August 22, 2012 00:00
By Vipasai Niyamabha
Thailand's western neighbour is now the hottest destination for a holiday. A few things to know before setting off
After decades of international boycotts and sanctions, the April elections in Myanmar brought not just hopes of democracy and investment but also a surge in travellers once reluctant to journey to this amazing land.
If you want to see Myanmar at its best, don’t put off your trip, Yes, it is the rainy season but you really don’t want to wait until the international tourists start turning out in their droves, checking in at the same hotels and guesthouses as you and causing accommodation prices to skyrocket. And if you’ve already planned a year-end trip, book your hotel now! The country needs more time to build up its tourism infrastructure to cope with the fast-growing demand.
Another reason why tourist arrivals are up has to do with the hassle-free visa processes. The Myanmar Embassy on Bangkok’s North Sathorn Road offers a smooth, same-day visa service. Simply deliver your visa application with two photos and Bt1,260 to the counter between 9am to noon and you can collect your passport between 3.30 and 4.30pm. If you are not on a rush, a next-day visa is Bt1,000, two days Bt810. A tourist visa is good for a 28-day stay.
Since June, a visa-on-arrival for business purposes is available for 27 nationalities including the 10 Asean members plus India, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, France, Germany, UK and US. The fee is US$50 for a 70-day stay. A tourist visa for Asean members only is possible for a US$40 fee. Business visitors should check out www.MyanmarVisa.com.
When Yangon Mingaladon Airport was first built in 1947, it was regarded the best in Southeast Asia. In the 1960s, it was the aviation hub of the region and frequented by major airlines like Pan-Am, KLM, Air France and BOAC (now British airways).
After years of decay, Yangon International Airport has a sparkling new terminal and welcomes flights from all over Asia. Airlines include Myanmar Airways, Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, AirAsia, SilkAir and Jetstar Asia, Malaysia Airlines, Vietnam Airlines and various Chinese companies. Korean Air, ANA and Qatar Airways are starting services soon and AirAsia is launching a Bangkok to Mandalay flight in October.
The economic sanctions are gradually being lifted but there are still no ATMs and traveller cheques and credit cards are not generally accepted even in Yangon. The US dollars is widely used and often preferred to the kyat and while black-market exchange rates were the norm two years ago, today everyone can access the standard exchange rate at official exchange counters at airports and banks. Exchange counters at Yangon Airport close at 3.30pm so travellers arriving on afternoon flights should head to the exchange booths at Bogyoke Market or downtown Yangon. Most hotels or guesthouses in the city also offer exchange services though the rate is slightly lower.
Myanmarese don’t like creased or dirty dollars bills and even the slightest tear, mark, fold or dirt can lead to a bill being refused or a poor exchange rate. When buying the US bills before you trip, tell the bank you need flawless dollar bills only. The staff at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport’s exchange booths know the situation and will prepare pristine bills in a long envelope for you to avoid creases.
November to February promises to be another busy tourist so visitors need to book in accommodation well in advance through leading websites. Be prepared to pay at least double what it says in the latest guidebook, even for a backpacker place at the bottom end of the market.
The easiest way to get around a big city like Yangon is by taxi. Most taxis are old cars and have neither meters nor air conditioning. Prices are negotiable, usually between 1,000-2,000 kyat a trip for travelling within the city centre, and about $7-10 from the airport to the city centre.
There are no McDonalds or Starbucks but you can feast on mohinga (rice noodle) in fish soup everywhere on the street or at Indian thali and biryani restaurants. Venture into Yangon’s Chinatown at night and you’ll find the grilled fish hard to resist.
First timers usually visit Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake while repeat travellers prefer to go off the beaten track and explore Mrauk-U or the islands in the south.
Whatever destination you choose, Myanmar guarantees an awesome experience!
Celebration of culture
Away from the politics of Nay Pyi Taw, the Myanmarese are joyous, light-hearted and fun-loving folks. Like the rest of us, they love a good time and celebrates their festivals with families and friends. Here’s what you can enjoy and when.
The Nat is a spirit, a demanding spirit. In Taung Pyone, a small village 20km north of Mandalay, the locals celebrate August with the Nat Festival. Spiritual as it is entertaining, the festival brings mediums and visitors to the Nat pavilions. Flowers, cash and alcohol are offered in order to appease the spirits while the mediums take turns to amuse them with folk music and dances.
PHAUNG DAW OO PAGODA FESTIVAL
October, Inle Lake
Inle Lake, in Shan State is famous for leg-rowed boats, and the Shan row them in the highest of spirits during Phaung Daw Festival. The annual rite sees a colourful procession of leg-rowed boats tugging the golden barges of Buddha images. Leg-rowed boat races are held throughout the festival.
THE THADINGYUT (FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS)
October, throughout Myanmar
Marking the end of the Buddhist Lent, the Festival of Lights is celebrated across Myanmar. Pagodas, houses, public buildings, parks, and monuments are all illuminated with jars of candles
KYAIKHTIYO PAGODA FESTIVAL
November, Mon State
Perched over the cliff rock of Mt Kyaikhiyo is the boulder of Golden Pagoda – a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site. The rock seems to defy gravity, as it perpetually appears to be on the verge of rolling down the hill. Legend has it that it held by strand of hair of the Buddha. In late November, devotees offer 9,999 candles and flowers to celebrate the pagoda. Folk dances, music and puppets add colour and rhythm.
MT POPA NAT SPIRIT FESTIVAL
Like mother hen guarding her children, Popa Taungkalat monastery sits atop of 1518-metre volcano peak overlooking the farmland around Irrawaddy River, southeast of Bagan. This is the home of Nats, and thousands of folks appease the demanding ghosts with entertainment.
NAGA NEW YEAR’S FESTIVAL
January, Sagaing Division
Tribal dances and exotic dresses draw intrepid travellers to the high ranges in Myanmar’s Northwest for Naga New Year’s Festival. For three days, the Naga gather around Kham-Ti districts. Fierce warriors in their bright and exotic dress, they perform tribal sports and dances, as rice wine and roasted meat accompany the beating of drums.
ANANDA PAGODA FESTIVAL
Pagoda and bullock-carts are a signature of Bagan and the Ananda Pagoda Festival offers spectacular scenes of bullock-carts loaded with offerings rolling through the fields. Traditional performances and jokers take turns to entertain.