Best Western has become the first US hotel chain to plant their flag in Myanmar. The company is planning to take over management of the Green Hill Hotel in Yangon, the largest city and hub of nearly all commerce and tourism activity. The property has 189 rooms and is located outside of the old city portion of town, though it is reasonably close to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the city’s top tourist sights. The core of the city is located further south, towards the river and the ferry terminal.
The Green Hill Hotel, soon to be managed by Best Western, is outside of the city center
Best Western sees the deal as an opportunity to increase the value of the hotel in many ways. Glenn de Souza, VP of International Operations for Asia and the Middle East sees quite a bit of potential:
We are confident that Best Western International’s proven track record in the Asian hotel market, along with our highly skilled management and staff, will enable the Green Hill Hotel to not only increase occupancy and average rates, but also broaden its geographical guest mix.
The hotel scene in Yangon (and all of Myanmar, really) is quite a mixed bag. There are very few high quality properties or even what would be considered 3-star hotels in the rest of the world. Those which do exist are often priced at the very high end of what it reasonable for the quality of the product offered. The other options are generally less expensive (though not always cheap) but the offerings are less than spectacular, even at the lower price point. Combined with the significant recent increase in tourism and getting a decent room at a fair price in Yangon is quite a challenge. It seems that Best Western hopes this move will allow them increase the prices. That’s great for the hotel operators but not necessarily so for visitors. Then again, if the quality of the rooms increases as well then maybe not so bad.
Plus, I suppose this means an opportunity to earn and redeem points eventually.
This is the room where I sat for an hour, more or less stuck while waiting to figure out if I’d get out of Yangon. No passport (the agents took it from me), no refreshments and no idea how long I was going to be there or if the agents actually understood what I was doing. Not the most relaxing hour of my life, to say the least. And just getting to that point wasn’t so easy.
I did my research before the trip regarding the transit process at RGN and I was pretty sure that I didn’t need a visa. Alas, the Thai Airways check-in agent at BKK had a different view of the situation. She started flipping through my passport, looking for my visa. I knew there wasn’t one there and told her such. At that point she was pretty much ready to send me away; I was not happy. Her version of the rules said transit without visa was only valid if remaining on the same plane passing through RGN; changing planes was not valid. I protested strongly (even though I wasn’t actually 100% certain I was correct) and she walked away from the counter, carrying my passport with her. About 15 minutes later – mostly spent by me pacing back and forth in the premium check-in area trying to figure out how I was going to save the trip – she came back to the counter and started printing boarding passes. I’m not entirely sure where she went or what she saw or why she changed her mind. But she did. I won’t look that gift-horse in the mouth.
A few hours later, following what will likely be my last flight on an Airbus A300 (yes, I booked the itinerary to get that), we arrived in Yangon and it was time for the part of the transit which I expected to be more stressful. I saw the sign for transit passengers as I walked off the plane so I headed towards that door rather than to the regular immigration queue. That freaked them out quite a bit.
Pretty soon I had three agents crowded around, trying to usher me towards the regular immigration queues. I had a printout of my onward itinerary and kept pointing out the flight details, hoping they’d figure it out. After 15 or so minutes I was escorted back towards the gates, through the gate lounge and backwards through the security check-point. The agent escorted me into a room labeled “International Transit” which is, I’m pretty sure, mostly used for storage.
The agent took my itinerary printout, my passport and my inbound boarding pass and walked away, asking me to wait in the lounge. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Having someone walk away with my passport is never something I’m happy about. Sitting in this room with no facilities other than the few chairs for an hour, waiting for the agent to come back with my passport had me rather frazzled. Turns out I’m not all that good at sitting still with no distractions.
Ultimately they returned with the boarding passes and escorted me to the Royal Jade lounge (not really all that great, but better than sitting in the other room on my own) to wait for my flight.
