Five years is, however, not a long time for everything to change. Huge shopping malls with high-end designer stores are dotted between the traditional markets and tea shops, four lane fly-overs compete with twisting one-way lanes, everyone has a cell phone but not necessarily enough food to eat and huge palatial homes abound in areas conveniently tucked away from the massive amount of homelessness caused by huge urban drift in recent years.
Towering over all of this is the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar’s most religious site. Standing at almost 100 mtrs tall and inlaid with 3,154 solid gold bells plus 79,569 diamonds and other precious stones, this impressive monument originated over 2,600 years ago and is said to house 8 of Buddha’s hairs. As the sun goes down, hundreds of candles are lit around its base, while the spire itself is illuminated from below, creating a stunning and unearthly effect.
Wandering the surrounding streets, one can find beautiful colonial architecture dating back over 100 years to when the city was known as Rangoon and the British were stationed there. The original Post Office, Bank, Harbourmasters and Law Courts have all survived and it was pleasing to note that a lot of the buildings are being restored to their former glory.
A visit to Yangon would not be complete without a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence. Aung San, more commonly known as ‘The Lady’, is the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated in July 1947, just six months before independence. We felt humbled to stand in front of the gates where she had been imprisoned under house arrest for nearly 15 years because of her efforts to bring democracy to then military-ruled Myanmar. In November 2015, five years after being released from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years.
Interestingly, the Myanmar constitution forbids her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals, however, Ms Suu Kyi is widely seen as the de facto leader. Her father’s death is still commemorated annually and The Lady, herself, is revered by the people of Myanmar.
Although there is some international condemnation of how the NDL are handling the Rohingya crisis in western Rakhine State, one cannot help but see that The Lady has ushered in a new chapter to Myanmar’s history. There is a palpable feeling throughout the country, and especially in Yangon, that the time to make a positive start in bringing the country out of its nearly 50 years of hiatus under military rule is NOW!
The people we spoke to were both excited about the opportunities and realistic about how much Myanmar can do without outside aid. It will be a balancing act with some wins and some losses, but if it can be driven by the types of intelligent, driven and socially aware local people that we met on our travels, the future is bright for Myanmar.