Yangon-a spiritual experience


As you set foot in Myanmar the first thing you feel is the peace and surrounding serenity. It might initially be misconstrued , but soon one realizes that this is a mystical place, beckoning those looking for a soul stirring experience.  Around 3 million tourists are expected to visit Myanmar in 2014, and many of them are not first time visitors. Is it just the untouched beauty of the place that attracts them? Partly yes, but the spiritually stirring experience is what they come to replicate. It is the land of Buddha, the abode of Theravada Buddhism for over a thousand years, and hence has won pseudonyms like ‘pilgrim’s paradise’, ‘spiritual haven’ and so on.

Across the length and breadth of the country, one finds hundreds of pagodas, chedis and monasteries, that house monks and nuns, and serve as educational institutions and sanctuaries for meditation where many locals spend a few days each year as monks, cut off from the world.

The epicenter of the spiritual journey is the all imposing Shwedagone Pagoda in the center of Yangon. It is the single largest tourist destination in the country and lures people not just with its golden beauty, but also with its ambiance of peace and calm, which actually penetrates deep, and one experiences a bond with all that is pure and sacred.

Yangon may be the country’s commercial capital, and more abuzz with activity than other cities and towns, but even then, there is an air of serenity, with smiling gentle locals ever ready to help despite language barriers, the mind soothing sight of monks each morning, and people going about their business quietly, and even vehicular traffic moving almost noiselessly.

Everywhere you turn, the tapering dome of a pagoda gold or white, catches the eye. Besides the Shwedagone pagoda, there are so many others in Yangon itself like the Sule pagoda, the Kaba Aye pagoda, Botataung, Chaukhtatgyi, Ngahtatgyi, Maha Wizaya, Kohtatgyi and Maha Pasana pagodas. The number of monasteries with their own chedis adds to the charm of the city. All these structures are architectural marvels with elaborate and intricate carving, liberal use of pure teak wood and gold leaf and paint.

However, it is not just these places of prayer, relics of Buddha and monasteries that define the spiritual experience. It is as much the attitude of the people, as yet relatively unexposed to modern ways, the concept of prayer and medication followed by them, the habit of meditation retreats, and a calm, peaceful way of life that transform the air and feel of the city. One can sit for hours in the Shwedagone Pagoda that is crowded at all times, but still so quiet. It is almost an evening or weekend ritual of the locals to spend evenings there.

The lakes and the scenic beauty, besides the lush greenery all around, soothes the mind and provokes purer thoughts, and there is time to introspect, which is impossible while walking down the streets of Bangkok or Singapore. There is no rush, no hurry, nothing to create anxiety, and one feels far removed from the world of materialism, ambition, targets and tangible results, even as the focus becomes the inner being. There is something in the air, that transforms the way we think and feel, and  peace penetrates our soul.

Yangon- The Land of Breathtaking Sunsets


“The sun set, but set not his hope:

Stars rose, his faith was earlier up…”sunset-1 sunset-2 sunset-3 sunset-9 sunset-11

These lines by R.W. Emerson come to mind every evening as I see the setting sun in Yangon. Not only is it a breathtaking sight, but also because Yangon is one place that shows promise of progress. A quiet walk by the lake, admiring the mild ripples of the water and the dying sun rays, I remain mesmerized at the beauty of nature that surrounds me. And makes me remember, how appropriate Emerson’s words are for me-each day the sun sets, but hope remains eternal, and by the time the stars come up, my faith in goodness and beauty is up long before.

Yangon is catching the world’s eye as the gateway to Myanmar, and as its commercial capital, the place to consider living in, for all those eyeing a customer base of 52 million people. It has been home for 20 months now, and every single day, I admire its natural beauty, the silver lakes, golden pagodas, the flora and fauna, and above all, the sunrise and sunsets.

Every evening, the sky is a riot of colors, sometimes in shades of grey and blue, and often enough in bright shades of red and orange, almost as though blazing embers are hidden on the horizon. Irrespective from where you see it, with domes of golden pagodas, Inya Lake, the Yangon river, or just the city’s skyline, this is beauty unsurpassed. It is difficult to turn away till the sun goes down, and as the city plunges into darkness, a solemn quietness and calm seeps into the very depths of my being. Every single day, I wonder why I have never felt this before. Obviously because, no other place has this aura of peace that is so conspicuous here.

