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e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Furiously Changing Yangon Midday traffic jams and a mobile phone boom in Myanmar’s biggest city Hirotaka Yamakawa Guest Researcher Jiji Research Institute JIJI Press [Date of Issue: 28/April/2016 No.0254-1006]

Date of Issue: 28/April/2016

Furiously Changing Yangon
Midday traffic jams and a mobile phone boom in Myanmar's biggest city

Hirotaka Yamakawa
Guest Researcher
Jiji Research Institute
JIJI Press

The number of cars in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, has skyrocketed, and there are now traffic jams even during the day. Mobile phone uptake has been huge, and retail stores and restaurants too continue to increase as Yangon undergoes a rapid transformation.


On March 30, 2016, a civilian government spearheaded by National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to power for the first time in 50 years in Myanmar, a country currently drawing attention as "Asia's last frontier." I made my third trip to Myanmar around a month before the new administration was launched. My previous two visits were in 2012 and 2013 in the wake of the country's 2011 transition from military rule. This time, the number of cars on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, had soared, and there were traffic jams even at midday. Myanmar's mobile phone penetration rate has soared to around 65 percent, and in Yangon, young people everywhere seemed to be clutching smartphones. Here I would like to describe Yangon's transformation.

Number of registered vehicles doubles in five years

Last time I visited Yangon, traffic jams were limited to the morning and evening rush hours, but this time, the traffic seemed to be backed up all day. These midday traffic jams are the result of the sudden increase in the number of cars. In 2015, the number of registered vehicles (passenger vehicles and trucks) in Myanmar reached around 710,000, double the level of five years ago. Used vehicle exports from Japan to Myanmar also topped 160,000 in 2014, with Myanmar passing Russia to top Japan's list of used car importers for the first time.

More than 90 percent of the cars in Yangon are Japanese, and the vast majority of those are Toyotas. There are still few new cars-most are used. Last time I visited, I saw a lot of very old used cars, but this time there were more comparatively new vehicles. I also saw luxury-class vehicles like the Toyota Lexus and Germany's Benz, evidence of a gradually swelling upper class.

The number of automobile dealers too is steadily increasing. In Yangon, I saw auto dealers handling Toyota, Suzuki, Mazda, Mitsubishi and other Japanese models, as well as dealers for Benz, BMW, Ford and other Western manufacturers. Some outlets were so deluxe that they wouldn't have been out of place in Japan.

Traffic jams even outside rush hour in Yangon

Traffic jams even outside rush hour in Yangon

Streetcars for Yangon

Yangon's taxi fleet has boomed. Most are Toyotas. Last time in Yangon, I struggled to find a taxi, but there were so many this time that I had no trouble at all. There were even trams running. Myanmar's first streetcars, which began operating in January 2016, are used trams from the Hiroshima Electric Railway. They run for around six kilometers (around 20 minutes), and tickets cost 100 kyat (approximately 10 yen). The planned link between the streetcars and the Yangon Circular Railway is expected to go ahead in 2016.

Last time I saw no multi-level intersections in Yangon, but this time there were at least five, with a number of others under construction. There were also more traffic lights and overhead bridges than during my last visit.

Yangon streetcar

Yangon streetcar

Smartphones for only 4,000 yen

Young people all over Yangon were using smartphones. When I checked out a mobile phone shop, cheap smartphones were around 4,000 yen. These were Chinese models. Samsung phones from Korea were much more expensive-over 10,000 yen. The average monthly wage of a worker in Myanmar is around 10,000 yen, so a Chinese smartphone can be purchased for less than two weeks' wages. Ordinary Chinese mobile phones are around 2,000 yen, half the price of a smartphone.

Myanmar's mobile phone penetration rate was 2.3 percent five years ago, but has now shot up to around 65 percent. This boom is the result of (1) cheap mobiles being sold in stores; and (2) a PR battle among mobile phone companies, who are putting up billboards everywhere.

A Yangon mobile phone store

A Yangon mobile phone store

Huge improvement in the Internet environment

Myanmar's mobile phone services are provided by three companies: MPT, a partnership among Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, KDDI and the Sumitomo Group; Norway mobile phone major Telenor; and the Qatar telecoms company Ooredoo. These firms have smartphone billboards up in various spots, including central intersections, Yangon International Airport, bus stops and stores. Myanmar's government aims to boost the mobile phone penetration rate to 80 percent in 2016, and at the current pace that goal will certainly be reached.

I also had no problem getting a WiFi Internet connection at my hotel in Yangon. It was almost the same as using the Internet in Japan. Compared to 2012 when I first visited Myanmar, the telecommunications environment has undergone a vast improvement.

Retail and restaurant boom

A large-scale shopping mall built by a Vietnamese company has now opened, and a string of restaurants including the US fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) have appeared in Yangon. Neither the mall nor the KFC outlet were there last time I visited. Myanmar now also has more than 100 Japanese restaurants.

A Japanese doctor has been working at the Victoria Hospital since January 2016, dispatched by Daiyukai, a medical corporation based in Ichinomiya City in Aichi Prefecture. One Japanese businessman stationed in Yangon enthused that "Being able to be examined by a Japanese-speaking doctor is great. I hope that there will be more hospitals like these, and hospitals offering advanced medical care."

Hotel rates and office rents drop

The number of hotels and offices in Yangon has grown, and compared to last time, hotel rates and office rents are both getting cheaper. Hotels that were 25,000 yen per night are now charging around 20,000 yen, and office rents in central Yangon have fallen from US$80-90 per square meter to US$60-70. Yangon is changing at a ferocious pace.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)


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