A pilgrimage of the palate: Mish Khan examines how the introduction of western fast food in Myanmar is being received to the delight – and dismay – of many.
Rudyard Kipling wrote of Myanmar in 1898, “This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” Myanmar’s allure among Westerners spurs fantasies of an “off the beaten track” experience. The nation’s 50 year period of isolation is (somewhat uncomfortably) recognised for producing a rich, unique presentation of history and culture, untainted by external influences.
Former diplomat and Myanmar scholar Andrew Selth described such western imageries of Myanmar as “…complex amalgam of fact and fantasy, realism and romance”. Similarly, Emma Larkin wrote in her book Secret Histories, “I always find it impossible to say the name ‘Mandalay’ out loud without having at least a small flutter of excitement. For many foreigners the name conjures up irresistible images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendour.”
Given that such imageries pervade Myanmar, how do different groups reconcile Myanmar’s “untainted beauty” with the changes that come hand in hand with its reform and development process? It would be incredibly naïve to confine the country to glittering pagodas or to monks donning bright red robes, when in fact the same monks carry smartphones, and the same pagodas house savvy locals speaking good English, touting their tour skills for cash.
One area which has particularly fascinated me is the emergence of global fast-food brands in the country, especially within Yangon. In the short space of three years, Yangon has become home to Myanmar’s first Lotteria, first Swensens, first KFC, first Pizza Hut, and first Gloria Jeans – significant entries for a country yet to witness giants like McDonalds, Dominos, Starbucks, Subway, etc.
I was in Yangon last July and I visited Swensens, a global chain of icecream parlours. As a tourist with a moderate amount of knowledge about Myanmar, I was nonetheless taken aback – I was in a pristine store in an expensive shopping centre where staff spoke impeccable English, and the venue blasted the same trendy Western pop music I’d hear in nightclubs back home. The other booths at the restaurant were full of young couples, young circles of friends, and various families, all whom appeared to be affluent and trendy.
I couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of this couple’s selfie session with their meal, because it was such a contrast from the Myanmar I had seen walking around the backstreets of Lammadaw Township. The moment captured my dissonance between what I had thought Myanmar to be, and what I now recognised Myanmar’s transformation to signify.
Both from sheer millennial curiousity and academic interest, I began following the Myanmar Facebook pages to discover what I could of global fast food chains in the country. What surprised me about these pages is the fanfare they received from local audiences – for example, KFC Myanmar boasts a whopping 246,423 likes, Pizza Hut Myanmar has 48,626 likes, and Gloria Jeans Myanmar has been liked 32,722 times despite only being open a few months. This is a volume of followers many established Facebook pages fail to match.
On these Facebook pages, locals actively comment on posts and submit reviews, sometimes featuring photos of themselves with their meals. These posts are often packed with praise or compare the taste of these chains to venues they had visited abroad in Singapore or Thailand. The same Facebook pages casually respond back to the user, sometimes with a variety of emojis or stickers, marking the whole experience as very interactive in a manner atypical of Western fast food brands.
I managed to get in touch with one of the local reviewers, Hlaing Bwar, seeking his insight about how Western fast food was being received by the local community and whether “fast food” was becoming the norm in Yangon. He explained, “Western fast food is not considered as fast food… More or less, they are considered medium fine dining. More and more people are enjoying fast food these days here…. in my opinion, there is no tension in introducing western fast food. Those who can’t afford it won’t mind, and those who can will appreciate the new introduction.”
This confirms my suspicion that most “Yangonites” are probably generally accepting of the pockets of global influence that arise with Myanmar’s development, or at least in terms of Western brand penetration, despite such transformations being viewed a “shame” or as “cultural erosion” by foreigners.
To get some inside perspective, I also spoke with Gloria Jeans Yangon, a global Australian brand which opened its first Yangon store in March. Speaking on how they were received by the community they stated, “The brand has been received quite well, despite that most people are unfamiliar with Gloria Jeans Coffee. People from Myanmar commonly travel to neighbouring countries like Singapore and Thailand where the presence of brands like Starbucks are prominent. We hope to take advantage of being the first movers and replicate that in Myanmar. Although initially worried about our pricing (which lies on the premium side) we learned that people had no problem paying.”
“I think one of the challenge we had was training and development of staff. There weren’t a lot of people who are exposed to working with international brands. Also, people here have an appetite for food when they come for coffee. We’ve had to add a good range of hotmeals & pastries in order to attract the lunch/dinner crowds.”
I asked Gloria Jeans how they saw the future of fast food culture playing out in Myanmar. “Eating fast-food is trending here as we have brands like KFC, Marry Brown, Lotteria,” they explained. “This is common for the younger generation. However, the majority of people in Myanmar still prefer eating wholesome meals in a restaurant setting where food & beverages are serviced.”
My impression from monitoring the presence built by these chains is that Western fast food brands are exerting a strong, devoted effort to establish an influential presence in Myanmar, and are ready to do whatever they can to shape their customer base. Now that the gates of entry have been propped open by these few global chains, others will flood along eager to ride the tide of development.
This is not to say Myanmar has been unwarm to such changes – on the contrary, they are being received by communities with curiosity and excitement. Myanmar is the fastest-growing economy in the world, according to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, projected to grow at a figure of 8.6% this year. One thing is clear – as Myanmar escapes its economic paralysis and undergoes a wider revitalisation of society, there will be more and more exposure to international brands.
Although McDonalds doesn’t exactly scream magical like Kipling promised, it is incredibly patronising to demand Myanmar lock itself within a period of desperation and depression to enrichen a palate of Western visuals. Nor is it anything short of haughty to assume Myanmar’s people are incapable of making “authentic Myanmar” coexist with the lifestyles we take for granted – it is not a war between pagodas and pizza hut or between cultures and KFC. This is not to dismiss the social baggage carried by large corporations – there are valid reasons to oppose such entities, but being an eyesore to your travel experience should not be one of them.
A misplaced affection for Myanmar’s old days can be dangerous. As a 21 year old Asian Studies student I think it’s absolutely enthralling that I get to live through such monumental transformations for Myanmar – from free and fair elections, to the finger lickin’ Colonel Sanders. The fact that locals queued for hours to get a taste for KFC when it first opened doesn’t strike me as ridiculous or amusing – it speaks to me of how desperately those within Myanmar wanted to feel connected to what is “normal” for the outside world. If a Big Mac is a sign that your country is one peg further from ever reverting to military rule, let us keep an open mind and embrace these changes. Golden arches or golden pagodas, Myanmar’s future is brighter than ever before.