Myanmar: A Country of Contrasts
Our Thailand-based subsidiary Metrohm Siam has been responsible for Metrohm sales, support, and service in Myanmar for 15 years. Under Myanmar’s oppressive military government, the country was closed off to the rest of the world for 50 years. Eight years ago, the regime ended and Myanmar has gone through many changes since. Here’s my review of 24 insightful hours.
Metrohm Siam’s managing director Kaowtip Potang and sales coordinator Song joined me to Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and most populous city. Metrohm Siam just opened a new office in Yangon and the two local staff started on September 3rd, which was unfortunately just a few days after my visit, so I didn’t get to meet them.
I did get the chance to visit the office though: at that point it was just a small room with two desks waiting to be occupied. The office in downtown Yangon is located in a co-working space, which is equipped with a reception, pantry, and meeting rooms. Metrohm Siam’s sales and marketing manager Chullashut, who was in Yangon to see a customer and joined our visit to the new office, told me: «We [Metrohm Siam’s Thai staff] couldn’t work here! Our team is too loud!» Having joined the team of Metrohm Siam for their anniversary celebration, I’ll second that!
Kaowtip not only knows everything about Metrohm Siam, but is also very knowledgeable about the history of Thailand and its neighboring country and about Buddhism. Having her as my travel companion meant that I could learn a great deal by listening and quizzing her about all those things that called my attention and that I didn’t understand.
When you arrive in Myanmar, you’ll immediately notice the dress code, which is different from other Southeast Asian countries. Men and women will wear longyis, a kind of wrap skirt. Men will mostly combine this with a button-down shirt, while women wear fitted blouses matching their longyi. Even work uniforms consist of a longyi with a matching shirt or blouse. Many women and children wear a pale yellow face paint that is applied in symmetrical patterns. The paint is called thanaka and is made from ground bark of certain tree species from central Myanmar, mixed with water. In addition to being perceived as aesthetic, thanaka has a cooling effect and protects those wearing it from sunburn.
Shwedagon: The Landmark of Yangon
Similar to Thailand, the majority of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist. The landmark of Yangon is the enormous, golden Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s the most important Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. We visited Shwedagon in the evening, after sunset when it was illuminated. Just walking around the Pagoda once took us more than an hour—obviously, I stopped to take photos and admire the construction and the art dedicated to Buddha in the innumerable Buddha shrines that surround the Pagoda. Still, its dimensions are impressive and are a testimony to the devotion of the local Buddhists to their teacher Buddha.
Shwedagon means «the reliquary of the four». The Pagoda gets its name from the four Buddhas (people who have attained enlightenment) whose relics are kept here: There are relics from three early Buddhas, and of Gautama Buddha. Gautama Buddha is the one that most people know simply as Buddha. The Shwedagon Pagoda was built 588 BC and was raised twice from its original height of 22 meters to its current height, just short of 100 meters. Its top part is decorated with gemstones that you can see sparkle all the way from the bottom when you look from the right place.
A Country of Contrasts
The opulence is a sharp contrast to the streets of Myanmar, where development lags far behind its neighbor Thailand. For me, the Yangon Circular Railway was a good place to see what the daily lives of many locals look like. The railway network takes you around the Yangon metropolitan area on a circular route in about three hours for just 200 Myanmar Kyat, which is just 13 cents of a US dollar. This makes it affordable even for those earning the minimum daily wage, which is about USD 3.60.
The discarded Japan Railway trains pass through city area, fields, and villages. You’ll see farmers waist-deep in water harvesting watercress, you’ll see market vendors merrily chattering as they load heavy sacks of vegetables onto the train to bring the goods to the city, you’ll see villages of self-built shacks, children playing on the railway tracks, you’ll see vendors on the train selling passengers fruit and snacks and reading glasses, men adjusting their longyis, and you’ll see golden pagodas gleaming in the sunlight.