Every other city that I have lived in, has been beautiful too, but too crowded, the pace of life too fast, and noise of manmade conveniences making it difficult for us to think and observe. Yangon, is indeed, far from the madding crowd, not less crowded in parts, but with many an oasis of tranquility that serve as balm to tired minds and bodies. As of now, concrete structures do not obstruct the city’s skyline, till now lined with tall tropical trees.

Myanmar is also called the Land of Buddha, with Buddhism the most popular religion. It is here that thousands of foreigners come to begin their spiritual journey, and those already on the path, keep returning for a taste of the peace and tranquility that they have devoured before.



Top Five Places to See in Yangon

YangonI came to Yangon twenty months ago to make my next home here, while my husband explored business opportunities for the conglomerate he has been working for. As we settled in, we made a list of places to visit, where to go, what to see and generally know what to do in our free time. Information on Myanmar is not as detailed on travel sites as other places, and like most tourist information, we were skeptical whether the hype about Yangon would also be more than what meets the eye.

After some research we set out on our sightseeing jaunts every weekend (almost), and came up with  our favorites, which should qualify as the best five places to see in Yangon, not just for their beauty, but also because they are unique and reflect the character and charm of the city.

  1. Shwedagone Pagoda- The Shwedagone Pagoda is by far the best monument not only in Yangon but in the country of Myanmar.  Regal and majestic, as it stands 320 ft above the ground, in the center of Yangon, the pagoda is one the biggest religious monuments to be constructed. It was built sometime between the 6th and 10th century AD, though it was not as gigantic to start with. Today, it is spread over 14 acres of land, with 90 tons of gold and its dome topped with over 2000 carats of precious stones including an 87 carat diamond. The stupa is regilded every year. There are hundreds of Buddha statues that can be reached by the four gates and four walkways. Visitors must be barefoot (without socks too) and suitably attired-no shorts or sleeveless shirts are permitted. Foreigners have to pay an entrance fee of USD 8, while locals can go in free of charge. Expatriates with stay permits are issued passes which allow them free access to the pagoda as well. It remains crowded at all times, but serenely quiet, with hundreds of tourists and locals sitting quietly or walking around. Numerous monks can be seen in prayer in various parts of the pagoda. What strikes outsiders is the look of peace and calm as they sit in penance, as if transported to another level of existence.
  2. Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence- Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is the world’s best known Myanmar citizen, and naturally her house, located on University Avenue, evinces tourist interest. This is also because she continues to reside in the same house where she was kept under house arrest since 1989 till 2010 with a few breaks of freedom. As the leader of the National Democratic league she is also the most acceptable leader for the country’s various ethnic groups. The old colonial house is not open to tourists, and all that is visible is a high-fenced structure with a locked gate, but carrying the NLD flag. Tourists pose at the gate, and like us, are disappointed since they cannot even get a glimpse of what lies inside. From the side, a small lake, a small pagoda are visible behind the house, and one presumes, these offered solace and comfort to Suu Kyi during her years of confinement.
  3. Scott Market- Also known as Bogyoke market (Bojo for short), it is sprawling colonial structure lined with small shops selling everything from food and clothes to gems and antiques. It is a one stop market providing everything any tourist may want, be it the traditional attire of Lungyis, net and lace, or the famous Lacquerware, paintings and other artefacts. The cobblestone streets are narrow, and it is a treat to see tiny holes in the wall manned by pretty Myanmar women, most with tanaka painted cheeks. Most of the passages are covered, so walking around in the rain is not difficult. The market does have sections with specific alleys for dress material, gems, handicrafts and also food. It is the best place to find local fruits and preparations and eating typical Myanmar delicacies is quite an adventure, not to be missed.  Located on Bogyoke Aung San Road, it lies in the downtown area, not far from the Sule Pagoda, and the Sule Shangri-la Hotel (previously called Traders’ Hotel).
  4. Strand Hotel – A touch of class, a taste of the old world charm, British Victorian-style architecture, and a journey back in time visualizing Somerset Maugham sipping his tea in the coffee shop overlooking the Yangon River. For those interested in history and literature would be happy to know that this hotel has had personalities like Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and Oliver Stone reside here on their visit to Yangon. This 113-year old hotel exudes its old world charm and its marble floors and teak interiors add to its rich splendor. The perfect place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea in the evening, though ships passing by are no longer visible.
  5. Inya Lake – This is not any lake or water body, and I consider one of the places worth seeing simply because of what one sees around the lake. As the largest lake, it is located six miles from downtown Yangon, and has a beautifully manicured park, and walkways where locals come at all times of the day for rest and recreation in the midst of natural beauty. Having travelled a fair amount, I cannot think of any other lake in other countries, where one still sees youngsters, strumming the guitar, singing in groups, ambling along lazily without any rush, and eating under the shade of the tree even during the day. Could it be the need for open space, or is it its beauty that brings hundreds of people both young and old, to Inya Lake…I still do not know. But I see it crowded from dawn to midnight. A walk around the lake can take up to two hours.

