Asia, Travel features

With democratic elections on 1st April 2012 the future of Myanmar, once known as Burma, looks bright. With tourism increasing and  sanctions likely to be lifted soon a lot will change in this land of temples. On our recent visit to Myanmar we had the pleasure of staying at the Chatrium Royal Lake hotel and interviewing one of the managers, May Myat Mon Win on the past, present and future of Myanmar.

Firstly can you tell us about your role at  the Chatrium Royal Lake, Yangon?

I’m May, my position is Assistant General Manager for marketing and operations. So basically I am responsible for operation and marketing, sales and assisting the general manager of course. In our structure we have 2 assistant general managers, my colleague is responsible for finance, administration and H.R.

How long have you been in the hotel industry?

Long enough! Actually I’ve been in the hotel business since 1994, that was the first wave of tourism here. In Myanmar there were not many international hotels at that time. Including the previous company I worked for there were only 3 back then. There was a lot of people coming in, full of prospects, full of hopes and things didn’t go as we expected but now we’re back again. A new wave.

Can you tell me a brief history of Chatrium Hotels

Chatrium Hotels and resorts is a Thai company, the owner is affiliated with Bangkok Bank. In Bangkok we have 5 sister properties including the Emprium Suite, Chatrium Riverside and residence. We cater to the top end of society in Bangkok. We’re also developing properties in Shanghai. In Myanmar we only have this property… so far.

We opened the Chatrium Royal Lake, Yangon in early 1998 so it’s now 14 years old. We opened as Nikko Hotels which is a management chain but now it’s owned and managed by the owners of Chatrium. Chatrium by the river in Bangkok our newest property. The view over the river is very nice.

Has tourism changed much in Myanmar especially since 1998?

Myanmar tourism has had a lot of ups and downs since our hotel opened.  Because Myanmar is quite a unique place tourism is quite sensitive. So tourism depends on the country’s moods. When we talk about tourism it’s not only tourists but also investors and businessmen. All people coming in to Myanmar. So when we have a natural disaster or even man-made disaster the tourism suffers immediate downturn. Then it picks up again, it’s very sensitive. But now things are changing and we have a very positive future. Now we have more tourists and especially more from the business sector.

As a destination Myanmar is full of wonders, full of mysteries. People are curious like you. You’ve heard of Burma and our histories right. They wanted to come here and see and feel it for themselves, since they were young. Now fortunately they can and it seems like everybody wants to come here.  We get a lot of requests and demands, I mean they want to come in from everywhere which is very good.

What are your highlights in Yangon?

Shwedagon of course! Shwedagon Pagoda is my favourite. It’s very important to us, even though you’re not a Buddhist it’s still a wonder, you know. It is a really peaceful place, very beautiful and magnificent. There are many things related to religion or history or legends. There are many interesting things that you can see. Bogyoke Aung San Market too, it’s great not only for shopping, it’s a very interesting place with a mixture of locals and tourists. I never get bored of going to that market! It’s very interesting, very vibrant and colourful. You can get fabrics and accessories, shoes as well and for foreigners all kinds of souvenirs. It’s a real one stop place, it’s very nice. China town is great too. Full of shops and chinese temples. The lake is also very interesting, local communities go there for morning exercise and there are tea shops too. We have 2 lakes in Yangon. Along the lakes there are lovely restaurants and people strolling around.

From Chatrium to Shwedagon is about 20 minutes to walk and the walk is very pleasant. General Aung San’s Residence is just behind our hotel and is worth paying a visit as it is a museum now.

Are there any unusual places that tourists might not know?

Yangon river where maybe not many tourists have explored yet. There are a number of cruises running now which provide an interesting perspective of Yangon. It’s very different to see not only the ships at the port but all the buildings lining up along the Strand row. The scenery is very nice.

Where should we eat and what’s traditional Burmese food like?

Mohinga is our favourite dish. Myanmar people can’t live without it. From morning until supper we can have this meal. It’s basically a noodle with fish gravy. We add some crispy fried things and vegetables. It’s nice.  Laphet is also popular. It’s tea-leaf salad, a mixture of beans and tea leaves. It’s served at most of the local restaurants.

What is the future of tourism in Myanmar?

The country will not go backwards. Recently the president gave a speach in Mandalay with elections in April so things are going positively. They’re going to revise the investment law which is going to be more accomodating and welcoming. I think the trend will go on, things will be much better. At the moment our foreign visitor arrival is so small. Last year (201) was just 400,000 tourists only. Low compared to our neighbours so we have room for improvement. At the moment the problem for Myanmar is capacity, the hotel is full almost every day which is good to hear but it’s worrying for future tourism if people cannot get decent accommodation. We’re running 94-95% average occupancy. It’s very good for us.  We are looking at a bright future, a positive future. That’s what people here want.

When you’re not working what do you personally like to do?

I like travelling so if I have a chance I will just grab a bag and go travel! For short holidays of course I go to Bagan! It’s a place that is very inspirational. It’s difficult to explain, I can’t find proper words to describe, it’s very very magical. If you go there you will feel the magic, you’ll have to come back again and again! It’s a very nice place. Inle is more about the scenery and the local people. Most of their livelihood is based on the lake. They live and work on the lake! Floating plantations, very quite.

Also in the south is the Archipellago. Many many islands, beautiful and untouched. Some people prefer it before it gets really developed. Before the island resorts and hotels. There are small resorts and you can travel by boat, snorkelling. You can see the natural corals. There is diving there as well. There is not much infrastructure which we need to improve. The tourists usually come from Phuket on a day return.

Where is most investment coming from at the moment?

For tourism there is now some local investment and lots of investment from outside the country. Mainly Singapore and Thailand at the moment and we hope that more investors are coming for the tourism industry. We hope the future is bright here and we really look forward to it.

It’s time! The year for Myanmar!

Thank you to May Myat Mon Win for her time and hospitality at the Chatrium Royal Lake Hotel in Yangon. You can read our full review of the Chatrium in Yangon here.