Amid the stink, traffic and ridiculous prices of marvellous Myanmar


MYANMAR - My patience finally ran out on my third trip to Myanmar. It was mid-2013, when the World Economic Forum on East Asia was being hosted by Nay Pyi Taw.

Unlike the second trip, I flew directly from Bangkok, bypassing the long road journey from Yangon, which I remembered for toilet stops you could smell practically kilometres away.

This time, I was booked into a big hotel. In the "air-conditioned" lobby, I was greeted by a powerful odour of damp mould. I passed a room being swept by cleaners in preparation for a new guest. My room had also been cleaned, but dust still clung to some surfaces.

Catching one of many shuttle buses that ferried forum delegates to the International Convention Centre every morning was easy. The alternative, a taxi, cost at least US$15 (S$19) per hour. That's the minimum price in a city where there are few buses. When the conference was over, delegates rushed for the exit to catch the last shuttle bus. Even if you were ready to pay the US$15 hourly rate, taxis were impossible to find.

I was glad to discover my hotel was near The Junction, the biggest shopping mall in town. This was the best place to find mobile phones and accessories, clothes and various other consumer products. Among imports on the shelves were snacks from Thailand, priced 50 per cent higher than in Bangkok.

Most locals trudged to the mall on foot, but I was lucky to grab a ride in the hotels' golf-cart shuttle, with a promise to pick me up later at a prearranged time. Otherwise, the 1km walk along a dark and deserted main road would have been "exciting".

Unlike the previous trip, we didn't have to hang around for a delayed flight to Bangkok. But we were left without food and drink - there was no stall at international departures. Anyone who was thirsty had to wait and get a glass of water on the plane.

By the fourth trip, I was no longer a mere visitor. Reality kicked in when I checked into an apartment, rented on a long-term basis for corporate use. Foreigners staying for longer periods may find it unwise to book a hotel, as room rates are constantly rising in the absence of new supply. You can still get a two-star hotel room for US$50 nightly, though.

Finding a suitable apartment is tough. Tenants have to sign a long-term contract for at least a year, though in exchange they get accommodation that has been converted to suit expat taste. In Yangon, this mostly takes the form of two-room apartments with specially adapted switchboards to cope with more electrical appliances. You can't blame the foreigners, who are used to everyday conveniences like refrigerators, microwave ovens and water heaters.

It's no surprise that electrical appliance shops are mushrooming.

Want an air-conditioned apartment? Expect to pay between US$500 and US$1,500 per month, depending on how close you want to be to downtown. Air-conditioned rooms are a still a luxury in Myanmar but make life easier in dust-choked Yangon. Opening a window for fresh air at night can mean having to sweep the floor again in the morning. It can also send you crazy under the constant car-horn bombardment.

Parked vehicles often reduce roads to a single lane. This makes hailing a cab and haggling for a fare a fraught business, as traffic builds up and horns blare. The deafening din adds to the distraction of passers-by, who are already negotiating an obstacle course of rocks and drain water.

One of the few "havens" for expats is Chinatown's 19th Street. This cool hangout serves succulent seafood with various delicious sauces. My courteous and efficient waiter also spoke a little Thai, thanks to a stint working in Phuket.

New Burger is another Chinatown landmark, catering to the tastes of foreigners and wealthy locals with pork-patty buns at 3,000 kyats (S$3.90). Most locals wince at such prices, given that a bowl of noodles costs just 600 kyats. The burger prices would place Myanmar somewhere around the middle of the so-called Big Mac Index, a measure of the cost of living in different countries around the world.

There is much to hate about the many inconveniences of Myanmar, yet I can't help falling for the country. Each day here, you meet warm and genuine people - encounters that transform your stay from just-bearable to positively pleasurable. Mingalabar!