I came back from my first trip to Myanmar’s business capital of Yangon with mixed impressions, but an overwhelming sense of a place on the make. It is clearly a city in transition; at times the amount of greenery reminded me of the Thai countryside, an effect that was exacerbated in the evenings with the dimly lit streets, at least in the areas I was travelling.
So many of the old stone buildings looked like they were slowly being reclaimed by the earth. What I thought would make a great tourist attraction – the aspirationally-named Utopia Tower, a strange stone turret by Kandawgyi Lake which boasted panoramic views of the city – had the ambience of a condemned building, with a forlorn attendant at the top collecting entrance fees. A lot of places were crying out for a fresh coat of paint, though I never made it downtown, home to many of the more attractive streets and buildings. I did make it to the Shwedagon pagoda complex, which was truly magnificent.
Pretty much everyone I spoke with was bullish on the future, signifying a city where the pace of renewal may be uneven, but is irresistible. Numerous office, apartment and retail complexes are going up; accommodation is tight and expensive, and several top-end international hotel chains are set to join the handful of five-star hotels already present.
Myanmar media still face political restrictions, but English-language weeklies, local-language dailies and TV channels provide a steady stream of news and analysis, and the local media I saw in action with my clients were certainly no shrinking violets.
Setting up an operation in Yangon won’t be easy. When it comes to building a presence in a new market, PR and corporate communications are no different from any other industry in their need to find good local partners and connections you can trust. But few places have such an exciting frontier feel to them as Myanmar.