Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is quickly opening up to incoming visitors and offers rich rewards for the growing handful of travelers—and hoteliers—that have discovered it. My three weeks of vacation there certainly rewarded me.
Yesterday, I returned from three weeks of traveling in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
It is a nation newly opened up to tourism, newly democratized, with Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Aung San Suu Kyi the de facto figurehead (her photo is displayed everywhere) behind the country’s new guise.
I chose to travel to Yangon, formerly Rangoon; Mrauk-u, a small town full of pagodas, stupas and monasteries close to Bangladesh; Inle Lake, a region of marshes, waterways, lakes, floating markets and more stupa (see photo below), where the fisher folk balance on one leg and still a long oar with the other; and Dawei, in the southern promontory shared with Thailand.
Until recently, tourism in Myanmar was limited to a few adventurous types or to expensive river cruises to Mandalay along the Ayeyarwady River—formerly known as the Irrawaddy—on a ferry run by hotel group Belmond, formerly known as Orient-Express.
There still are areas tourists cannot go. There still are regions where internecine struggles take place, but the official tourism group has plans in place to increase incoming tourism numbers.
In Yangon, new hotels are being built. The city’s downtown is a fascinating mix of colonial remnants, bustling markets, a few modernish restaurants, even a synagogue that manages to continue with a minute community. One hotel I saw was the 343-room Lotte Hotel Yangon, which will open in spring 2017 a few streets north of the city’s foremost attraction, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda.
Yangon is beginning to suffer from the curse of traffic. Taxi drivers told us that traffic jams were virtually unknown until three years ago.
It’s no surprise that AccorHotels already has four hotels in the country, including three in Yangon and one in the country’s recently created new capital of Naypyidaw (or Nay Pyi Taw), which is not a stopover on most tourists’ destination lists. Most travelers in Myanmar hailed from France and Germany.
There are a few domestic hotel groups, but each seemed to have only a scattering of properties. I stayed in a wonderful hotel of lakeside bungalows called the Royal Nadi Resort, near Inle Lake, run by Phyu Zin Hotel Group.
Supposedly on 1 January 2017, Myanmar’s new foreign investment law will come into place, and that will encourage more international hotel groups to build properties in a nation that will continue to grow its tourism numbers.
Myanmar did seem to have much to offer. There are teething problems, with tension high in areas such as Shan and Rakhine states, but without exception the people we met were gracious, charming and smiling.
We stopped to have cups of tea with strangers, who also ferried us in small boats across marshes and lakes during a hike, again with no thought of recompense.
The quality of hotel staff was patchy, but one or two examples showed that improvements were in place.
My advice is that if you are a hotelier, check out possibilities now (I am sure your teams already have), and if you are a traveler go, go, go now.
Here are a few extra pieces of advice I have for anyone thinking of traveling to Myanmar.
First, take a stock of U.S. dollars, but make sure they are of museum quality. I have the notion that they are stockpiled by the country’s central bank. One must have Myanmese kyat (pronounced “chat”) to spend, but the euro and pound sterling are not readily accepted. For your dollars, you will get a brick of kyat, the lowest denomination being 50 kyat, which is equivalent to eight U.S. cents.
Domestic flights are safe and efficient, but their departure times will change constantly, not by much more than 30 to 60 minutes, but try and confirm leaving times the day before.
Myanmar’s cuisine is not as brilliant as that of neighboring Thailand, but it is still good. Mohinga is a fish and rice noodle soup served for breakfast—actually all times of day—and lahpet thoke, or spicy tea-leaf salad, is delicious, too. The friendliest chef in the world, I have decided, is the one plying his trade at the Golden Guest House in Dawei.
Largely forget about internet coverage. A few places have Wi-Fi access, but resist roaming. I think the sticker shock might fell you.
On 5 December, I took a flight from Yangon International Airport’s domestic terminal, but when I returned on 9 December, that had closed, operation shifting to an adjacent, modern space. Everything is changing swiftly in this country.
Taxi haggling is the norm but not entered into with gusto. Do not be scared to pitch a low price, as the settled price will usually only be about a dollar more.
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