As from 2014 ATM machines are to be found at airports, in many hotel lobbies and supermarket complexes. They accept the major credit cards and charge a withdrawal fee.
Myanmar has all the ingredients needed for great Adventure Travel. The geographic landscape of this large country - the size of France and Britain together—is very varied. The central plain is surrounded on three sides by mountains and hills the fourth by the sea. The hardiest adventures are to be found in the north in the foothills of the Himalayas and the snow-capped Hkakabo Razi summit, a stunning environment in which to trek, kayak, negotiate bamboo suspension bridges across deep ravines, search for the endemic black orchid and much beside.
Further south the Hukawng Valley, the world’s largest tiger reserve, awaits the lovers of wild mammals, if lucky it is possible to see elephants, civet cats wild buffalo and Sumatran rhinoceros. For the traveller wanting a more domestic environment but still off the beaten track there are many such opportunities. A mixture of biking, trekking and kayaking from Pyin Oo Lwin with a train ride over a thrilling viaduct thrown in, on these trips it it usual to sleep in ‘homestay’ lodgings. Mountain Victoria to the west of Bagan in the Nat Ma Taung National Park is another peak to be climbed or partially so. Perhaps the highlight of the adventure travel menu is down south in the Myeik Archipelago an unspoilt group of over 800 islands. Kayak through the granite formations of Great Swinton Island, search for wild pig and orchids on Lampi Island, the largest in the archipelago, snorkel or dive above and in the coral gardens of Hayes Island.
Theravada Buddhism is practised by over 80% of Myanmar’s population, its mark is everywhere. On the drive in from the Nay Pyi Taw Airport the countryside is dotted with pagodas; each town will support a monastery. The quest for Nirvana and accumulation of merit to help one’s karma are two of the precepts that are obvious in daily life, whether it is the placing of roadside clay water pots from which any thirsty traveller can take a drink, the offering of food to a local monk, or friendliness and kindness to a visitor. Buddhism came to Myanmar in several stages. Legend tells us that two brothers who had visited the Gautama Buddha in India shortly after his Enlightenment founded the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which was soon thereafter visited by the Indian King Ashoka, the great purveyor of Buddhism, in about 260 BCE. It was King Anawrahta who unified the country and then in 1056 was converted to Theravada Buddhism and so declared Buddhism the national religion.
In 1947 the Bank of Burma was founded becoming the Union Bank on Independence in 1948 and finally in 1952 the Central Bank, today it is known as the Central Bank of Myanmar. Since the present government came to power in 2011 the country is transforming from a state led, planned economy into a democratic, market-orientated economy. In April 2012 the Central Bank implemented a managed float of the local currency the Kyat. Licenses were given to some 20 private local banks with some 34 foreign banks opening representative offices. In June 2014 the Central Bank invited foreign banks to apply for banking licenses; the process is on-going.
Another of Naypyitaw’s grand buildings, this limestone structure is the home of the Nay Pyi Taw Development Committee the body responsible for running the day to day management of the city and further development.
At the entrance to the Railway Station stand several fine old engines alongside some topiary trains. The station itself is enormous and again rather a grand building but once on the platforms it is like any station a bustle of activity, people waiting for trains or for their loved ones to arrive whilst hawkers sell their wares to prospective passengers.
Car hire is essential to get around the city as there is limited public transport and the distances are large. All hotels will be able to arrange car hire with a driver as to date it is not possible to self-drive.
For the visitor cool cotton clothes are advisable with a shawl or jacket to deal with the air-conditioning in many buildings. All the hotels have good laundry services. The majority of the local population wear traditional longyis or sarongs with neat blouses for the ladies and shirts for the men.
Myanmar’s climate can be divided into three seasons; the cold season from November to February; the hot season from March to May; and the rainy season, from June to October. It is more humid throughout the year in the south around Yangon and the Delta region. Nay Pyi Taw being situated in the middle of the country and on the edge of the dry zone has a fairly non-humid climate with downpours during the rainy season which are normally short and sweet.
