World Fixer recently worked on a project travelling overland through Myanmar with the Purple Monkey Agency (www.purplemonkey.in) for a series called ‘Great Overland Adventure’ broadcast on NDTV Prime. The series is the story of two made in India Mercedes Benz cars, the GLA 200 CDI and the GL 350 CDI, circumnavigating the globe (find it here: www.carandbike.com/glaadventure #GLAadventure).
Here’s some thoughts from fixer Fong Bui you might find useful if you’re headed that way. Fong covers his native Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – to find him on the site his username is: introducingvietnam
I just wrapped up a 10 day shoot in Myanmar with Purple Monkey for NDTV (New Delhi Television in India) on one of the greatest overland adventures ever. Two cars traversed the world in 352days over 44,474km and 5 continents. Myanmar was the last country to cross before they arrived back home to India. For anyone planning a project in this beautiful country you may find this useful.
Myanmar (formerly Burma), is the largest country by geographical area in “mainland” of Southeast Asia, a nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. If you consider all the various islands of Indonesia, Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Myanmar contains about 676,000 square kilometers (that’s 261,000 square miles) of land.
Or let’s look at Myanmar in another way; by comparing it to the size of other countries: Myanmar is roughly the same size of Italy and Germany… combined. Think of that…Venice, Rome, Berlin, Frankfurt; all in one country.
We might have heard of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi – the symbol of Myanmar’s modern freedom, we might have seen Luc Besson’s movie – “The Lady” in 2011 and the whole world might has been eying at this country recently thanks to their ever-changing political situation but to really get inside of Myanmar and filming, still it’s another story. Myanmar is one of the most magical and undiscovered destinations in the world; a golden land of breathtaking beauty and endless charm that is steeped in fascinating history, traditions and of course, wars & pains… Undoubtedly, many filmmakers across the globe have tirelessly attempted to shoot in this dream location but there’s been so many obstacles stopping thems; mainly the visa procedure taking so much time and effort. Another issue is cost… it’s not cheap at all to carry out production in Myanmar.
Our route was:
Mawlamyine, we crossed Thai border at Mae Sot to start our overland journey throughout of Myanmar. Our first city to stop for the night is Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State. The town’s signature landmark is Kyaikthanlan pagoda built in 875 AD which said to be the place from where Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem: “the Road to Mandalay”. Early in the next morning we left for Yangon.
Yangon (the former the capital city and known as Rangoon), the country’s largest city, is mixture of colonial buildings, bustling markets, old buses & taxis, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, which contains Buddhist relics dating back to the 6th century. Unlike any other cities in South East Asia, motorbike is prohibited but to get your crew with equipment moved around in the city, it takes quite a lots of your patience. Traffic rule seems to be unorganized especially when the Government decided to change it from British rule; left-hand to right-hand but still 90% of vehicle’s steering wheel remains right-handed. That would be unexceptional, if not for the fact that, roughly 90% of the time, the roads themselves run in the opposite manner, meaning cars are on the right side of the road but the steering wheels, and hence drivers, are also on the right, with a better view of the kerb rather than the traffic. Make sure you’re ready for this and ensure to add at least an hour extra in your shooting schedule to cover the traffic in this city.
Nay Pyi Taw: empty streets, empty shopping malls, empty hotels & resorts and the weirdest empty 20lanes boulevards are among the most unusual things that we first explored in this recently reallocated capital city. The capital’s official name was announced on 27 March 2006, also the Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day. It first became the capital of Myanmar in 2006, after the government decided to move the capital from Yangon with minimal explanation caused worldwide controversy. There’s nothing much to see and do in this city unless you really need to include the current capital city of Myanmar.
