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Sunday, November 18, 2012

9 Things to Know About Visiting Burma

The temples of Bagan

I traveled to Myanmar/Burma* in the 1990s, thus preceding President Obama by 15 years. But the country I experienced in 1997 is likely quite different from the one the President will be experiencing today.  Back then, a military dictatorship known as the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) was at the height of its power. The country was completely cut off from the West, and ubiquitous billboards  headlined "The People's Desire" warned citizens to:

--oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views 
--oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the nation 
--oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state and 
--crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Needless to say, journalists entering the country were well-advised to list another profession on their visa applications.

The only English news came in the form of "The New Light of Myanmar", a government propaganda rag highlighting the various accomplishments of the generals illegitimately in charge. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was in the midst of a long-term house arrest, punishment for her party's win in a 1990 national election. The locals were extremely paranoid, with reason, as the government encouraged spying on thy neighbor (shades of Communist Europe). Talking politics with the Burmese meant first gaining their trust and then finding a quiet corner where one was not likely to be overheard.

Despite the intrigue and the political turmoil (or maybe because of it), I found Myanmar/Burma to be one of the most fascinating and complex places I had ever been. The people were gentle, the roads to Mandalay and Yangon and Bagan were captivating, and the countryside felt like something out of a Zen painting, complete with monks clad in orange, walking in front of hazy, watery horizons.

Thanks to new government policies, most travel publications are naming Myanmar/Burma* as one of next year's hot destinations. If you decide to go, remember, this is a country that has been closed off  to modernity for some time. Khiri Travel, which specializes in Asia, offers some helpful tips for those considering a visit.

*For an explanation of what to call the country, click here.

These tips courtesy of Khiri Travel Myanmar, with minor edits courtesy of Daily Suitcase.

Get Your Visa and Book Accommodation Before Arrival 
Get your Myanmar visa before arrival in the country.  It takes (at least) two weeks advance application. Demand for Myanmar hotel rooms during high season (November to March) outstrips supply. Rooms are not cheap. If you don't pre-book, you'll end up paying over the odds for a mediocre room -- if you can find one.

Bring Cash 
There are no ATM cash points in Myanmar. Bring dollars -- preferably hundred dollar bills. But not old ones, as vendors won't accept notes that are torn, shabby, have a stamp on it, or a fold in the middle. They may not accept ones with "CB" in the serial number either.

Forget Your Mobile Phone 
There are no roaming mobile phone agreements with other countries. Daily Suitcase adds: So go old school and just enjoy your holiday. Instead of being distracted by incoming messages, or constantly fidgeting with your phone cam, look around you for a change.

Your Credit Card is Useless
Fewer than five places accept credit cards in Myanmar. It will take a while before credit card acceptance and ATM access is possible. Until then, avoid hassles by pre-paying for accommodation, tours and transfers before you go.

Behave Like a House Guest 
In Myanmar, there is no word for tourist, only for guest. So behave like a guest when visiting. Be polite, smile, and don't yell when things don't go according to plan. 

Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon

Dress Appropriately 
When you visit places like Shwedagon Pagoda or Bagan, dress appropriately. You are, after all, entering places of Buddhist worship. 
 Modesty is key for both women and men.  Ladies, despite the heat, no plunging necklines or uncovered shoulders. Best to wear a long sarong and a lightweight shawl. 

Know a Few Words 
Mingalaba -- hello/greetings! (used any time of the day); nà-mǎleh-ba-bù - I don't understand; diha balao leh?-- how much is this? cè-zù tin-ba-deh -- thank you.Ta-ta -- goodbye!

Barter When Shopping 
The objective is not to relentlessly chase the cheapest price, but to secure a fair price. A bit of good-natured back and forth on the price of lacquerware, marionettes, or a longyi in a market is certainly acceptable, indeed expected -- but always with a smile. Both parties should finish the transaction happy and grateful.

Mohingar, Not McDonalds 
There are no McDonalds, Starbucks, or other international fast food or drink outlets in Myanmar (Daily Suitcase adds--for now). Go local. Support local vendors. Try mohingar (delicious thick fish soup often eaten for breakfast), ohne kyaukswe (coconut noodle soup), or leh pet thauk (pickled tea leaf salad).
Daily Suitcase Reading List: For a good historical perspective of post-colonial Burma, read Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear. For a feel of Burma under British rule, read George Orwell's Burmese Days.

Friday, November 16, 2012

9 Things to Know About Holiday Travel

It's holiday time and everyone is asking, "How can I avoid travel headaches?" Well, here's a little Top 9 List you can use, whether you've been naughty or nice this year.

