To cross the road in Yangon, it’s best to take it one lane at a time, even if the road is four lanes wide and has a roundabout. Go slow and steady so cars can anticipate your movement—running will throw off drivers. When possible, align yourself with Burmese women who are crossing, preferably older ones, and follow their lead. There is power in numbers, organized chaos, and deference to elders.
In Myanmar, the country still called Burma in most parts of the Western world, drivers drive on the right-hand side of the road. After years of severe trade restrictions, the Burmese couldn’t always get cars with steering wheels on the left side of the car, American style. So in most (but not all) cars, the steering wheel sits on the right side as it does in countries where people drive on the left-hand side of the road. This is just one of the examples of how the Burmese go about things in their own way.
On my first trip to this country, I learned about many of Burma’s quirks (another one: going through security on your way out of the airport). But more noticeable was the pace of change, especially in Yangon. Today, the city is a boomtown. The price of cars (while still out of reach for most Burmese) has come down significantly since the government lifted its restrictions on car imports, and the number of registered cars on the road in Yangon has doubled. International hotels in Yangon boast rates that surpass Bangkok. Office space here rents at a premium, too. And everywhere you go, everyone, even a street vender frying samosas in a wok propped over an open flame, has a smart phone. A country that never had reliable phone service skipped the expensive step of installing landlines and went straight to cellular. The same goes for the Internet. Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most sacred sites for Burmese Buddhists, offers wifi courtesy of Redlink. I had better luck getting online in hotels in Burma than I did when traveling through Italy in 2011. (Consequently, now everyone is on Facebook.) I wish I had visited Burma three years ago to fully absorb the pace of change.
At the same time, so much has stayed the same. Open-air tea shops serving Myanmar-style tea sweetened with evaporated and condensed milk are still filled with mostly men during the day. Men and women alike intersperse wearing contemporary jeans and t-shirts with traditional clothing—I even heard about a women trying to launch an Ann Taylor-like clothing line focused on traditional Burmese women’s wear. Ethnic tensions still plague border regions. And a country that’s already filled with pagodas is still building pagodas.
I was in Burma with a research team from Burma Superstar, the insanely popular restaurant group in the San Francisco Bay Area, for initial research on a Burmese cookbook. Tasting Burmese food firsthand—and seeing how it’s prepared and presented—has kick-started my understanding of a cuisine that I’m still wrapping my head around. The exciting part is it feels like a new food frontier, at least for me. I will be writing more about my trip and Burmese food throughout the year, but for now I wanted to share some snapshots of a country that’s in the throes of figuring out just what it wants to be.