Bagan – “the Valley of Temples” about 5 hours overland driving of 270km from Nay Pyi Taw, we reached Bagan; the Archaeological Zone. Bagan (formerly known as Pagan) was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This kingdom was the first to unify the area that is now Myanmar, establishing the Burmese culture and ethnicity, as well as Theravada Buddhism, in the region. Over this period of rule, as the city and kingdom grew in influence and stature, over 10,000 temples were built on the plains surrounding the capital next to the Irrawaddy River. After the fall of the Kingdom of Pagan, the city was reduced to a small settlement, never to recover its former glories. The area did, however, remain a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. A few hundred temples were added between the 13th and 20th centuries, but the huge amount of earthquake damage over the years means that only 2.200 temples remained, in varying states of repair.
Hot air balloon is the best way to admire the astounding beauty of this valley though it’s operating from early October until end of March only. Set your alarm and heading out into the valley before dawn, watching the sunrise over this Valley of Temples is the experience of a lifetime.
Mandalay, established in 1857 Mandalay is the 2nd largest city in Myanmar. It’s the former royal capital set on the Irrawady river bank. The city is the economic and religious hub of upper Myanmar and is centered around the Royal Palace.
It has wide lanes filled with bicycles and motorcycles and is known for its cultural diversity. Half of Burma’s monks reside in Mandalay and the surrounding areas. Shwenandaw Monastery is made entire out of teak wood with beautiful intricate carvings. It is the only major building from the original wooden royal palace to have survived the bombing during World War II, and thus is the only authentic part of the royal palace which can still be seen today. You can’t miss U-Bein constructed in 1850, which is believed to be the world oldest and longest teakwood bridge (1,2km long). Mandalay is also famous for its culture, and amongst the most well known of its residents are the Moustache Brothers, a comedy troupe who have been sticking their fingers up to the ruling generals for years. They have been sporadically jailed and put under house arrest, and it is in this house that they perform their show on most evenings from 8.30pm lasting for almost an hour.
For those wishing to produce in Myanmar it becomes easier than ever before but also takes you from 4-5 weeks to proceed all kinds of permit applications while some of the states might take longer. First and foremost, you have to be patient in any correspondence with the authorities who are still finding their feet after opening up.
Here’s below are a few essential things you should know beforehand
- The visa process takes about 7 working days (copy of 6 months valid passport, 2 x passport size photos and USD 80 fee per person) E-visa is now also available at (http://www.evisa.moip.gov.mm) but you can only get it at their 3 international airports: Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. Journalist visas don’t really exist yet but you do need a filming permit.
- To get the permit you must submit the following: a film synopsis, detailed schedule, details of who the project is for, crew list, passport scans + an equipment list. Processing can take 4 to 5 weeks.
- You will be assigned a government escort who costs approximately $600 a day depending on where you’re going (different states can vary). The escort’s role is not only to keep an eye on what you’re filming but also to help open doors, navigate bureaucracy and ensure things go smoothly. Most of them are very nice and enjoy showing their country to the crews who come.
- You’ll need plenty of cash while traveling inside the country and make sure it’s all clean. There are few ATMs in Myanmar, so visitors need to bring plenty of U.S. dollars in cash. The higher the denomination, the better the exchange rate. Your greenbacks should be squeaky clean, that means no creases, stains, marks or tears. A note that’s folded or even a little worn is worthless in Myanmar.
- The Internet isn’t censored anymore, but it’s still extremely slow. Internet arrived in Myanmar in 2000, but high prices and slow connections mean it’s still not widely used. Under the former government, websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Gmail were blocked, but restrictions have largely been lifted. Far more popular than the Internet are mobile phones, though here, too, prices are high compared with other neighboring countries.
- Hotel rates are expensive compared with the same rank in other Asian countries, It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Since the country opened up, business travelers and tourists have been packing flights to Myanmar. There are a lot more visitors – more than a million last year – but roughly the same number of hotels. More hotels are on the way, but they take time to build and the hotel shortage is expected to continue five to 10 years. Make sure to reserve accommodation well ahead.
- There are still some very sensitive areas in Myanmar due to ongoing unrest. Access is entirely dependent on the current situation but your escort will inform you about this.
- Myanmar is not a carnet country.