Posted: 24 Oct 2014 05:30 PM PDT
BAGAN, Mandalay Division — I awoke at 5 am, ready to watch the famous Bagan sunrise for the first time in my life.
I have heard so much about watching the sun rise and set over Bagan's thousands of pagodas. It has always been at the top of my tourism wish-list. Many years ago I purchased a framed picture of a Bagan dawn from an art gallery in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Every time I looked at it, I dreamed of someday actually visiting the ancient city.
By 5:20 I was ready to leave the hotel. Although Shwe San Daw Pagoda—where most tourists go to see the sunrise—is only a short ride from the beautiful Tharabar Gate hotel where our family was staying, I wanted to get there early. I wanted to feel the morning stillness covered in darkness.
Like many visitors, I watched the sunset the day before from atop Shwe San Daw, an ancient pagoda with five terraces built by King Anawrahta after his conquest of the Mon Kingdom in 1057.
We were unlucky. Though already well past mid-October, the rain lingered. Clouds blocked the sunset, and by dusk it was raining buckets. Hotel staff told me that it was the heaviest rain of the year.
Bagan was still dark at 5:20 am. A young hotel staff member gave me a torch. As I stepped outside, I saw two French tourists who were staying at our hotel. They were on their way to watch the sunrise, too, so I offered them a ride.
We were early, but a taxi or two made it there before us. As I stepped out of the car I was greeted by the call of a rooster from a nearby house. The vendors were already up and selling wares to tourists.
I climbed the first terrace from the south side of the pagoda. In front of me was a family from Kenya with two young girls walking slowly up the steep stairs. After the first terrace, I went around and climbed from the west side.
I took my place atop the highest terrace, among a smattering of other tourists setting up their cameras to capture the dramatic moment. I heard chatter around me in familiar languages: English, Thai, French, German, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Japanese and Myanmar.
The sun would rise at 5:45, I was told, but it was still dark at that time. On the horizon, though, I could see signs of dawn; a glowing sliver of red and orange. Quiet chatter in various languages continued around me as we all waited patiently, soaking up the atmosphere.
At first a small red circle appearing beside a pagoda in the distance, the sun finally rose at 6:15. Suddenly, all conversation stopped and the only sound was the clicking of cameras. The sun rose slowly.
Clouds drifted northward, along with a flock of birds flying past the backdrop of a red dawn. A hot air balloon suddenly appeared to our right. As the sun leveled with a distant pagoda I noticed that it was not just one balloon but three rising above the ruins, still silhouetted in the semi-darkness.
It was so beautiful, the whole scene viewed from a distance. It struck me as surreal, and I lingered long after the sun came up. I was seeing the famous, breathtaking image of Bagan for the first time in my life.
Later on we went to the Bagan viewing tower, a controversial structure built by the military regime in 2005. Designed to resemble an ancient watch tower, it felt like a behemoth rising out of the ground. Though the structure itself is large and unwieldy, the panoramic view from the top was undeniably stunning.
You can see everything from the tower; all of the famous pagodas, the paddy fields and the dirt roads below. We had a clear view of the Tuyin Taung Mountain, just across the Irrawaddy River. We sat sipping coffee on a mezzanine below the tower, observing the tranquil patchwork of greenery and red ruins spreading out across the landscape.
We also visited Mount Popa, a volcano located about an hour from Bagan by car. Even the drive was memorable. Many people, young and old, were begging on either side of the road. Whether it was because they wanted easy money or if it was simply a tradition, we still don't know. But we stopped once or twice to hand out small kyat notes. Each time we did, however, many people swarmed the car, making it difficult and dangerous to drive.
Having learned our lesson, we eventually started signaling to the expectant villagers as we drove by that we had no more money to give away. At one point, a bus filled with Buddhist pilgrims passed by, hurling bank notes out onto the road. Again, hordes of people ran into the road to pick them up. It's really quite dangerous, but we knew that it was a pastime unlikely to end; Myanmar was, after all, recently ranked the second most generous nation in the world by a UK study of charitable behavior.
Once we arrived, we checked into the Popa Mountain Resort. It has the best view of the mountain and its environs. The restaurant rises up above the forest canopy, and at the end of a long walkway we found what could only be described as a "million dollar view."
While there are many things to see and enjoy on the road to Bagan, Myanmar does not yet seem ready for independent travelers like us. We were traveling with children, so we broke up the trip with an overnight stay in Taungoo. The lakeside Royal Kaytumadi Hotel seemed out of place in the provincial town, but it's beautiful nonetheless. I particularly like hotels and buildings by a lake, river or sea.
All was well until we tried to go to Than Taung Gyi. The signs aren't clear, and there is nothing to indicate which direction one has to take. The roads are narrow, and you have to pay close attention to avoid collisions with motorbikes. We took a few wrong turns and wasted a good one and a half hours.
We tried asking many people along the way, but no one could give us clear directions. By the time we finally got there it was almost 6 pm, and we could not enjoy the view anymore.
The motorway to Bagan was alright, but there are no signs indicating how far we were from our destination. There is no sign telling you how far Bagan—Myanmar's biggest tourist attraction—is from either the highway or from Yangon. I had to stop and ask a good many times to be sure I took the right exit. No one could tell us how far Bagan is from the junction, either.
I understand that Myanmar is gearing up for "Visit Myanmar Year" in 2016, but I am not sure that the country is ready for the influx of tourists expected next year. There will be backpackers and independent travelers like myself; people who are curious and want an easy, comfortable travel experience. Many may want to drive and explore on their own, like we did.
If a Myanmar citizen like myself—a first-time traveler—had that much trouble navigating the roads, one can imagine how difficult it will be for foreigners to get around in Myanmar.
