YANGON (AFP) – Behind a wooden counter in downtown Yangon’s Coffee Club, the unmistakable hiss of a barista steaming milk briefly drowns out a funky soundtrack piped through a store filled with students glued to their smartphones.
In any other Asian capital it would be a ubiquitous sight. But in Yangon, this is something new.
Long absent from the region’s booming cafe culture, Myanmar’s commercial capital is now witnessing a surge in swish coffee bars providing an alternative to the treacly instant coffee served by thousands of street carts.
It is a trend that points both to the changing tastes of Myanmar’s emerging middle-class but also the widening gap between them and the nation’s poor.
Nyi Nyi Tun, a doctor, is typical of the newly aspirant customers relishing consumer goods that were either far beyond their reach or simply unavailable under Myanmar’s brutal and economically incompetent military dictatorship.
“I came here to read,” he said, sipping an Americano and perusing the web on a tablet. “With friends, a street side tea shop is better. But if you want to be somewhere alone and quiet, then this kind of coffee shop is good.”
To escape the noisy onslaught of Yangon’s increasingly vehicle-clogged streets, Nyi Nyi Tun is willing to fork out as much as $2 – 10 times what a traditional Myanmar coffee made from pre-mixed sachets and condensed milk costs at roadside stalls.
In the last few years since the end of outright military rule in 2011, around two dozen speciality coffee shops have opened up in Yangon alone.
“You will witness exponential growth of the coffee industry in the next three years,” predicts Ye Naing Wynn, managing director of the Nervin Cafe chain – Myanmar’s oldest – which now boasts five outlets including in Mandalay and the capital Naypyidaw.
“A country like Myanmar has newly opened up. People have been closed up for so many years.
“The natural human reaction is they want to experience new things,” he adds.
Initially it was the large influx of expats and tourists that helped foster Yangon’s nascent coffee scene.