In the end the transit wasn’t all that bad. Not without some stress along the way and Myanmar is going to remain low on my list of desired transit countries given an option, but I eventually made my way on to Singapore and beyond.
More stories from the trip here.
Without any context this picture means roughly nil. With a tiny bit of background, however, it easily represents my greatest moment during the week we spent in Myanmar (or Burma, if that’s your thing).
It is a small piece of gold leaf, roughly an inch or so square, and it is the piece I applied to the giant golden rock at Mt. Kyaiktiyo, a Buddhist pilgrimage site southeast of Yangon. That I got to apply the square was cool in its own right. How that moment came to pass makes the experience probably one of my top 10 travel moments ever.
Even as a tourist and not a pilgrim, a visit to Mount Kyaiktiyo is quite an experience. Also known as the “Golden Rock,” the site is a major destination for Buddhist pilgrims and they come en masse, along with a fair number of tourists. The main place of worship is the massive boulder, precariously perched and, as legend has it, balanced by a hair of Buddha enshrined in the stupa atop the rock. The site is much larger than that, however, with many smaller temples surrounding the main one.
Additionally, because only men are permitted to pray directly at the rock (there is a small, attended bridge to that part of the site) there are a number of areas where the women have made themselves quite at home, chanting, praying and offering their respects to Buddha.
The rock maintains its golden color because pilgrims are constantly applying gold leaf to the surface as part of their visit. They show up with small packets of the leaf, rubber-banded together in 10 or so pieces to the pack. I very much wanted to participate in this tradition but had no idea where I’d get the gold leaf. I figured there would be a gift shop of some sort at the top of the mountain for unprepared pilgrims. Oh, how wrong I was. A bit disappointing, certainly, but nothing I couldn’t get over.
As I was standing on the small platform, taking some photos of the pilgrims a young boy started to make conversation with me. He was probably around 10 years old and his English, while much better than my Burmese, did not have a particularly broad vocabulary. Still, we managed to talk a bit and I expressed my interest in the process of applying the gold leaf and tried to ask him where to buy it. He responded by showing me how to apply it. Not really what I was going for, but I was impressed by his willingness and ability to communicate with me about it. And then something truly amazing happened.
Either he understood that I wanted to apply a piece myself or he was just feeling that generous. I’ll never know the real reason why, but he gave me one of the papers out of his stack and encouraged me to apply it to the rock. I was in awe. It is hard to express how wonderful that moment was.
We spent a few hours out at the site that afternoon, taking in the crowds and watching as the sun went down over the site. The day we were there didn’t have a particularly dramatic sunset nor sunrise, but the effect is still rather impressive. The rock is lit up spectacularly and the glow from the candles and incense is spectacular.
And, because it is a pilgrim site, there is no shortage of monks in the area. Some walk the line between pilgrim and tourist.
Others are there praying with (and for) the visitors.
All of them are quite photogenic.
While Mt. Kyaiktiyo can be visited as a long day trip from Yangon (the drive is about 3-4 hours each way) staying overnight in the area allows visitors to take in the sights around sunrise and sunset. Getting from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill up to the site requires cramming in to tiny benches in the back of a pickup truck and cruising up a steep, switch-backed road to a rest stop. At that point it is another 30-45 minutes of walking uphill. That is unless you opt for the more relaxing option of being carried to the top in style.
The spectacle of Mt. Kyaiktiyo is a sight to see. It is hard to describe the energy and excitement atop the mountain. And, for me, the experience I had is one I’ll never be able to replicate. Simply an incredible moment in my life.
In researching our trip to Bagan I read a lot of different resources. Each of them dictated a specific list of which temples to visit and what order to see them in. We sortof took that advice, seeing most of what was on the lists. And having now done that myself the best advice I can give to others considering such a visit is to completely ignore the lists and guides. Take advantage of the details they offer about the history of the various temples they have information on but don’t consider them the complete story on what’s worth seeing. It turns out that some of the best moments we had at the temples came while visiting the temples which aren’t featured on any maps or guides.
