinner table in Myanmar. While this doesn’t mean much to me as I am no expert, my colleagues were extremely excited to be eating what is an award-winning variety of rice (even with Myanmar’s closed government, they’ve participated in international competitions for food and such).
The second day was actually much longer due to our meetings and travel starting early in the morning, but the only real difference from the day before was our visits to shops that sell the types of products we produce. Oddly enough, we saw several of our products there, even though we’re not formally “in” Myanmar just yet. As it turns out, our products have been moving through third parties with our knowledge, but we haven’t formally dedicated ourselves to operating in the country until just recently. That said, I also saw plenty of products at the store that SHOULD NOT have been there. These weren’t ours, but were from companies that I know aren’t supposed to be in the country due to a lack of legal registrations. Myanmar is notorious for its porous land borders with China and Thailand, and medicine, chemicals, electronics, and probably pretty much everything else you can think has entered the country at some point, but maybe not through the proper channels.
Shwedagon Pagoda complex
But now for the wrap up. Myanmar is an incredible country. It’s primarily Buddhist, and if you’ve ever been to a country where the people really follow Buddhism in a true form, you know how incredibly nice they are. Much like Bali and Cambodia where Buddhism rules, Myanmar is full of excellent people. However, there are those that have capitalized, brutally, on the good nature of the people there. As we look to approach the market, I hope we’ll do it responsibly as is the norm in my company, but I also hope the powerful people in Myanmar will begin to operate ethically as well. We’re looking to work with companies that have already worked with the West or have shown their dedication to corporate social responsibility, but this is obviously not the norm. Keep your fingers crossed for the general population there and if you’re interested and have a chance to read about Myanmar, I highly recommend it. If you ever have a chance to visit, I can bet it’ll be uncomfortable at times, especially for Westerners, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. You learn quite a bit about the survival instincts of the human race, even in the face of military oppression. You’ll also end up with an appreciation for all the conveniences of home if you make it outside the metropolitan area. Most importantly though, you’d be doing the people of the country a favor – tourists can be a major source of income and a catalyst for development for a country like Myanmar.
Enjoying lunch solo at Monsoon Restaurant
While Sunday was a busy, exciting day of touring for Joe and I, the coming of Monday meant Joe had to go to work. This is when my time in Yangon got a little more boring. I had intended to visit the National Museum, but found out it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays after taking a cab all the way there (this info should really be posted on the museum's website... it would have saved me a trip!). Since we left early on Wednesday morning, the museum was a no go for me. And, seeing as how Myanmar is really undeveloped, there wasn't much else for me to do in Yangon.
I, of course, entertained myself by spending most of my time at some of the local restaurants I had read about. My favorite meal was at Monsoon Restaurant (I ate solo while Joe was at work) where I enjoyed a dish of beef and bamboo shoots. The restaurant was really cute and very modern, and the waitstaff spoke English surprisingly well.
But rather than bore you with accounts of my not-so-exciting meals (I caved and ate a burger two meals in a row because I was craving western food...), I'm happy to share that Joe volunteered to be a guest author on my blog! He's going to share his insights since he had a chance to see and do more in Myanmar through his business endeavors. Stay tuned!
Joe's new lungi
Our tour of pagodas around Yangon was broken up by a trip to the Bogyoke Aung San market. This is Yangon's premier shopping location for locals. When I explain that Myanmar is still relatively untouched by tourists, this experience especially comes to mind. Most of the markets we've been to in southeast Asia have been jam packed. However, Bogyoke was quite empty and it was nice to walk around without getting bumped every other second. We hardly saw any other tourists here.
The market is really big with both local stalls and brand name stores, and you can find a wide variety of goods. There's a mix of both indoor and outdoor stalls. We admired everything from beautiful lacquered home goods (produced in Bagan, Myanmar where lacquer is the main art form) to loads of shiny jewelry. As we walked around, I noticed that there were random things gathered in some of the aisles. I asked Tony what these collections of goods were, and he explained that these were donation areas for monks. People in Myanmar will buy things at the market and donate them to local monasteries to support the monks as monks rely on the locals for everything.
