Air KBZ Economy (RGN-NYU-HEH)
There are a few ways to get around from city to city in Myanmar. You can hire a driver and depending on where you are going, your travels could take an entire day. You could take the romanticized route and take the train. Unfortunately the trains are not as efficient as those in Europe and the journey can take 12 to 18 or more hours. These trains are not the equivalent of the Orient Express either. The trains are old and bare bones. I really contemplated taking the train for one of our legs, but did a bit more research and found that the leg I was really reviewing often took 24 to 36 hours and that would be utterly awful.
We decided to fly, which was the recommendation from our local guides. I was and little nervous about the domestic carriers in Myanmar because they had some safety issues historically. Those issues are all but gone now. There are a couple of carriers you can choose from. Most of our flights were on Air KBZ.
I had never heard of Air KBZ before, but this Myanmar based carrier operates a series of flights on various circuits. The flight starts in Yangon, goes to Bagan then continues on to Heho (serving Inle Lake) then back to Yangon. There are other circuits too. These routes are operated by ATR-72 (both 500s and 600s). The ATR-72 600s are brand new and the 500s are not that old.
We flew Air KBZ twice, once from Yangon (RGN) to Bagan (NYU) then next from Bagan to Inle LAKE (HEH). Both of these flights were less than an hour and were really nice. It doesn’t compare to EVA Royal Laurel Business Class or Thai Royal Orchid First, of course, but the planes were new and clean (ahem….I’m looking at you, United) and the strive onboard was quick, efficient and friendly.
You don’t have many options for you intra-Myanmar flights, but I’d highly recommend Air KBZ for these shirt hops. Unfortunately, you can’t credit your miles to a mainline western air program, but it’s OK to skip the miles from time to time.
Have you traveled through Myanmar before? What was your preferred mode of transportation? Did you have the long romantic train ride through the countryside or did you do as we did and hop on the nearest plane, which provided quick, inexpensive travel?
Sights and Sites of Yangon
Our trip to Myanmar started in Yangon with a couple days of touring, eating and meeting people. We were picked up at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel and headed immediately to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). The YHT is an independent organization that advocates and promotes understanding and appreciation of Yangon’s historic architecture with a focus on integrating these buildings into the 21st century vision of Yangon. While the YHT has no policy making authority, they do put forth recommendations, educational sessions, tours and even help in the restoration of historic buildings.
The YHT wasn’t technically open during our visit, but they were kind enough to provide a special tour for our small group. The tour started at the YHT offices and then headed out into the street to see the buildings and explore the work done throughout the area by YHT. We even saw some new buildings that were being built recently and much to the chagrin of both YHT and us, some of these buildings are just awful, devoid of any real architectural character.
Our final stop with the YHT was at the Ministers’ Building – formerly known as the Secretariat. This building was the former Administrative Building of the Colonial British Government. We weren’t able to enter the gates nor could we get a tour. This property opens to the public just once a year — or if you provide substantial donations to the renovation process, you can get private tours too — we weren’t here during the public opening nor did we write a big check to get in. Both the buildings and grounds need some repair work, but luckily this building is actually getting renovated and is not slated to be torn down. It is a beautiful building and if you happen to get the opportunity to walk the grounds or get a tour inside the building, please let me know – I’d love to hear the details and see you photos!
As the YHT has a plan for the future of Yangon – blending ancient temples and pagodas, the colonial building and modern structures, they put together a vision of the future. Take a look at this vision of a blending Yangon — does anything look familiar? For those of you not from the Windy City — the skyline in the background is actually Chicago. You can see the Willis (f/k/a Sears) Tower, the Aon Center and the red CNA Tower.
We visited the Reclining Buddha in Yangon, which is the largest in Yangon and one of the largest in the world. There weren’t many tourists when we visited, but we did see many monks and what I presume to be locals at the Buddha praying.
We visited a Buddhist convent shortly after their lunch. At the convent these nuns eat just two meals a day. Breakfast is served before sunrise and lunch is served between 10h30-11h30 each day. We arrived around 11h00 and found the nuns and the novices cleaning up from their lunch. This cute young novice had just finished doing the lunch dishes during our tour.
