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Myanmar is a country in the throes of a rapid transformation and in Yangon, its commercial capital, the change is palpable.

The city’s once peaceful tree-lined streets are now packed with cars, buses and lorries. Cranes dot the skyline — still relatively low-rise compared with its South East Asian neighbours — as new buildings take shape amid thickets of bamboo scaffolding.

The best thing about Yangon is the people.

Economic and political reforms that started in 2010, unravelling the military’s 50-year grip on power, have led to a resurgence of outside interest in Myanmar. With the gradual removal of international sanctions, increasing numbers of US and European business travellers have been visiting the country, eager to see the potential of one of Asia’s last frontier markets. Foreign investment reached a record $8 billion last year, according to a Reuters report, 25 times the level before the reforms began.

The Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon (Credit: Getty Images)

“Decades of military rule and isolation have meant that Yangon has not developed at the pace of other Asian cities, and much of the colonial heritage of the city has been preserved,” said Stephanie Ashmore, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce Myanmar.  But the best thing about Yangon is the people, Ashmore said. “They are the warmest, most welcoming, fun-loving and generous people I have ever met.”

Amid the hustle and bustle it is hard to imagine the cruelties of the generals who seized power in 1962, and the fear that once stalked this city.

It was in her lakeside home in Yangon that the country’s most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, was held for nearly two decades under house arrest. It was in this city too that student protests were brutally suppressed, and the monk-led Saffron Revolution came to a bloody end.

Myanmar is not yet 'open for business' and investors should be wary.

Suu Kyi’s party is now in government following November’s landmark election and a new president is expected to take office in late March. The military still retains seats in parliament, and conflicts continue in the country’s border areas, but the success of the election — and the smooth transfer of power — has fuelled a sense of cautious optimism about the future.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party dominated last November’s election (Credit: Getty Images)

Myanmar’s economy has the potential to grow 8% a year from 2010 to 2030, with the continuing reforms and the help of foreign investors, according to McKinsey Global Institute. But while new laws are being drafted, making property ownership and investment easier for foreigners, Myanmar remains a challenging place in which to actually do business. The country is still ranked 167 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey, for a number of reasons.

“Any investor will inevitably deal with crony businessmen who profited during the military dictatorship,” explained Daniel Aguirre, international legal advisor to the International Commission of Jurists, who has been living in Yangon for two years. “The issue of land, which is crucial for business, is unpredictable. The judiciary is not yet independent and woefully under-resourced. Myanmar is not yet 'open for business' and investors should be wary.”

Change in Myanmar won’t happen overnight, but Yangon is leading the way.

Even so, Yangon’s infrastructure is slowly being improved, with hundreds of millions invested into transport, water and sewerage systems. New hotels have been built (helping reduce sky-high room rates), electricity is becoming more reliable (although power cuts still occur) and mobile phone and internet services are expanding. The price of a SIM card has plummeted to $1.50, compared with $200 three years ago.

Novice monks collect alms in the streets of Yangon (Credit: Stefan Munder /Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

With a new government in power, and a young and dynamic population of more than seven million people, Yangon is once again a magnet for those who dream of a better life. Change in Myanmar won’t happen overnight, but Yangon is leading the way.

Airport

Yangon International Airport is about 15km north of the city centre, and taxis are available (on a prepaid voucher system) in the arrivals hall. The number of flights to Yangon has expanded in recent years, putting pressure on the airport’s limited facilities. Last minute changes of departure gate — the terminal has only about a handful — are not uncommon, and the facility is ill-equipped to deal with larger planes.  A terminal extension is under construction.

Money Matters

Myanmar remains a cash-based economy and credit cards, although welcome in fancier hotels and restaurants, are still not widely accepted. The authorities are trying to encourage people to use the local currency (the Myanmar kyat), but US dollars remain popular.  ATMs are now available, but not always operating, so it’s advisable to bring plenty of cash. Any US dollars should be in mint condition. Bills with tears, folds or creases won’t be accepted.

Visa

Tourist and business visas can now be issued online for arrivals through Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. A tourist visa costs $50, while a business visa is $70. Those on business visas can stay for 70 days from the date of their arrival, while tourists can stay for 28 days.

