Reflections on Burma/Myanmar
“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land that one knows about.” Obviously, I have to start by quoting Kipling like everyone else, mainly because it remains true. Men wear longyies, a long plaid skirt-like garment, and have red stained teeth from constantly chewing betel nuts. Women wear thanaka, a traditional white make-up that must work since they all have flawless skin. Shitty old cars with steering wheels on the right share the right side drive roads with chassis-less trucks, pick-ups that double as buses, bicycles, motorbikes, and the occasional ox cart. In Yangon city limits, motorbikes are banned, which is almost surreal in an Asian city. Tables with public wireline phones are set up on the streets next to stands that sell betel nuts, cigars, and cigarettes by the single stick. Regular people that aren’t involved in tourism smile and say hello. McDonald’s does not exist here, nor do any corporate chain of stores. The country has two names, and I still haven’t figured out which to use so I alternate.
This is a time of great change in Myanmar. Things are opening up economically, but it’s still a far cry from Thailand. Infrastructure is improving, but largely in weird ways. The generals have built a new capital, and they are building decent roads to connect it to Yangon and Mandalay. However, as they are trying to banish remnants of imperialism (the new capital, changing place names), they do next to nothing to maintain the crumbling buildings in central Yangon that the Raj built, buildings where people actually live. The rail system is a joke, basically nothing has been done to improve it since the British left. ATMs are still non-existent.
Getting here isn’t easy right now, but it’s easier than before. The visa process was less difficult than I thought, even though the visa application itself had some strange questions such as “father’s name.” However, the total lack of ATMs and the fact that only a handful of high end hotels take credit cards make cash an ongoing problem. Changing money here requires pristine U.S. Dollar notes, and I had to waste 400 baht and half an hour in a Bangkok bank changing my perfectly legal tender to slightly prettier bills. From what I understand, “damaged” bills (like with a pen mark or a crease) bring a considerably lower rate. 100 dollar bills that have a pre-1996 small-headed Ben Franklin or with a serial number that starts with “CB” may as well be Monopoly money, they can’t be exchanged at all. Word on the street says that Yangon already has its first ATM machines, and that they will go online soon.
A lot has changed just since the printing of Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” in 2010. The LP book is littered with warnings of power outages, but I only experienced a couple of very short ones. Wifi is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but I had little trouble finding it in a number of places, agonizingly slow though it may be. Lonely Planet also warns of terrible exchange rates at the airport (400 kyat or so to the dollar) but this is also no longer true. The worst exchange rates I ran across were at guest houses. At these guesthouses, most proprietors were forthright with this information and advised guests to exchange elsewhere.
More than any country I have visited, Burma has a dual economy. I had US dollars and local kyat in my wallet all the time. Guesthouses, boat tickets, bus tickets, and entry fees generally only take dollars, and most everything else involved kyat.
The dual economy extended beyond currency. As I mentioned in my posts, several towns or regions require a combo pass to see the attractions, and these combo passes are paid for in dollars, and only by foreigners. I paid a $10 fee in Mandalay and a $5 fee at Inle Lake, but I avoided the $10 fee for Bagan by chance and the $3 Mingun fee by stealth. I don’t mind paying fees for the upkeep of these places, but it’s widely known that the money just goes to the junta government rather than to any actual maintenance.
When it comes to dual pricing, I know that I’m not going to get a local price if I’m haggling with a vendor, and I have no problem with this. If the real price for a pack of smokes is 75 cents but the guy who set up a makeshift store on a plywood table wants to charge me a dollar, that’s fine. I know the extra quarter matters a lot more to the vendor than it does to me. In my opinion, when the government does the same thing, it’s not so kosher. If the New York Subway or the Grand Canyon charged foreigners more than Americans, it would be unacceptable. In Thailand or any other Southeast Asian country I’ve been to, a train ride or boat ride costs what it costs, regardless of your nationality. In Myanmar, the government runs the boats and the trains, and it charges tourists 10 times more than it does locals. My solution – I took the bus.