We took a break from touring in Yangon and visited the historic hotel, The Strand. This beautifully renovated hotel was a wonderful place to relax, cool off and enjoy a cocktail.
After a cocktail break, we continued on exploring the two main temples in Yangon. We were pleased we opted to hire a guide for our trek not only through Yangon but Myanmar in general. While we were stuck in traffic, the vehicle we were in was comfortable and we didn’t have to worry about trying to provide proper directions or ensuring that our driver really knew were we were trying to go.
The Sule Pagoda was just a couple hundred meters from the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, our home base while in Yangon. The Sule Pagoda is the center of the city with the roads radiating from the Pagoda itself. We didn’t enter the Pagoda, as we were told the interior had just a bunch of low quality tourist shops.
Our final major site in Yangon was the Shwedagon Pagoda. We decided to visit this site at dusk and spent about an hour walking around the Pagoda, watching Buddhists praying, dodging children running wild and even jumping out of the way of a small rat scurrying across our path
We decided to splurge on dinner and visited a French restaurant which was about a 30 minute drive from our hotel. Le Planteur has a beautiful outdoor dining area right on a small lake and near the US Embassy. It was too dark to take any real photos of our food, but we enjoyed our selections. The beef was a little gamey and despite the fact that there were a few ducks walking around our feet, the duck was removed from the menu. The meal was quite expensive for Yangon — actually it was pretty expensive period. The space itself was stunning and I spent more time than I should just imagining the old parties held at that property during British Colonial Rule.
What were your favorite parts of Yangon? Did you find a small, off the beaten path, place that just made your trip? What must see places did you visit, but realize weren’t must see?
Sule Shangri-La Hotel – Yangon Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma)
While in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar we decided to stay at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel. We chose to stay here early in our trip planning process. Coordinating a trip to and around Myanmar isn’t easy on your own. We initially didn’t want to hire a tour company but you can’t really book many of your excursions, internal flights, or some hotels online. One way around this is to use a local travel agent – after doing some research, we found that the Travel Desk at the Sule Shangri-La was very helpful for people in this predicament.
After booking, we decided it would be better for us to book with a separate agency not affiliated with the hotel. We didn’t cancel our booking even though we could have saved money by booking another hotel. Our rate of about 150USD/night was high for the city but the cost / benefit still made sense to us.
We had the opportunity to book an airport/hotel transfer directly from the hotel for a whopping 40USD (for a Toyota or 50USD for a Mercedes). A taxi had a flat rate of 8,000 kyats (or 5.33USD). Included in our tour was all airport pick ups and drop offs.
The trip from the airport to the hotel took about 35 minutes with moderate traffic. We pulled into the hotel and we’re greeted by several front door employees who welcomed us and took our luggage.
This is the first hotel I’ve ever stayed where you go through a security screening before being allowed into the lobby. This didn’t concern me at all, just a new experience for me. Bags had to be x-rayed and guests had to go through a metal detector. This is rally just Security Theater – as each time I set off the metal detector, I just told them it was my belt and they let me through without further screening.
Check-in was quick. I have no status with Shangri-La Hotels and I booked a cheap room without club access, so they didn’t have much to explain to me. We were told where the pool was located and a bit of info on the spa, which we had no plan on using (the spa that is).
We were given a room on the 8th Floor. This standard king room was just that standard. Our view was not the fancy view shown on the website – but as I always say, it isn’t often I care what the view from the hotel looks like, and this is a time where I couldn’t care less.
As you enter the room, the closet is on your right and the bathroom on your left. The closet has a standard hotel safe and two bathrobes. I don’t use bathrobes in hotels, and if you want to know why, I can tell you about my gross friend Jeff.
The bathroom was also a pretty standard three-piece setup. Single vanity, a toilet (not in a separate WC) and a shower/tub combination. We didn’t have shampoo in our room – we had to ask…twice…before they actually delivered it. I never travel with shampoo as every hotel room provides it and it is just extra weight in your suitcase. We took multiple showers a day while at this hotel and we had consistent water pressure and temperature. The towels weren’t plentiful, but they were soft and luxurious.
