I once asked the legendary venture capitalist Alan Patricof, “What is the most memorable place you have ever visited?” He replied that the sight of the pagodas standing like forests at Bagan in Myanmar is something he would never forget. Since then, I’ve wanted to visit the country for myself.
The other day, Bagan came up again while I was having dinner with Mr. Madarame, the founder of Nemic-Lambda and a Buddhist priest. He spoke enthusiastically about what a fantastic place Bagan is. Myanmar jumped to No. 1 on my list of places to visit.
However, it’s been busy at work, and I’ve got four kids. Not to mention, Myanmar is under military rule. If I went there, my family would be worried. (In fact, less than a week after I visited, simultaneous terrorist attacks took place in three places in the capital of Yangon, killing several people.)
If I were to go to Myanmar, it would have to be a secret.
Then an opportunity presented itself. The Asia Roundtable, part of the Davos forum, ran until April 29. Japan’s Golden Week holidays followed soon after. If I took off May 2 and May 6, that meant ten days off altogether. I started thinking about the possibility of going to Myanmar during the first half of Golden Week.
The first issue was work. At GLOBIS I often say, “work hard, play hard.” I’ve publicly stated that people at the top should take the initiative in putting this mantra into action, so I reasoned that taking a few extra days off shouldn’t spark any complaints. I could cover the additional cost of going to Myanmar on my own to avoid mixing business and pleasure and causing any troubles for the company.
The next problem was my family. In the course of discussing Golden Week plans, I learned my wife’s parents were coming to our lodge for the first half of the week. I decided that I would not need to be around for thatーin fact, it might be better if I weren’t. My in-laws would be able to relax more. I would be a good son by inviting my own parents for the second half of the week and could make up for lost time by playing a lot with my kids. Two birds with one stone.
Next, my itinerary. It looked like I could get four nights in Myanmar. One night in Yangon, three in Bagan. My wife would only worry if I told her where I was going, so I decided to say I would be in Singapore the whole time. She commented that this seemed like a long business trip and wondered what I would be doing all that time in Singapore. I assured her that I would write everything in my blog.
For most families, as soon as you get back from a business trip, the conversation starts with, “Welcome home, how was your trip?” In our family it’s, “I’m back—did you read my column?” My blog also serves as reports for the company, so it’s very convenient all around.
So I set off to visit investors in Singapore and participate in the Asia Roundtable. Then, at last, was on my way to Myanmar. I took off my shirt and tie, put on shorts and a polo shirt, donned a hat and sunglasses, and headed for Singapore’s Changi Airport. I boarded the SilkAir flight—a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines—to Yangon. About two hours later, I was looked out the window as we touched down in Yangon. I could hardly see anything man-made. It’s extremely rare for an airport near a capital city to be so undeveloped.
An old bus (without air conditioning) came and picked up the passengers from the airport. A woman, glowing with elegance in white cotton hemp, sat down next to me. The last passenger to get on was an old woman who needed help to climb the steps onto the bus. A number of people immediately got up to offer their seats to her. She refused at first, but eventually accepted the seat from the woman next to me. I felt a little embarrassed about not getting up myself, but at the same time I could sense the humanity of the people of Myanmar, and felt I could trust this country.
I went through immigration, exchanged money into the local currency, and proceeded to baggage claim, where I spotted the first lady who had been next to me on the bus. There was no sign of my suitcase. She caught my eye, so I decided to speak to her, thinking you can’t be shy when traveling.
I told her I had been on a business trip in Singapore before coming here and asked if she too had come from Singapore or whether she lived here. She pleasantly answered, asking me in turn where I was from and why I had come to Myanmar. Since we’d starting chatting, I thought I might as well ask a few more questions. I asked about where she lived, how I should get to my hotel downtown, and if it was safe taking taxis here. I found out we were going the same direction, and she suggested we share a taxi. I agreed, on the condition that she let me pay, and we had a deal.
As I exited customs, I noticed someone from my hotel holding a placard. I walked right by, and then it dawned on me that I may have asked my travel agency to arrange a pick up. As I suspected, it turned out they were here to drive me. Seeing there were no other passengers, I arranged for the lady to join us. So instead of heading into town in a taxi, we found ourselves in the hotel limousine to downtown Yangon.
As we drove in, I asked her all about the country, culture, and recommended sightseeing spots. It turned out she was the founder and manager of a textiles company with some 200 employees. The US currently maintains an economic embargo with Myanmar, so she principally deals with Japan, Korea, and Germany. She is in her mid-forties and has been married twice, but is now divorced and lives with her three children.
As we neared her house, we exchanged business cards. She kindly gave me her mobile phone number and told me to contact her if I had any problems while I was in the country. I wanted to contact her even if I didn’t have any problems. I don’t know when we’ll ever meet again, but it was a fun drive.
From there, I was on my own, and so I began talking with the limousine driver. He was very friendly towards Japan and loved Japanese products. After a while we stopped at the entrance to the Strand Hotel, and a valet came out to meet us. The Strand Hotel is a venerable hotel along the same lines as Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental Bangkok. It was built in 1901 and re-furbished in 1993. The butler showed me to my room. I had my computer with me, but was not able to connect to the internet.
With nothing else to do, I began to read the hotel guidebook. Inside, I found a photo of Kenneth Gaw, from the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) in Hong Kong. We had been great friends ever since meeting at the YEO President University in Los Angeles in 1996. Come to think of it, he had mentioned that his parents were from Myanmar, and that they owned the Strand Hotel. I remembered he had invited me to come and stay.
The guidebook indicated that Kenneth had become the owner of the hotel after his father passed away. I went straight down to the lobby, explained to the manager that I was a friend of the owner and asked how I could get in contact with him. The manager, a Dutch fellow, kindly said he would email Kenneth, but didn’t know when he would reply.
The following day, cold champagne was delivered to my room. I felt grateful for this token of kindness from Kenneth.