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Myanmar 2001: The mechanics of a trip to Myanmar

TIME : 2016/2/27 16:00:49

1 US dollar = 450 Kyat

Boring but Necessary

The mechanics of a trip to Myanmar: visas, hotels and travel agents
The first step was getting a visa. I called the Myanmar Embassy in Washington D.C. and they gave me the URL of their web site (which has since closed) where I downloaded a copy of the visa application. It wanted to know the standard stuff: where, when and why I was going. I sent that along with three photos and $25 and two weeks later I had my visa, good for a one-month stay. While I was waiting I made my air reservation.

I flew Northwest Airlines from Detroit to Bangkok with a change of planes in Japan: a 22-hour trip there and 18-hour return. For what it’s worth, I could never have sat still that long without the few sleeping pills my doctor compassionately prescribed. Once in Bangkok I stocked up on Valium, which you can buy without a prescription, for the return trip.

I arrived in Bangkok at 11:00pm. I was met in the arrival hall by a driver from Comfort Suite Airport and taken to the nearby hotel. At 1,400 Bhat ($40) it was perfectly adequate, if somewhat noisy – it’s located directly at the end of the runway and earplugs make for a better night’s sleep. In the morning, after a great buffet breakfast, I was shuttled the 10 minutes back to the airport for an 8:40 Thai Air flight to Myanmar ($199 round trip).

Immigration in Yangon was just what you would expect from a developing country – with only three desks open, progress was very slow. The next stop was the counter where I exchanged 200 in good old US dollars for the same value in FEC – foreign exchange certificates. They are a way for the government to control some of the money coming into the country and were used by travelers in China until about 8 or 10 years ago. I filled out a small form, gave them two brand new US 100 dollar bills and received an envelope with various denomination FECs of the same total value.

Next, I walked through the green channel (“Nothing to Declare”) and out into the arrival hall where the driver from the Yoma One hotel was waiting. He was amazed to see me so soon and kept telling everyone, “He was the first one through.” This is one of the advantages of carrying a small bag and not being shy about moving up in line.

We found his car and drove about 30 minutes through busy morning traffic to the hotel. I had made my reservation via email on the recommendation of other travelers. The hotel is just west and slightly outside the busy center of Yangon: about a 250 or 300 Kyat taxi ride from everything. I had a “Junior Suite Twin” for $18 per night.

I loved the Yoma: my room was large and clean; the staff was always helpful; and it was pretty quiet. There was also a nice little restaurant on the 5th floor. Perhaps the worst I can say is that the view from my window wasn’t much: just a lot of rusty roofs. Also, there was no lift, so choose your floor according to the strength of your legs.

Every time I wanted to go anywhere I would tell the desk staff or doorman. One of them would go outside and flag down a taxi. They would then explain my destination and negotiate the fare for me. This fare was always cheaper than the return fare. They did this with no seeming expectation of reward, although I did give them all a tip before I left.

My first taxi trip was to Columbus Travels. I had gotten their email address from the Lonely Planet guide: they had also been recommended by an online acquaintance. I made three reservations on Air Mandalay with them: Yangon to Bagan; Bagan to Mandalay; and Mandalay to Yangon ($100, $41 and $106 respectively.)

I also had them reserve three nights at the Thande in Bagan after repeated attempts to contact the hotel by email failed. I learned later that the Thande is usually fully booked in the high season (December to March) and that I was wise to use Columbus. I paid for the air and hotel with all my newly acquired FEC (and some dollars too) so I never had to deal with FEC again.

I exchanged dollars for Kyat at the Yoma hotel. I was often approached in the street by black-marketers but their rate was never better than what I was getting at the hotel, so why bother? I exchanged small amounts, usually just $20 and got 450 Kyats per dollar. This, by the way, dropped to 400 Kyats in Bagan and 420 in Mandalay. Then, near the end of my trip there was a disturbance on the Myanmar/Thai border and the exchange rate shot up to 450 in Mandalay and 500 in Yangon.

From Yangon I took a day trip to Bago to see the giant reclining Buddha and some other payas. I arranged the car and driver through the Yoma. Both the driver and car were excellent but the price seemed a little high at $40. I had neglected to shop for a better deal the day before, so I left myself little choice.

I ate at two noteworthy restaurants in Yangon: the first was the Sabai Sabai, an upscale Thai restaurant just north of Shwedagon. This was some of the best food I had on this trip. Dinner for one and a beer was 1500 Kyat. A taxi from my hotel to Sabai Sabai was 300 Kyat.

Downtown, on Shwebontha Lan near the Bogyoke market overpass, was a fine, inexpensive Thai place: APK Thai Kitchen. It’s just down the street from J’ Donuts. I ate there twice: it was always full of Burmese. Good, cheap eats: 600 Kyat with a beer.