During our shopping escapade, Joe was drawn to a stall full of lungis (remember, these are the long kilt-like garments that men in Myanmar wear in place of pants). Excited at the possibility of making a sell, the employee at the stall showed Joe how to properly wear a lungi. Joe liked it and bought it. Although the process of tying the lungi looked easy, we still haven't tried to replicate it. Luckily, I shot the video below for reference!
Bogyoke turned out to be a successful shopping stop for Joe and I. We found a really pretty set of chopstick holders that match perfectly with chopsticks that we bought at the Vung Vieng floating village in Halong Bay, Vietnam. And, I found a really cute lacquered owl figurine. It was really helpful to have Tony with us at the market because he acted as our middle man, doing the haggling on prices for us. Many people in Myanmar do not speak English very well, and it would have been difficult for us to strike deals on our own.
After Bogyoke, we headed to the Chaukhtatkyi Pagoda which is the home of Myanmar's famous reclining Buddha. This Buddha is almost exactly the same as the one we saw in Bangkok, Thailand. The main differences are that the one in Yangon is lacquered and is slightly smaller. The intricate glass tile work of the display is very pretty and impressive.
Outside the room with the reclining Buddha there is a mini pagoda without an interior room. As we walked around it, Tony explained that there are three types of pagodas in Myanmar - ones you can walk into, ones that serve as tombs, and ones that have no interior room at all.
Our final pagoda tour of the day was of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is one of the most famous pagodas in Myanmar. It was the largest complex we toured, with numerous shrines and buildings surrounding the main pagoda in the center. The main pagoda is the type that doesn't have an interior room. And unlike most pagodas around southeast Asia, Shwedagon is built with solid gold tiles rather than a coating of gold leaf. Tony explained that since gold leaf has to be replaced on a constant basis (it doesn't withstand the elements very well and flakes off easily), the architects of this pagoda thought it would be less maintenance to build with gold tiles.
Yes, gold tiles are far more opulent than gold leaf, but this isn't the only thing that is opulent about the pagoda. The tiny bulb at the very top of the steeple (which is actually quite big even though it looks small from afar) is covered in amazing jewels. While no one can actually go up and look at them, there are aerial photos displayed at the complex of what this looks like. The bulb is decorated with rubies and diamonds, and the main stone at the top is a 76-carat diamond. This diamond was donated to the pagoda by one of the former kings of Myanmar. I wish there was some sort of ride to the top so we could have seen this jewel in person!
The Shwedagon complex was very busy and bustling with activity as visitors waited for the sun to go down. Tony explained the pagoda is the most stunning at dusk because its golden exterior glimmers in the evening. So, we continued exploring the complex until this time. Joe and I admired numerous statues of Buddha, including one that is dedicated to people who need to pray for business success. This was a favorite of Joe's.
In addition to enjoying the structures on the complex, we loved people watching as well. Most of the visitors at the pagoda were people from Myanmar who were there to pray. They brought their cute children along, who had their cheeks painted with the traditional sunscreen. There was one really amusing girl who wanted to ring a donation bell on her own. Donation bells are set up around the complex. When you make a donation to the pagoda, you use a heavy wooden club to strike the bell. The little girl was slightly bigger than the club, so she had trouble picking it up. However, she was able to successfully strike the bell. While this surprised me, her own strength may have been more surprising to the little girl because she had a funny shocked look on her face. The photo I captured of this is priceless (see below).
