Burma: “it is quite unlike any place you know about” (Rudyard Kipling)

Burma is a bit different. It is known by 2 names, Burma and Myanmar. Currently its land borders are closed so you have to fly in. It has 2 international airports but international flights only actually fly to/from Yangon (also known by its former name, Rangoon). Visas have to be gained in advance but recently they have trialed an e-visa (the desk for e-visas was open where we landed). They use 2 currencies; the US$ and the Kyat (the local currency). And they drive on the right with right hand drive vehicles.

IMG_2359Flying into Yangon and getting visas in advance was not a problem, right hand drive vehicles on the right hand side of the road (usually) makes crossing roads more interesting. Money matters are more challenging. Using 2 currencies makes keeping to a budget harder and we are on a strict budget, foreigners cant use the few ATMS in Burma and credit cards aren’t accepted except for 1 or 2 top end hotels in Yangon. Kyat is not available outside of Burma so all the money you need for your whole stay has to be brought in cash in US$, to make matters more complicated they’ll only accept pristine notes, no marks, creases or crumples. We got our US$ in East Timor since that is the currency there meaning we could withdraw it directly from an ATM (and not lose money changing it again) and then we went into bank and sweet talked them into giving us perfect notes. It has been a pain nurturing them for the weeks since but the bottom line is if we crumple them or spend over our daily budget we’ll have to change our flights and leave early. Luckily Burma has a reputation for being a very safe country as the locals know the foreigners will be walking around cashed up to the eyes (or the belly button in our case).

Flights 7 (Kuching to KL) and 8 (KL to Yangon) went smoothly. KL’s LCC Terminal was heaving with people, in total contrast to when we flew out; the difference between a weekday morning and a Saturday afternoon. There were 4 other tourists on the flight to Yangon, as we disembarked and went through immigration it was clear that everyone else was returning home as for once the ‘foreign passport’ side was much quicker than the local side. There was 6 counters open for us! On the flight we were told arrival cards are no longer required and customs cards only needed if you had something to declare. Perhaps reflective of how fast things are changing here that turned out to be incorrect, we foreigners all needed to complete both.

IMG_2388Immigration sent us away to fill in the arrival cards with a smile. The immigration officer Marie had seemed a bit confused and talked to her colleague next to her, who didn’t seem to get what the fuss was about and stamped Emma in very efficiently. This made Marie feel better since the visas were issued at the same (Australian) consulate. After 10 minutes and a shouted conversation with her colleagues on the other side who also didn’t seem to think there was any need for a fuss, the officer taking a mobile phone call in between it all and finally Marie was stamped in. We later figured out what the issue was. There is a blank box on the visas. This is where the visa number should have been put by the consulate – we’re lucky immigration aren’t strict! Every hotel we stay at is required to record our names, passport and visa numbers so at each check in we cause confusion. We’ve been telling them it is written on the entry stamp. It’s not, that’s the flight number we arrived on but so far as long as they can write something down for the visa number they’ve accepted that.

The arrivals hall was packed with people waiting to pick up friends and family, taxi touts were quick to pick us out as needing transport, the offers were constant but when we said no thank you they accepted that and weren’t at all pushy.

We’d spotted a tourist information desk so took the opportunity to see if they had a city map. In our experience the maps in the guidebook often aren’t that great or are spread over several maps as for Yangon. Picking up a free city map means we can circle what we want to see, plan a route and not have to keep getting the guidebook out every time we get lost. The woman on the desk spoke good English and had a map, better, on the reverse was a map for Mandalay. She asked if we had a hotel reservation, umm we think so we replied we have been emailing one and we think they booked us in but we’re not entirely sure. She offered to phone and check, and all was good they did have us down, but it was great to know that we were heading directly to somewhere and didn’t have to mess about trying to find somewhere to sleep in the dark on a Saturday night. She also sorted us out with a taxi for the going rate.

IMG_2361Before we left the airport we changed some money, not much, we just wanted enough local currency to tide us over until we figured out what the score with money and changing it is. The guidebook also said we’d get a rubbish rate at the airport and to change it at the market. This is not true anymore, we got a good rate at the airport and everyone now warns against changing on the streets and tells you to use banks and exchange offices as they give the best rates.

Our taxi driver was ace. He spoke great English as he is also a tour guide. Many (non-budget) travellers see the country by hiring a car and driver like him. He didn’t push his services and he openly said that it was expensive (US$100 per day for outside Yangon). He told us the cheapest way was to take buses and he re-jigged our intended itinerary for us. We also asked about the weather, we are visiting in wet/monsoon season and had read conflicting on reports on what that means in Yangon, ranging from it rains all day every day to just occasional but regular showers. He said that there was some rain in Yangon and Inle Lake but that in Mandalay and Bagan there was none (they are in what is called the dry zone, so they are dry, but hot). The wet season can badly affect transport so knowing this was important and told us that we didn’t have to factor it into our plans too much. Conversation then changed to how his country was now open and was changing quickly and he even talked about ‘The Lady’ (Aung San Suu Kyi). As we passed junctions we could spot lit up Buddhist temples, it wasn’t too hot or humid and it wasn’t raining. We were loving the people and the place before even getting to the hotel.


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