Let’s set the record straight. The people of Myanmar are not “Burmese”. Despite what the current issue of Air Asia’s inflight magazine tells you, the world’s newest democracy goes by the name “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. Standing out larger than anything, the wonderful people will likely be your fondest memory of your trip. Diane and I discovered the younger generation’s keen sense of nationalism and pride while trekking through the hills of Shan State (Suffering would actually be a better word but we’ll post more about that later). Rather disappointed with our guide’s poor English-speaking skills, we trudged through the mountain terrain passing only the occasional water buffalo and some funny looking humped cows, Searching for some conversation about the environment, local people or anything to make us forget how poorly the company communicated a need for appropriate footwear, we asked a question about Burmese food.
Coming to life as if we’d committed the ultimate tourism faux pas, he immediately corrected us in broken English and launched into a tirade about how the term “Burmese” represents colonialism and western colonization. Correcting us quickly but unable to explain why the world still mostly refers to their food and people as “Burmese”, his interpretation clearly illustrates a new nationalism and heartfelt sense of pride that shouts “Myanmar people” although he wasn’t sure how to coin a new phrase for the food (We suggested “Myanmarish” or ‘Myanmarian“). Traveling around the country gave us a renewed appreciation of how privileged most of us are. Taking for granted things like paved roads, blackout free electricity and modernized waste disposal systems, Myanmar is a “developing nation” in the truest sense of the expression and makes Malaysia’s infrastructure look like Utopia. But unlike sub Saharan Africa’s corrupt governments or South America’s never ending citizen uprisings, Myanmar functions beautifully and already jumped the development scale tenfold in the last few years, making it the greatest Southeast Asian destination for those seeking safety, a slightly rugged environment and enough hospitality to make anyone feel welcome.
Recapping some of the semantics, I found up to date information hard to come by so I’ll focus on getting settled into the country with this post and share recaps of our stories in the coming days. Myanmar’s government offers a 30 day e-visa that’s simple and easy. Just log on the internet a week or two before, pay $50 USD each and make sure you print and carry a copy with you for immigration clearance. Offering new non stop service from Penang, our Air Asia flight took just over two hours and it’s easy to pin out the luckiest benefactors of the new democracy. Sitting in the airport terminal we spotted a Myanmar family with three very chubby kids all playing with expensive laptops, IPads and smartphones. Still the exception to the rule, the father and son shed the traditional Burmese longyi that characterizes Myanmar’s most prominent article of clothing and while possibly a sign of things to come, most Myanmar people love the colorful sarong like piece of clothing worn by almost everyone and they wear it almost everywhere no matter what profession they’re in. Arriving at Yangon International Airport, we queued on a line for foreigners and although a bit slow, clearing customs is relatively straight forward and in line with most other Southeast Asian nations.
Modernizing the airport, there’s one completed and one uncompleted new terminal building designed to handle an expected increase in international traffic. Clarifying a lot of inaccurate and outdated information found on the internet, here’s the scoop on currency. Planning on joining the international banking system in 2016, there’s a cornucopia of money changers and ATM’s located almost everywhere but power outages and lack of repair staff make many of them useless. Unlike what we read, US Dollars are quickly losing their status as the currency of choice for average tourist transactions. Outside of hotels, fancier restaurants, tour guides and travel agents, most places and all street vendors want the local currency now.
Known as Kyat, (pronounced “chat”) it’s not traded in currency markets so you can’t get any outside of Myanmar. Preferring USD at the money changers, the government also allows conversion of Euros, Singapore Dollars, Thai Baht and Malaysian Ringgit although the last two are hard to find so it’s advised to bring other currency for exchange. Like some other places, only crisp new bills printed after 2006 are acceptable so keep the cash out of your wallet. Rates are highest for $100 bills and much lower for denominations of $1, $5, $20 and $50 (we didn’t find anyone willing to buy or sell $10 bills).
Recommending converting at the airport on arrival, the government sites all tell you to hit the dozens of black market jewellery shops in the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market for better rates. This is an outright lie designed to get tourists into the mostly deserted stream of gem shops. Relatively stable, rates don’t fluctuate that much and they often don’t mark their rates appropriately when the US dollar rises or falls so just look for the highest rate at any airport changer and use an app that shows real-time mid-market rates to make sure you get the best deal. We averaged 1,168 Kyat for 1 USD over the course of five conversion transactions. (Some banks may limit the amount of USD they’ll buy if their rate is favorable but they know the USD is falling so we opted for several transactions on one day for convenience).