Mixed among the people from Myanmar were groups of tourists from Thailand. Because most Thai people practice Buddhism, a trip to the Shwedagon Pagoda is very special for them. We also saw Thai monks who had been sponsored to make the trip to the pagoda. Tony could easily pick the Thai monks out of the crowd. He jokingly explained that most of them are more plump than the Myanmar monks. Also among the crowds, we saw groups of street sweepers. Tony explained that groups of volunteers gather at the pagoda on a daily basis to sweep the grounds. They all line up in a long row and sweep simultaneously, pushing dirt and debris into piles. People follow behind them with dust bins to collect the debris. We had to make sure to get out of the sweepers' way, because they had no hesitation sweeping the brooms over our feet!
As we sat on a step and waited for the sun to set, Tony shared with us a little snippet of his life story. It turns out that his mom died when he was very young and his stepmother didn't like him. So, he left home at the age of six to become a monk at a local monastery (aha! I thought... this is how he knows so much about the monks!). Tony said life at the monastery was really strict but the education was valuable. This is where he learned to speak English so well. Despite being cared for, Tony didn't like the rigid life the monks had to live and left the monastery when he was 12 years old. He lived with his brother for a few years and then joined the military. This was a rough start to life, but Tony managed to make a better life for his children. Both his daughter and son successfully graduated from university. His son, a lawyer by trade, gave up his cushy life to work in social service to help care for the poor in Myanmar's rural areas. His daughter is an accountant. It's amazing to me that Tony was able to provide a successful life for his children despite the harsh rule by Myanmar's government!
As the sun set, people started lighting candles all around the pagoda and we got the view we had been waiting for...
It was certainly a stunning site to end our very busy day of touring!
I'm happy for Myanmar's change in government and for the chance that the country's people will have at a better life. However, it's unfortunate that these changes will likely mean that tourism ruins some of the natural aspects of the Myanmar culture that we had a chance to experience. Joe and I have already talked about going back someday to see how the country morphs.
Tourism in Myanmar is picking up due to the fact that the country's military dictatorship recently began opening the country up to the rest of the world. Still, this was one of the most untouched countries Joe and I have visited. The kitchy, touristy materialism we have been bombarded with in other countries hasn't taken hold here yet. It was refreshing and certainly an amazing opportunity to visit a country that hasn't yet been influenced by the rest of the world. I felt we got a true taste of what life is like in Myanmar.
Myanmar has been the focus for Joe at work as he is developing a strategy for new market entry into the country for BASF's crop protection products. I tagged along with him for his second business trip to Myanmar. Since all of Joe's meetings were in Yangon (Myanmar's capital), we stayed in this city the entire time. I'll admit, there isn't really that much to see in Yangon and I wish we would have had more time to explore other parts of the country. However, we made the most of our time there and visited some pretty amazing sites... including one that includes a 76-carat diamond. Yes, that's right, 76 carats! More to come on this...
My first impression of Myanmar is that it's actually a lot more developed that I expected it would be. I can't really articulate what I expected, but the level of infrastructure was surprising. The airport in Yangon is very modern even if it is kind of small. Joe says there are plans to build a new, bigger airport which is going to be a necessity as tourism picks up. The level of tourism in Myanmar is already too much for the airport to handle. Heading into immigration, we faced a huge crowd and long lines to get into the country. The whole process was unorganized and took far too long. I'm sure a new airport will help remedy this.
Our drive to the hotel only took about 20 minutes. The scenery was varied with a mix of nice, new buildings that contrasted with smaller, worn down buildings. Overall, the roads were nicely paved and there was a lot of construction happening around the city. We also noticed the unique characteristics of the people of Myanmar. The men wear long, kilt-like garments called lungis in place of pants. The women typically wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees, a more conservative look than what we've seen in some countries. This is actually something I researched so that I would bring along appropriate clothing as to not offend anyone. Women (along with children) also wear a type of sunscreen on their faces that is very distinctive. It's a white paste that is derived from some sort of tree that is painted in circles on the cheeks and is sometimes spread on the forehead as well. It almost looks as if people have vanilla icing on their faces.
