As the Chinese New Year festivities engulf Singapore in the Year of the Goat, I make my quick escape from the concrete jungle and head north towards the ‘Golden Lands’ of Myanmar.
This is a country that needs no introduction… At the very mention of Burma, anyone who reads the papers will recount Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy against a militant regime that led to her imprisonment of 15 long years. But it is also a country that conjures up images of glittering, golden pagodas, ancient temples and precious jewels dripping in pigeon-blood rubies and 100-carat sapphire.
Slowly and surely, sanctions have been lifted, and now that it is open to the world, I embark into this once hidden treasure trove before it inevitably surrenders itself to the tourist trade.
It was plain to see, as I journeyed my way from the airport to downtown Yangon, that I may have left it a few years too late. The familiar branded mega-hotels have already made their appearance, dotted along the main road in their stark out-of-place modernity. Large areas have been cordoned off in pockets of the city; slick, glossy advertising on miles of hoarding, promising (or perhaps threatening), the onset of new luxury developments.
For a country that was embroiled in political turmoil not so long ago, Myanmar has made some significant leaps and bounds. Mobile coverage, Internet access, and ATM’s are a sign of the new Myanmar to come. No sign of a McDonalds yet, although my taxi driver gushed with enthusiasm how he was desperate to taste a Big Mac and sample an egg McMuffin.
‘Do you really know what goes in a Big Mac?’ I tell him, ‘No beef! Stomach, intestines, no meat!’
He smiles at me and nods excitedly, ‘Very tasty!’
God, I hope Ronald McDonald does the Burmese a favour and stays away. With over 2 million homeless, I can’t quite see this becoming a ‘Fast Food Nation’ though.
This said, one does feel that the well-known adage of ‘running before you can walk’ is very much the case here. ATMs can be found here and there yes, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect, but more often than not they sit cashless and useless. Wi-Fi is at best intermittent and frustrating for ‘must-need Facebook’ freaks like me. Public transportation as well, although widely available through its network of planes, trains and automobiles, requires a laid back mind set. I can testify to this as I wait for my delayed flight to Nyaung U airport, with only a consolatory half a sandwich to fill my growling stomach. As with all developing countries, public transportation can be unreliable so don’t forget to pack your patience with you. You know the other old saying, ‘patience is a virtue’… I don’t know what happened to the other half a sandwich by the way.
Not surprisingly tourism has become big business so every man and his wife is taking advantage of this hot new travel destination. Don’t be surprised to see the touts running towards you as you step through the gush of automatic doors and in to the arrival concourse at Yangon International airport. Even tour agencies operating out of Myanmar are making ‘loadsamoney’ here so prepare yourself for the crowds, particularly during the winter months of November through to February. Those dreams of sitting in contemplative silence at your very own temple during sunset, will most likely be shattered by the arrival of coach laden, matching t-shirts.
Here are a few tips to kick-start you off on that holiday of a lifetime –
BUDGET Unlike its neighbouring countries Laos and Thailand, a trip to Myanmar requires a higher budget that will soon spiral out of control if you’re not careful. Your Mid-range accommodation in downtown Yangon can reach rates of $50-$90 a night, depending on the standard.
If you’re travelling around Myanmar, domestic flights to Mandalay and Nyaung U are approximately $130 one way. There are cheaper alternatives for the budget conscious backpacker of course, but as I only have 5 days of exploration, bus, boat or train travel is a lengthy luxury I can’t afford to take.
The third biggest spend is opting for a private tour. Having the luxury of a guide gives you the added assurance of a hassle free holiday; however prepare to dig deep in your pocket for one. Private tours can come with a$1650 price tag! Do bear in mind that if you are joining a tour, a large sum of your money will go towards the military junta as these organisations are owned by fat cat cronies.
The good news is, Myanmar is a place where you can travel independently, even for ‘femme-solo’ travellers like myself.
