Saturday, August 30, 2014

Some thoughts about the last weeks in Yangon

The weather improved a lot. There is still some rain but at least we see the blue sky from time to time and feel the intensity of the sun.

Changing the hotel and its many facilities and moving to a new house is quite challenging. Things that one should consider when moving to a new home in Yangon: distance to work due to heavy traffic, flooded areas of Yangon, internet connection, Buddhist schools (they have Sunday programme which takes several hours and is very loud) or markets (open very early and some sellers sell their products very vocally and loudly) close by, quality of the generator, water tank and roof, proximity to the Inya lake and its convenience/inconvenience: running paths vs. snakes in the garden, frogs' concert at dusk.

We spent a long weekend in Bangkok. What a difference when coming back to Yangon. When we first arrived here, from Europe, we did not have any expectations and we took things as they came. But now, not even an hour away by plane, our stay in Bangkok highlighted the huge differences with Yangon. After four days spent in Bangkok, arriving in Yangon it was like returning back to a provincial town. It starts with the rudimentary taxi at the airport, the basic and small buildings which line the streets, the traditional clothing the most Myanmar people wear, and the bettel the men chew and spit on the streets. The common thing they have is the heavy traffic. There are many expats and rich Burmese who actually spend their weekends in Bangkok mostly for shopping and going out in fancy places.

But, as already mentioned, Yangon is changing rapidly. Shops, offices and foreign representations, restaurants, apartments buildings are being built or opening each day. It is very impressive to be here these days to witness this rapidly changing environment and the buzz that comes with it.

Last, SOS International Clinic at the Inya Lake hotel is a good address in case you are getting ill. Foreign and local doctors provide a very good and quick service. Inside the clinic they also have a pharmacy. We experienced its services when visiting with food poisoning which put us down for almost two weeks. Things are indeed different here compared with other places we have been :)!

Myanmar Gems Museum

We visited the Myanmar gems museum on the Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. It is a 20 min ride from downtown with no traffic.

The country is famous for its gems: it has every kind of precious and semi-precious gems you can imagine. Inside the museum there is a huge map of Myanmar, in relief, showing the different mines inside the country. You can press different buttons which will light up colourful leds showing the different locations of the mines based on their main gem production. We pressed all buttons and the map looked like a Christmas tree.

The museum sits on the 4th floor of the building. The below floors are occupied by dozens of shops which sell jewelery in silver and gold with all kinds of gems. Myanmar is well-known for jade. You will find cheap jewelery in jade starting from a few dollars and going to a few thousands. The darker the green hue of the jade the better the quality. The Myanmar diamond is only of secondary quality; the best one is in Africa. However, Myanmar has the best quality sapphire and ruby stones out there.

You can visit the museum in a maximum 40 minutes so it is better to visit if you also want to buy some souvenirs. Be sure you negotiate the price and be aware that if you wish to pay by credit card an additional fee of 4% will be added.

Below a very small selection of the beautiful pieces one can buy (purple saphhire set in gold ring and jade jewellery set in white gold).

Another place where you can buy jewelery is the Scott Market (Bogyoke Market). The market is quite touristic and it is quite tough to negotiate a good price. Some sellers even set the initial price so high that you just have to walk away. The problem here is the quality of the stones and unless you are an gems expert you may pay for inferior quality at the price of good quality.

For plain and good quality gold jewelery you have to visit the Chinatown in Yangon. There are plenty of small shops selling yellow gold at decent prices.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

MESO soap handmade in Myanmar

The MESO Soap is handmade in Myanmar by local young women to help young students continue their High School Education. Behind this initiative of raising additional funds by producing natural soap stands the Japanese lady, Ms Nobuko Shoda from the Myanmar Education Support Organization (MESO). MESO is a Japan-based organization supporting students by providing scholarships funded by annual membership contributions and donations from international supporters.

Ms Nobuko Shoda is now employing three staff to produce and sell the soaps and the revenue from this activity helps to finance a school close to Yangon in the YWAR THIT GYI village.

I met two young ladies who work in the workshop. They are 23 and 21 years old; with their income they also help their families back home.

The soap is sold in different locations in Yangon: hotel Chatrium, Pomelo shop, the Ichiban Kan Japanese restaurant, the Genki Physiotheraphy Clinic. The soap bars cost 5000 Kyatts each.

In case you order above 20 pieces you can contact directly Ms Nobuko Shoda by email ( and receive a discount.

All ingredients are natural, indigenous and environmentally friendly without any chemicals or synthetic fragrances. The paper in which the soap is wrapped comes from the Shan state.

There are four types of soap: natural, thanaka, bamboo charcoal and moringa.

I already bought quite a few for the family back home!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Myanmar culture and people

I cannot claim I have been learning a lot about Myanmar people but I would already like to make some observations and also say a few words about an article I read on the cultural differences and sensitivities between Westerners and Asian people.

Already in the past when I visited this country, only for a couple of days, I was surprised how hugely polite Myanmar people are. You can even say that, at the same time, they are shy with foreigners. In general, when people meet they smile to each other and bow. As their client they will do the utmost to make you happy. What a difference with Europe!

But the first thing that struck me after arriving here was the fact that Myanmar people are status-conscious. Everybody seems to know their position and act accordingly. And I do not refer only to age and professional status. One can see and feel the difference between rich and poor people. People here are having drivers which stay outside restaurants waiting for their boss to finish their meal, people employ a cook and a maid and perhaps a guard which also live at their house in special quarters like the most natural thing. And it is not only a few people. With the businesses and wealth coming back to Myanmar more and more local people are considering this help. And, of course, for the expats it is something very useful especially when you work around 10 hours a day. I do not want to debate the ethics of this.

And it is said that Myanmar people are more laid back. But people are slowly changing. The exception is made by the ones which lived for a period outside the country and returned or the ones who work with foreigners.

Another thing is that people laugh when they do not understand you. They will never say they did not understand. And they even say yes!yes! This is probably because they are embarrassed and do not want you to get upset.

The Myanmar people are friendly indeed. They will ask you about your family, age, work from the very first meeting. They will invite you to social events, to dinners or lunches and even to holiday houses they have in the country side.

The Crossroads magazine article I read speaks about doing business with Asian people and gives some advice to the Westerners:

1. start socially: one should never start with a business meeting but with a social event like a dinner or reception so that both sides get to know each other. 
2. immerse slowly in the business: first give an overview of the organization, of the project or of the future relationship. The authors states that "Asian like to see the forest first and then the trees". 
3. keep the documentation simple and clear. As already hinted Asian people will praise the business relationship, the trust, and not so much the written contract. 
4. be patient as there may be long delays because the Asian want to consult within their organization. The Asians like to discuss a variety of issues many of which will not be included in a contract. The author sees the positive sides: lengthy discussions will bring the parties closer together, you avoid mistakes.
5. maintain harmony by practicing good manners. Myanmar has no distinction between first name and family name and that is why you should use the full name unless they will invite you to use an alternative name. Many people in Myanmar also have a Western name which they prefer to use with foreigners.
6. never underestimate the language barrier. As I stated above it is better to avoid uncomfortable situations by hiring an interpreter.

On the same topic I was told that Myanmar people read and write English better than they speak it. It seems that the teachers in the past insisted on the written and not the spoken language.

The author, David James, believes that the points above are "strategies for success" when doing business with Asian people.

We are delighted to be here and learn about the culture and the people of Myanmar!