Joe and I stayed at Traders Hotel in the heart of Yangon. Traders is one of only a handful of hotels in Yangon, and this lack of accommodation in the city is a problem. With the number of people visiting the country, the hotel rooms sell out quickly. I'm sure there are businessmen who are going to capitalize on this need and build more hotels. Traders is extremely nice and surprisingly expensive for a developing country, although the high demand and lack of supply helps drive the price up. The hotel is certainly a contrast to the surrounding area. From our room, I could see the run-down apartments that locals live in, making me feel very lucky to be staying in a nice room. Despite being in a luxury hotel, we had to be very careful not to accidentally ingest any water from the taps. This meant we had to brush our teeth with bottled water. The infrastructure in Myanmar isn't up to modern world standards, and many locals can't even stomach the water without getting sick.
Tiger shrine at Sule Pagoda
After checking into our hotel and grabbing a quick bite for lunch, Joe and I embarked on our tour of Yangon. We hired a tour guide, Tony, who I found online. Seeing as how Myanmar is a developing country, I was quite shocked by the quality of Tony's website. It turns out, Tony had a client from San Francisco who really liked his services. So, he offered to build a website for Tony for free. After the site went live, Tony's business skyrocketed. You can check it out by clicking here. There are some great photos.
As you can probably tell from the title of this posting, Buddhist pagodas are the thing to see in Myanmar. There are thousands of them throughout the country. Our tour started at the Sule Pagoda in the middle of Yangon. Abiding by the culture in Myanmar, we had to take our shoes and socks off at every pagoda (our feet were quite dirty by the end of the day). Pagodas are built in a circular shape, and Tony explained the proper way to visit them is to walk around in a clockwise direction.
There were many locals at Sule praying during our visit. As we walked around Tony pointed out the small shrines scattered around the pagoda (see photo above). Each one has a different animal at the base to represents each day of the week. People pray to these shrines depending on the day of the week on which they were born, which was funny to Joe and I because who really knows what day of the week they were born on? :) I really liked the ornate decorations throughout the pagoda as well as the vibrant gold leaf that covers most of Sule. It was a very pretty contrast against the blue sky as well as the drab lack of color in the city.
Walls of gold
Our next stop was the Botataung Pagoda which is known for housing ancient hair relics of Buddha that were brought to Myanmar from India more than 2,000 years ago. The entrance to the pagoda and the main temple area are spectacularly grand as they are covered in gold. The main temple area is sort of like a museum. It contains many ancient artifacts, including Buddha's hair, coins, and small Buddha statues. As we toured the pagoda, we ran into two monks who were as excited to take photos with us as we were to take photos with them. I was surprised by this because I had read that monks in Myanmar typically don't interact with people, and women are not allowed to approach them or touch them. The monks in Myanmar are all extremely skinny. Tony said it's because they stick to strict rules about eating only two very small meals a day, a rule which many other monks in countries such as Thailand don't necessarily abide to. There is a really cool tradition in Myanmar in which the monks walk through their villages or cities every morning at dawn with an empty bowl. As they pass homes and storefronts, people put food in the bowls. This food is usually all that the monks will eat for the day.
Outside the main pagoda area, there are several other buildings in the complex. Most of them contain smaller Buddha statues and Buddhist followers praying to them. However, one room surprised both me and Joe. We came across a room full of weaving looms and people busy at work weaving bright orange robes. Tony explained that these robes are created for the many Buddha statues around the country. Buddha's robes need to be changed constantly so they are in crisp shape. The weaving process was really hypnotizing to watch and the rhythm of the looms created quite a loud atmosphere in the "echoey" room. People sit on the machines and use their arms as well as feet to control the different levers that pull together the thread to create a beautiful garment.
Wow, this blog posting is a lot longer than I thought it would be at this point because I'm only about halfway through our day of touring! I'll take a quick break here in an effort to keep my postings more on the short and readable side (I don't want you to be swamped with text!). Part two to come soon...