Many things could be done to turn this problem into an asset. The motorway could itself become a tourist attraction, as there are many historic towns and sites located just off the main roads. The roads could be widened by adding shoulders. Signage could be written in both Myanmar and English, in large letters with directions and suggested attractions. Litter, the scourge of Myanmar, could be controlled.
Perhaps a large-scale overhaul of the tourism sector is needed. Maybe then travelers—be they Myanmar or foreign—could enjoy this country a little bit more.
Posted: 24 Oct 2014 05:00 PM PDT
Burma Captures 10% of Global Tin Market as Production Soars
Burma is rapidly becoming one of the world's biggest producers and exporters of tin and could soon undermine the market dominance of the biggest producer, Indonesia.
Tin production in Burma is forecast to grow 12 percent in the next year to reach 28,000 tons, which would represent 10 percent of the global market, the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI) in England said.
Exports are going to Thailand, Malaysia and China, said Bloomberg, quoting the managing director of one of Burma's biggest mines, at Heinda in Tenasserim Division.
The mine is owned by the Thai firm Myanmar Pongpipat, which has been facing legal action by local residents alleging environmental damage caused by mining.
Bloomberg said Burma was exporting more tin at a time when the price was falling and Indonesia, which produced 91,000 tons last year, was seeking to reduce its production and exports to boost market prices.
However, Myanmar Pongpipat managing director Kriangkrai Chavaltanpipat told Bloomberg his firm planned to expand the Heinda mine to meet Chinese demand.
Burma's tin exports to China increased 50 percent between January and August, Bloomberg reported, citing research by Macquarie Bank.
"[Burma] has come from nowhere and suddenly became a major provider of tin to China," Macquarie said. "It's more than filling in the gap for Indonesia already."
London Taskforce to Help Burma's Central Bank Develop Finance Sector
The British government has sent a "taskforce" to Burma to help improve the country's financial institutions and services.
London "wants to encourage and support [Burma's] efforts to remove barriers to becoming a functioning, prosperous, sustainable economy benefitting all of its people and regions," said Tony Preston, the head of a "prosperity team" at the British Embassy in Rangoon.
The UK Financial Services Taskforce includes representatives from Standard Chartered Bank, Prudential Insurance, Allen & Overy, the British Embassy and the Bank of England, a statement from the British Embassy said.
"The vision of the taskforce is to support the holistic development of [Burma's] financial sector," Preston told a financial forum in Rangoon this week.
The taskforce would help the Burma Central Bank's plan for regulation and management of the country's rapidly growing financial sector, he said. It aims to help local industry develop new financial products and services; advise on regulatory structures; and give guidance on effective education, training and qualifications for the sector.
"Supervision of the domestic banking sector here is becoming increasingly important, particularly in light of the institutional change brought about by Central Bank independence, the raft of new laws, new technologies such as mobile banking, nearly 200 recently registered microfinance institutions, new state banks being created and banks entering the market," Preston said.
MOGE to Offer More Oil and Gas Block Development Licences
More oil and gas exploration blocks will be put up for licence bidding in the next year, a report said, quoting the state Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE).
No details on the blocks were given but they are expected to be both offshore and onshore, said Singapore's Channel News Asia (CNA).
"[Burma] will release another 15 oil exploration blocks by the end of next year to international investors," CNA said. It quoted MOGE's director of planning, Than Min, saying "expectations are high to discover more oil and gas."
Several onshore blocks have been awarded to a mixture of domestic and foreign explorers but there have been no major discoveries yet.
MOGE and other state agencies and the Ministry of Energy continue to discuss the terms of contracts for 20 offshore blocks awarded to mostly big foreign firms last March. Thirty offshore blocks were offered in the initial bidding, which began in 2013, but 10 were dropped from the process by MOGE without explanation.
Thai Firm in Deal to Build Large Solar Energy Project Near Naypyidaw
A Thai company and Burma's Ministry of Electric Power have for the second time in 16 months announced plans to build a large solar electricity generating project.
Green Earth Power (GEP) signed an MoU with the ministry in May 2013 to build a 210-megawatt solar panel plant spanning a large acreage at Minbu near the capital Naypyidaw. Green Earth said the project would cost US$275 million and be completed in two years.
Nothing had happened since then until the two sides this week signed another agreement for the project. Electric Power Minister Khin Maung Soe said he "wished for continued cooperation for the successful implementation of the solar plant," according to Eleven Media.
GEP, which has little experience in solar power, has told Bloomberg business news agency it hopes to finance 70 percent of the project with bank loans.
Burma suffers from acute shortages of electricity and in the last two years there have been numerous tentative agreements for new generating capacity projects involving firms from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, but few have moved forward.
"The proposed solar plant is a large venture for such a little known company. They key to its success and benefit to the country is being plugged into the electricity distribution grid," energy industries analyst Collin Reynolds in Bangkok told The Irrawaddy. "From what I understand, the grid is in poor shape and urgently needs renovating."
Major US Firms to Fund $7 Million Microfinance Scheme for Women
Giant American companies Coca-Cola and Chevron have pledged millions of dollars to help improve the lives of more women in Burma by giving them access to finance and communications technology.
The two firms, working with the Washington-based microfinance fund Pact, will donate US$7 million to help 65,000 women in six regions of Burma, said Myanmar Business Today.
Pact is already involved in several programs to help provide funding for poor rural communities, especially women, in an effort to lift them out of deep poverty.
The new funds will expand existing programs and "start efforts in two new regions of the country," Pact said.
"One of the key challenges to lifting people out of poverty in Myanmar is inadequate access to capital. With an average per capita income of less than US$2 per day, more than one in four people live in poverty," Pact said.
Chevron is engaged in Burma's offshore gas industry and Coca-Cola was one of the first big US firms to return to the country after Washington lifted economic sanctions.
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