My journey to Myanmar begins with applying for a  tourist visa to enter the country. As a travel writer, I wanted very much to experience that first-hand.

These days, you can apply for a tourist visa online too. This option comes complete with courier service to pick up your visa application form and photostatted documents (e.g. passport, NRIC, two passport-sized photos). My travel partner Janet is opting to do that, as time is tight for her and she is quite willing to fork out S$95.

I was told a walk-in to the Myanmar Embassy to apply for my tourist visa would cost me just S$35.

And since St Martin’s (off Tanglin/ Napier Road) is just 10 minutes from my home, I thought why not? But more than the monetary savings, I was curious about the whole Myanmar Embassy experience, especially after being told that the wait just to get to the counter could take 2 hours!

I threw a bottle of mineral water and two books into my knapsack – all ready for the long wait – and headed down nice and early. It was a cool and wet morning, and there was already a row of cars parked along the quiet road outside the Embassy building.

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It’s hard to imagine this is just off bustling Tanglin/ Napier Road. With lush mature trees lining the winding road up, it felt like I was inching into another world. On the Myanmar Embassy website, it’s stated office hours start at 9am. I was at the Embassy gates by 8.30am.

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My first impression of the humble, unassuming Embassy brought a smile to my heart. The paint was peeling and I spotted water strains streaking the external walls. The dated bungalow looked almost out of place in this posh neighbourhood of condominiums. And that was the whole charm of it.

I walked through the open gates. Beyond the small car park for Embassy cars, I see this open-air, outdoor shed of sorts. There were already 30-40 people in the compound, some filling up forms on small tables, others waiting in seated rows.

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I had read that you need to get a queue number first. And that from 1 September 2013, the queue numbers will be generated online so you’ll need to apply for them beforehand. But for now, it’s still a manual queue. And I’m among the last to experience this.

The signs were all written in Burmese so I couldn’t read any of them.  But a gentleman ahead of me headed towards this little open window and I followed him, and voila, an English signboard!

Getting my queue number.

Getting my queue number.

I love how old school this Embassy is. The green-tinted panelled windows reminded me of the outpatient clinic in Geylang my grandfather used to bring me to as a child. It’s a slice of Singapore you don’t see anymore – not anywhere.

I got my queue number and joined the rest of the people under the open-air, covered shed. There was a modern queue number display sign there, the first sign of modernity I came across.

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Yes, I was there at 8.31am. Curious, the embassy was already filled with people. Around me, I could hear young ladies speaking in fluent Burmese. I could only guess they were students or foreign workers. There weren’t many Singaporeans like me around (at least when I was there), a handful of Caucasians, probably there to apply for tourist or work visas.

I glanced up at the queue number display. There were three queues going on simultaneously. For counters 8/9 (presumably for tourist visas), the red number flashed “703”. I was second in line!

Just after I took the above picture, the blinking number switched t “705”. I jumped on my feet, and headed towards the first door I could find. But there was no counter 8/9. I asked the lady behind the nearest counter and she said, “Outside!”

Outside? Outside, where?

I went out and couldn’t see any counter at all. It was just rows of people seated before me. The number had now jumped to “706”. Yikes! I scuttled around the building and spotted this door. Slightly ajar. I peered in.

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No one was inside, even though the room was obviously set up for long queues. Gingerly, I stepped in. To my right were two counters with two Burmese girls serving two Caucasian gentlemen. I waited behind them and it took less than a minute before it was my turn.

I had all my documents ready, so I handed them over to the girl. She looked at my tourist visa application form, looked up at me and said, “You’re a writer? A freelance writer?”

“Yes, I am.”

“When you are in my country,” she said slowly, and with the hint of a smile, “Can you not write about anything political?”

“Of course not,” I chuckled a little nervously. “I’m on holiday!”

She nodded and smiled, and proceeded to process my documents. You would think the Myanmar government – with its recent Junta history – would be stricter and more interrogative with writers. I remember being interrogated in India and Kashmir. At the airport, the immigration officer came running up to me to ask why I was in Kashmir and if I was writing anything about Kashmir.

Compared to that experience, this was all very pleasant. My encounter with these Burmese people – with their odd little accents and genuine smiles – actually made me excited about my visit to the country, where there’s more of them!

I ended up paying S$45 at the counter: S$35 for the tourist visa + S$10 service charge.

“Come back at 4pm to collect your passport,” the girl behind the counter said, handing me a receipt.

“Today?” I asked, pleasantly surprised because I was told the wait was three working days, and today was a Friday.

“Yes, today!” she nodded, a little bemused by my shocked expression.

To be honest, I was genuinely surprised by how efficient everything was. I had two books in my bag, but I didn’t even get to take them out because from the moment I took my queue number to this point, barely 10 minutes had passed. It wasn’t even 9am yet, and that was supposed to be when the Embassy opened.

I checked with the counter girl regarding opening hours – just out of curiosity – and she told me that they are now opened from 8.30am. “But sometimes, we’re open at… 8.10am…”

OK, so the opening hours stated at the Embassy gate and the website aren’t updated! Do take note then if you intend to go down to the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore to apply for your tourist visa. Head down earlier because they are opened before 9am.

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I’m actually looking forward to picking up my passport and tourist visa later today. I’m secretly happy I didn’t opt for the courier service (are you reading this, Janet?) because this was all quite an experience.

In my books, my Myanmar journey has begun. And I’m just another step closer…

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UPDATE: 

Returned to the Myanmar Embassy on the same day to collect my passport & tourist visa.  On my receipt, it was stipulated that collection time was between 4.30pm and 5.30pm.

I was there slightly early and the counter was still closed. A queue had formed and was snaking around the room. And this time, I did not bring along a book!

In any case, once the counter opened, the collection was swift and efficient. Your receipt carries a specific visa number so once you hand over the receipt to them, they retrieve your passport within seconds. Easy peasy.

And so I’m set for Myanmar!

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