There are tens of other places of tourist interest, but for someone wishing to see to see a select few, or running short of time, must see these, to get the real flavor of Yangon, and its culture.

The Cost of Living in Yangon


Yangon features forty-fourth in the list of the world’s most expensive cities, with living expenses over double of those in Bangkok, Thailand. The cost of living in the erstwhile Rangoon is ironically comparable to cities London, Oslo and Tokyo though the quality of goods and services ranks nowhere close. For an expatriate, the prices of most imported products we use, seem exorbitant. It takes a while to get used to the prices quoted or printed, even more so since almost everything costs thousands of Kyat. It may seem a lot, but taking the exchange rate, it is not so much after all-the exchange rate is approximately 1 USD equals 970 Kyat. Carrying multiples of tens of thousands of kyat becomes a habit, for fear of running short of cash, in a country where only a handful of places accept credit cards.

The cost of living encompasses the entire range of expenses incurred to survive in a place. The biggest expense in Yangon, is accommodation. Real estate prices are sky high, and rents seem so unreasonable, and certainly not value for money. Space comes at a premium in the city, and the high rentals affect all, locals and expatriates. The reason primarily being the demand – supply imbalance. The locals seek small rooms with basic facilities, which cost a big percentage of their earnings, and increasingly, have to accept a lower quality accommodation than before. Foreigners look for modern homes as an ever increasing number are opting to live here. For all property owners, it has been a Godsend, an ideal opportunity to make up for times of deprivation, and the desire being to encash on investments while the going is good, that is, while demand still outstrips supply, and rentals can be demanded even on a whim far beyond the market trends. There is of course an end in sight, with new condominiums and office complexes under construction, and probably hundreds of apartments ready to flood the market in another couple of years.

Yangon is the commercial capital of Myanmar and the current 5.94% inflation rate in the country gives an indication of price levels. But as expatriates, we buy an entirely different range of products, opt for imported foodstuff, select familiar brands even though they may be double the rate of close substitutes, and hence find even monthly food bills much higher. Buying at supermarkets pushes costs up to 20% higher than local outlets-the price of buying in a clean, hygienic, air-conditioned environment.

For the locals, the cost of living is constantly going up, but they are content with local produce, that is comparatively reasonable. The use of dried fish for many of their meal options protects them from seasonal price fluctuations, and the convenience of small patches of land to grow vegetables, is another money saver. But ask the locals, and they admit to feeling the pinch. Not only is it due to the salaries remaining the same and the prices of products they use, going up, it is also because markets are now flooded with new products which they can only look at, and not even dream of buying.

Most expatriates continue to assess prices in dollar terms to be able to compare. Most prefer buying at supermarkets, with the numerous Citymart outlets remaining the favorite. Citymart carries local as well as imported foods and toiletries, and each branch is always crowded.

I came here from Bangkok and tend to compare prices with supermarkets there, and have found Yangon to be approximately 25% more expensive, for our daily needs. Where I spent 100 USD on one trip to the market, here I spend 125-150 easily. But rates vary. Eggs costing 1400 kyat for a tray of 10, are just 10% more expensive than Bangkok, while coconut milk at 950 kyat is nearly double. Kraft cheddar cheese and pasta packets are just 7% more.  Milk and bread prices vary according to brands and flavors, but do cost more. Local fruits and vegetables are often at par with Thailand’s local produce.

