Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part II (Getting Here & Getting It On)

My trip to Myanmar on Avalon Waterways is a bucket list (I hate that term... as I see it as a To Do List without focus on some pre-death desires) item for many people...and it is so far more enriching, eye-opening and exotic than the over-hyped other newly opened country:  Cuba.

I say this not to denigrate Cuba, but to emphasize that you shouldn't necessarily follow the marketing. Cuba is most certainly interesting, but it is also a high profit/low effort destination for travel companies, especially cruise lines, looking to beef up the Caribbean market.  Myanmar is not marketed nearly as much, but the return on your investment in time and money will probably be far greater. (Hey, my blog is called Making Waves for a reason!)

Yangon, Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda
Traveling to Southeast Asia from the United States has been a significant issue for travelers because of the long flying times.  This is my third trip to this region in five months and I cannot stress enough that whatever discomfort you may think you may endure, it can be far less than you think (if at all)...and whatever it is, it is so well worth it.  

So I am going to take a moment to discuss getting here. You know the ONE thing that is keeping many of you from diving into this incredible and vital part of our world.  And, of course, because it is so worth it, you will long remember the incredible time you had and not even think about the flights; especially if you do it right!

Getting to Southeast Asia

There are ways to make the journey bearable and the rewards are well worth it...and it starts with using the right airlines and gaining access to the airport lounges.

I have flown to Singapore four times in Premium Economy; twice each on United and Singapore Airlines (both being members of the Star Alliance) as well as in Business Class.  United has a non-stop 16 hour flight to Singapore out of San Francisco and Singapore Airlines has flights out of San Francisco and Los Angeles with a stop in Hong Kong or Seoul, respectively.  

     Lesson I:  Not all premium economy seating is the same.  
     Lesson II:  Taking a bit longer can be easier on the body and mind.

United's premium economy consists of more legroom. Period.  You get an economy seat, economy meals and basic economy beverages (box wine and beer).  On Singapore Airlines you get much better seating with real footrests, you can order a wide variety of meals in advance and a good variety of spirits, wines and beers at no additional cost, along with much larger tv screens.  For $100 more you get even better footrests and tons of space in front of you.  (It is well worth it.)  

Singapore Airlines Premium Economy seating

I had nobody sitting next to me for the second leg of my flight.
Not a bad setup: Movie and Flight Maps.
You just feel better looking forward to drinking champagne and good wines, dining on Lamb Biryani, Nasi lemak with sambal prawns and Kimchi fried rice with chicken bulgogi plus snacks...instead of "chicken or pasta"...and being able to put your feet up (if not lie flat).

With a stop in you get a chance to stretch your legs and get oxygen in your system.  In fact, what I would suggest is that you considering taking a day or two to explore, even briefly, that layover city; rather than an airport stop.  (I recommend a short stay in Hawaii on the way to French Polynesia and Iceland if flying from the West Coast to more distant parts of Europe.) 

   Lesson III:  Change your clothes.  

It is amazing what the simple act of changing one's shirt, underwear and socks has one's psyche.  I change my clothes on all flights over 12 hours and it makes a difference.  Better yet, if you have access to the airport lounges, take a shower.

    Lesson IV:  Use the Airline Lounges

I use the United and Star Alliance lounges whenever possible.  I am fortunate to have lifetime memberships in both.  While you may not be able to buy you way into every international lounge (sometimes you can), you can do it domestically before your flight and during connections.  It may be by way of the airline affiliated credit card program or just paying an annual or daily fee, but it is worth it. 

Think about the annual fee this way:  You paid how much for your holiday (even your airline ticket) and would rather endure the noise, discomfort and expensive of an airport meal for hours than pay x dollars for relative tranquility, a cocktail and a snack?

OK, now onto my flights to meet the Avalon Myanmar!

On this trip, after enduring another issue with American Airlines in Reno, Nevada,  I arrived in Los Angeles too early to check in with Singapore Airlines so I sat in a Planet Hollywood nursing a $16 Bloody Mary for two hours listening to bad music.  Suffice it to say I was relieved to arrive at the Star Alliance Lounge out of the noise, sipping champagne and having too much of a variety of hot and cold snacks for the remainder of my layover.

When I entered the lounge, I could feel my stress level drop, my blood pressure reduced and my eyes saw a nice variety of chilled wines and champagnes waiting for me.  Ahhhhh.

My 12 hour flight to Seoul, South Korea had a family of 7, including an infant, being a bit restless; not enough to overwhelm my headphones or keep me from sleeping, but enough to mention it to the flight attendants.  Singapore Airlines' solution:  Pour me as much of First Class's Dom Perignon and Johnny Walker Blue Label as I wanted.  The airline does make a difference!

With two hour layovers in Seoul and Singapore I had just enough time to chill, change clothes, have a breath of oxygen and a sip of something before the next flight.  It worked out perfectly.

So now, with Getting There completed, let's get onto this Avalon Waterways Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy - Southbound experience!

Getting It On!

You must have a visa to enter Myanmar.  There are plenty of services that offer to take care of this for you and Avalon even recommends one it its documents, but don't do it!  You can simply go online and obtain an e-Visa; skipping even having to get passport photos.  (I took a selfie and it was accepted...and I can't take a decent selfie!)  When you arrive just get in the passport control line with all the folks that paid extra for their visa and went through the hassle to sending in their passports and waiting weeks.  By the way, my e-visa was issued in less than 24 hours!


