Flavoured life for expats in Myanmar

Some foreigners may be fretting about living in Myanmar. Being one of the poorest countries in the world and having just reopened to the world a few years ago, the country was believed to be in a terrible state.

Three expats interviewed by Myanmar Eleven, however, think differently.

They have a high opinion of the local people, the food, the natural landscape, and the simple way of life. Something is missing, they said, but rapid development is on the way and this should make living in Myanmar a lot easier as time passes. It is estimated that thousands of expats are now living in Yangon.

Attitude seems to play a large part in their opinions. None of the three was worried on learning about their posting to this country. With their open-mindedness, they have embraced whatever the country has offered.

“I am from Southeast Asia and am familiar with living conditions in the newly developing countries, living conditions in this part of the world,” says Thomas Chan, tax executive director at KPMG in Myanmar. “I was excited that I was chosen to take this post in Myanmar because to me, challenges are opportunities to grow.” The Singaporean has been posted in Myanmar since November 2013.

Chana Poomee, country director of Thailand-based Siam Cement Group (SCG), also coolly welcomed the assignment, which followed a three-year stint in Cambodia. “To be in Myanmar didn’t worry me. Myanmar is not far from our home, with similar lifestyle, including weather and religion,” he says.

Standard Chartered Bank’s chief representative for Myanmar Tina Singhsacha, who first visited the country with the bank’s clients in September 2012, says it was “very exciting given how little we all knew about Myanmar and its investment climate at that time”.

“I was absolutely thrilled when I was told that I would be responsible for the bank’s re-entry into Myanmar. It was truly a privilege to be given such an opportunity,” says the woman who started her expat life there in February 2013 when the representative office was opened.

Top concerns

They all had some concerns, though.

Thomas’s top concern was “the connectivity that the country had a year ago would be challenging for a knowledge-based business like ours”. He also thought that language could pose a significant challenge in getting day-to-day issues done.

Having a 10-year-old son, Tina’s concern was safety.

“However, through simple desktop research, I came to understand that Yangon was a safe place to live in. I was told when I first arrived that “the only time people run after you is to return you money”, she says.

After setting foot there, she found out that the ground reality was even better than she had expected.


“Generous, sincere and hard working” people impressed Tina the most. Then, she experienced an even richer culture emanating from the interlacing of diverse social influences. For example, Myanmar cuisine seems to have been strongly influenced by Indian culture with lentils as a staple, some Thai and Chinese resemblance in curry and stir fries, and the British influence of the tea culture.

Tina experienced no cultural shocks to cause any anxiety or concerns. Life is easy, except in coping with frequent power blackouts.

“My son has quickly got used to the blackouts, after being scared in the first few weeks to being indifferent when they happen now. For me, the most shocking is how kind and generous people are to us,” she says.

She recounted being offered free hot tea at every Myanmar restaurants. Her house agent insisted on taking her to a nice restaurant for a meal. The owner of the rental car also took me to a teashop at her request and did not let her pay.

“The most recent experience is when I went to earn merit by giving food to monks early in the morning; a man offered me a spare space at his table to make the offering alongside him despite being a complete stranger. I have heard many more stories of generosity from strangers in Myanmar; this is very special and Myanmar and its people will always have a special place in my life,” she says.

Nothing bothered KPMG’s Chan, except the widespread use of betel nuts.

“Seeing red liquids flying out of the sides of taxis without any warning and its pervasive and distinctive smell in every taxi took a bit of getting used to,” he says.

SCG’s Chana also adjusted to living in Myanmar quickly. To him, most Myanmar people live a simple life and they are highly devoted to their religions. The crime rate is low, which is reassuring to all who work and live in the country.

His minor culture shock was when he learnt that most males there wear “longyi” at home and outside.

“Wearing a longyi was quite a problem at first. I was not accustomed to wearing sarongs at public places, but I tried to follow the norm. Indeed, generally, there is no cultural difference between Myanmar and Thailand. We can adjust easily, learning the cultures of one another bit by bit. This helps promote understanding and happier living and work,” he says.


The Myanmar people and their food are the main attractions for the three expats.