The Kyat is the local currency and it is now floated so the exchange rate may vary slightly day to day, plus the exchange rate given at banks and money changers is likely to be a little better than in hotels, but gone are the days of two exchange rates. Most business is transacted in US dollars. The major credit cards are now accepted in many hotels and shops; sometimes it is necessary for the visitor to give the hotel warning that they would like to use a credit card. It is advisable to carry some US dollar notes with you but to be accepted they have to be crispy clean and recently minted.
Tap water in Nay Pyi Taw is not potable but bottled water is readily available. A small cup of delicious local green tea will be served automatically as the visitor sits down in any restaurant or tea shop.
The impact of development and the hugely increased visitor numbers since 2010 has meant the electricity grid has been stretched, with many power cuts happening. Following on from the World Economic Forum (East Asia) held in Nay Pyi Taw in June 2013 a report ‘New Energy Architecture: Myanmar’ was produced by Accenture and ADB. This sought to show how the country can meet the goals of achieving economic growth and development alongside the needed energy and security in an environmentally sustainable fashion. As the report states, “increasing energy supplies is key to boosting Myanmar’s economy”. The next stage is an Energy Sector Master plan. There are plans for 17 power plants to come onstream between 2013 and 2016. Meanwhile with the involvement of international experts in the field of power generation and a $60 million Power Distribution Improvement Project the day to day situation is improving. The capital Nay Pyi Taw is well placed as there are several dams in the nearby hills so their supply is assured.
The national flag of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar was most recently changed in October 2010; it is now three bands of colour, yellow, green and red with a white star in the centre. The three colours represent solidarity, peace and tranquillity, courage and decisiveness.
“It is the nature of the Myanmar people to make festivals” noted Somerset Maugham. Like practically every important aspect of Myanmar’s society, and particularly those involving entertainment, they take place under the auspices of the pagoda. From the end of Buddhist Lent in October until July when the rains come every town will periodically buzz with a festival. A festival may last for a week. During the day time there will be bands, processions to the pagoda with all the trinket and food stalls doing roaring trade. Festival evenings are frequently devoted to the pwe or evening theatre.
Nay Pyi Taw is a Green Capital, the transition from rural to city landscape is almost imperceptible, the highway leading into the city is beautifully landscaped. Bougainvillea, Mussaenda and Oleander all in full bloom along the central reservation whilst beside the road grow a collection of fine trees. There are no traffic jams to pollute the atmosphere, no noise or light pollution at night. This young capital built over an area of 7,054 square kilometres, has all the ingredients required for a sustainable, competitive, international city in the very heart of East Asia.
Fly straight to the ‘green’ capital Nay Pyi Taw avoiding the trafficjams and heat of the former capital Yangon. With Nay Pyi Tawplaced at the centre of the country and well served by the internal airand coach services it is the perfect jumping off point from which tovisit the countless other places of interest.
Public health suffered badly under the previous regimes but thepresent Ministry of Health has increased the annual budget andis working hard to strengthen its service. The Global Fund andother international NGO’s are investing man power and finance, it is expected that over the next five years this stream of donor help willaccount for 10% of the total health sector. Alongside public medicinesome 80% of the country’s clinics and hospitals are run by the privatesector. They are mostly efficient, well-run and have access to qualifieddoctors and staff and are not overly expensive. But those who canafford it go abroad for serious medical conditions. More doctors,nurses and midwives need to be trained but the transition is underwayand as the deputy Minister for Health recently said, “this is the timewe have been dreaming of for decades”.
Independence Day is celebrated on 4th January each year in Nay PyiTaw. The day is a national holiday.
Maybe because Nay Pyi Taw is the capital or maybe because thecity was only recently built but for whatever reason the internetconnections and quality of mobile connections is excellent, unlike therest of the Myanmar where it is very varied.
Myanmar has had a long list of kings but the ones who areremembered and revered are, Anawrahta who first unifiedthe country in 1044 and introduced Theravada Buddhism. KingBayinnaung again a consolidator of power, who reigned in the 1550s.Finally King Alaungpaya (Alompra) a village headman who againunified the country took over the throne and was founder of the ThirdBurmese Dynasty in the 1700s. These three kings are remembered bytheir vast statues which tower over the Military Parade Ground in NayPyi Taw.