The level of freshness and hygiene is reason for concern and pushes us to often needlessly pay more. Those of us who are more adventurous end up saving, and many feel that with limited availability and less options to spend on, we might as well spend on good things of life…like food!

Coming Home to Yangon

feeling welcome

Yangon has been home for eighteen months now, and typically we miss home each time we step beyond Myanmar’s borders. The scenic beauty, the quiet peaceful life, the warmth of friends, all makes us wish to get back soon, wishing to end the noisy, action-packed, hectic and stressful holidays we end up going for.

The quiet landing and the blissful sight of lush greenery, serene lakes and water bodies are thrilling to start with, but it takes less than a week to realize that Yangon may just be going the western way. The roads have more traffic than when we left, water logging, power cuts, and poor telecom connectivity, become frustrating even as we realize that there is still limited availability of goods and services of quality.

Change is imminent and evident too…but the pace is too slow for most of us. We wish to see quick results, a race to catch up with the west, at least for services and facilities, and many of us are here to participate in the progress as well. But Myanmar is a country that needs help from all quarters, in organizing, managing, planning and implementing. The common man needs help too. Education having suffered for decades, the quality of graduates remains inferior to their counterparts in other countries, English language skills are a desperate need, and access to the latest research, important.

Yet people keep pouring in, just as much as the rain. Flights are full of tourists, and hundreds are making Yangon their home as they explore business opportunities. The hype in the foreign media about Myanmar leads to hope for us residents, both expatriates and locals. There are new retail outlets, more international brands, and new restaurants…but still have to figure out whether they carry the leftovers from other markets, or display the latest styles and creations. The gap nonetheless is too broad, and we would like to see it bridged, not for more material or modern ways, but certainly to enjoy a more comfortable, and better quality of life.  If only we could do without the panic buying each time we step abroad, for fear of having to do without bare essentials we have become accustomed to, but are not always available here.

Often, there are disappointments, since living here is like undertaking a journey back in time. A trip abroad is like travelling in a time capsule and being pushed two decades ahead.

Life is smooth sailing, relaxed, and quietly peaceful. You miss the rush and the frenzied pace of activity, noise and chaos, multitasking and juggling. But then, this is what provides for better health, an ideal environment for spiritual elevation, recognition and understanding of the true purpose of life, that is lost and often never discovered in a lifetime elsewhere.

Traditional Myanmar Attire


It is such a pleasure to see the sense of pride with which Myanmar folk wear their traditional attire. Even as the country takes rapid strides towards modernization, there seems to be no desire to adopt western clothes, till now. The lungyi is worn by both men and women though the styles and the top shirts are different. What strikes outsiders at first glance is that it seems to denote a classless society, at least in their daily informal clothes, since everyone, from the top executives to the service staff, wears similar checkered lungyis in dark shades with collared shirts. Women wear blouses with lungyis that are plain, printed or embroidered. For the outsider, the tourist and the expatriate, it is difficult to differentiate between different styles worn by the 135 ethnic groups from the various states and division of Myanmar.

The origin of the Lungyi

The Lungyi is believed to have come with Indian migrants into the country. A Lungyi is the lower garment worn in Myanmar, and is actually a long piece of cloth wrapped around at the waist, and knotted up or folded in, to keep it in place. It is similar to a full length skirt, and forms a pleat in front since it is around two meters long. The lungyi was worn by the Indians who came to Myanmar in the 19th century, though their style was similar to the sarong. Over the next two centuries, thanks perhaps to British rule and its influence on every aspect of life, the Indians especially the men, adopted western attire and took to wearing trousers and shirts, and formal suits. But Myanmar folk have continued to wear their lungyis with aplomb.

Pasoe-Lungyis for men

The lungyis worn by men are slightly different from what women wear. Called the Pasoe, the two meters of cloth stitched at the ends, falls till the ankle, and is tied in a knot in front to hold it in place, with a shirt tucked in. It is a little unnerving to see men undo and re-tie the knot of the lungyi every now and then, in public, but then we get used to it. There is some difference in the style of lungyis worn by the numerous ethnic groups, and often in the designs. The shirt is also sometimes substituted for trendy western style t-shirts, but the bottom garment is still the ubiquitous lungyi. On formal occasions, a Chinese collared white shirt is worn with silk lungyis is more subdued shades. A Manchu Chinese jacket is worn on top.