“Myanmar people are pragmatic and honest. The variety of food available is amazing. It is a confluence of Indian, Chinese and Thai food,” says Thomas.

Seafood is his favourite dish, thanks to the wonderful freshness. “Just thinking of the simply steamed prawns stir my appetite.”

Devotion to Buddhism impressed Chana, who himself a Buddhist. To him, taking off shoes before entering the precincts of a pagoda as a mark of respect is a good practice. He is also impressed that people of all ages come to the places, to pay respect, pray and meditate.

He has also developed a taste for Lahpet Thoke – pickled tea leaves laced with crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut.

“The salad can be eaten any time. We offer it to guests, eat it with afternoon tea or any time. It’s very tasty,” he says.

Myanmar people, to Tina, are extremely eager to learn and are open to new experiences.

“Foreigners in Myanmar today often have a similar adventurous spirit, which is what brought them here. Everyone is simply committed to see Myanmar grow and develop and hence are more than willing to collaborate with each other and help,” she says.

Aside from local and foreign people she meets, she falls for Mohinga – a rice noodle and fish soup – which is considered by many to be the national dish of Myanmar.

“I first tasted it at Feel Express at the Yangon-Nay Pyi Taw highway midway stop. Initially, I did not think much of it and thought it was just so-so. But now, my mouth simply waters every time I think of Mohinga. I can’t wait to try Mohinga from different regions and states,” she said.

Missing facilities

Chana says Myanmar has all the facilities one needs, like hotels, restaurants and shops, but compared to Bangkok, there is a long way to go. Now more international schools are being opened. But hospitals are not as well-equipped as those in Thailand although they are being improved gradually. In Yangon, there are a few good hospitals.

“Mostly I stay in Yangon. The city has witnessed rapid development. Lots of facilities are springing up, from schools, universities, shopping centres, restaurants to hotels. If there is anything in this city that needs to catch up with the trend, it is hospitals. They need new equipment and specialised medical staff, to ensure integrated and safer services. Another thing is traffic. All-day congestion is normal, given the increasing number of vehicles. This should be the priorities for the government,” he says.

What Thomas misses the most while in Myanmar is a nice movie theatre where he can enjoy a good movie.

As a mother, Tina acknowledges that there are a number of international schools opening up. “I’m aware that the shortage of space at these schools is an issue for many expats with families considering a move to Myanmar,” she said.

While grocery stores are not a problem, medical needs could be. For now, she copes with medical needs by having annual check-ups done in Bangkok.

“In Nay Pyi Taw, you will need an international school to be able to attract more expats with families. I see that more and more restaurants are opening up in Nay Pyi Taw, that will also help attract more residents. Nay Pyi Taw will grow as Myanmar grows. For Yangon, good public transportation would be critical in the future, especially to get around or even ease the traffic in the city,” she says.


All three are happy living in Myanmar, expecting only the upside.

Tina is now encouraged to know more about the country, expecting to see more of Myanmar and get out of Yangon to see many other cities and cultures.

“Life in Myanmar is definitely a lot simpler today when compared to cities like Bangkok or Singapore, when you look at cosmopolitan factors such as restaurant diversity or shopping. However, Myanmar has a lot to offer when it comes to beautiful landscapes and intriguing places to visit,” she says.

Chana thinks the same.

“Myanmar is on a fast development pace. Things will certainly improve. Now, more investors are flocking to the country, which would benefit the economy and the people’s lives. Each time you step on this land, you won’t recognise it,” he says.

Thomas admits that Myanmar is far from the extreme conditions that are often portrayed. Its airport is modern. Electricity supply, though unstable, can be supplemented with sufficient planning. Though traffic is getting more congested, the situation is nowhere near Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City. The weather can be challenging during the rainy season but drainage works have helped manage flooding at various places. Whilst the number of restaurants was limited initially, they grow in number every day.

“I often approach a new place with an open mind so I can better learn how locals adapt to the conditions in Myanmar. Life anywhere in the world could be easy or difficult. It mostly depends on how you think about it and how you live your life.

“Myanmar has grown on me and I love to see it improve day by day. There will be bumps along the way but I am confident the Myanmar people will find a way.”

Source: The Nation

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