Since the governmentof President UThein Sein took officein 2011 tremendousreform processes havebeen and continue to beimplemented. But there ismuch to be done, for manyof the laws on the statutebook date from 1916.
The pickled tea leaf that iscalled Lapet is eaten atall times of day, perhaps as afinale to a rich dinner or whenvisitors arrive unexpectedly.On such occasions, a drink oflocal green tea and the lacquerbox containing Lapet will beproduced. Inside the box aredifferent compartments filledwith Lapet, fried garlic, toastedsesame, fried broad beans andsalt. Lapet is bought readypreparedin the market thenkneaded with a little sesame oilat home. The taste is refreshingand good.
Longyi is the sarong worn by the majority of both men and womenin Myanmar. A very versatile cool cotton garment, the fabricmeasures 2 metres long and some 80 centimetres wide. Today most aremachine made, but when in Inle Lake or Amarapura, it is possible tosee the fabric being woven by hand. These are normally the silk longyisworn on special occasions.
In Myanmar monasteriesare to be found in everycity, town and village, withmonks and to a lesser extentnuns, very much present insociety. Throughout thecountry there are beautifulold teak monasteries stillin use. One such is nearNay Pyi Taw to the east ofPyinmana; this 250 year old teak building is home to older and youngermonks who can be seen having their daily lessons on the Buddhistscriptures.
Nay Pyi Taw like allcities and towns inMyanmar has its food andclothing markets. Alwaysvery jolly places with a foodsection of mouth-wateringfruit and vegetables laid outwith consummate style, andan extra decorative touchprovided by small sprigs offlowers. The clothes stallsare alongside plus fabricsand household necessities,finally will be the foodstalls, so perhaps thedelicious smell that waftsover the stalls encouragesthe buyer to buy more.Several of these marketsstay open late into theevening.
Mohingha is the traditional breakfast in Myanmar and it is quitenormal to go out for this meal, so each morning Mohingha stallsappear and people tend to have their favourite vendor or café. The dishis a gentle fish soup made with banana stem served with noodles and avariety of condiments scattered on top, it is delicious.
Traditional Myanmar musichas many moods—ifthe harp (Saung gauk) orXylophone (Pattalar) is playedon their own the sound islovelorn and melodious butonce the drums (saing-waing),gongs (kyi-waing) and othersare added the noise becomesdiscordant. There are nowritten scores so most of thepieces are handed down overthe generations. To see afull orchestra is a fine sight asthe main instruments are beautifully carved and often gilded woodenpieces, the drummer and gong player sit inside a wooden circle hisdrums or gongs suspended on the panels, he constantly tunes his drumsby applying and kneading some sticky rice paste.
Myanmar has minimal reserves of oil, an estimated 50 millionbarrels of crude oil but huge reserves of natural gas some 283billion cubic metres, with the gas exports accounting for up to 30to 40% of the country’s annual exports. Since 2012 new gas and oilpipelines (2014) running from the Bay of Bengal east to Yunnan inChina have started operation, with a small amount of that oil andgas used domestically.Various blocks, both offshoreand shallow watersites, have been put up forauction by the governmentin the past few yearsso with the ForeignInvestment Laws beingchanged internationalcompanies are backin the market. TheMinistry of Energy andits subsidiaries includingMyanma Oil and Gas hasshown a commitment totransparency in the pastyear and has begun theprocess of becoming amember of the ExtractiveIndustries Index (EIT)to report revenues fromextractive processes.
In March and April 2014 a nation-wide census was carried out, thefirst for 30 years, with the preliminary result announced in August.To the surprise of many the population number was 51 million not theexpected 60 million.
The political party holding the majority of seats in Parliament(Hluttaw) is Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)of which the President U Thein Sein is Chairman, with the NationalLeague of Democracy (NLD) holding the next largest number of seats.In parliament there are representatives from 16 other parties andmany more took part in the 2010 national election but did not gainparliamentary seats.
There are some 15 gazetted national Public Holidays throughoutthe year but then there are other religious and local holidays indifferent regions. For the visitor it means the shops will be shut on thosedays but most other attractions probably not.
