Off to Yangon, but need to know more about visas, hotels and how to get around? Dennis Naing, the owner of L&T Consultancy Services in Singapore, shares everything you need to know about the largest city in Myanmar, from what to wear in the office to where to take the clients for lunch.
1. How often do you travel to Yangon and who do you fly with?
I am originally from Myanmar but I came to Singapore in 1991 and became a Singapore citizen. I travel to Yangon once every quarter and stay for four days to two weeks. Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Jetstar and Myanmar Airways fly there. Flights to Yangon are pretty packed nowadays but I try to fly with Singapore Airlines whenever possible, as they have three daily flights.
2. One thing everyone ought to know about Yangon:
Since economic sanctions on Myanmar have been lifted, there has been an influx of people and businesses, causing congestion and bad traffic in the city. Prices have also quickly shot up, especially hotel accommodation as there are limited hotels to meet the high demands.
3. How quickly can you get a visa?
All nationalities require a visa. I don’t recommend getting a visa on arrival as it’s a complicated procedure and requires a lot of documents. Apply for a tourist visa through the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore for $35 and allow at least five working days for it to be processed.
4. Fastest way into the city?
It’s practically impossible for a foreigner who doesn’t speak Burmese to take buses so a taxi is the only option. There are plenty of taxis right outside the airport but it’s a good idea to negotiate the price before you get in. Language may be a challenge, as English is not widely spoken by the locals. While the taxi driver will be able to bring you to your hotel, don’t expect to strike up a conversation. Alternatively, rent a car and driver from the hotel for about US$40 a day. Kyat, the local currency, is used for day-to-day expenses like taxis and buying street food, while US dollars and credit cards are accepted at hotels and bigger restaurants.
The city centre is in downtown Yangon around Sule Pagoda. It’s not a typical CBD as it’s a mix of residential towers and offices. However, it’s common practice for businesses to buy or rent a big house and turn it into an office if they want to stay out of the city centre.
5. When are the good and bad times to visit Yangon?
November to February is quite cool and is a good time to go. Temperatures can go up to 37 degrees from March to June. July to September is the rainy season and the roads get flooded due to a lack of proper drainage. Burmese New Year from 17 to 21 April and the accompanying Thingyan water festival are great times for leisure visits. Celebrations go on for days and all government offices are closed.
6. Hotels you recommend:
As mentioned, hotel prices have increased dramatically. It used to be around US$50 per night but now, expect to pay over US$250. Business hotels are in high demand so always book as early as you can. If you need a last minute booking, you either end up paying a premium price or will have to stay in a boutique hotel.
There are three good business hotels: Traders Hotel Yangon, Park Royal Yangon and Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon. They are all close to Sule Pagoda and are located in the heart of the city. Internet connection has greatly improved in recent years but expect it to be down from time to time.
Boutique hotels are usually two-star and reasonably clean. You’ll pay around US$100. My business associate used to stay at the Alfa Hotel and there are quite a number of good small hotels around that area.
7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
The dress code is very casual. Jeans are OK if you’re meeting business partners. However, if you’re meeting important people from the ministry or the government, wear a suit and tie to show respect.
8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
Business protocols in Yangon are similar to Thailand. One thing to note: the locals tend to take off their shoes when entering religious places, so follow suit. My clients do that in their office too and walk around barefoot. Try to minimise physical contact and never touch their heads, under any circumstances.
The Burmese are quite conservative, soft-spoken and respectful. If they don’t agree with what you said, they generally won’t tell you. They may still be smiling and nodding their heads, but it doesn’t mean they agree. I find that they are very positive people and rarely voice their displeasure so this may be quite tricky, especially if dealing with them for the first time. The best thing to do is to build a relationship with them and try to communicate as clearly as possible.
9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
I usually go to one of the restaurants in Kandawgyi Nature Park, which surrounds the beautiful Kandawgyi Lake. Both Royal Garden Restaurant and Golden Duck Restaurant serve excellent Chinese food. The Burmese like to eat Chinese food. Another place I like very much is Sharky’s on Dhammazedi Road; they serve Italian food and wine. A very popular place to go for Burmese food is Feel Restaurant at Pyi Htaung Su Yeikthar Street. The unofficial national dish ismohinga, which has rice noodles in coriander fish gravy. It’s traditionally eaten for breakfast and has a unique taste.
10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
You will be hard-pressed to find a good cocktail outside of the bars in business hotels. There are a number of local beer establishments known as beer stations dotted around the city. They serve food and some spirits too, but nothing fancy. What locals like to do best is go to a teashop with friends. The tea culture is very lively in Myanmar. You can find teashops on practically every corner of the street. In the afternoon, the locals go there and sit on little stools to sip pot after pot of tea and chitchat. In the evening after dinner, they go there to watch football matches on TV and stay till late at night. From what I’ve heard, the most popular nightclub is The Music Club, a disco club in Park Royal Yangon.
11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
Yangon is very safe. After 10pm, the roads are quite quiet as most people are at home or at teashops.
12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
You can’t miss the magnificent Shwedagon Paya; it’s the most important religious site in the whole of Myanmar. Put aside a couple of hours to explore the place. In the evening, visit Chinatown where there are rows of roadside stalls selling delicious Chinese food as well as many small local shops. It’s always very lively.
13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
Get souvenirs from Bogyoke Aung San Market. The open bazaar sells everything from handicrafts to clothing and precious gemstones. Myanmar is very famous for its jade and semi-precious gems. However, I would only suggest buying it if you have some knowledge in choosing jade so you can be sure of its quality. Prices are usually marked up for foreigners so negotiate.
14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at Yangon International Airport?
Two hours is ideal, especially during peak season. It takes at least one hour to get to the airport from the city centre. The airport is quite small and often crowded. Immigration is not very efficient and I’ve missed a flight before because of it. Before the immigration area, there are no shops. After you go into the departure hall, there are a handful of small souvenir shops and just one café where you can get light nibbles and tea. A second, bigger airport is in the works and is expected to be completed in 2016.