Life in Myanmar: A Singaporean expat tells all

This article first appeared on Go Away's Life In Myanmar: A Singaporean Expat Tells All

As Myanmar continues to attract new investors and businesses, one Singaporean shares his experience as an expat in the country.

In the past four years or so since Myanmar started opening up to tourism and foreign investment, the country's economy has seen remarkable improvements. Case in point: according to the International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, direct investments from Singapore alone grew by 41.5 per cent between 2012 and 2013!

When marketing communications consultant Shane Neubronner, 29, heard about his now-former company's decision to enter the Myanmar market about three years ago, he actually requested to be posted in Yangon to help with the setting up of their office.

It was a monumental move for Shane, but one that he hasn't regretted. Here, he shares with us his experience as an expat in Myanmar.

Go Away (GA): Before you were posted to Myanmar, have you been to the country?

Shane Neubronner (SN): Yes. I first visited Myanmar on a holiday with a few friends in July 2012. At the time, Myanmar was just opening up and we were intrigued to visit and experience the culture, see the sights, and try the local food and beer!

Over the eight-day trip, we managed to visit Yangon, Mandalay, and the ancient city of Bagan.

Shane Neubronner: "There are stunning waterfalls in Mandalay. Make sure to ask the locals which ones to visit!
Photo: Shane Neubronner

GA: So what made you decide to work there?

SN: In 2013, my former company Ogilvy & Mather decided to enter the Myanmar market through a joint venture with a local advertising agency. I persuaded my bosses to let me move to Myanmar to support the setup and growth of the Yangon office.

The motivation to move to a market like Myanmar was three-fold: to experience a new market and one that would challenge me to get out of my comfort zone; to be successful in another country and, in my case, do a great job in growing my former company's office in Yangon; and finally, to seize the opportunity to learn and grow while at the same time, to teach and help the local team - they are the pioneers of the marketing communications industry in the country.

GA: How have you adapted to the living/working conditions in Myanmar?

SN: It took me a few months to settle in and it helped that I was busy with work from the day I arrived in Yangon (in fact, I had to attend a client meeting straight off the flight!). I was fortunate to have a good local team in place when I joined the Yangon office at the time and we got going with the work.

Connectivity was an issue in 2013, with the poor Internet speed hampering efficiency at work. Thankfully, Internet speeds have improved, but it's nowhere near the fantastic broadband and 4G mobile Internet in Singapore.

Housing is an important part of moving abroad to work and rental is expensive for expats in Yangon but the quality of apartments is rather poor. As the infrastructure is not advanced, there are power cuts, interrupted access to water supply and other issues. I had to learn to manage such issues and to set up my apartment with whatever I needed. It helped that I made a few friends who were of great help.

When it comes to lifestyle, there are fewer options in terms of activities but I don't agree with people who say that life in Yangon is boring. There are things to do and although you can't compare life in Yangon with that in Singapore - they are two very different cities - I was able to keep myself busy outside of work. The food variety (local and international cuisine) is great and I really like Myanmar Beer too!

Shane: "One of my favourite local foods, Kachin beef noodles from Agape Restaurant in Sanchaung Township, Yangon. A spicy and sour broth with rice noodles with strips of beef brisket. I always have some tissue paper on hand to wipe away the beads of sweat after eating this!"
Photo: Shane Neubronner

GA: Was it easy making friends and meeting people?

SN: Yes. I had a friend from Singapore who had been working in Yangon for a few years and he brought me around. I was able to meet a few Singaporeans and other expats who have since become close friends. I also have local friends from my previous company and through playing football over the weekends.

People in Myanmar are friendly and most will go out of their way to help you. I have been fortunate to meet and get to know some really lovely people here.

Shane: "If you visit Myanmar, have a beer and some barbecued food at a beer pub. Pictured above are barbecued eel, quail eggs, chicken gizzards, pork satay, and pig's tongue.
Photo: Shane Neubronner

GA: As a foreigner, what do you think are the benefits of working in Myanmar?

SN: I think the experience of working in a frontier market like Myanmar is not a common one and it probably isn't for everyone. It is not the easiest environment to do business but it is a unique challenge.

Personally, I find the impact of my work can be felt on my clients' business much stronger than when I was in Singapore. Many of the campaigns that I worked on for my clients in Myanmar were first-time projects in the country, which meant there was pressure to succeed but at the same time, it was satisfying to help achieve such milestones.

Another aspect is seeing my local team grow and develop. There isn't a school that offers full-time marketing or communications related courses in Myanmar so many of the local team members I worked with had little or no experience. It has been very rewarding to bring a positive impact to their lives and to see them excel in their work and grow in confidence as individuals.

I also believe the exposure I've had as a result of being based in Myanmar for over 2 years now has helped in my personal growth. It is easy to take things for granted in Singapore with the convenience, connectivity, etc. But in a country like Myanmar, you have to find your own way. Here, I see and experience new things every day, allowing me to gain new perspectives.

Shane: "I visited Aythaya in Shan state where the first vineyard in Myanmar is located. Sampled the wines and walked around the vineyard. A truly beautiful place!"
Photo: Shane Neubronner

GA: What about the cons?

SN: As mentioned, the living/housing situation is one area I've had to invest time and money to ensure that I live comfortably. Searching for an apartment/house you like may take a while and you have to put in fixtures and fittings to do it up nicely.

People who work in Yangon will also tell you about the terrible traffic on the roads, especially during the day. This is slowly being improved with the construction of flyovers but the roads are generally congested.

From a business perspective, government regulations in many industry sectors are being reviewed and changed so this affects business operations. The weakening local currency (Myanmar Kyat) is also affecting businesses. It will take time to build a skilled workforce and there needs to be investment in time and training to develop your staff.

I've been asked a number of times if I'm worried about not working or being at the forefront of new technology and best practices in the marketing industry if I continue to work in Myanmar. My view on that is there are business opportunities to be tapped on as the market gradually opens and both local and foreign companies ramp up operations. I am maintaining a concerted effort to stay up to date with the latest marketing trends and introduce them to my clients here.

A clear example is the growth of mobile usage and social networking in Myanmar. Two years ago, online marketing was not on the agenda for many brands primarily because of the low access to mobile SIM cards.

But in the space of 12 months, millions of people have come online seeking information. All of a sudden, brands are seeking to engage consumers and online marketing campaigns are grabbing peoples' attention. While this may not apply to every industry, there are shifts in the business landscape, which may present opportunities to bring new ideas and trends to the market.

GA: What would you say is the biggest challenge?

SN: Learning the language of Myanmar, Burmese. It is not the easiest language to learn in my opinion, but I am slowly getting there!

GA: What do you do during your free time in Myanmar?

SN: Housework, grocery shopping, cooking, reading, going for a run, playing football, watching football, eating at my favourite restaurants and going to new ones (new restaurants are popping up all over Yangon every so often), going for drinks and discovering new places.

Shane: "Just a regular day at Hledan Market in Yangon. I love old-school markets such as this one. There's a market in almost every neighbourhood and you can bargain for lower prices … if you can speak the language."
Photo: Shane Neubronner

GA: Any other tips for those of us also looking to work in Myanmar?

SN: I think the environment in Myanmar may not be for everyone. I would suggest visiting the country first and meeting people, both locals and expats, to find out more about the conditions and to be informed.

Building a small network of friends is important.

It also helps to do some apartment/house hunting early on so that when you move, you will settle in faster. If you have kids and plan to bring your family over, it would also be good to visit the different international schools.

Finally, having patience and an open mind.

If you're interested to find out more about life in Myanmar and the growing marketing communications industry in the country, get in touch with Shane at, or check out his blog at

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