Cultural know-how

Myanmar people will probably want to try their English skills, but when taking a taxi, ask your hotel concierge to write your destination in Burmese. Alternatively, hire a driver for the day. Try not to be too disorientated by the fact that while everyone drives on the right, the cars are right-hand drive – a bizarre legacy of military rule. The traffic is not quite on the scale of Bangkok or Jakarta, but it’s busy, and increasingly jammed, so schedule appointments accordingly.

While traffic in Yangon is not as busy as in Bangkok or Jakarta, jams are increasingly frequent (Credit: Getty Images)

Strong business relationships are crucial in a country marred by legal uncertainty and corruption – Myanmar was ranked 147 out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. “A foreigner must invest a lot of time building relationships – drinking a lot of tea – to create the trust that is needed to do business,” cautions ICJ’s Aguirre. Investors should also be mindful of remaining international sanctions.

Hotels

The Strand Hotel was once described as, “the finest hostelry east of Suez.” While it can probably no longer claim that title, the hotel retains an air of faded colonial grandeur with its marble floors, high ceilings and gently rotating fans. The hotel has 31 suites, starting from $339.

The Belmond Governor’s Residence is arguably the best place to stay in town. It is a delightful bungalow from the 1920s with 49 rooms, a pretty tropical garden and swimming pool. It’s also a popular spot for a sunset cocktail. Rooms start from $549.

Decades of isolation mean Yangon’s skyline is still relatively low-rise compared with its Southeast Asian neighbours (Credit: Theis Kofoed Hjorth/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Sule Shangri-La — hotel of choice during the years of military dictatorship — reopened in 2014 after an extensive makeover. The hotel is in walking distance of City Hall and the Sule Pagoda, and its Internet is reputedly the fastest and most reliable in the city. Rates start at around $178.

The Novotel Max Yangon opened last year and is the French Accor Group’s first property in the city for more than a decade. The 366-room contemporary hotel is about 20 minutes’ drive from the airport and has a choice of restaurants as well as a pool. Rooms cost from about $172.

Meal for one

The Press Office Café is a good coffee stop with tempting pastries and cakes, while Monsoon offers a gentle introduction to all kinds of South East Asian food, from Burmese curries to Khmer lok lak (stir-fried beef).

The Strand Hotel’s Strand Café is an elegant, air-conditioned retreat from the city and offers tasty Burmese noodles. The obligatory ceiling fans, potted plants and wicker chairs evoke the mood of yesteryear. It’s a convivial spot for afternoon tea, as well. L’Opera is an authentic Italian restaurant in a pretty garden on the shores of Inya Lake, close to the Inya Lake Hotel.

Off the clock

Yangon doesn’t have the pulsating nightlife of some of its neighbours, but new restaurants, cafes and galleries are opening all the time, so there is plenty to do.

The astonishing golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda soars some 100m into the air (Credit: iStock)

Sunset is one of the best times to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist site and thought to be 2,500 years old. The temple’s main gold-plated and gem-encrusted stupa soars some 100m into the air and attracts worshippers and tourists from all over the world. Shoes must be left at the main entrance and visitors should dress conservatively — no shorts, singlets or skimpy clothing. The entrance fee is $8.

The Yangon Heritage Trust was set up in 2012 with the aim of conserving the city’s historic buildings and it organises fascinating English-language walking tours ($30 per person) around the city’s colonial centre three days each week. The trust also has a gallery space; its balcony in a building dating from the 1920s is a calm retreat from the bustle of Pansodan Road below.

Bogyoke Aung San Market is Yangon’s most famous market and a good place for traditional souvenirs, including lacquer and fabrics.

Special considerations

To avoid causing offence dress conservatively, don’t touch anyone on the head or point with your feet, since that is a sign of disrespect. To get a real understanding of how the locals live, do visit a tea shop. “It’s best to go early in the morning or later at night,” said Olivia Cable, a researcher on Myanmar. “They’re not expensive, and a great way to see how Myanmar people socialise.”

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