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Pleasant Surprises In A Myanmar Visit

This is the second in a three-part series.

Flying into Myanmar, the last thing I expected was to fall in love … with a river. But that I did, with the mighty Irrawaddy. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but it didn’t take long after sitting down at a riverside restaurant in Bagan to realize this beautiful river is one of the world’s great geologic features. I rate it on a par with the Grand Canyon – both required eons of water flow to create and both leave my mouth agape in wonder. More on that later.


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A glimpse of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Don Chapman photos

The grand Irrawaddy was just one of many surprises on a 10-day stay in the land formerly known as Burma that included the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Yangon.

Another pleasant surprise was the eagerness of Myanmar folks to converse with foreigners. That was evident when, in a neighborhood restaurant in Yangon, I was approached by a Myanmar merchant sailor. He asked where I was from.

“Hawaii, USA.” “OK, please come drink with us.”

So I joined him and three other seamen for a couple of bottles of Myanmar beer – a fine locally brewed lager that goes down easy. The sailors enjoyed telling me of their world travels, showing off their English skills and asking about my life. When we parted it was with Buddhist bows and guy hugs.

During Myanmar’s five decades of military dictatorship that ended in 2011, “the generals” tended to frown on tourism. Strangers from foreign lands bringing in crazy ideas – freedom, rule of law, democracy, human rights?! – was the last thing they wanted. A few foreigners did come, of course. Karen Knudsen, the East-West Center’s director of external affairs, just made her 16th visit, the first coming in 1976 with husband Greg. Hearing the story of my meeting two teen street girls who became my tour guides for a day, and of sharing beers with the four seamen, Karen started to tear up.

“All of that would have been illegal just three years ago,” she said. “Whenever I spoke with a local person before, they would be questioned by the military. When I left, I always worried what might happen to them.”

Those sailors were fairly typical in this new Myanmar, with waiters, taxi drivers and even teens at a Yangon water park happily engaging in previously forbidden interaction and conversation.

But wade in the shallow end of this pool. Politics, and the generals, still stir zip-lip discomfort in many who were so recently repressed.

If you’re thinking about visiting, a few things to know:

Getting there isn’t easy. I flew China Air from Honolulu through Taipei going over, and coming back through Bangkok (and its sprawling new airport – to get some exercise I walked for 90 minutes during a lay-over and didn’t see all of it) and back through Taipei. Both ways it was about 24 hours of traveling.

Unlike, say, Japan, where you just show up with a U.S. passport and get an entrance visa, Myanmar is stricter. Although I had a letter of recommendation from the Interior Ministry, okaying me for a visa to attend the East-West Center conference, that was no guarantee of receiving a visa upon arrival. So I used CIBT, a service in D.C., to walk my passport to the Myanmar embassy and secure a visa. It cost $150 for expedited service, but was quick, efficient and one less headache.

The 30-minute drive from Yangon International Airport to the Panda Hotel is along leafy, winding Pyay Road past huge lakes. If only Honolulu gave our visitors such a pleasant first impression.

While you can find ATMs in Yangon – the Panda had one in the lobby – most businesses do not accept travelers checks or credit cards. Thus, the bulk of my trip had to be paid in advance, wired through Singapore, and I had to bring in enough cash to last for 10 days. The best exchange rates, I’m told, are no longer at black market places. I traded dollars for kyats at the hotel – $1 roughly equals 1,000 kyat (pronounced chat).

I’m not in the habit of recommending travel agents, but in preparing to visit such a foreign country I was grateful for the attention to detail and prompt email replies from Mr. U Min Lwin Oo (aka Mr. Min Min), managing director of Myanmar Frangipani Travels & Tours in Yangon. He booked hotels in Yangon and Bagan, drivers to and from airports, and a tour driver and round of golf in Bagan.

Likewise, the Panda is clean, with a good restaurant (breakfast buffet is part of the package) and located a short cab ride to the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda, of which I had a view from my room. Whether it was glimmering in the sun or aglow in spotlights after dark, I never tired of looking up and seeing Shwedagon. More on that in a moment.

Speaking of views: Every afternoon on the short walk back from the conference site, I paused to watch barefoot young men in a sandy side lot of the hotel playing “chin lo,” a cross between soccer and volleyball, played three-a-side with a small plastic or wicker ball. Some remarkable athletic moves, and just fun to watch.

I was there during a cusp between seasons – there are three in Myanmar. Weather every day was in the upper 80s, but with light, cooling breezes. The monsoon season starts late May/early June with heavy rains and humidity; the dry season starts in November with lower temperatures, and then the heat returns in the spring.

If you’re in Yangon on a Friday evening, it’s tough to beat pupus and chilled beverages at the Yangon Sailing Club on Lake Inya. Lots of ex-pats to chat with, and a delightful place to catch a brilliant red sunset for which Myanmar is legendary.