The room itself was appointed with a king bed, a chaise lounge (which was very comfortable for a quick afternoon nap), a desk and a small table for your suitcases. The power outlets were universal outlets where you could plug in US, UK and standard European plugs — plus the room had outlets on each side of the bed. God I hate when hotels don’t have outlets near the bed.
The bed was pretty comfortable and each night turn down service was offered where the staff would close the curtains, remove the decorative items from the bed (shams, etc) and leave us a small milk chocolate. Yes, I do prefer dark chocolate, but I still ate it.
We had a few drinks at the bar – usually while we waited for dinner or regrouped and discussed our days activities. The bar itself was comfortable although a little dated. The service was spot on, when you arrived, you were greeted and given a menu…then it took a while for them to return to take your order and God forbid you wanted a second round or to pay the check — you couldn’t find a staffer if your life depended on it.
I didn’t visit the spa or the gym on property, but I did spend a couple hours at the pool one day. After a relaxed day of site seeing, we ended up back at the hotel around 16h00 and I popped down to the pool. The sun had already moved behind the buildings, so there wasn’t much direct sunlight, but it was still warm with a warm breeze. The pool itself was surprisingly cold – it was quite a shock when hopping into the water. Not many people were hanging around by the pool, but they did have a life guard who made you sign a liability waiver upon arrival and also delivered and setup your towels. There was no bar at the pool area and people were smoking just around the corner from the pool – even though they were close, I only smelled the smoke once, not a deal breaker for me, but if there were more smokers out there it may be problematic.
Everyone we encountered at the Sule Shangri-La spoke near perfect English and greeted you with a warm smile. If I had the need to return to Yangon I would definitely consider the Sule Shangri-La again. It was a comfortable hotel with nice amenities and staff. I wouldn’t consider this a destination hotel, but if the price is right, I would recommend it. I would recommend checking out the prices at the Strand Hotel, a beautifully restored colonial era property near the river. We had drinks there (get the Pegu Club) and really enjoyed the space and the service team.
Where did you stay in Yangon? Do you prefer the larger hotels like the Shangri-La or the Strand, or do you prefer smaller mom-and-pop type establishments? What is a deal breaker hotel amenity for you — do you need a nice pool, a spa, a world class bar?
Thai Airways Royal Silk Class TPE-BKK-RGN (TG 637 & 301)
After spending a couple hours in Taipei, relaxing in the EVA Lounge and showering, we headed off to our next flight – this one to Bangkok on Thai Airways then after a short connection, continuing on to Yangon, but first, I had to get a photo with Hello Kitty herself. Who knew she was such an aviation aficionado?
We were on Thai’s Airbus 330s for both legs on this portion of the journey – different planes, but the same configuration. Since we flew in on EVA’s Royal Laurel Business Class, continuing on in Business was included in the price we paid, and it was a nice continuation. Thai’s Royal Silk (Business Class) on these planes is a bit out dated, but still much nicer than flying in their coach seats.
We boarded through Door 1L on each of these flights, while the majority of our fellow passengers boarded through 2L, right behind the business class cabin. We were surprised at how quickly these planes were boarded and we pulled away from the gate. The seats are angle flat seats – going to 131 degrees of recline. Unlike the EVA flight, there is almost no privacy in these seats. That being said these seats are perfectly fine for a couple hour day time flight. We actually flew these seats a few years ago from Bangkok to Seoul and they did allow us to sleep a bit.
After we sat down and the rest of the plane boarded, we were offered a pre-departure drink, which we chose champagne and orange juice. On both of these flights, we were served Veuve Clicquot N.V – which is a perfectly fine selection – one that we often will give as host gifts back home.
From Taipei to Bangkok, I decided not to have a full meal – I had eaten quite a bit on the flight to Taipei. I just had some more fruit and another couple glasses of Veuve. From Bangkok to Yangon, I did decide to grab a bite to eat and it was really great. I decided to try to Prawn Pad Thai and I have to say that was a wonderful decision – it was better than any restaurant Pad Thai I’ve had.
