The best way to describe Yangon is vibrant; the shimmery Irrawaddy Delta, the colorful longyi-wear and markets, its glowing Shwedagon pagoda that illuminates the city at night. And yet, these obvious characteristics are not what make Yangon pulsate with energy. Its vivaciousness is seen on its poverty-stricken streets, where after years of isolation, people are beginning to hope. The journalists and media have rights to speak, prisoners have been released, and there are signs of improvement lurking in the shadows of its dirty alleyways.
The citizens of the capital city of Myanmar are waiting in anticipation to see what will happen. But some are not as patient. They are ready to bust out of the gate, stretching out their helping hands in new and creative ways. These social entrepreneurs, many of which are women expressing their freedoms for the first time, are starting small social businesses around Yangon. It’s an exciting, but scary time to be a local.
It’s an anxious time for the rest of the world as well. Right now, more than ever, the light has been cast on Myanmar’s potential tourist attractions, and investors can’t wait to sink their teeth into the potential that is there. You may very well find yourself venturing to this “un-touched” land with the rest of the world very soon. And if you do, I hope you chose wisely when selecting which investments you support, and which ones you veto.
The government widely controls most of the tourist zones within Myanmar. Airlines, hotels and other forms of transportation are normally operated in order to fund their control over the country. Large foreign “cronies” are also connected with taking from society in unethical ways. It’s hard for travelers not to help fund the government when traveling to Myanmar since their control reaches literally everywhere in the approved “tourist circuit.”
To make it a little easier, let me introduce you to some of the amazing things happening in Yangon on a grassroots level. These little socially-minded businesses are game changers for Myanmar. And through the further support of tourists, these businesses will ensure the country’s culture survives through its growth.
SUPPORT LOCAL, SOCIAL BUSINESSES
New Zero Art Space
The art scene is booming in Yangon because of the country’s lifted ban on free expression. New Zero Art Space is a non-profit gallery and school that bring together foreign artists to share ideas and skills with Burmese art students, who are spreading their wings publicly for the first time. Founder Aye Ko was born in western Myanmar in 1963 and trained in traditional painting. Often influenced by his country’s political situation, his famed contemporary works include paintings, photography, video, mixed media and most recently, performance art. Jailed for a few years after the 1988 pro-democracy movement, Aye Ko is now the Founder and Executive Director of New Zero Art Space.
River Ayeyarwaddy Art Gallery
This little gallery is often forgotten amidst the other more “westernized” and trendy galleries popping up around the city, but it’s one of the only ones that showcases art and organizes events for charitable art projects. On the third floor, the gallery sells local textiles and crafts produced by the Pan Nann Ein Foundation, who enriches venerable women’s lives through creative classes.
What an exciting global movement this is! Project Hub supports local entrepreneurs with business resources all across the world. Its Yangon club was started by an Aussie/American couple who are doing extraordinary things through this chapter alone. In addition to the standard services they provide to budding entrepreneurs like shared desk space and group support, they are going to new levels. Their lively program of events includes seminars, talks and workshops from local and international business people, where their members can pitch to investors and get training. Their 2014 program specifically targeted to support young women, may very well be the birth place of the next big thing coming out of Yangon. Stop in, say hello, get a coffee and offer to help if you can extend your stay in the city.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my interview with co-founder Allison Morris! Her story is remarkable.
Set up by young expat Rachael Storass, who arrived in Yangon and frustratingly could not find household items produced by local co-ops, NGO’s and social enterprises to decorate her apartment with, Pomelo was born to support individual small businesses such as these. The shop sells textiles, furniture, jewelry and gift items from over 25 small businesses that work toward charitable causes in the community. Sales go directly back to each supplier, whose missions range from support for HIV victims and sex trafficking; care for children with disabilities; women empowerment; as well as vocational training and fare wages for craftsmen. If you are in Yangon, it’s a great place to stop in for some hand-crafted items.
Annie Bell, a popular expat in the city, helps street kids and underprivileged men and women build a life through training them to sew and restore teak furniture. The workshop is nestled in a courtyard of a restored colonial building (Annie’s family home) and welcomes visitors. Stop in the sewing room to see the donated machines, all given by happy customers. Annie and Rachael of Pomelo are now working together to sell Helping Hands pieces in the newly relocated Pomelo shop. Ask about visits to the Helping Hands workshop while you stop in to peruse their fair-trade bags, cushions, clothing and more.
Rosy Chin Fabrics
Rosy’s vision doesn’t technically follow the social enterprise model “rules”, but I had to include her little shop in this guide. Rosy is breaking social barriers as a woman entrepenuer in Yangon. As noted in a recent article by Consult-Myanmar, “Women often take on strong roles in their communities, but cultural expectations prevent them from going after funding or launching a start-up the way men might — or might be encouraged to do… Societal standards for what’s appropriate in a male-female interaction hinder women entrepreneurs from securing funding and partnerships.” Rosy’s dreams of bringing Chin ethnic group-designed fabrics to the world was realized when she won support and funding from ProjectHub Yangon’s – Project W incubator program. You can now buy her fabrics from her Facebook page. Rosy is alone providing work for women in the Chin states, bringing cultural richness to the country, and showing other Burmese women that they too can start small businesses.
The Yangon Bakehouse is a social business for disadvantaged women. By teaching these ladies how to bake, speak English, manage their money and work successfully in the hospitality industry – they are striving to improve women’s lives and their future generations. The Bakehouse provides far living wages, medical benefits and other life skill courses during each woman’s 10 month training program, as well as career assistance after they are finished. They currently provide a menu of delivery and take-away options only, but you can also just stop by to have a coffee and check out the wonderful work that is going on here!