Wherever you look in Myanmar there are pagodas dotted acrossthe landscape, some large and sparkling gold, others whitemaybe crowned with a golden hti (umbrella) or as on the plain of Bagan, many constructed of brick. A pagoda is a solid construction inwhich will be interred a sacred object. One of the possible explanationsfor the profusion of pagodas is that in the search for merit “no work ofmerit is so richly paid as the building of a pagoda”. The UppatasantiPagoda is one of Nay Pyi Taw’s fine sights.
A pwe is an entertainment which takes place alongside a pagoda festival. Thus from the end of Buddhist Lent in October till the following July towns and villages are abuzz with their festivals. The ground around the pagoda will become of village of bamboo stalls and restaurants, an area will be fenced off and a temporary mat shed will be erected holding a stage, lighting and a place for the audience. A pwe can be serious drama or a more light-hearted music, slap-stick affair. Today pop concerts also take place in between the acts.
For English speaking visitors transliteration from the local language is a mine field. The same place name can be spelt several different ways by the person in the street or by government officials.
Another wonderful way to enjoy the countryside is by rail if speed and luxury are not an issue and Nay Pyi Taw is a hub being on the main north-south line. Whether the train is travelling north or south the beautiful and lush countryside is peppered with pagodas large and small as well as copses of mature trees. The railways are soon to enjoy a much needed up-date; their rolling stock is old and uncomfortable, not helped by the narrow gauge, so the journey will be bumpy and slow, but for railway enthusiasts very enjoyable.
The official rainy season runs from May to October and for several reasons this is a good time to visit Myanmar particularly in the ‘dry zone’. Climatically the country is divided into three main zones with the majority of the landmass being situated within the tropics; the Tropic of Cancer goes through the northern town of Tagaung (100 miles north of Mandalay). The Delta area supports a typical hot humid tropical climate with an average rainfall of 254 centimetres. Nay Pyi Taw is on the edge of the dry temperate zone and so has an annual rainfall of less than 100 centimetres. To visit during the rainy season means the daily temperature is lower so more comfortable. In the dry zone the rain will be in daily showers so not constant and there will be less tourists visiting the myriad sights. For a photographer this season is alluring as everywhere is fresh and green, the air is clear, flowers are in bloom and the dramatic cloud formations on the horizon continually disperse and reform.
Until 1962 Myanmar was the world’s largest exporter of rice, but lacking the benefits of modern technology the quality and quantity of the rice has suffered. The country’s rice bowl is the rich alluvial land of the Ayeyarwady Delta. Given the country’s fertile soil, access to water for up-grading irrigation systems, use of hybrid seeds, the mechanism of modern farming and an abundant young workforce there are reasons to believe that Myanmar will re-take its place as a major rice producer. Today China is the biggest importer of Myanmar’s rice.
With the large amount of development taking place in Myanmar energy sustainability is becoming increasingly important. Recently the Ministry of Electric Power (MOEP) signed a deal with Green Earth Power of Thailand to construct a 220 megawatt Solar Plant in Minbu some 200 kilometres west of Nay Pyi Taw. The first stage of the plant will be implemented within the year. “Solar power is a solution to Myanmar’s immediate and long-term power needs” said the Executive Director of GEP. As a result of this initiative travelling around the country many of the houses have solar panels on their roofs. In villages and some very remote hamlets small solar panels sit in the yard next to the animals, giving the inhabitants their only source of electricity.
As two new overseas operators Telenor and Ooredoo have joined Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) in the mobile sector it is now much easier and cheaper for visitors to buy local SIM cards. But to date the new operators do not have enough mobile towers throughout the country so the reception can be patchy. SIM cards are available in supermarkets and some markets so are easy to track down.
The main tourist destinations offer a wealth of shopping opportunities, lacquer, antiques, clothing, furniture, gems and many knick-knacks. Many of the bigger shops now accept credit cards and will arrange shipping for bigger items. Nay Pyi Taw itself is not yet a shopper’s paradise though some of the new State Guest-Houses will have shops stocked with well designed goods.