It is not entirely clear why, over a 230 year period at the beginning of the last millennium, the kings of Bagan commissioned more than 4,000 temples to be built in the area. But, 800 years later, there they are. Some are tiny, barely large enough for the small Buddha inside. Others are huge, going up multiple stories and hosting giant icons covered in gold leaf. Some you can climb up on the outside and others are far out in the fields where getting to them is quite a schlep.
Another thing the guide books are big on is sunrise or sunset. To be fair, part of that is almost certainly tied to the fact that it gets quite hot mid-day on the plains and there is nothing in the way of shade available. Our experience at sunset, however, left a bit to be desired. Yes, the light was nice for some shots of the temples. But the sunset itself was rather disappointing. No clouds in the sky made for rather limited colors and virtually no drama in the sky which typically make for a great sunset. I got a few good shots playing with the color balance a bit but the overall experience left a bit to be desired. The part where we then had to get back to our hotel with our bikes on dark roads with no shoulders was also a bit unnerving.
There are two main roads heading south-west from Nyaung U, the town where the airport and most hotels and restaurants are located. Rather than following the suggested routes in the guide books we simply chose to explore the temples on the main road the first day and the second road the second day.
We were riding on the quite unspectacular bikes the hotel rented us and with minimal navigational issues – the roads are basically long and straight – we were able to stop where and when we wanted along the way, unbound by a "circuit" we were supposed to be on.
We absolutely saw some of the big name temples. Unfortunately, to me, it seems that the main reason they are special is because they are bigger. And bigger is not always better. As we wandered amongst the dusty plains between the smaller temples we had the ability to better appreciate the history of the area and to experience the sites without the big crowds. And that covers both other tourists and touts.
Visiting these spiritual sites is more impressive to me when it can be done without aggressive hawkers as you come and go. By skipping many of the listed sites we got to see much of the same beauty and avoid much of the hassle.
After two days of all pagodas all the time I was pretty much done with Bagan. I was actually ready to be done with temples in general for a while given that they were basically all we’d seen over the prior week, far exceeding my usual tolerance for such. But there were more sights to be seen and many of them involved more temples. Time to press on…
Visitors to Cambodia and Thailand will have an easier time crossing the border in the near future, thanks to a historic agreement by the two nations to cooperate on issuing visas. The announcement this week is the first major tourism-focused cooperation implemented under the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy representing Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The other three nations are not yet participating in the common visa scheme.
Nationals of 35 countries will be able to apply for a single visa at either the Cambodian or Thai embassy and, upon approval, will be permitted access to each country for up to 60 days. That’s an increase over the default of 30 for US citizens as well as those of many other countries.
With just Cambodia and Thailand participating this isn’t a as huge an opportunity as it could be. Visa requirements for Myanmar and Vietnam are much more arduous for US citizens and this sort of cooperative visa could significantly ease that burden. And considering I’m on a plane right now headed that direction having gone through the visa application process I’d certainly appreciate the more streamlined process.
And this one is working out in favor of the consumers. The recent hullabaloo about the premium cabin fares priced ex-Rangoon to various destinations at a very steep discount has been interesting to follow. Like most “mistake” fares the cycle of the booking process is following the usual steps. First euphoria at the deal, followed by apprehension and worry as to whether the fare would be honored and then confusion or outrage when the tickets were canceled. And now, euphoria again, as the tickets are being reinstated.
After trading emails with Vayama and ANA a couple weeks ago regarding the tickets I booked for our New Years vacation and their cancellation of those tickets I received the following today:
Dear Customer –
Following discussions with our airline partners the decision has been made to reinstate your previously canceled reservation from Rangoon.
There are more details, including a deadline to accept or decline the offer, but this is excellent news on the consumer rights front in the air travel world. For too long the airlines have held all the power in such situations. It seems that the tide may finally be turning.