These flights were easy, comfortable and above all, got us to where we were going in a timely and safe fashion. Would I pay extra to fly Royal Silk on these routes? It’s unlikely, but depending on the variance in prices, I could see it making sense for less than $100 premium – otherwise, I’d suggest staying in the back of the plane and using your money for great food wherever you are going. If you do happen to have an opportunity to try the Pad Thai served on Thai Airways, I highly recommend it.
What do you think of the regional service offered by Thai on their A330 Aircraft? Am I nuts for wanting so much champagne on these flights?
EVA Air ORD-TPE (BR 55)
After leaving the abysmal lounge at O’Hare International Terminal 5, we boarded through door 2L and turned left to our seats in EVA Air Business class. We elected to use United MileagePlus Miles for our international flights on this trip. We were able to find tickets from Chicago to Yangon at preferred times at Saver Prices — so this trip cost us 80,000 miles each, in Business Class from Chicago all the way through to Yangon.
Flight: EVA Air 55 (Business Class)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300
Departure: 00h20 (00h00)
Arrival: 05h00 +1 (04h36 +1)
Royal Laurel Class occupies the first ten rows of the Boeing 777 and is broken into two cabins. The first with six rows and a galley separating the final four rows. All seats offer aisle access and are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. The reverse herringbone layout is one of my favorites. It offers you privacy as every seat faces away from the aisle. Although it isn’t even fully enclosed suite, so people can see you, but it’s pretty difficult.
We were one of the last to board in Royal Laurel Class. Of the 22 business class seats in the forward cabin, 19 were occupied. I found my seat and began getting prepped for the flight – grabbing my tablet and headphones. I noticed the Rimowa Amenity Kit was already and the my seat. It was filled with Harnn products, including lip balm, hand lotion, a hairbrush, a toothbrush and even a screen cleaning cloth. The real beauty of this kit is the carrier itself. Made by Rimowa, this hard sided case is really practical for future uses – United offers those tin amenity kits from time to time and they dent and bend so you’d never want to or be able to use them again. I snagged one of these kits when we flew First on Thai a few years ago.
As I sat in my seat, the flight attendant approached asking if I would like a pre-departure beverage. She also addressed me by name – as did every other flight attendant on board. I wasn’t allowed champagne, but could get some sparkling wine. The tax laws in the US frustrate me. If the airline opens a bottle on the ground they pay tax on it, but not in the air. I had a lovely sparkling wine and a water while we boarded. I was also quickly told that I couldn’t leave my tablet in the stowage area near my seat…and she stood there until I moved it.
The menus were handed out at that point – a food menu plus a separate wine list were opened to the appropriate pages (English language and direction of travel). I was excited to see EVA was serving Krug on this flight, I thought they were serving Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame, but they made a change. The champagne was good…just not enough of it, as they ran out halfway through the flight.
With about five minutes to review the menu, the flight attendant came back asking about my selection. I had been researching the options for a couple of days, so other than the Krug, I knew what was up. I was surprised when they were quasi demanding our selections right then. Pajamas were handed out while the dinner orders were being taken too.
I love airline Pajamas. Yes, I am the guy who complains about people wearing yoga pants to fly, but that is different…somehow.
The captain came on telling us details about the flight and that the door was closed and we were ready to depart…20 minutes before schedule. The Taiwanese appear to be an efficient bunch.
In Flight Service
Climb out of O’Hare was about bit choppy, but just a few minutes off the ground the flight attendants jumped into action, serving our drinks and setting our tables. Before my table was set, I took off for the lavatory to change into my pajamas. Surprisingly they fit pretty well…maybe a little short in the legs, but that is to be expected – I’ve got long legs.
The tray tables are very large and we’re covered with a beautiful cloth – not those thick white bland clothes United uses, but a delicate fabric with a beautiful and intricate design.
Dinner was served.
Throughout dinner I was watching the Brad Pitt movie Allied, which I thought was pretty good, but was it just me, or did you think you were coming in late to the movie?
