The changes are in your face the moment you walk off the plane – posters plastered along the connecting bridge to the terminal trumpeting the arrival of visa ATMs hosted by CB Bank. And, there, in the baggage reclaim area is the first of many of those ATMs, right next to a series of exchange booths – the best place to change your dollars at the going floating rate.
You may have also heard that Myanmar has visa on arrival – true, if you’re coming on business and have the right documentation. Otherwise, sort out your tourist visa before you come (I got mine within a couple of days, no questions asked, at the London embassy).
On the transfer into town, my guide Toe warns me about the terrible traffic that Yangon is now experiencing – it can now take anything up to an hour and half to reach the downtown area from the airport; we make it in around an hour and although there are certainly many more cars on the roads (most in much better condition) it’s hardly at the frustrating crawl standards of Bangkok or KL at the height of the rush hour.
There’s a bit of a flap over my Booking.com reservation at the Orchid Hotel, but the details eventually show up and – again! – I’m impressed when my Mastercard is accepted as payment for the room as promised. That room, on the 8th floor, overlooking a Buddhist monastery and Hindu temple, right on the corner of busy Anawrahata Rd, is reasonable condition, clean and with enough space for my 3 week residency.
William from Good News Travel soon whisks me off the far swankier surrounds of The Strand for a late lunch – we opt for the afternoon teas – he goes for the traditional English, I take the Myanmar option served in a lovely tiered black lacquer tiffin box with a string of fragrant jasmine flowers in the bottom tier. The Strand remains the epitome of colonial grace and there’s a new art gallery (River Gallery) with some striking pieces of contemporary work by local artists.
I’m more impressed, however, by the colourful and creative selection of gifts at Pomelo, a fair-trade enterprise that currently occupies the space above Monsoon restaurant (but which will be moving next month). Ulla, a German lady who runs the place kindly shows me around pointing out the products made by socially disadvantaged and disabled groups: papier mache animals, including adorable canines; bead necklaces made from recycled newspaper; postcards and greeting cards with paper silhouettes revealing swatches of longi cloth; and vibrant graphic prints on vinyl made into all manner of bags and wall hangings. There’s also high end weavings from Chin women in Rakhine running up to $400 and – should your luggage limit not be a problem – restored teak furniture.
Night falls and I hop in a taxi to reach 19th St, famed for its grilled food stalls and never ending draft beers. I’m meeting Jessica Mudditt, features editor at the Myanmar Times, and other local journos and expats for the monthly foreign correspondents drinks. I track down the smallish group at the Kaung Myat, next to the popular Ko San pub; this is where Anthony Bourdain scoffed grilled goodies when he was in town and it proves a good choice, the selection good and cheap – each stick costing between 20 and 50 cents.