Don Mueang airport is a bit of a weird one. It used to be the main hub in and out of Bangkok. Now that Suvarnabhumi has taken over, DMK has been relegated to serving domestic and short-haul carriers. The place is dead. Immigration and security took less than five minutes and I was soon sitting by Gate 22 waiting to board my Air Asia flight to Yangon. Like the airport itself, the plane was half empty – surprising as I checked flights out of the country a week later and they were all full. I was very lucky to even get one.
Waiting at the gate was a funny experience. 50% Burmese and 50% foreigners, most clutching Lonely Planets with strange looks on their faces. A large percentage were obviously first-timers, stealing nervous glances at everyone else. Three separate people came up to me and asked if I had been to Myanmar before, they wanted to know how difficult it was going to be. “Never been…” I said. “It’ll be fine.”
On the flight I was sat in front of two old Japanese guys. I started up a conversation with them for practice and they took a shine to me. They started calling me ‘James Bond San’, joking that I was a spy and that I was going to be arrested in Myanmar for espionage. They carried on this charade right up to the immigration counter when they shouted “007 go to Yangon!” at the official. If this had been a James Bond movie I would have pulled out a concealed weapon, put two bullets in the Japanese guys’ heads then jumped out the window ready to abseil down the building. As it turned out, the official didn’t understand what they were saying and simply waved me through. Bit of an anti-climax to be fair.
Red tape at Yangon was just as sparse as Don Mueang. My bag was already waiting for me and I cleared customs and immigration within a matter of minutes. My next priority was getting rid of those bloody 100 dollar bills I had been treating like glass ever since I got them in Tokyo. (Burmese money changers won’t touch notes that have even the smallest fold or crease; they need to be absolutely mint.) I had heard that the airport now offers a rate similar to that of the black market so I went to the counter only to find queues and chaos. “Sod this” I thought, exchanging glances with an old-ish Burmese guy (pictured) wearing a traditional sarong. “Taxi?” I said. He smiled and we were soon flying down the road towards downtown Yangon. This guy was an utter legend. Not only did he agree to take me to my hotel but he also stopped off twice for me: once at Air Mandalay’s headquarters so I could pay for a flight and then again so I could change money.
I had made it to Myanmar. Despite only having been in the country 45 minutes I was already left speechless by the kindness and genuine compassion of the people I had met so far. Everyone I saw smiled and said hello. Whole families approached me to talk. It was a better start than I could have imagined. And it was only going to get better…
** If anyone reading here is considering a trip to Myanmar, take a lot of what the current edition of Lonely Planet says with a pinch of salt. Things change rapidly here. You can now change a number of currencies at the Summit Parkview Hotel (including yen) at a competitive rate. Notes do have to be in perfect condition though. A taxi from the airport is now $10 – not $7 – and other prices have gone up so best to budget a bit more than you expect. Mid-range options for accommodation are slightly limited. I chose the Thamada, slightly north of Sule Pagoda and would definitely recommend it. **