From the time we took off until dinner service was completed and cleaned was less than two hours. I just hate when the meal service takes a long time. A flight leaving at midnight has two types of people, those who want a sleep immediately and those that want a quickly eat….then sleep immediately.
I converted my seat into and bed, cozied up under the duvet and went to sleep. While it wasn’t solid sleep, it was good sleep. I woke up and few times. It always surprises me how freaking hot it gets on these planes. That’s what really kept me from getting proper sleep…it was just too blazing hot. That being said, I woke up at 09h30 (CDT) after going to bed around 02h15…that’s pretty solid sack time for an airplane.
When I woke up, I polished off a bottle of water and order another meal. This time I wanted the chicken and rice in a lotus leaf. I hit the flight attendant call button and before I could even ask myself “Wait…did that work?” the flight attendant who had been taking care of me all night was by my side. I ordered the chicken, some water and a glass of champagne, which is when I found out they were out of champagne.
This on demand meal took about 10 minutes to arrive as they had to make some more rice. The midnight snack was really great. I paired it with as French white wine. I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to eat the lotus leaf that the chicken and rice was wrapped in, or not. Cutting it was nearly impossible with the cutlery on the plane, so I made the assumption that we weren’t to eat that. What do you think?
After my midnight snack, I decided to watch Arrival, which was on my list since it came out in the theater, but I kept dozing off. The seat was quite comfortable for napping, I’ll give them that. After a few attempts, I finally made it through Arrival. Afterwards I decided to watch A Street Cat Named Bob, which was surprisingly good – if you haven’t seen it, put it in your queue.
Breakfast was served about 90 minutes before landing. I had the western style breakfast – I just can’t get into congee – can you? The breakfast service was fine – the fruit was really fresh, although, I’m not a big fan of papaya, kiwi, cantaloupe or honeydew — the pineapples and berries were quite good. The yogurt they served with breakfast was very thick – like paste from a school project. The thick texture and a slightly off flavor from a traditional yogurt. I tried a few bites of it, but decided I’d hold off. I still had two more international flights in Business Class this day, I did eat the omelette with bacon and grilled veggies. It was great – even for a guy who doesn’t really like eggs.
Breakfast was finished about 45 minutes before landing and I decided to order a Bloody Mary, which was on their cocktail listing. It was a little watery and not all that flavorful – I’d skip it if I were you.
About 25 minutes before landing, I headed back to the lavatory to change into my street clothes and brush my teeth. The lavatory was stocked with toothbrushes, individual mouthwashes, toothpicks as well as soaps, lotions and facial sprays. The lavatory was a little tight for changing. I was constantly concerned my street clothes would fall to the ground and thus need to be burned. Airplane bathrooms are so gross. That being said, the lavatories on EVA were all cleaned by flight crew immediately after a passenger used it. As I was waiting to change, a passenger came out of the lav and a flight attendant asked me to wait a couple minutes, while she refreshed the area. Very nice.
We landed in Taiwan about 25 minutes earlier than scheduled and headed off to the lounge for a shower and to wait for our flight continuing on to Bangkok.
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed this flight. The seats on EVA’s Royal Laurel class are second to none for an international business class product. They offer privacy that can only be beat by a fully enclosed suite – which is tough when traveling with someone – it is almost impossible to have a comfortable conversation with them. The flight crew was stellar – they weren’t hovering over you (except during boarding when they were taking orders and being very strict about certain rules), but when you needed them they were there in a flash. While I have not flown Cathay Business Class from Chicago, I’d say EVA provides the best business class product and service from Chicago to southern China and for only 80,000 MileagePlus miles, you’d be hard pressed to find a better value.
After May 31, 2017, EVA will be operating this flight with their Hello Kitty Branded Plane from Chicago. I’m torn; on one hand I don’t care about Hello Kitty and I’m glad we weren’t annoyed with all the HK branded materials on the plane, but on the other hand, it is such a unique product, I’d like to give it a try — maybe next time!
Have you flown EVA? Were you surprised they they called themselves E-V-A (the actual letters, versus Eva, a name)? What is your favorite ultra-long-haul product out of Chicago? When are you taking EVA Royal Laurel Business Class?