October 28 2013
October has been an incredibly busy month. I am headed to Europe now for the third time in a 75-day period; the intervening time has also featured trips to Austin and Toronto. Additionally, I had the opportunity to be part of IBM InterConnect 2013 in Singapore earlier this month, my first time over to Asia this year. As such, I was determined to make the best of it.
The InterConnect conference was excellent. Our IBM MobileFirst sessions went well, drawing several hundred attendees to learn about IBM's leadership and expertise. The conference was held at Marina Bay Sands, an amazing hotel with great service and facilities. A workout room of glass 55 stories up in the air, so high up that my cell phone switched service providers to another country, made for fantastic experiences and memories. And Singapore, well, my favorite eating city in the world retained that title with visits to Maxwell Hawker Center, Din Tai Fung for amazing dumplings, and a helping of required chilli crab.
Friends and long-time readers know that I have a thing for Southeast Asia: the diverse people, the culture and historical artefacts, the scenery, the food, and most of all, the intensity. As such, it was imperative for me to find someplace to get away for a few days after Singapore, somewhere new and unexplored.
Those pieces all fell into place as I searched for nonstop Saturday morning departures, and found myself looking at Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. Yangon had all the right ingredients: the fact that the country had only been really to normal tourism for a few years, after such a challenging recent history; the images of saffron-robed monks tending to golden pagodas; the mix-of-everything-good cuisine; and a one-stop flight through Tokyo to get me out of there after a long weekend.
There was only one challenge: getting a visa to enter the country. Americans are supposed to use the Myanmar embassy in Washington, but they offer no guaranteed turnaround time for issuing visas. The thought of sending my passport away and waiting potentially three weeks or more for it to come back, in a busy travel season, just wasn't going to work. After some searching, it appeared that a good alternative would be waiting until arrival in Singapore, then visiting Myanmar's embassy there. While they do have an amazing one-day turnaround for issuing visas, it turned out that the service is only available for Singaporeans.
It was almost time to give up, when more googling came up with myanmarvisa.com. They promised to facilitate - and expedite if needed - the paperwork for a visa upon arrival (VOA), rather than having to have it issued in advance. It seemed too good to be true, and reports on the Internet were unclear as to whether they delivered as promised. I decided to gamble and see what happened. Five days after sending paypal to someone in Myanmar, an email with some scanned documents came along, and it looked like I was good to go. It turned out they forgot the most important document in the initial packet - the letter that tells your airline that you have a visa waiting on arrival - but a few more emails and it came through the night before departure.
I write these paragraphs in some detail in part because the search engine information on myanmarvisa.com is so limited. If you follow their process, they will deliver as promised. The VOA counter was a little chaotic in Yangon Airport, with some 40 people on two flights approaching simultaneously, but they had my paperwork and issued the visa in about 20 minutes. Myanmarvisa.com had someone waiting for me after immigration at baggage claim, and she helped facilitate getting a taxi (US$10) into town. She wouldn't even take a tip. For those looking to use myanmarvisa.com, I recommend them, just be sure to receive three documents from them - the English-language letter that tells your airline to let you on board, the manifest copy for your flight, and the Burmese document that is your official invitation.
Yangon was an amazing place to spend three days.
The people were friendly, English was more-widely spoken than I expected, and the hotel (Chatrium) was great. Taxis were cheap (US$1.50 or $2 to get around the city were common, $10 to/from the airport) and plentiful, though the traffic on Monday was brutal versus Saturday and Sunday. Restaurants are not plentiful, but TripAdvisor was a huge help and we had some great meals for no more than US$5 each. (I wasn't willing to brave any street food other than a donut, the hygiene just didn't look like it would agree with me). Tripadvisor was also on the money for tourist attractions, including the three pagodas I visited, the national museum, the Jewish synagogue (yes really), and the markets and downtown core. A real highlight was the circular train, which I almost laughed off initially. For US$1 (tourist rate, locals pay 20 cents), you can ride a train that goes through city and suburbs in a loop that takes about three hours. Every stop is a different world, with some in high-class neighborhoods, some in slums, some in the middle of markets and others in the middle of rice fields. There is a tourist-class car on the train with slightly better seating, but my buddy Matt and I sat in "ordinary class," basically a plastic bench over a wooden floor in a train car without window panes or doors. Like our time in the Buddhist temples, it was a very zen experience in the middle of the chaotic city of 5 million+ people. Highly recommended.
The most-frequently asked question, a natural given the country's recent past, is whether I felt safe. Absolutely yes. We never saw any military presence, though police were on many street corners and at some key tourist sites. We were never taken advantage of, and other than a few people offering to change money or sell post cards, never even bothered walking the streets. Even the times I felt instinctively I needed to keep a hand on my wallet, nothing happened. The country has so recently opened up that they haven't figured out how to take advantage of tourists yet. I hope it stays that way.
While there is still plenty more southeast Asia to explore, I don't look at this visit to Yangon and feel like I checked it off a list. I would love to go back, and get out to Mandalay, Bagan, or some of the other historical cities. I feel some urgency...the friendliness of the people and the uncorrupted nature of the experience won't last forever. If you're thinking about it, go. Now.
Link: Yangon on flickr (only a small subset of my photos...more as I get through them) >