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City Focus: Doing business in Yangon, Myanmar

Name:                       Jamie Coventry

Originally from:       United Kingdom

Lives in:                    Singapore

Years there:              12

Job description:       Managing Director

Jamie Coventry

How often do you travel to Yangon, and who do you fly with?

I usually fly there four or five times a year on Silk Air.

What’s one thing everyone ought to know about the place?

The one thing you need to know is that there is more than one thing that you need to know!

  • The Brits call it Burma – everyone else calls it Myanmar, but there is no such word as “Myanmarese”
  • You need cash as most places don’t take credit cards and the US dollar bills have to be spotless (preferably new) or they won’t be accepted.
  • Roaming charges are fearsome and there is no mobile data download except in Wi-Fi zones. If you can, get a local phone as the costs have reduced by about 90 percent over the past three years.
  • It takes twice as long to get anywhere because of the traffic and three times as long if it rains. The locals know this so don’t expect them to travel all over town to meet you. They will also be forgiving if you’re late.
  • Get a reputable driver with a reliable vehicle. Do not depend on taxis unless you have to. They are uncomfortable and most lack air-con, notwithstanding the fact that the drivers can be very friendly.
  • If you need to go to Nay Pyi Taw for Government business, spare yourself the ten-hour return journey by car and fly.
  • There are no Christian names or surnames in Myanmar. You use all of the names when addressing someone but with a “U” prefix for Mr and “Daw” for Mrs.

How quickly can you get a visa? Online, embassy or visa on arrival?

Visa applications have improved immeasurably over the past two years. If you apply for visas in advance through the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore, it seems that the more often you travel there, the longer your multiple entry visa will be issued for (up to one year). It’s expensive but it’s worth considering if you intend to go regularly. Expect two or three days to issue a visa in Singapore; agents are available (at a cost) who can expedite the process.

Visa on arrival is available for business travellers only but you will need the necessary documentation issued by your host to support the application as well as passport photos and US$50 in cash (clean bills).

Fastest way into and around the city?

There is only one way into the city: by car or minibus. Want a useless bit of knowledge? There are no motorbikes allowed in Yangon. So by virtue of this information, four wheels are the fastest, although with current traffic congestion, it may soon be quicker to walk!

When are the good and bad times to visit?

Good times as a tourist: November to March. April is the worst time to visit for business as it is the New Year Thingyan festival and everyone loves a good party! Alternatively, it’s the best time to visit if you want to take part in a massive water fight and you have already ticked Songkran in Bangkok off your list.

Which hotels do you recommend?

The Governor’s Residence is the only really tasteful and charming hotel. It’s normally fully booked, and it has horrific rates in the high season (more reasonable in the low season). It’s also not ideal for business travellers who tend to gravitate to the old Traders (now the Sule Shangri-La Yangon) or Park Royal, as its business amenities are best and the Wi-Fi is dependable! If you’re doing business with the Government, it’s always best to support their offering at The Sedona with a top-floor view of the home of “The Lady” on the banks of Inya Lake. As for The Strand, I don’t stay there but my friends who do are begging for it to be renovated to its former glory.

What’s the dress code for meetings?

Formal is best. Jacket and tie for the Westerner; longyi (sort of sarong) for the locals.

Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?

Follow basic principles for doing business in Asia – exposing “loss of face” is always the number one no-no. Most importantly, be patient and very gentle. The local people here are very sensitive and don’t respond well to being told what the rest of the world expects in terms of business dealings. “Trust and relationship” extends far beyond “product and service”.

If you’re taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?

Generally the “go to” place for a high-level dinner would be Le Planteur that stands a whole head and torso above the competition. The location is beautiful, the food is exceptional, the service impeccable and the price… predictable. L’Opera is as good an Italian as you could expect to find in Yangon, with a lovely garden setting in the evening. Lunch options depend entirely where you happen to be, as traffic will defeat any pre-arranged lunch appointment if you’re not careful. My firm favourite is Feel – a local restaurant serving hawker-style food. (It has good Wi-Fi, too, for checking emails during your lunch break.)

Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?

The bar scene in Yangon has rapidly grown from virtually no options beyond the major hotels to some great venues that can also work well for entertaining clients in a less formal surrounding. The chief of these is The Union Bar but there are others such as 50th Street and Gekko, all in downtown Yangon, which will serve you well for a more relaxed evening. If whiskey and cigars are your thing, then Cask 81 Whisky Bar does what it says on the tin.

Finally, the businessman who wants to be “hassled” will likely end up in the bar at the basement of the Park Royal Hotel, where the type of clientele is predictable.

Any unsafe areas to avoid?

As far as I know, the locations that most Westerners travel in and around are all safe. There have been instances of violent burglaries but this is more an issue for those that live in Yangon rather than those that visit.

The golden spires of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

If you’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?

If you have a day to spare, the three things that I would prioritise to see and do in Yangon are the great Shwedagon Pagoda, Scotts Market and the little known Naga Glass Factory. If you have longer than that, do try to reach Inle Lake and Bagan – the two “must see” places in the country.

Gifts to take home for family and friends?

To all husbands, I owe an apology in advance: Myanmar is renowned for its gems … nuff said! Apart from that, you can try lugging lacquerware and wooden objects back, but my advice would be to visit the Naga Glass Factory and buy a piece of hand-blown Burmese glassware that you have picked up off the ground. It will have a memory attached to it that is far greater than anything you can buy from a market.

Best local street food or dish?

Frankly, when compared with other countries in the region, Burmese food has yet to win over many hearts. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Mohinga, the national breakfast dish. If you’re a fan of curry, then Myanmar is the place for you, although some of the more exotic parts of the animal may be best avoided until you become used to them.

At the end of a trip, how long do you really need to get to the airport and get checked in?

Yangon Airport is pretty efficient. Getting there is the only challenge you may face. If it’s raining, give yourself an extra 45 minutes. Once there, check-in is swift, as is immigration.

Can you give us a personal anecdote from one of your trips to Yangon that will give readers a feel for staying there or doing business there?

I hosted a dinner several years ago with some important clients in Yangon. While ordering the food to be shared amongst us, my colleague was in discussions with the client, which resulted in us ordering every dish in the restaurant (plus a few more). I took this as a sign of our hospitality in ensuring that there would be something for everyone around the table to enjoy. When the food came, everyone shared it around and we ate our fill. I then realised that a number of dishes were missing, but since everyone was full, I made no mention of it. It was only as we got to the car park to wish our guests goodnight that I saw two car boots being filled up with numerous containers of our uneaten food!