It is interesting to notice men’s wallets tucked at the back in the lungyi band, and seemingly safe there. During the rainy season, an umbrella is added, and they continue moving about without either of these proving to be obstructive.

Footwear always is the plain black velvet slippers across classes of people. They are considered part of formal attire as well.

Htamein –Lungyis for women

The Htamein or lungyis worn by Myanmar women, are among the most graceful dresses I have seen. From plain hues to ornate and embroidered ones, they drape closely around the waist and fall till the ankles, with generally a single pleat falling on the side where it is tucked. Modern variations include the zipped lungyi, which is more secure and not needing to be adjusted time and again. Short blouses are worn on top and are cover a bit of the lungyi at the waist.

Cottons and georgettes are commonly used fabric, with formal wear being made out of silk, silk, net and lace. High heeled footwear, stone studded jewelry and flowers, make the Myanmar ladies look ethereally beautiful.

Sightless but Smiling-My Experience at a Blind School in Yangon

As one blessed with the gift of sight, through eyes that reveal to us the beauty of the world, and every product and creation on it, I am sure no one can even fathom what it means to live in a world of darkness, not knowing what things look like, which they can touch but not see. Such is the world for the blind-those who were born without the gift of sight, or lost it somewhere along the way. While it is wrong to feel so, but in terms of comparison, to have seen once or for a while is better than not having seen at all.

My first close encounter with the blind had me stunned-they existed on the periphery of my world, I had seldom spared them much thought, even though I felt sorry for them. I felt they were there somewhere far removed from my world. Till I came face to face…and got an opportunity to reach out to them. Facing fifteen children with smiling faces, was a shock that made me feel guilty for being complete…with a perfectly normal body and every possible gift life could have bestowed on me. My mind was in a state of turmoil with this close encounter, not being able to understand…would I be able to get close to them, would I cringe away from them, would I be able to look them in the eye?

After the first time, I had a choice…I did not need to go back, no one was forcing me, and the easiest option in front of me was to stay away, rather than push myself to try and teach them English…I knew my own limitations of not being a qualified teacher…would I be able to do justice? But all they needed was a bit of hand holding, a bit of support, and a bit of loving comfort as they picked up a few words of English.

And as I began to look at these innocent little beings, oblivious to their surroundings, I thought for a moment about what must be going on in their minds, and these words came up:

I opened my eyes into this world, but darkness enveloped me
I heard those soft endearing voices, but the faces I couldn’t see
As I grew, I knew my life would be a dark hole
To feel and touch, hear and speak, but sight was not mine to be

I hear sounds but the source remains an enigma
I taste and smell, but how things look I may never know
But still I feel the joy of being alive,
And know my way around to go.

I don’t know how many in this world can see
Who talk about the beauty seemingly surrounding me
All that I know is that I live with many like me
We bond due to our disability, and together we survive happily

The gift of touch helps me imagine
The sounds also have a story to tell
And with these I try and visualize
And I am told, the picture I draw comes out well.

Perhaps life is not fair, but I must not complain
I will have a tough life, but it might be without pain
I may not have much, but I will be untouched by greed
Because what I cannot see, I will never crave.

I can survive with simple joys and pleasures
Grow with the genuine warmth I discern
I wish I get not sympathy or pity
Only some care and genuine concern.

I live for today, thinking not far ahead
I should be able to build a life for myself
It will not be easy, but a path will open up instead
And who knows, one day, sunshine and light might just appear itself.

Is Myanmar Tourist Friendly? …Well, Almost

For a country that has been rated as the ‘World’s best tourist destination 2014”, one would expect tourist facilities to be adequate and a well established network to provide tourists with the comfort and convenience other Asian nations like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia offer, which make them some of the most tourist friendly countries.
But Myanmar is a tourist nation with a difference. Lagging far behind in terms of development, poor infrastructure and communication facilities, but abundance of natural beauty, hundreds of pagodas and a taste of life difficult to find elsewhere, Myanmar beckons. Its enigma is bound to fade once it merges with Western ways and modern lifestyles that push away nature and leave yet another country exposed to the ills of advancement, more material than spiritual. With all these on offer, Myanmar is inching closer to the ‘tourist friendly’ label, and there are thousands of enthusiastic tourists who are happy to not have such an easy ride as they explore a country moving ahead slowly and steadily.