Politically, it would be hard for me to have visited Burma at a more interesting time. Aung Sun Suu Kyi was on TV every day, touring Europe and giving speeches. A lot of local people were open with me in their dislike of the government. It was even used as a selling point when I was booking a trek. I trekked with one local guesthouse, and when I was talking to them about the trek, they told me that their primary competition in town was secretly involved with the ruling junta, and that if I trekked with him some of my fee would make it to the generals. I intended to ask the competitor about this, but didn’t because his restaurant was empty and I didn’t want to eat in an empty restaurant.
In Mandalay, I sat down and had tea with a couple of monks, but only the younger one spoke. I presume the older one, the abbot of the monastery didn’t speak English. “We think things will continue to change,” the 20-something monk said, sipping his tea. “But they have the guns. We just have our bowls.”
The young monk was quite excited by Aung San Suu Kyi’s European tour, and he handed me a couple of newspapers from that day. I couldn’t read them since they were in Burmese, but there were several pictures of The Lady delivering speeches throughout the paper.
As I mentioned before, I still don’t know what to call the country. The pro-democracy monk I spoke to said “Myanmar”, as do my two Burmese friends, who both fall on the NLD side of Burmese politics. The Mustache Brothers of Mandalay said “Burma,” as did Aung San Suu Kyi on TV. I was in a barber shop near Bagan getting a haircut when she was on TV delivering a speech in Europe, and the guys there were clearly resentful of the fact that she called the country Burma and not Myanmar.
Burma isn’t a place one can just be and relax. It’s not Ko Tao. It’s a place that constantly challenges any conventions you may have, a place that you have to think about constantly. Of course, it may not be this way for long, which is why I’m so glad I went when I did. I’m really lucky to have hit such a sweet spot in timing, both within the year and in the long term. I was in the country during the low season, but right before the monsoon started, so both crowds and weather were favorable. More so, I was there in the summer of 2012, as America was normalizing relations with Myanmar. Hilary Clinton had recently visited. President Obama would soon follow. Aung San Suu Kyi had recently been elected to a parliamentary post, and it looks unlikely that she will be jailed again. Five years ago, when my buddy Scott visited, it sounded like a very different country. Scott told me I would spend a lot of time reading and writing in Burma, but because I made so many friends there, I had little time for either endeavor. As I said, Myanmar attracts a different type of tourist than Ko Tao right now, but in five years it could be fully entrenched on the Banana Pancake trail.
I talked to my taxi driver on the way to the Yangon airport about these very issues. He told me that the tourist season is busier every year, and that the winter of 2011-2012 was by far the busiest he had experienced. He told me that a major new airport was being built between Yangon and Bago, that Yangon was building new hotels all over town in every price range. We both agreed that, should the country continue to open up and introduce modern banking and infrastructure, it could easily become the top tourist destination in Asia within 20 years.
That’s the thing, I guess. Burma has mind-blowing sights, beaches, mountains (um, the Himalayas), islands, an interesting history, tasty food, and the nicest people you’ll ever meet. It’s also wedged between China and India and a few other densely populated countries, so Yangon is within a five hour flight to billions of people. Bagan would be one of the 7 wonders of the world if it had a better publicist. Myanmar’s only impediment toward replacing Thailand as the belle of the Southeast Asian ball is fully man-made in the form of its government. If that continues to change, there’s really no limit to Burma’s tourism potential.
Of course, as the monks said, that’s a big if.
As I final note, if you have the time and the money, go, and go soon. Go this year. Ride a bicycle along the temples of Bagan. Stare in awe at Shwedagon Paya. Watch the fishermen of Inle Lake row their boats with their legs. Trek through the mountains. Talk to as many people as you can. Catch the Mustache Brothers’ show. Hang out in a tea shop. You will never regret it.