I stayed at the Yoma two nights and then early one morning they drove me back to the airport for my first taste of airport control, Myanmar-style. It was pure chaos. There were 6 different stations/checkpoints I had to stop at – none clearly marked. Someone was always telling me to go back and get something stamped at a previous checkpoint.

First, there was a general ticket check, then baggage x-ray, airline check-in, immigration (for a domestic fight!), customs (really just to check my name against another list), another bag x-ray, and finally the departure lounge. Three different domestic airlines had flights leaving from the lounge at about the same time and it was never clear which was which. Several times I tried to get on the wrong plane, but it all worked out fine in the end.

The first thing I did when I arrived at the Bagan airport was to purchase the $10 Archeological Zone ticket. Next, I passed through immigration again, where they recorded my passport number. Then, I went outside to get a taxi. Bargaining turned out to be useless. They use a seniority system at all the airports: you get the next driver and, while many others stand around during the price discussion, you are stuck with that driver and what seemed to be the standard rate, in this case, 1000 Kyat from the airport to the Thande.

It was a pleasant 20-minute drive through the flat, sandy land past innumerable paya on the way to the hotel. The Thande is to my mind is a luxury hotel at a budget price ($40). It is located on the south edge of the Archaeological Zone. It is a series of cottages, four separate rooms in each, set in manicured gardens. I had a large, bright room with a view of a nearby paya.

There was also a shady, outdoor restaurant overlooking the Ayayarwady river. The Chinese food there was amazingly good. This being the dry season the river was about a quarter mile away. Unusual for a large hotel, the staff was very friendly and helpful. When I had problems reconfirming my next flight, the desk staff went the extra measure to help resolve my problem. You can also rent a bike from them (400 Kyat per day) or just walk outside the gate and rent a horse cart ($10 per day) or a taxi.

In addition to seeing many, many payas, I took two trips out of Bagan that I arranged with the help of my horse cart driver, Song Song. First, I took a half-day trip to Mt. Pago for $25. It was both an interesting drive and a fun walk up to the top. I also rented a car/driver for $23 for a morning trip to see Salay, a small town less than an hour south. It was another interesting drive. The monastery and payas weren’t that special, but I found the small market town very photogenic.

After three wonderful days in Bagan, I left for Mandalay. There, after the usually stop at Immigration, I was shocked to discover that the airport had moved. Instead of a 500 Kyat ride into Mandalay as the Lonely Planet suggests, I ended up paying 3000 for the hour ride. Once past the price increase, the ride was pleasant, past busy villages and fallow fields.

In Mandalay, I had chosen the Unity, smack in the noisy center. I made my reservation via email . I must have been the first traveler to do so as the desk staff became very excited and passed my confirming email around for all to see. Then I was told that a large group had just left and that I could have my pick of rooms. I was shown three and choose a “Junior Suite” in the rear on the 6th floor – it was quiet and had a great view of Mandalay Hill.

This is another place I loved: the staff was always friendly and helpful. That said, if I visit again I might look for a hotel in the quieter eastern part of town. The area I was in was never quiet but always interesting. It felt a little like India without any of the associated hassle.

I ate at three interesting places in Mandalay. The best was the Honey Garden Restaurant, in the leafy, eastern part of town. They served excellent Chinese food. I also ate at Ko’s Kitchen, which served tasty Thai food. Finally, I ate at Emerald Green, which had great Chinese food, but was full of bus groups. All these places were about the same price: 1500 Kyat for dinner and a beer.

The second day in Mandalay I got a car and driver for $20 and visited the “three ancient cities”: Amarapura, Sagaing, Ava. I arranged this with the help of the man who drove me in from the airport – he pitched me on tours the whole way and finally I agreed. The tour took most of the day. The following day I took the tourist boat for a morning trip to Mingun, another very relaxed and photogenic place and well worth the time.

The dust and noise of Mandalay eventually got to me and I decided to fly back to Yangon a day early. To do this I just walked half a block up the street to the main Air Mandalay office and rescheduled – no charge for the change.

I spent two more delightful nights at the Yoma before flying back to Thailand. Outside the arrival hall in Bangkok, I stopped at the taxi stand and got a taxi to the River View Guest House. I had stayed there during my last trip and liked the location overlooking the Chao Phraya river and the 8th floor restaurant. I sent several unanswered faxes before I decided to use a Bangkok travel agent I knew to make my reservation . To my great surprise, I got both the same rate I paid last year (690 Baht) and the same room.

My finally morning in Thailand I got up at 3:00 A.M. and took a waiting taxi (340 Baht) to the airport for my flight home. I arrived in Detroit at noon and was back home in Ann Arbor, by shuttle bus, before 1:00. I then did two important things: I bought some new milk (the two-week old stuff in the refrigerator smelled kind of funny) and took my 11 rolls of film in for processing. I got them back at 6:00 that evening, but was much too tired to do any more than just spot check them.

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