By Sophie Garnier
Sophie Garnier moved from London to Yangon in 2015. After a stint in private equity she founded her own homeware brand, Kalinko.com, selling artisanal products from across Myanmar.
When it comes to living in Yangon, I would advise finding somewhere in the city centre when you first arrive. After you have been there a while you might want to move to a quieter area, such as Bahan or Mayangone. Facebook is the best place to find somewhere to live. Join the expat groups — Yangon Connection is the largest.
Once in your new home, furnishing it tastefully is another challenge. Bring lots of patience as, if you don’t want to settle for cheap metal furniture, you will need to trawl the old furniture shops in Yankin and choose pieces to be restored, or have a carpenter make you what you need.
The supermarkets aren’t great for fresh food, so shop for vegetables, fish and eggs in the wet market. There is a great one on 17th Street, with a huge underground fish section. Look for bulbous eyes and firm flesh on the fish, make sure you can’t hear anything when you shake the eggs, and wash your fruit and vegetables thoroughly in bottled water before eating.
Buy your meat in ProMart, a Korean grocery store; order cheese for delivery from Ciao; and get dry goods from supermarket City Mart. You can also pick up exceptional ice cream from Sharky’s, a Burmese master cheese-maker trained in Switzerland who also sells great bread, cold cuts and local artisanal products.
To avoid getting sick, don’t eat street food. It might look fun, but food hygiene hasn’t trickled down to street level yet and, if you need to go to work every day, it’s not worth the risk. If you do get ill, on the top floor of Parami Hospital is a good, English-speaking international clinic, but for anything beyond basic treatment they will send you to Bangkok, which is a 30-minute flight away.
Bring all clothes and favourite toiletries with you — availability in the shops is limited — or buy what you need in Bangkok. Or you can get clothes made here; finding a tailor in Bogyoke Market and having clothes made can be fun, but is a very slow and iterative process.
Beyond that, you won’t find much in the local shops and there aren’t many high-street brands here yet. For dry cleaning I recommend 5àsec (there are five branches around town); it is the only international-standard chain.
You won’t find fresh flowers as cheap wherever else you live, so take advantage while you’re here and always have them at home. You can get a giant bunch of lilies in the market for the equivalent of £3, and huge blooms of chrysanthemums, roses, irises and tulips for £2. Similarly, take taxis as they’re well priced and public transport isn’t very user-friendly.
If you’re into exercise, running or walking anywhere is a bit tricky because it’s super hot or soaking wet for most of the year, and pavements are uneven, full of holes and, after 6pm, pitch-black with no street-lights. However, you can play squash on the national team’s courts at Yangon Squash Club when they aren’t using them.
Lethwei boxing is extremely popular — try Phoenix Boxing Club. And Yangon Yoga House is an amazing yoga studio that makes you feel like you’re in New York for the hour that you’re there.
Yangon is a hectic place, so you need to find serene spots to escape to. The old racecourse is my favourite — it’s now a sports ground, and is lovely to wander round and feel out of the city for a bit. There is a new café with great coffee called Café Salween, which is very calming and hidden away on a downtown side-street. The Governor’s Residence bar and pool are heaven, and a day there feels like a real retreat from the chaos, as does a glass of wine at Le Planteur, overlooking the lake.
Alternatively, you can take bikes and your swimming stuff and drive an hour north to Hmawbi, where you’re very quickly out in the middle of nowhere and can swim in the reservoirs. And for a great manicure, Beauty Concepts at the Sule Square mall is exceptional — on a global scale.
For culture, France’s Institut Français and Germany’s Goethe-Institut have brilliant programmes, and there is always something interesting to see or learn about at the arts venue Myanm/art. While you’re there you can shop at the second-hand book stalls on Pansodan Road. Reading has long been a big part of Burmese culture, and there are hundreds of book stalls around town. The ones at Pansodan have English titles and, if you’re lucky, a few first editions from the period of British rule (1824-1948).
Finally, do take Burmese lessons. Myanmar has a complex culture, and the best way to get under its skin is to learn the language. The Institut Français has good courses, or you can hire an individual tutor. Even if you don’t get much further, learning that there is no word for “no” is an enlightening start.
What I wish I’d known before moving
Before I left London I was absolutely convinced I couldn’t leave one job without lining up the next, and bust a gut to get a role with a company that I was desperate to work for. However, within weeks of arriving, it became clear that it wasn’t what I had imagined. Had I arrived here first and worked out the lay of the land, I’d have saved myself a lot of sleepless nights both before leaving London and in my first few weeks in Yangon.
Living and working here is a unique experience, and it’s very difficult to apply preconceptions built elsewhere.
Photographs: Getty Images/iStockphoto; Dreamstime; In Pictures via Getty Images