Myanmar sits at the cross-roads of Asia with a rich cultural treasure trove to offer. Consequently tourism is one of the industries that have really escalated since the change of regime in 2010. The arrival numbers rose to 2 million in 2013 and are expected to have surpassed 3 million in the past year. This explosion brings with it problems at the major sites, shortages of hotel rooms so pushing up prices, lack of well trained staff, not enough trained guides or infrastructure facilities. So very sensibly the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has opened more of the country to visitors to spread the load. The Ministry of Tourism have a responsible and sustainable tourism policy in place. “We intend to use tourism to make Myanmar a better place to live in, to provide more employment and greater business opportunities for all our people. To contribute to the conservation of our natural and cultural diversity, we warmly welcome those who appreciate and enjoy our heritage.”
There is a dedicated department of police, who are English-speaking officials, trained especially to protect tourists travelling in Myanmar.
During the Second World War in March 1941 General Aung San founded the Burma Independence Army (BIA) as a vehicle to fight for independence. For a short time its headquarters were in Pyinmana, one of Nay Pyi Taw’s townships. By 1943 the army was named Burma National Army and so it was known until 1989 when it became the Myanmar National Army. Tatmadaw means Armed forces so encompassing the three disciplines.
International travel agents of course arrange trips to Myanmar but they mostly rely on local agents to organise the ‘on the ground’ logistics for them hence the numbers of local agents has escalated to keep up with demand. A good way to organise a trip is directly with a local agent. Many of the new visitors wish to have an eco-holiday therefore trekking, looking at wildlife and flora has become very popular. One of the nicest trekking routes is to walk from Kalaw for two days south to the Inle Lake, on the way the guide can arrange for an overnight stay in a traditional teak house.
Teak was for many years one of Myanmar’s main exports and a great money earner but as from 1st April 2014 a ban was put on the export of round log form. This is to protect the depleted teak forests as for the past 20 or so years the wood had been harvested indiscriminately and not properly replanted. However this is changing with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry looking at new protocols together with an EU group, Forest Law Enforcement and Trade.
The bark from the Thanaka tree which grows in the dry zone of Upper Myanmar is ground on a stone, a little water added then patted onto the face, sometimes in intricate patterns. The paste acts as an astringent and tightens the skin and also protects against the sun. Sometimes with children it is spread on their arms and legs as a sun block. In the market vendors sell the bark, neatly stacked and also little packets of the powder for those in a hurry.
On Independence Day 4th January 1948 the Union of Burma came into being, changed in 1989 to the Union of Myanmar and finally in 2010 the country was renamed the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. During the transition period to independence General Aung San fought for the Union to include all the ethnic groups within the country and in 1947 had held the Panlong Conference when it was agreed that all groups should join the Union of Burma and would enjoy equal rights. Unfortunately shortly before Independence General Aung San was assassinated and the agreement was not adhered to.
Myanmar’s emphatically ‘green’ capital Nay Pyi Taw is home to three universities, Yezin University of Agriculture, Veterinary Sciences and Forestry. The three campuses are to be found on the eastern outskirts of the city. The approach to the University of Agriculture is between fields geometrically laid out full of healthy looking trial crops. Throughout the country there are many universities and technical colleges, the allocation of funds for tertiary education was raised in the 2012/13 budget and various partnerships with overseas universities are now in place.
The paramount vision for Myanmar’s green capital Nay Pyi Taw is to develop thoughtfully and in an uncompromisingly sustainable way, to be an example of environmentally sensitive development not only regionally but globaly as Asia’s Green Leader. At the same time to develop as a thriving business centre specialising in new technologies under the “Future Energy” banner, with world-class academic institutions clustered around existing assets. Furthermore, attracting year-round MICE business, hosting a world class sporting centre, a thinking-tourist’s hub and a major travel destination in its own right.
All visitors need a visa to visit Myanmar, there are varying types, including recently added e-visas and visas on arrival, but the rules and regulations are constantly changing so it is best to check with your travel agent or local Myanmar Embassy or Consulate.
Naypyitaw although situated on the edge of the country’s dry zone, is nonetheless well provided with water as it is near several dams. The country itself has adequate supplies of water thanks to its river system. However for agriculture production to advance, work needs to be done to update the country’s existing irrigation systems.