After collecting my bag, I was met by Myo, a very friendly and well-spoken man, who will be our guide for the next 14 days.  Myo is highly experienced not only guiding tours to visitors of Myanmar (from a variety of countries), but also guiding Burmese to other countries.  Myo has guided this southbound tour consistently for two years, so I am very confident that Avalon Waterways is using high quality guides.

During our drive from the airport to the Sule Shangri-la Hotel in downtown Yangon, Myo gives me some great background information on Yangon and Myanmar generally.  Some things he tells me he will further explain when our group (which apparently is only 14 people) gets together tomorrow.

Yangon, Myanmar is undergoing relatively rapid development
after years of drepression.
We had plenty to talk about since the 10 mile drive took about 45 minutes due to the traffic. Myanmar is a developing country and only recently opened its borders to freely purchasing automobiles.  So the infrastructure just doesn't exist for all the cars...even simply where to park them. And speaking of cars, Myo warned me that cars do not stop for people...but more on that later!  (Interestingly all of the street signs are in Burmese and English.)


After Myo checked me into my room, which has a magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which our group will visit tomorrow), it was time for me to explore a bit of Yangon.  

My room at the Sule Shangri-la is a bit nicer than I expected
and has a great view.
First stop is a bank to change money.  (There are ATMs, but many do not work with US banks, so be prepared.)  The exchange rate is 1,350 Kyat (pronounced "jet") to the US Dollar and pretty much anything you want to purchase is incredibly inexpensive.  (I bought a 30 GB data card for my hotspot for 21,500 K or about $16.)

It was then time to wander...and, knowing me, find street food. 

The first thing I noticed is that people do not openly smile (something I noticed on my last trip to southern Myanmar) but if engaged the smiles do come out.  I popped into a random store to purchase a data SIM card and two young girls were only too eager to assist.  With little usable English (it is taught in school, but not conversationally...think high school Spanish) they basically nonverbally said, "Hey nice old guy, you don't understand technology we will take care of this for you."  So with a few laughs:  Mission accomplished.  (Note:  Technically the SIM card has to be registered with the government.  I'm not so sure that is followed.)

Now it was time to really walk. 



I noticed the fear in people's eyes as they cross the busy streets. Coming from New York and driven around the world, traffic is not something I fear.  However, in Yangon there are literally no rules...other than don't hit another car.  Crosswalks should be considered targets for pedestrians...which is why jogging across streets with one's eyes never leaving the cars that come from whatever direction is the rule.  

For me, I simply got into a pack of people and stayed in the middle; figuring they knew what they were doing or would get hit first!  One time I was on my own and as I looked to the left I saw a woman with a panicked face telling me to look right even though the light was red for that car!  (An interesting side note:  Cars drive on the right, but there is no law about which side the steering wheel is to be one.  Most are on the right because the initial supplier of cars during the more restrictive period provided them that way.)

Sule Pagoda
I passed the Sule Pagoda and then found a Maha Bandula Park, across from Yangon City Hall, where many of the locals gathered in the afternoon heat...and it was hot (over 90 F and 32 C)...and which is also the location of a major bus hub. 

Yangon City Hall

Maha Bandula Park
Fortunately, a street lined with food stalls is right next to Maha Bandula Park. Actually it was less stalls and more of a system of tents and umbrellas covering everything from simple makeshift stoves to buffets. 


Most of what I saw was offal or noodles.  The volume of intestine and liver was, even for me, a bit overwhelming from a sense of cleanliness.  But the sights were fantastic!  Just what what I needed...almost.







So I kept walking, with a few young women and men trying to sell me postcards or give me tours. Very polite and very kind in their approach.  And, yes, Trump came up as a way to determine if I was OK to speak with.  Eventually I came to the river, but there was too much construction and traffic to warrant crossing over to see it.

Starting to head back I wandered a bit more and came across two young women with a food stall that looked a bit more elaborate and one of them was a bit more focused on things appearing clean than I had witnessed earlier.  And that was exactly what I needed!

It is fun picking out which street food to try.
BTW, frying in the wok is tofu - a very popular snack
So...with not a clue what she was saying I ordered what I later phonetically wrote down and then found out is Kaw Yay Khauk Swe, or Chicken Egg Noodles.

Kaw Yak Kahuk Swe
Served as is apparently typical in Myanmar with broth on the side and with some delicious really spicy pickled vegetables and garlic it was perfect to get me going.  The cost was 800 Kyat or about 60 cents!

Spicy Pickled Vegetables and Garlic- YUM!
It wasn't the best street food I've had, but it hit the spot...and the smile I got after I said it was good made it taste fantastic.

After a bit more of a walk, I figured it was time to head back to the hotel, get organized and take a nap.  

As I am really looking forward to the program starting tomorrow and it is going to be a busy hot day I decided to stay in for the night...but as you see I wound up writing!

If you have any questions or observations along the way...or if you would like to book this, or any other, Avalon Waterways river cruise (or a Globus land tour), email me at eric@goldringtravel.com while I am away or call me upon my return:

United States:       (877) 2GO-LUXURY
United Kingdom:  020 8133 3450
Australia:              (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530-562-9232