Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Myanmar: expensive or not?

I was surprised to notice that the majority of the tourists in Myanmar are middle aged to quite old Westerners. I was expecting more young and adventurous backpackers. Indeed, Myanmar has a reputation of being an expensive country for holidays due to the recent opening of the country for tourists, lack of infrastructure, services and hotels. And it is true, many foreign and local agencies charge high prices for their services. Some argue to keep it this way so that the country preserves its unspoilt places and its welcoming and open communities, being afraid that in a few years Myanmar will transform into a mass tourism country like Thailand.

Below some advice for travelling throughout Myanmar on a budget:

1. Book your international flight only. Buy your ticket only until Bangkok. Try the low-cost airlines like Air Asia or Nok Air for the connection flight to Yangon. You might need to change the airport but you have the airport bus between the two airports.

2. Contact by email (or directly when in Yangon) a local agency for internal flights or VIP bus tickets (most of the buses travel during the night; they have a high quality standard: bus attendant, drinks, huge seats and mini TVs; be careful as the air conditioning is used at the maximum). They can even buy train tickets for you.

There are more and more agencies with staff speaking English; I noticed that some agencies are co-owned by locals and international people. Notice you will have to pay cash in crisp USD bills.

Here are two recommended agencies to book internal flight tickets, buy bus tickets or organise some trips in the country:
Columbus travel agency:
Sun Far:

3. Hotels in Yangon. The majority are expensive. But you will still be able to find some clean and simple accommodation places at reasonable prices. Try for example the Garden Home B&B, a cosy guest house with a pleasant terrace close to Bogyoke Museum and Kandawgyi lake.

4. Eat local. There are many restaurant options especially in Yangon. Try the cheap local cuisine. For lunch go to Feel Myanmar, 999 Noodle Shop, Friendship, Fingers. For dinner go to House of Memories, Monsoon, Happy Noodle, Hot Pot, 19th street barbecue stands. You still want to enjoy the atmosphere and the nice setting in Governor's residence and the colonial interior at Strand hotel? Go to the first one for an aperitif and to the second one for tee or coffee in the afternoon.

5. Taxis in Yangon. From the airport to downtown do not pay more than 8.500 Kyats (Strand road). To Kandawgyi Lake 7000 Kyats. Tell them straight you know the prices. Ask your hotel staff to negotiate for you before leaving the hotel. If you are in Bogyoke market just step outside one hundred meters away from the market and catch a taxi in the street. You may even tell them you are not a tourist. Try to walk away if they refuse your price offer and they will call you back.

Do not hire a car or a taxi for the whole day in Yangon; you do not need a guide either. Check my three days itinerary proposal here.

6. On your first day, if enough time, visit Off The Beaten Track restaurant on the Kandawgyi lake. The owner, Nay Lin, offers free travel advice around the country. They have a small library with books and travel books about the country. Have lunch there, the food is tasty as well.

7. Visit myanmore.com for tips on ongoing activities. Many concerts, sport activities are free of charge.

8. Ngapali Beach is expensive. Go to Ngwe Saung beach instead. It is an excellent place if you want to relax. From Yangon, you can take a bus or rent a car with driver to reach the 4h30 hours far away beach. But Myanmar is not a beach destination country. It is a place to discover the nature and the diverse cultures and minorities of the countries.

9. Spend your time reading a lot of travel blogs before travelling so that you pick up the advice and the tips of fellow travellers.

10. Visit in a group - renting a car and hiring a guide this way will be cost efficient.

Do not try to cut on costs by planning to come in the rainy season (between July and end of September). It rains a lot especially in the southern part of the country.

It is not the cheapest country to visit but if you do not mind the experience of taking the bus or the night train, trying local food, and choosing simple hotels, you will be able to visit Myanmar even if your budget is limited.