What makes a country tourist friendly

Scores of reviews are published online about most friendly and least friendly countries, which lead to preconceived notions about the place, the people and all that they have to offer. While a few general features help define the level of comfort tourists can expect in a place, we all know that developed and even many developing countries, which would be found to have all these features, are ranked unfriendly according to surveys. Venezuela and Bolivia are typical examples of this. They may have the physical attributes that make a place welcoming to tourists, but obviously security and soft skills must be lacking.

Safety and security– Travel and tourist activities are ideally possible for the common man in a safe and secure environment where there is no threat, at least to life. It is probably for this reason that countries like Nigeria and Afghanistan lose out on tourism as an industry and the earnings that come with it. Neither is life safe, nor a guarantee of being able to leave.

Myanmar scores since it is one of the safest countries and Yangon widely regarded as one of the world’s safest cities. With the decades of military rule, fresh in the minds of the people, not even a handful would venture towards the other side of the law. The condition in Myanmar prisons is horrific, to put it mildly, and that serves as a major deterrent.

Infrastructure– Tourism gets a whole new meaning in a country where the infrastructure is well developed. A country will be inviting enough for tourists if it has connectivity and is accessible through airports, railways, roads and seaways, besides public transport for commuting locally. Accommodation at multiple levels from hotels to hostels, dormitories and guest houses is imperative. Communication networks with telephones and internet are always sought to stay connected. Decent power and water supply, availability of food at restaurants and markets, medical aid and hospitals are some of the other conveniences that tourists consider essential.
Myanmar scores low on infrastructure facilities though cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw are much better than smaller towns and villages. However, progress is evident and infrastructure is being given top priority by the government.

Food and other amenities– The international traveler is often quite flexible where food is concerned, with enthusiasm for a taste of the local cuisine, and open to anything edible for sustenance. But increasingly, many tourists look for gastronomic delights. Cities generally do have restaurants big and small, cafes and roadside stalls, besides ready-to-eat foods available in supermarkets.
Myanmar has a distinct Asian cuisine that is an interesting blend of Indian and Thai cooking styles…at least from the taste of it. Big cities offer a wide array of eating places offering both local and International cuisines, the most famous being the tea shops, which are found in rural areas as well. Villages have limited local fare sold in very simple outlets.

Attitude of the locals– The international traveler looks for acceptance and approval when he visits a new place. A friendly word, a bit of information, and assistance in finding places, make him feel welcome. Most tourist friendly places have a friendly populace who go all out to help tourists, and this adds to their charm.

The nicest thing about Myanmar is its people, who are so simple, warm and friendly. Their smiling faces put you at ease and the lack of aggression is what strikes newcomers. The only drawback is that very few people speak English, but they always look for a fellow citizen who does. Conversing and understanding, hence becomes a bit of a frustrating experience.

The route to economic progress for Myanmar depends a lot on tourism before other industries take over, since this can be the quickest revenue earner. This fact is well understood by the government and efforts are already in place to make the place more tourist friendly, to attract more people and ensure that they have a good time in the Golden Land.

As You Land in Yangon

As the aircraft begins its descent towards the Mingladon International Airport of Yangon, a breathtaking view of lush greenery, multiple lakes and hilly terrains enthralls. The city of Yangon seems spread out and vast, but with very few tall structures, and residential areas having sufficient greenery around them. Sparkling gold pagodas are eye-catching and the number is awe-inspiring too. The aircraft glides towards a small airport with just a handful of aircrafts parked, and one feels like having landed at a small hill station somewhere in India. But this is the commercial capital of Myanmar, its largest city and a gateway to exquisite natural sights, untouched wonders not yet ravaged by modernization.
Thankfully, the airport is well equipped and quite modern albeit small, having recently been renovated. It is amusing to cross the aerobridge and see the crowds waiting as you come down the escalator for immigration. The queues are gradually getting longer as the number of tourists increases steadily. Europeans, Americans and others, are enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of this last frontier of Asia before it becomes like any other modern, Westernized country.
The airport is located around 15 kilometers from the downtown area and easily available taxis take you to your destination hotel. Most hotels offer pick up facilities and private taxi drivers hovering around in the arrival lounge offer their mobile phones to stranded passengers to make calls. This is a boon in a country where phones with international roaming may not always work.

