Behind the golden pagodas

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, fourth right, and his wife Rosalynn Smith tour the famed Shwedagon Pagoda.  

The first indication that things go a bit differently in Myanmar than elsewhere starts at the country’s embassy. An officer there receives the passports, but then seems surprised when, after charging 25 euros (32 dollars) for a tourism visa, he is asked for a receipt. What for? Only after several further queries does he write out the receipt.

Travelling to Myanmar is a bit strenuous. There are no direct flights from Europe. The quickest connection is via Bangkok. But the market is changing, and now Condor has become the first European air carrier to fly nonstop to Yangon.

On arriving at the Yangon International Airport, the modern terminal building comes as a surprise. The lines at the entry gates quickly thin out. And contrary to the expectation of dealing with some stern official of a military government, one finds uniformed women, giggling. They are greatly amused about the eye colours shown on the monitor of the modern facial recognition camera.

Most travellers take a lot of cash with them, for one can search in vain for an ATM in Myanmar. This, too, is supposed to change in the months ahead. And, in all likelihood, several credit cards will also be accepted. Until now this has not been possible due to the US sanctions, which prevent paying travel expenses with credit cards. Only a few hotels accept them, thanks to a trick — by booking the sum via a branch in another country.

And so, cash is king. Visitors arrive with thick packets of bank notes strapped around their stomach. But caution is advised: do not make any folds in the notes. The employees in money changing bureaux at the airport carefully examine each and every note, turning it one way and then another and even consulting with a co-worker.

With euros, the employee is more lenient, but is all the more discerning with regard to US dollar notes. Only new, undamaged, virtually virginal bank notes are accepted — no more, no less.

Now it’s on to the hotel. “Those who want a room with the usual standards, especially during the favoured travel period between October and March, should absolutely make reservations,” says Thomas Henseler, the director of the Governor’s Palace hotel. He notes that hotel bookings have risen enormously in recent months, and accordingly, rates have also shot up. He mentions a rise of 200 to 300 per cent. Quality, however, has not kept pace everywhere.

Around the Sule Pagoda, not far from the river, begins the confusing conglomeration of streets and stores. There is also a modern internet cafe, in front of which an old woman sits, selling bars of soap. Right next to it is a stand featuring a plastic telephone. But this phone does not have any connections to Europe. There are no conventional telephone booths in the city, and foreign calls made from the hotel a re relatively expensive.

And there is yet another rare experience to be had: a time without mobile phones. Foreign visitors may just as well leave their mobiles at home because they won’t work in Myanmar. For those who absolutely must, then a mobile phone can be rented at the airport with a pre-paid card.

In order to reach the former imperial cities of Mandalay and Pagan, naming two chief tourism highlights, the best means of transport is by airplane. Otherwise, the old trains go clattering slowly along narrow-gauge tracks, and the long-range overland buses are overcrowded and rather uncomfortable.

Besides, the condition of the roads is poor, with one exception: the brand-new superhighway between Yangon and Mandalay. Right next to the highway, a farmer is ploughing a field behind a team of oxen — the 21st century meets up with millennia-old farming tradition. That’s Myanmar today. Tomorrow, things will be different.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 6:43:54 PM |

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