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Xangsamhua

Visit To Myanmar At New Year

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My wife and I visited Myanmar for four days over the New Year period and found that quite a few things were different from what we'd read on various webisites and travel forums. What follows is our experience.

Visa

We were concerned about taking time off work in order to apply for the visa at the Myanmar Embassy, Bangkok, but eventually our agent was able to do it for us without us having to go there. I always ask our agent to do visas for us. It’s quite acceptable at other embassies, and busy people don’t want to be hanging around in queues.

Cash

We took about US$1500, nice clean notes and varied denominations. We didn’t want to take over $2000 because we’d seen on a website that a greater amount would require us to fill out a form and we didn’t want to do that. Later we were told that it makes no difference filling out a form; it’s just a formality.

ATMs and credit cards

We did not look for ATMs as we didn’t need to and had been told there were none. I didn’t notice any. Credit cards are not generally accepted, except at certain-government approved places. My wife bought a ruby at one such place and used her credit card, for which she was charged a small percentage.

Use of Kyat

We used the local currency quite a bit for small purchases, souvenirs, etc.. As our trip had been pre-paid, however, we had no need to pay for accommodation, meals, transport or entry to different sites, so we only changed a small amount ($50 I think) at 760 kyat to the dollar. We had kyats left over to give our driver.

Video camera

We’d seen on a couple of websites that said video cameras were frowned upon, would attract official enquiries and would probably be taken from us at the airport and returned on departure. When we got there, having not brought our video camera, we discovered this was no longer the case.

Departure tax

Every website and forum we visited said we’d need to keep nice clean $10 bills for departure tax. On our departure, however, from Yangon International Airport, we were not asked to pay tax and I didn’t see anyone else pay it either.

Mobile phones

We did not use our mobile in Myanmar. International roaming was unavailable, so we could not contact each other. My wife, however, was able to receive an incoming call from Australia.

Security, surveillance, etc.

One American website warned that our bags may be searched and our phone calls monitored in the hotel. This seemed the stuff of real police states, but we never sensed anything like that occurring. At no stage did we see any evidence of being in a police state or oppressive military dictatorship. We saw almost no uniformed police at all, and no military other than a couple of trucks outside the city.

Being discreet

We didn’t seek to have political conversations or to ask any more about the country than tourists normally do, but our guide spoke fairly freely and positively about the political situation and the changes that were occurring. She said nothing provocative or emotive, but seemed to feel quite relaxed in talking about these things. I had no sense that she was not speaking her own mind.

Summary

Our short trip to Yangon, Pago and the Yele pagoda at Kyauktan was very nice and well managed by our tour operator. Of course, the visit to Shwedagon pagoda on our last afternoon was the highlight. This is something any traveler must see before they die. Yangon itself reminded us of Vientiane, though the former is much (10X?) bigger. The tree-lined streets and lanes and the houses had a Lao look and feel about them. My wife is from Vientiane and I lived there for five years, and we both agreed on this. Tourism is starting to boom. Apart from Western visitors on private tours like ours we saw some young budget tourists and one or two larger Thai groups. I think many more travelers will be going to Myanmar and they are now welcome. Accommodation has not caught up, so it’s probably a good idea to book a trip with some time in hand – not at the last minute.

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I just saw this video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1iMZeK4aH0

about Burma made by the CIA in the time of the cold war against communism. It gives a nice impression of Burma in the past.

At the moment it seems like Burma is opening up a little more. Although I doubt the motives of the military government -may be they have become a bit afraid because of what they see happening in the middle east- it might be a step in the direction of more freedom and democracy.

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