Airport facilities

Though small by international standards, the Yangon International Airport does offer all essential services. The two terminals, Arrival and Departure, stand next to each other, a mere five minute walk away, each quite complete in offering the requisite services. Bank ATMs, a money exchange counter, mobile phone SIM rental service, taxi and travel assistance, first aid, postal services, internet kiosks, shopping and food options are all covered, albeit on a simpler, smaller scale.
Foreigners with tourist visas and locals arriving in Yangon can queue up at one of 21 counters, and visitors from 50 countries can take a business or transit visa on arrival at one of three counters opened for the purpose. They are expected to carry a set of documents to be issued a visa. Tourist visas are issued by the Myanmar Embassy in other countries.
With flights of 28 airlines operating out of Yangon International Airport, air traffic and tourist footfalls are steadily on the increase. With ten daily flights to Bangkok and eight to Singapore, besides other cities, Yangon has become conveniently accessible.

A suggestion

Prior hotel bookings are recommended since most hotels are booked weeks, if not months, in advance. Options are somewhat limited and rates unjustifiably exorbitant. Small hotels are mushrooming around the city and as supply increases, room rates should plummet…but this seems a long way off, given the increasing number of tourists. Numerous hotels are in the pipeline including Novotel and Daewoo Amara, and many old, run down hotels are up for sale. In the next two years another few thousand rooms should be added, which will make comfortable stays more affordable.

Getting Ready for Yangon


Yangon was that elusive, distant place, fascinatingly alien, and very much off the beaten track. Opting to work in a country opening up gradually, was a decision that posed the toughest challenges for me, something I was ill prepared for, after two decades in developed, highly modern cities. All that was a given in my life, was going to be out of bounds for me now, and everything that had offered comfort and solace, was slipping out of my hands. Accessibility and connectivity are modern age mantras, both of which were no longer guaranteed, bringing a feeling of being cut off and far far away, in an age where physical proximity is unnecessary when virtual distances have reduced.

As I awoke on my first morning in the city, I was unable to get my bearings right. A peep out of the window showed the sun lazily crawling up over the horizon bringing a mild light into a grey sleepy city stirring to life. Was it a dream, that I was in a place right out of my history book, or did a place such as this actually exist, in the twenty-first century? Was living here going to be a journey ahead, or a journey back in time for me? It struck me then, that my Myanmar experience was going to be different from any other in my life.

For the outside world, Myanmar is so much in the news, that like many others, we expected to see a place abuzz with action, change, innovation and improvement. But the ground reality was different, the slow pace, limited availability and very low standards of quality of products and services, had us baffled. Accustomed to a decent standard of living, enjoying the good things of life, getting comfort out of spending on the latest in clothes and gadgets, I knew that now, what I had already, would have to suffice, since Yangon and Myanmar offered little beyond teak, jade and rubies. Not that the elite did not live a luxurious life, but their homes were adorned by their acquisitions overseas.

Yet there was peace and contentment, tranquility and a serene ambience that gradually crept into the innermost core of my being. This is when it dawned on me, that materialistic attitudes are irrelevant when the mind is calm. I just had to change my mindset and think of nurturing my mind now, after having spent most of my life nurturing my body and home, with physical comforts and attributes. I needed to inculcate finer human values like patience and tolerance, forget that I had a right on anything or anyone, stop being judgmental, and develop an empathetic attitude towards the locals who needed much more than I ever would.

Thus began the battle of the mind to prepare for living well and happily in Yangon. No one was punctual, so I must wait. Hardly anyone spoke English, so I had to accept that an assistant condensed a ten minute conversation in Burmese language, in just a couple of sentences. Irrespective of who calls on the phone and how urgent it might, the locals may not answer the call nor reply to messages, so instead of being upset, it was best to accept the siuation. We were foreigners with more money, so had to pay multiple times for things we bought, and conceded that their need for money was more than mine. If rain water seeped into my apartment, I must quietly place towels to prevent it from flooding the place, rather than disturb the landlord. The list was endless, and we all learned, and grew wiser.

Soon, we were better off, not losing our temper, raising our blood pressure or ending up shouting. So much the better, since the common advice was, just pray that you never fall sick, since medical facilities leave a lot to be desired…more on this later.