1. Try to book off-peak. That means avoiding the day before the holiday, the Sunday after the holiday, etc. If you fly on the holiday itself, you will find smaller crowds at the airport, lighter loads on the plane, and better rates.

2. Send gifts ahead of time or order them on-line and have them sent directly to your holiday destination. If you must bring gifts with you and stuff them in your carry-on, don't bother wrapping them. If you do so, TSA will unwrap them for you.

3. Get yourself organized to expedite getting through security. Watch what you wear--avoid clunky belt buckles, heavy-duty jewelry, under-wire bras, or other items that might set off alarms. Have your plastic bag filled with liquids stuffed into an outside compartment of your carry-on.  Have your laptop or tablet easily accessible.  

4. Find an airline-branded credit card that allows you to check a bag for free if you purchase your ticket with self-same card. Some of those credit cards also provide holders the opportunity to jump ahead in the boarding line. 

5. To save luggage space, wear your heaviest items on board. Layer that cozy cardigan over a bulky turtleneck and then complete the outfit with a winter coat and boots. 

6. Check in ahead of time, either on-line or on a mobile device. Paying for your checked bag ahead of time will also save you a little time and a few bucks.

7. Going overseas? Check on advisories for dicey areas at travel.state.gov.  
But don't just check out the U.S. government site, as travel warnings can have an American political bent. Visit www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/updates_mise-a-jour-eng.asp, the website of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and www.fco.gov.uk, the home of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

8. Even if you are staying close to home, you have to prepare for the trip. If you are driving to your destination, get your car checked out ahead of time, leave yourself plenty of time to get from Point A to Point B, and, if the kids are along for the ride, bring healthy snacks, bring plenty of entertainment, and remember to make frequent stops.

9. And if you are looking for a totally carefree holiday travel experience, stay home and host visitors from far and wide. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

On Dasher: GIfts for Travelers

If you are paying attention to TV ads, store decor and weather reports (here's looking at you, Athena and et tu Brutus), it must be time for the holidays.  As you start pondering who's been naughty and who's been nice,  consider some nifty items that will please any traveler on your list.

Who doesn't want a super-cool suitcase?  I've been getting mad props and a lot of  "Heys, Girl" shout-outs at airports this year, in large part due to my updated collection of carry-on luggage. One of my favorites is from the Heys Britto Collection. Based on the designs of pop artist Romero Britto, my lightweight 22-inch polycarbonate case (right) retails for $250. If you prefer something a little less flashy and a little less expensive, the Heys xCase  (left) at $150 may be just the ticket.

If your favorite travel geeks are also computer and yoga freaks, they're going to be head over heels…or heels over head…for this Gorilla Mobile Yogi for iPad by Joby. The Yogi stabilizes the iPad on any surface and offers adjustable viewing angles, including Downward Dog (left), Half Lotus (below) and Spinal Twist. If your exercise of choice is ballet or pole dancing, you can hang the Yogi from a bar. It retails for $39.95, although I found it cheaper on Amazon.

Joby also makes the Gorilla Mobile Ori for iPad for your favorite Zen master. Inspired by the art of origami, it’s a iPad case that bends and folds in multiple ways. Best yet--it has a swiveling hinge. It costs $59.95 at http://www.joby.com/

Watch this space as I post more travel gift ideas every week through December 25.

Laura on TV

One of my infamous spokesperson gigs. This interview, done with NYC's It's a Glam Thing blog, was #23 of 23 completed in a five-hour satellite/studio window. Vanity Alert: Between the camera adding 10 pounds  and the compression of the video to fit the web format, I look more beefier than I am. That beautiful David Meister dress is a Size 2, people.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pun Day

Loyal readers know that I cannot resist a pun. And so, when a out-of-town friend posted a picture of his family posing in front of the Department of Energy on Facebook, I queried:

You come to Washington post-electron and subject your nuclear family to the Department of Energy? Watt's up with that? Next time you wander down the A(tlantic) C(oast) to DC, let me enlighten you to more au current (sic)  power places off the tourism grid. Chu on that, okay?
I am winging off to Toronto next week, which means I am somewhat in a rush to compile a notebook of Canadian puns. Hopefully, I will not be skating on thin ice when I share them with you. I don't want to drive anyone loony.

O, if only I got a nickelback for every groan elicited by my wordplay, I would be a very rich woman. Yukon take that to the bank. On the other hand, if said coinage was taken away, I might end up one of the Bare Naked Ladies. But worry not, when it comes to nudity, I'll have Nunavut.