With tourist season in full bloom, travellers have become an increasingly common sight around downtown Yangon – often with sunburned noses buried in city maps.
But for those looking for more than the classic pictures of street names and must-see spots, a newly updated smartphone app called iDiscover CityWalks offers a community-centric alternative.
The Hong Kong-based developer, Urban Discovery, describes itself as a social enterprise “keeping heritage alive for a vibrant and viable urban future”.
A new update to the app – which originally arrived in Myanmar in November 2014 – launched on November 20 at Hla Day and in conjunction with 57Below restaurant group, the Yangon version of the app offers four interactive maps of the city. Each map is developed by local artists and encourages users to visit 20-30 cultural heritage sites, with stories, urban legends and detailed photos divided into five categories: iSee, iDrink, iEat, iShop and iSurprise.
Urban Discovery’s founder Ester van Steekelenburg said at the launch that preserving cultural heritage in Southeast Asia is crucial to the health of its cities.
“Heritage is disappearing very quickly,” she said, “as well as buildings and intangibles. It’s not just Yangon – it’s happening in many Asian cities.”
She cited her hometown of Hong Kong as a prime example. Having lived in the city for nearly 20 years, she saw the need for local NGOs and city governments to engage with travellers and showcase each neighbourhood’s uniqueness. So far, Urban Discovery has developed five iDiscover city walks in Hong Kong, as well additional walks in Bali, Java and Macau. Yangon’s app has four walks, covering the Secretariat district, the Indian quarter, downtown Yangon and Chinatown.
Ryan Pyae, the designer of the “Secretariat and Beyond” map, said he had about six weeks to design his assignment.
“In the map, I put small hints in certain places that point to hidden gems of the area,” he said. “It is mainly focused on creativity.”
Other designers include Trang Nguyen (who designed the Downtown Yangon map), Monika Traikov (Indian quarter) and Mekong Kyaw Swar (Chinatown).
Each hard copy of the maps looks like a work of art, but van Steekelenburg said using the app versions provides extra little details that can make a trip truly special.
“The app issues tips on what you should order in the local restaurants, something that travellers might find a bit difficult in [foreign] places,” she said. “We also express the background stories of the family [running the restaurant] or the secret of the recipes.”
Another obvious benefit of using the app is its GPS compatibility – allowing you to, as the Urban Discovery tagline says,” “get lost without getting lost”.
Victoria Cook, the founder of the Myanmar Women’s Mentoring Network, attended the launch and said even Yangon-ites should consider downloading the app.
“Though I have lived here for a year and a half – I walk these streets every day – I usually don’t take the time to appreciate the beauty of heritage buildings. Today, I had an excuse to stop and really look,” she said.
Van Steekelenburg said the company hopes to discover more beautiful cities in Myanmar and mentioned Mandalay and Mawlamyaing specifically.
Hard copies fo the map are available free at Hla Day, Union Bar, Tin Tin, and Gekko. The app is free for download on iOS and Android devices, and includes some in-app purchases.