GETTING HERE It may seem obvious but a visa is required to enter the country. You may have read conflicting information with regards to obtaining a visa on arrival, but take it from me, get your visa beforehand using authorised channels! There are companies advertising themselves as Government Approved Visa Authorities however if they’re only promising you a ‘Letter of Approval’, it’s a sign they are not legit. A letter of approval is useless and there is no reason not to have obtained a visa in advance of your trip. You can apply for an e-visa online through the official site – http://www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm
Cost of visa is US$ 50.00, takes approximately 5 working days and lasts for 28 days from date of arrival.
MONEY If you’ve done your research you’re aware that you need to bring crisp US dollar bills with you. People don’t expect to see a bill straight out of the printing press but do check what you’re given at the bank (avoid noticeably creased, torn or discoloured bills) and try to keep your money flat.
Once you have your green notes, the best place to exchange your dollar is at Yangon International airport. They seemed to offer the best rates at the time of writing. Avoid exchanging your bills at Bogyoke Market unless it’s at a bank; I was approached a few times by people off the street asking if I needed to exchange cash. Don’t risk it. You may end up with useless counterfeit notes.
WHAT TO PACK When it comes to what to wear, remember Myanmar is still a very conservative country. The locals still wear longyis (pronounced long jees), similar to sarongs or skirts, that fall to the ankles. Dress appropriately. Showing your cleavage is a big no-no and will draw unwanted attention to yourself. Wear outfits that cover your knees and shoulders, even when it is searing hot outside.
On the subject of weather… Myanmar is hot! Their winter months start from November through to February but temperatures still sore to 40 degrees celsius. Remember to bring a hat, plenty of sun block, and mossie repellent.
GETTING IN & AROUND YANGON All taxis operate on a non-metered, negotiated fixed fee. Believe it or not this works to your advantage as traffic in Yangon can be bad. Taxis touting for business outside the airport will initially quote you 10,000 – 12,000 kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) to downtown, but if you’re not in the mood for negotiations, head to the taxi counter desk inside the arrivals terminal for a fixed price. They charge 8,000 kyat to downtown Yangon. For an idea of costs once you’re in the city, a taxi from Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott’s market) to Shwedagon Paya will cost you 3,000 kyat, around a 10-15 minute journey. Negotiate first before you step in to a cab.
If you plan to venture outside the city to nearby Bago or Twante, a driver for a full day will charge around $60 but try to negotiate this down to $40-$50.
WHERE TO STAY IN YANGON Stay in downtown Yangon so you’re within walking distance of the main sights. Shwedagon Paya to Bogyoke Market took me a leisurely 45 minute walk, more so because the pavements are in such dire condition. The sudden dips and gaping holes test your athleticism as you perform a flying long jump across a pit to relative safety.
FEMME SOLO If you’re a solo female traveller, prepare to be gawped at, especially during evening meal times at the local eateries. To the locals it’s an unusual sight to see an unaccompanied female eating alone. People are generally helpful though and don’t mean to be rude, so there is no need to feel intimidated.
Myanmar is probably one of the safest places to travel in South East Asia. The consequences are too severe for the locals to even consider committing a crime. However, the city shuts down after 11pm so if you are ‘femme-solo’, walking around on your own is a daunting prospect past closing time. After a two hour long massage in Chinatown, the busy Maha Bandoola Road, was now a ghost town. Aside from the giant rats that darted around my feet and a handful of taxi drivers touting for business, I made it to my hotel on 32nd street without too much trouble. It’s not something I’d do again in a hurry though.
FLYING AROUND MYANMAR The websites for domestic carriers such as Air KBZ, Air Bagan, Yangon airways, Man Yadanarbon, Asian Wings etc. are mind boggling. The ease or even existence of booking online is far from your budget airlines like Air Asia and Easy Jet. My recommendation is to contact one of the listed agents in Myanmar. I used Asian Trails to organise my flights as they don’t charge a fee for the service. Go to http://www.asiantrails.com to save yourself the frustration.
POLITICS Last but not least, avoid conversations on the subject matter of the military junta. This is strictly out of bounds. Don’t risk getting yourself in to trouble and have consideration for the local you’re talking to. You could end up landing him/her in jail.
Acquaint yourself with a list of Do’s and Don’ts by visiting http://www.toursinmyanmar.com/travel-guide/dos-and-donts.html
Now that the basics are covered, put on your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled in the land of gold…