Yangon, Myanmar (or is it Burma?). Where have all the elephant pants gone?
I have never been anywhere quite like Myanmar. In one word: fascinating.
Or is it Burma? Let’s start with the name. The fact that the country can be known by two different names already suggests that the place is, well, complicated. And it is. I thought for certain that more research and inquiry would leave me with a definitive answer as to which name to use, but I regret to reform you that I’m still stuck oscillating between the two. The take away is that both names are inaccurate and problematic in their own ways, yet the use of either while actually in the country likely won’t offend the people you meet. I’m sticking to Burma for this post.
In all honesty, Burma was not at the top of my travel list even earlier this year. In plotting my next Mondeur collection, I had reached out to a college acquaintance who is based in Yangon. A few exchanges later, my interest was totally piqued. I knew this was a place I had to visit as soon as possible, for myself and to see what possibilities there might be for Le Mondeur. So, Burma moved right up to the top of my travel list.
Burma is the least-visited country in Southeast Asia. Still, bordering Thailand, I found it hard to believe that there wouldn’t be a sizeable spillover of tourists wearing those same damn elephant-print parachute pants that nearly every tourist seems to immediately slip into upon arrival in Thailand. (Side note: I was told by a Thai person that these pants are not a Thai thing, but that they’ve started mass producing them for tourists who maybe think they are. The Thai see them more as comfortable pajamas to be worn at home. I guess it’s similar to the discussion around the appropriateness of wearing leggings as pants in the US. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just Google “Thai elephant pants.”). I couldn’t have been more wrong, or maybe they just traded them all in for longyi (fabric pictured below)?
If you visit Burma today, you may still find that there is a distinct absence of tourists in elephant pants. This is because this is still a place that has, up until very recently, been largely closed off to the rest of the world due to political reasons. The country saw its first civilian government in more than 50 years just last year but, if you follow any news on the region, you’ll know that the transition to “democracy” has not been easy or triumphant. Many of the same issues of conflict and corruption still plague the country. For tourists, there are still so many regions that the government will not let you visit in the country, and you can still only stay at government-registered hotels. This country may now be “open,” but the low level of whisper at which folks still talk about anything political is a reminder that the new government is still very fragile, and the future largely unknown.
From the moment I got off the short plane ride from Chiang Mai to Yangon, I knew I wasn’t in Thailand anymore. As my “official” cab driver from the airport to my hotel pulled over (or didn’t) what seemed like every few minutes to spit out copious amounts of deep red betel juice onto the road, I started asking myself the sorts of where-am-I questions that I kept repeating throughout the week. It had been a while since I’d been anywhere that had my eyes open this wide. I love this feeling.
Yangon (formerly Rangoon…two names, yet again) is the largest city in Burma, and was formerly the capital. It is a bustling, scorching hot (at least in March) city where it takes several acts of naïve courage just to cross some of the busier streets. The downtown area is an incredible example of (decaying) British colonial architecture strewn with a mess of electric wires and drying laundry. All in all, Yangon gave me the impression of a people who had returned to occupy after a period of “The World Without Humans.” Ancient, chaotic, complicated.
The city is also dotted with a few more recent high rises and some famous, gilded pagodas, including the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred in Burma.
There are certain tell-tale signs that Burma has not been over saturated by certain influences from the rest of the world. First off, the people we encountered expressed a sincere curiosity about us, us being myself and a friend who joined me for this portion of the trip. Instead of being the photographer, I found myself more often than not the one being photographed. Most people only recently got access to phones and the internet, and jumped right ahead to smartphones and Facebook at that. It seems as though Facebook is the internet there, and I have no doubts my mug is circulating throughout this medium right now (famous in Burma?!).
Second, I found the Burmese to be incredibly well dressed and fashionable, but in a way that is completely unique to them and not yet marred or influenced by global brands and fast fashion. Even in the city, men and women alike still wear traditional Burmese longyi (I know they have different names for this for men and women, but simplifying here), a wrap skirt traditionally handwoven from cotton or silk. The men in particular are striking in their longyi, paired with velvet sandals and a dress shirt. Even the hippest teens at the height of adolescent insecurity are hardcore rocking the longyi, and they know it looks good.
And the ubiquitous cosmetic face paint, thanaka, that women and girls apply in infinite variations! At first a little jarring, I think it can be really beautiful. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, these sorts of things change in the near future.
But while Burma has remained largely unknown to much of the tourism sector for so long, it has been known to many for certain things, including its rich natural resources, which have led to much conflict that continues today. Burma’s best-known natural resources are gold, jade, rubies and sapphires. 90% of the world’s rubies come from Burma! It is luxury side-by-side with extreme poverty.
I, for one, have never seen so many precious gemstones and expensive jewelry in all my life. I’m not sure it’s possible, actually. People come from all over the world to Burma to purchase stones and jewelry, abundant in places ranging from small, everyday market stalls to fortressed jewelry stores. I remember my friend and I stumbling upon a gold shop where the many clerks could not even keep up with the even more numerous Chinese customers who were buying up gold, literally hand over fist. Compare this to the men I saw in the main market—The Bogyoke Market—drinking tea at low plastic tables outside on a side street, examining and bartering for raw gemstones. This kind of ubiquity in the rare, precious and exceedingly expensive made it almost seem commonplace to possess or even hold what is usually locked away behind glitzy glass cases. Good thing my credit cards (and my conscience) have limits.
But I wasn’t in Yangon for the rubies. I came to visit a handful of social enterprises and otherwise explore ways in which I could bring unique, handmade product to Le Mondeur that would have a direct, financial benefit to the makers. Being an entrepreneur in Burma is near impossible. There’s no real way to get capital, and most everything has to run through the corrupt inner workings of the government. The people, however, are industrious and enterprising, and I am hopeful that this slight opening of their society and economy can lead to more opportunities for more people to interact directly with a broader market. To that end, I met several wonderful makers and social enterprises while in Yangon, and I would love to keep working with them for Le Mondeur. I brought back a handful of special pieces to start, which you can shop as part of The Chiang Mai Collection. They are also featured below. Perhaps there will be a full Burma collection for Le Mondeur down the road???
There’s so much more I could write about this brief visit to Yangon, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that visiting Burma is not for the fair-weathered traveler (although you could exclusively isolate yourself in five-star resorts, but where’s the fun in that?), but it is a fascinating and beautiful place with very kind people. If you ever thought about going, I’d say sooner the better, before the elephant pants arrive in troves.