Trip Introduction: The Twilight of Burma, a Visit to Myanmar
Trip Introduction: The Twilight of Burma, a Visit to Myanmar
I had been traveling to Singapore from the West Coast of Canada (Vancouver) ever since my first trip as 6 year old. My grandparents had retired there from Malaysia and my mom, who had been an expat since she was 20, made sure I got to know them. I got to travel to SE Asia quite a bit through the late seventies and eighties. It was an adventure to experience lots of travel before I knew how much it actually cost. Needless these adventures of transiting through Kowloon, Hong Kong looking at Chuck E Cheese Pizza Parlors and massive neon lights sprawling across the streets awed me. Travel at a young age set me up for a lifetime of travel yearnings and exploring.
When we got a bit older, my mom would always try to spice it up a bit for us by booking a “Free and Easy” holiday booked through the Chinatown bucket shops in the People’s Park Complex off New Bridge Road in Chinatown. After having the opportunity growing up traveling to this part of the world, my interests started to get a bit more adventurous than the usual family trips to Malaysia and Thailand.
“Of the South East Asian Countries to decide to visit, Myanmar was among those that were well off the regular beaten track”
My last family travels to Singapore in September of 2010 brought me for my cousin’s wedding and I decided that I wanted to get more out of travel. I wanted to go somewhere adventurous. Somewhere off the beaten track. And Yangon, Myanmar was it. The appeal of visiting a country, which was stuck in time enthralled me. I had been told that Myanmar was like Asia was 75 years ago and I was keen to explore and see what it would have been like for my mom to have traveled with me Trans Pacific like she did in 1979. Indeed, for a while it was as isolated as North Korea, once famously related to the World’s Most Dangerous Places list by Robert Pelton.
Through some sharp salesman ship, (and a promised decompression trip afterward to Bali with a private villa) I sold Ms World Traveler 73 on a 4-day trip. She had never traveled to a 2nd world country before and Mexico didn’t really compare to what she would likely be experiencing here. Would we survive? Would we be able to get food? Would we see anything interesting? Would I ever get to do this again?
In search of these answers, I booked a ticket on SQ’s Silk Air MI 518 SIN-RGN, which was served by an Airbus 320. I was Star Alliance Gold at the time and was of course a bit disappointed that there were no lounges or Star Alliance Points to my FFP.
Getting to Myanmar from Singapore:
This trip was before I had really started travel blogging so I didn’t take any on board cabin photographs, nor did I bother joining Singapore Airlines Kris Flyer frequent flyer program for this short segment. The food in economy was acceptable and there was free beer. I think I was the only one on the plane indulging.
Upon the landing approach to RGN, the fields surrounding the East of Yangon were so green and free of any of the usual structures that you’d find around agricultural zones. It seemed so remote and we hadn’t even gotten on the ground.
We deplaned into a jet way and walked through the relatively modern and sterile airport. The immigration lines, like most others in the world, was split into residents and visitors. This was the first time ever where I have gotten off the plane and we were the only ones on the flight in the foreigner line, with the other 100 passengers lining up for the other 4 immigration agents.
I had arranged for our Visas directly from the Myanmar Embassy in Ottawa Canada, which was an easy process. There were reports that there was Visa on Arrival services but they had cancelled this program by the time I arrived. SQ (or SATS) ground staff didn’t really check over our passports too much in SIN when we checked in.
I booked our hotel “The Governor’s Residence” directly via their website. I made the decision early on that if I were ever to get to travel to another, err less than 1st world country; I’d better make sure that MrsWT73 was comfortable. Based on the hotels that were available to foreigners and were of decent quality, it was The Governor’s Residence or Traders by Shangri-La. Traders didn’t look too appealing- it was just a large mid rise building on an anonymous block. I had booked the car service transfer add on through TGR but somehow the wires got crossed and no one was there to meet us.
Not knowing if Mr Pederman from Seinfeld could make it through Burma without speaking Burmese, I didn’t know how I would do exactly? A felt a quick panic set in. Would I be able to pull this off and not look to freaked to my traveling partner a mere 5 minutes after arrival? I was expecting us to be rushed by touts wanting money and payment for imaginary services. Surprisingly, we were totally ignored. The spotlight was then on me to try and get us to the hotel. Thankfully, the ones that did catch our eye was the tourist information desk in the arrivals hall. They recognized my plight and were able to arrange a 20 minute taxi for us for $8 USD.
One of the unusual parts about Myanmar is that there are no ATM’s or credit cards accepted anywhere. Banks do not deal with foreigners and traveler’s cheques are not in use. If you run out of money, you’re officially out. You are encouraged to bring with you clean, unmarked, crisp US dollar bills for use while you stay. Any dirty or torn bills are politely returned with requests for alternate payment. Outside of tourist establishments, and there aren’t many tourist establishments to start with, payment is made in the local currency, the Kyat (pronounced CHAT). The catch is that you can’t get Kyats’ at a bank; you have to change them on the street on the floating black market or through your hotel at a less than desirable rate. One US dollar was trading at 900 Kyats at our hotel. I had heard that the street rate was about 1: 1500. There was a change cambio at the airport but it was closed and looked like it had been for quite a while.
This was a most interesting trip and what I’d imagine a visit to North Korea would be like. Travellers entering into a country that didn’t usually see many western tourists. Either way, we would end up experiencing a terrific adventure of which we wouldn’t ever forget.