Finally, if you don't have much money left take the example of one French tourist. Read here the story and its happy ending.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nay Pyi Taw - the capital of Myanmar

Yangon, probably the best known city of Myanmar together with Mandalay, is the former capital of the country. Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, is a city build from scratch, largely in secret, which was announced to the public only in 2005 by the military junta; since then the planned city is still being developed.

There are a few versions as to why the capital was relocated from Yangon 390 km to the north, close to Shan State in the jungle, a region flanked by mountains. It is said that before looking for a new place for the new capital city, the astrologers (astrology and fortune tellers are very popular in Myanmar) have been consulted and they indicated this area as being the best-suited to build a new capital. Others believe that the military junta was concerned with the formal capital Yangon being an easy to reach and occupy city in case of an attack by sea. Some say that the military junta also wished to make a statement and build a new capital to reflect Myanmar's power and differentiate with the old capital which had been declared by the British colonial power as to be Rangoon. The official version of the authorities is that the old capital Yangon was overcrowded and the traffic in a permanent congestion and the best solution was to build a new capital from scratch.

The move for the civil servants came unexpectedly in 2006. The capital was being build up since several  years and then in 2006, from one day to another, some ministries were ordered to pack and move their staff and belongings to the new capital. The buildings were still very much under construction. Some press articles of the time say that the civil servants who refused to move or resigned were sent to jail. For a period no family members were allowed to join. Nowadays many of the civil servants are driving or flying back (the generals) to Yangon for the weekends to join their families which chose not to move due to lack of infrastructure and schools.

As the capital continues to lack infrastructure, buildings, schools and hospitals, the embassies and most of the international organisations refuse to relocate and continue to be based in Yangon. The city is largely deserted. The ministries are scattered on a vast area being connected by an impressive array of roads, including one with 11 lanes in front of the Parliament buildings which it is said it was built for allowing huge (military) airplanes to land in case of emergencies. The emptiness of the place strikes you when you arrive from bustling Yangon. On the way from the airport the streets are mostly empty and the only people you notice are wearing their traditional sun hats to protect themselves from the sun while taking care of the huge flower beds which lie between the street lanes or around impressive roundabouts. The sun is shining, you drive your rented car (taxis are almost non-existent) and you watch outside the emptiness of the place trying to spot some buildings at a large distance and hidden amongst trees.

The ministry buildings are soulless and one can notice they were build in a hurry. They do look like Soviet buildings with Myanmar decorations inside the reception halls.
The capital continues its development and may one day welcome foreign embassies, international organisations and other expats. Better hospitals and schools still need to be built in order to prepare for a possible relocation of embassy staff. For the moment, the government allocated, on paper, in the so-called international zone, plots of land for each embassy and international organisation. There is also a hotel zone in Myanmar where the few foreigners who work permanently in Nay Pyi Taw are allowed to live. Foreigners are not allowed to rent a house yet in the new capital.
Therefore Nay Pyi Taw is not a touristic city. The only few things of interest are the huge and impressive Parliament buildings (Hluttaw) but which can only be admired by tourists from outside and the Pagoda with its huge stupa. Next to the pagoda there are a few white/pink elephants unfortunately chained and kept to be seen by the Pagoda's visitors. There are also a Gems Museum, a Zoo, and a water fountain park.

The return flight from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw costs around 300 USD which is rather expensive. But the airlines take advantage of the need of the people to commute between the two cities and keep the price high. The planes are always full. The drive up the fairly new constructed highway which connects Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw still takes over 4 hours.

It is worth noticing the impressive airport in Nay Pyi Taw which cannot be compared with the one in Yangon (which is now being expanded due to the increase in tourists; a new one is currently build close to Bago city). The Nay Pyi Taw airport was built to serve daily large numbers of travellers but it looks very much deserted. There are a few international flights from Nay Pyi Taw to Thailand and China. But, in such a modern airport, during the check-in, one staff person is hand writing the tickets and the boarding passes. Definitely a place that will continue to amaze its visitors.