MYANMAR (or Burma, depending on your degree of political correctness) is a mystical destination for intrepid travellers. My first journey there, more years ago then I like to recall, was during the seven-day visa period when the country was at the height of its isolationist policies. Things have been progressively relaxed and month long visas are now the norm.
While Myanmar still experiences problems, chiefly political and economic, it is perhaps one of Asia’s most fascinating destinations. It’s a cultural wonderland full of friendly and colourful people, a landscape dotted with yet another temple at every turn, and some amazing scenery.
However, it is the culture that lures most travellers. The people are colourful (the women’s faces lined with exotic patterns from the application of local powder) and photogenic. Most people are Buddhists and the vast array of pagodas will keep budding archaeologists and culture vultures occupied for days.
The dramatic landscape calls for a dramatic film so on my most recent trip to Myanmar; black and white film was chosen to maximise the contrasting features. Here is a record of my travels.
Getting There: Myanmar Airways International flies from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) on Thursday and Sunday. The flight time is 2 hours 40 minutes and the aircraft used and on board services are excellent.
Where to stay
“When in Yangon, stay at the Strand”. For devotees of heritage hotels, the Strand is the place. It was part of the Sarkies Brothers stable of fine hotels (along with Singapore’s Raffles and Penang’s, E & O). Unlike the other two properties, The Strand is very much a boutique property with just suites. Staying here is not cheap, but if you need to make an impression at your next dinner party, what’s money? The Savoy is another fine boutique hotel in The Strand’s mould but with superb facilities and excellent and enthusiastic management. The Nikko is as five-star as you will get in any international hotel.
The Myanmar “peso” is known as the kyat (pronounced chat) and its daily fortunes go up and down like the elevators in KLCC. There are several currencies operating in the country – $US and FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates). All visitors except these on package tours are supposed to change $US200. The official exchange rate (from banks) is about 6 kyats to the $US. The black-market rate is about 650 so the first rule in Myanmar is to avoid banks like you avoid Fraser’s Hill on a long weekend. It’s a bit of an economic minefield, but there are many illegal moneychangers on the street keen to do a deal (it’s illegal for them to hold $US).
All visitors need a visa and these are available from the Embassy in KL or on arrival. The former is preferable and it will save time and sweat in Myanmar. Visas from the Embassy take three days to process although there is the fast tracked visa for a higher price.
Where to Go
The best time is from November to February in the cooler months but expect to pay high season rates. The hot months of July to September can be intolerable around Bagan and Mandalay. The build-up to wet can be insufferable due to the humidity. Hang the expense and go in the cool months.
Flying is the preferred option. Air Mandalay does good internal flight and their small fleet French made ATR’s are well maintained.