Check out Asia Foundation’s short video feature on them below!
Shwe Sa Bwe
This restaurant has wonderful food in a cozy setting, with an even greater cause. Francoise and Margot, train disadvantaged youth how to succeed in the hospitality sector through their onsite training program. The ever changing French-style menu is served by the charming, courteous students who at times can be nervous as they gain confidence. All the proceeds go toward their schooling and fair wages. It’s an excellent place for a date night, as it’s beautifully decorated with a garden seating area. The students love making cocktails, so be sure to ask what their favorite one is…then order two.
Contact: +95 942 100 5085
This little, hidden café is a charming one once you climb the hidden steps to reach it. Filled with local art, you can enjoy dining on a balcony overlooking the busy streets below. The restaurant gets its name from its “linkage” to a local NGO that provides street kids with training in the hospitality industry. Forever Humanitarian & Development Projects ensures that their students are given proper instruction and support to help them succeed in life. Stop in to enjoy a Burmese-style meal, and to peruse the local art collection for sale.
Strolling through markets are one of the best ways to interact with local life, sample food and support the growers.
Here are the top ones to visit:
Bogyoke Aung Sun Market
Also known as Scott Market; around 2,000 stalls trade here.
Anawrahta Road Night Market
One of the busiest in the city, this night market is teeming with food vendors selling all sorts of dishes to try.
Night Market at the Botataung Paya
All lit up at night and located near the river in Southern Rangoon, this is the best place to go for a good time and a chat with the locals. Young monks from the nearby monastery love practicing their English. Afterwards, enjoy carnival-like treats from sugar-cane iced drinks to gold-leaf bananas.
STAY AT ETHICAL HOTELS AND LOCAL INNS
Mother Land Inn (2)
Even though staying in a budget property may not be for the more “luxurious” traveler, it’s the only real way to support locals directly through your hotel choice in Myanmar, since most locals don’t have the capital to start-up an inn at 3-4 star “western” standards. Mother Land Inn (2) is a great choice to help grow a privately-run business. Rooms are generally around $35 a night with A/C, private bath, breakfast and free airport pickup.
Belmond Governor’s Residence
For those who want to splurge and just can’t “live like a local.” I would suggest the Governor’s Residence. It’s owned and operator by Belmond which is a European Giant; however, they do fairly employ many Burmese citizens, as well as give large donations to help local businesses and some of the social enterprises in this guide!
TOUR WITH THE RIGHT KIND OF COMPANY
Myanmar is rustic and its infrastructure is not the easiest to maneuver. You may find yourself looking to companies to help you along the way. Chose ones that are doing things the right way, and can help you be a educated traveler!
Cooking Classes and Food Tours
GraceWorks Myanmar (GWM) is a non-denominational community development organization that partners with local communities to better education, health, community wellbeing and livelihood. Through several projects, they invest in practical programs that take a holistic approach. Their Food Mosaic program is a newly developed social enterprise where their culinary students practice their kitchen management and food production skills, to offer Myanmar cooking classes to foreign visitors. Students conduct guided tours of a local food market, and later involve the guests in the preparation of several traditional Burmese and ethnic dishes. This is a great way to support Graceworks projects, hang out with local young adults, and learn about Burmese Cuisine.
Contact: click on the website link above for instructions on how to book
Full-escorted tours with volunteering opportunities
Founded by Graceworks, Mosaic Tours allows visitors to experience the real Myanmar by providing exposure to its rural communities, with opportunities for care and compassion along the way. Their customized programs connect travelers to their current projects to further support their mission. I love their write up on their website about how they see “Compassionate Tourism.” With the needed guidance to safely reach out-of –the-way places and communities, Mosaic Tours will certainly bring Myanmar to life for the traveler wishing to make a difference.
YANGON HERITAGE TRUST
During the era of British occupation, Yangon (then Rangoon), experienced a Golden Age. Although it has been beaten and battered by military rule since then, the city still retains its colonial buildings from this era. In fact, Yangon has one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with grand parks and lakes. This heritage is in danger now more than ever, as foreign investments come into the city with plans to tear down the colonial buildings for big money. Founded in 2012 by Dr. Myint-U and a number of other citizens concerned with the city’s rapidly disappearing heritage architecture, The Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) seeks to protect these buildings by engaging with the government, businesses and society at large, to set policies toward protection of the city’s historical assets. They also take on conservation projects and research.
Every Wednesday and Saturday at 9:00am and 4:00pm, YHT takes groups around the old heart of Yangon to explore its colonial buildings. Pass through the bustling Bogyoke Aung San Market, the Former Burma Railways Company, and the High Court. All proceeds from the tours go towards YHT’s continued advocacy and restoration projects.
Golden Harp Taxi Service
This Yangon taxi service is made up of former political prisoners. Riding with Golden Harp gives much needed support to men and women who still face discrimination from the government
Contact: +95 9 428117348, +95 9 450019186, or +95 9 449004810
LOOKING FOR TIPS ON WHERE TO GO OUTSIDE OF YANGON?
Bagan and Lake Inle are high on my list, but check out these great resources by clicking on the links below for further inspiration:
Be sure to do some research on which hotels and restaurants you would like to support throughout the rest of the country. Have questions? Send me a note, and I would be happy to help!
And in case you missed them, make sure to read through these articles on Myanmar: