Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 8, 2014

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part three

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

The night before I left for Myanmar I couldn’t sleep. I had to fly to Bangkok, then fly to Yangon. I’ve flown to Yangon before – it’s quite short, and an essential part of the journey as you can’t enter the country overland. The first time I went I reached the airport at 5am and there was a cockroach on my hat when I stepped out of the grubby minivan I’d taken from Khao San Rd. I’d been sitting next to a Japanese scientist doing research at Oxford in the UK, and he’d fallen asleep and banged his head on the window every time we hit a bump, so I was pretty sure his brains had been bumped out by the time we reached Suvarnabhumi Airport.

That first time, as I sat on the cold and half-empty plane, to land and echo through a surprisingly modern but almost empty airport, I was quite nervous of what I would find. It was a bit like visiting South Africa; I’d read so much that the country had become more alien rather than more familiar. At a point of information overload you start to wonder if buildings will even sit on the Earth in this strange beleaguered country the way they do elsewhere.

As it turned out, Yangon looked rundown, and was the place where cars of the Eighties came to splutter and die, but otherwise it seemed like a fairly normal Asian city. At least on the surface. I don’t why I was so nervous the second time, I was being met, I knew exactly where I am going, but my departure anxiety seems to be getting worse. Or I was just a bit strung out by recent events.

There was a time when I was super casual about catching flights, but that was before cattle on train tracks and breakdowns (mechanical) and strikes and huge delays and 9/11 and ubersecurity. Once I slept in a prayer room thanks to a malfunctioning board at LCCT in Kuala Lumpur. Another time I had to stay in Venice because there was a BA strike and I was bumped off my flight. That wasn’t so bad, I got compensation, missed some work and everyone thought that was the best excuse (or story) ever for being late. But I digress.

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

This Myanmar trip was work, and I take work I have committed to do very seriously. When I got the assignment I thought two things: time was tight, and (based on previous experience) this would be a nice job as I was going on some boat trip already organized and I simply needed to speak to the right PR people and off I would go. Well, I was right about time being tight.

Nothing was organized, no flights, no trip – nothing. In the world of travel journalism these things are usually taken care of. At a newspaper I worked at in London, the travel desk had more trips than it knew what to do with. And PR people are usually keen to help because they want coverage for their client. But this was not the case here. And if I didn’t organize something pronto, I wasn’t going to meet the deadline. My other concern was a visa. The first I went to Myanmar I got a visa on arrival, on the last day of a scheme that is yet to be reinstated. Without a visa I wouldn’t be going at all.

After several days and more emails (around 70 in the end) I make a connection with a PR agency working with an international travel company that operates the trip I need to write about, and they may help me, but I have to buy air tickets first. They MAY be able to help with a visa, but they’re not really sure. There is a lot of toing and froing. I know the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok issues visas, but I don’t really want to go to Bangkok and hang around just to get a visa. And it’s expensive. Then there’s the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s nearly the end of Ramadan and the country will soon shut down for Hari Raya, the holiday at the end of Ramadan.

I can’t get a straight answer on anything from the PR person. I keep getting emails asking me the same questions I’ve already answered, and I don’t get a sensible answer on the visa question until after I’ve had to go through exactly what I wanted to avoid. And after a week of messing around, that’s when I find out I have to get airfares before they will actually do anything.

I didn’t lose sleep when the kid with the knife attacked me, but I lose plenty of sleep over this.

Maybe it’s easier just to list the complications.
With 12 days to go before the only trip that will allow me to meet my deadline, nothing is in place.
I need a visa.
To get a visa it looks like I need an itinerary.
An itinerary won’t be considered until I’ve arranged flights.
I am in a place where there is no Myanmar Embassy.
Malaysia (and its embassies) are about to shut down for Ramadan (as it turns out Bangkok is about to have lots of public holidays and shut embassies also).

A friend told me their travel agent could get a visa – I went there, discussed it. To get a visa in KL I would have to go down on Sunday, be there Monday and hope they do it in two days before Ramadan ends on Wednesday. I think the KL embassy will be open long enough to process it. Travel agent said it will take all week, but they could do it. When I went back on Monday, agent said she “didn’t listen properly” and she can’t do it that week because of Hari Raya. Maybe if I go that afternoon I can still get a visa (and someone to beat the travel agent around the head with a bag of potatoes). Adrenaline is pumping, which is not good because I’ve had adrenal exhaustion and I don’t want that again.

No response from Hong Kong. I told them I needed an answer NOW or it was an emergency run to KL. Nothing.

So I went and everything was full because of Hari Raya. I got a seat on a crappy bus that meandered around the island for 90 minutes before it even set off in the direction of KL. Making me feel even more ecstatic, people told me I wouldn’t be able to leave KL, because everything was booked out to return. And nothing would be running on Thursday. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Stressed! I really did not want to be stuck in KL for days and days pointlessly and expensively when I had things to do elsewhere.

At Myanmar embassy on Tuesday morning (visa section is a collection of tin sheds on dirt with a grimy cafe and lots of miserable Burmese sitting around on plastic chairs), the Burmese woman I dealt with could see the desperate look in my eye when I asked if I could get the visa that afternoon so I had a chance to return to Penang on Wednesday before everything stopped. Bless her, she did it. And for another European traveler who looked slightly crazed as well, but not probably because he is dealing with a PR agency dealing with a London office at a speed that made the average turtle look like its on crystal meth.

Then I had to run across town to try to find a seat on a bus back to Penang. My usual bus line (Konsortium Bas Ekspres) was booked out, and they directed me to another company which by some miracle had a seat left. I started to feel calmer.

That afternoon I got my visa. I checked it about eight times and it seemed to be correct so I felt my blood pressure start to drop. I slept a little that night, and there were no interventions by narky Higher Power and I g0t on another crappy bus the next morning, with a seat on top of the engine, and it was fine, I was so relieved, and so happy not to be stuck in KL.

Battles and circular movements continued, and FINALLY the trip was confirmed, 6pm on the night before the journey to Yangon. Even my own worst-planned, idiotic, ignorant and just plain stupid plans have never been as close to the wire as that.

But when I did get there, the boat trip was rather lovely. This post is too long now, so highlights in the next one.

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