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Myanmar Is Waiting

  By DOMINICK A. MERLE.... 

 

          NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar---This is getting a little too weird. I’ve just driven 45 minutes over 20-lane superhighways without seeing another vehicle, human or creature.

 

          And now, I’ve entered a modern, spacious international air terminal  and it appears that I am the only customer.

 

         A lone man at the far end of an otherwise empty bank of ticket windows waves me over for check-in.

 

          “Do you have exit row aisle?”

 

           “No,” he responds.  “You go business class.”

 

            He could just as well have assigned me the co-pilot’s seat because I would soon, in fact, be the only passenger on the plane.

 

           ( Full disclosure: For any skeptics out there who would like verification in this age of “some” media members stretching the facts a bit, my solitary ride was aboard Golden Myanmar Airlines Flight Y5-78 departing Jan. 30, 2015, from  Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital city of Myanmar (formerly Burma),  to the previous capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), and the passenger list would show one person, me.)

 

            Names do get in the way here.  While Burma and Rangoon are more pleasing and exotic to North American ears,  they are painful reminders for the Burmese (that term is still OK) of  British rule so it’s advisable to use Myanmar and Yangon if you visit.

 

             Even the name of the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, which loosely translates to “royal palace,” is sometimes spelled as one word instead of three.

 

              There was absolutely nothing here in the dead center of the country a dozen years ago when the government decided to make it the administrative capital.  Today, there are 20-lane superhighways, majestic parliament and government buildings, convention centers, cinemas, shopping centers, museums, amusement parks and over 65 palace-like resort hotels that light up like a miniature Las Vegas at night, minus the casinos.

 

               But few visitors.  “It will take time,” said James Thura, general manager of the Sky Palace Hotel where I spent 7 nights.  “We see Nay Pyi Taw emerging into a dynamic convention and business center, along with attracting international tourists.”

 

      The government is even more optimistic about the capital’s future.  One official compared the massive project to the recurring theme in the Hollywood baseball movie Field of Dreams---“If you build it, they will come.”

 

      I came to Nay Pyi Taw to attend an annual travel show known as the Asean Tourism Forum (ATF), an organization comprised of 10 Southeast Asia nations that have banded to promote travel to this part of the world.  This marked Myanmar’s first time to host the event.

 

     I remained a couple of days beyond the travel show, thus culminating along my private highway to an empty air terminal and my solo plane ride.

 

     While Nay Pyi Taw is a relatively new, unused city, there are a few attractions worth visiting, headed by the golden Uppatasanti Pagoda complex sitting high on a hill overlooking the new capital.  It is well worth the barefoot climb to the top enjoy the spectacular view.

 

      Yet it is at the foot of the hill where most crowds gather to see Nay Pyi Taw’s famous white elephants. There were four of them during my visit and they were actually a light pink rather than white.  They pranced and trumpeted on cue for their handlers to the delight of the visitors.

 

        For centuries Southeast Asian monarchs have coveted white elephants as embodiments of a divinely sanctified rule, signs of peace, wealth and future greatness.

 

        Other in-city attractions include the Myoma, an exotic open air market; the National Landmark Garden, a miniature model of the states and regions of Myanmar, and the 800-acre Hluttaw (Parliament House), comprised of 31 buildings and the President’s residence.  President Obama stayed at the Hluttaw during his 2014 visit.

 

         On our final day in the capital region, James Thura, GM at the Sky Palace Hotel, arranged for a visit to two centuries old villages, each one a 45-minute drive in opposite directions.  We were quick to nickname the villages “Cigarettes” and “Coconuts” for obvious reasons.

 

          The first village, Aung Gone, was basically an open-air cigarette factory with mostly young girls hand-rolling thin 10-inch cigarettes using a sprinkle of tobacco wrapped in a palm leaf and wrapped once more in plain newspaper strips dabbed with glue.

 

         Each girl was capable of rolling 100 or more cigarettes an hour. The smokes are sold at the local market along with use in the village.

 

          The second village, Shwe Ohn Pin, was all about coconuts and everything you can do with them besides eat and drink.  Young men did most of the work here, starting with shimmying up the trees to taking the goods to market.

 

          “These villages have been operating like this for centuries,” Thura told us.  “And some of these people have never even seen the new capital.”

 

             Off to Yangon.  It was odd once aboard when the flight attendant came to my seat for a one-on-one

briefing session and then casually asked what I’d like to drink.

 

              Upon arrival in Yangon, a shuttle bus pulled alongside the plane to take its lone passenger to the main terminal.  I wondered how long it would be for my bag to join me, but not for long as an employee simply grabbed it from the plane’s cargo belly and wheeled it to me in the shuttle bus.  That’s service!

 

               Yangon is both a bustling and calm city of about 6-million residents.   People seem genuinely friendly and interested in tourists, after having spent many decades in a sort of isolation under authoritarian rule. Besides a growing number of international tourists now anxious to peek behind the Burmese curtain, cruise ships are lining up and tourism experts predict that Myanmar will soon be one of the world’s hot ticket items.

 

              I checked into the Chatrium Hotel on Royal Lake, a secluded area of the city with stunning views from my window of the Royal Lake and the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most famous religious site.

 

               The hotel featured six restaurants, a beach-style pool area and five-star amenities with an understated Asian touch.  Complimentary shuttles were available to nearby attractions and the downtown shopping area.

 

                My Yangon tours were arranged by Soe Ya Min, managing director of Ayeyarwaddy Travels and his guide, Htain Linn OO.  While OO is a common last name in Myanmar, we quickly added a 7, James Bond style.

 

                Our first stop was to the massive Schwedagon Pagoda and, it being a Sunday, was teeming with locals as well as tourists.  “This is one of the most holiest places of worship to Buddhists all over the world,” Soe Ya Min remarked.  We spent nearly two hours walking the beautiful complex; it took us nearly that long to exit the grounds by car.

 

                 A tour of the bustling downtown area and lunch was next, ending at the Bogyoke,  a block-long covered market crammed with shops stocked with just about any product you could name.  If you don’t bargain with a smile, you’ll disappoint the vendor.

 

                   We finished the day with an hour’s ride north of the city to visit a pottery village and country market.  Back in Yangon, we took a circular train ride passing numerous residential districts.  This was the going-home train for city workers.

 

                    “When will you return to Myanmar?” Soe Ya Min asked as he returned me to the Chatrium.

 

                     “I don’t know,” I responded.  “Maybe only in my mind.  So it will always be the same.”

 

 

                       (Dominick A. Merle is a travel writer and consultant based in Montreal. Email dmerle@videotron.ca).

 

IF YOU GO:

 

Visas are required for North Americans and can be obtained at Myanmar Embassies and Consulates or online at myanmarevisa.gov.mm for about $50.

 

Local currency is the “Kyat.”  Exchange was roughly 1000 Kyat for each US dollar while I visited.  ATM machines are rare and charge cards often not accepted.  Bring clean U.S. bills as money changers will often reject or give lower exchanges for old wrinkled bills.

 

Sept. through Feb. are best months to visit.  May to August is the rain season, hotel prices are at their lowest during this period.

 

For further information on the Chatrium Hotel, try chatrium.com/chatrium_hotel_yangon; for Sky Palace, gm@skypalace.asia; for Ayeyarwaddy Tours, trailsofayeyarwaddy.com; for Myanmar, Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, myanmartourism.org .

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