Seemingly strange, Myanmar has a higher per capita rate of smart phone users than the USA since they began wiring the nation a few years ago. Before leaving the airport, we recommend getting a SIM card at an airport kiosk. MPT has the nation’s best coverage outside the big cities and only one time in the three weeks did we experience a “No Service” situation. Telnor is the other company and you’ll see their ads everywhere. Offering a multitude of options, we chose a plan with 2.7 Gb and lots of phone time but with the never ending bonus time, we think it’s more like 3 or 4 Gb and you won’t run out in 30 days. Moderately priced at about $25 to $30 USD, it’s well worth your time for nonstop internet coverage and comes in handy if you run into infrastructure issues, delays or simply love to make your Facebook friends jealous instantly (as I do).
Just like Malaysia, international tourists get a typically warm treatment leaving the terminal area where throngs of English-speaking agents offer help for taxis. Also like Malaysia, flying from the domestic terminal is a totally different experience best left for another post. Dimly lit, old, crowded and a bit confusing if you’re not ready, it’s efficient but not in any way you’d be used to if you’re from a western nation. But none of that applies as you make your way out and head into one of the thousands of mostly air-conditioned but often rickety and old vehicles licensed as a “city taxi”. Usually white, metering is not an option and all prices should be negotiated before entering. Taking advantage of the insanely ridiculous amount of taxis, understand how much you should pay and always negotiate down to that price. Unlike obnoxiously unfriendly and seedy Malaysian taxi drives, Myanmar people are easy to bargain with, need your money and would hardly ever refuse a reasonable fare. Never pay more than 10,000 Kyat (about $8.50 USD) for a downtown destination or 8,000 for boutique hotels that tend to be closer to the airport.
And then comes the traffic. Possibly Southeast Asia’s worst vehicular nightmare, the gridlock rivals anywhere on earth and makes Manhattan and Bangkok look like high-speed freeways. Thankfully, they ban motorbikes from the city limits of Yangon which probably keeps it from being totally insane. Highly unusual for Asia, pedestrians rarely have issues crossing because the vehicles never move. First off, there’s more taxis than anywhere else and for a nation recently opened to mainstream tourism, this is totally stupid. Assuming it helps create jobs, there’s simply not enough locals with disposable income and tourists to support them and at least half of them sit empty in bottleneck jams for hours. Comprised of a few main four lane arteries with one set of small antiquated traffic lights at each major intersection, the lights stay red for upwards of six minutes, causing backups from the airport all the way to downtown. Desperately needing an upgraded traffic control system and some better roads, don’t expect anything less than an hour to go the relatively short distance from the airport to your hotel.
Oddly, it seems they charge the taxis cash to go anywhere and everywhere from entering the bus station to pulling up at major tourist destinations so they’re always trying to take you somewhere which makes for easy negotiation, Unfortunately, new hotels and attractions spring up overnight and most working class folks read and speak little or no English. Asking a local to write your destination in Myanmar script will save you some hassles and even then, use your 3G and follow along with Google maps to make sure he turns where he’s supposed to or suffer the consequences of twenty minutes to make a U-turn. Preferring smaller boutique hotels to larger chains, we chose The Merchant Boutique Art Hotel for the first three nights.
Conveniently built on a narrow local street bustling with vendors, small stores, and lots of locals it’s easy walking distance to the Schwedagon Pagoda which is a must see for all visitors. Slightly overpriced compared to other newly constructed boutique hotels, we paid about $100 USD for a top floor suite overlooking the pagoda. Attentive and helpful, they came up and fixed our leaky air conditioner but the short English-speaking South African guy at the front desk didn’t know enough about tourism and we wound up on the crappiest of three bus companies when we traveled to Golden Rock (Hint: Don’t use the company called Winn; ask for the 2-1 bus companies that use Scandia buses with comfortable reclining seats). One great feature of most Southeast Asian Hotels is the free breakfast. Merchant’s was adequate with a few local dishes and limited western food.
For a better lodging choice in a more exciting working class neighborhood, try Accord Hotel. Offering comfortable rooms and a better breakfast, we liked it so much we stayed three different times. Rooms run $45 to $75 and the staff is helpful. And it’s right smack in the middle of a street so crowded, so narrow and with so many old shanty buildings bustling with urban life in a fast changing city, most taxi drivers can’t believe they put it there. In other words, simply awesome. Make sure you walk the streets and take it all in. Despite the heat, it’s the best part about staying at the boutiques. Below are some scenes from the area around the hotel.
Yangon’s six million residents make it a typically large Southeast Asian city but considering large-scale tourism is relatively new, western sanctions were just removed a few years ago and a large part of the working class population lives modestly with little disposable income, there’s a surprisingly large amount of restaurants. (Trip Adviser lists 443). Unsure where to go after a tiring first day, we opted for Aung Thuk Ha Traditional Myanmar Food House. One of Lonely Planet’s recommendation for the best Myanmar food option within walking distance from the hotel, it’s a good introduction to Myanmar’s odd style of curries which use only a small amount of spices, usually ginger, garlic and turmeric. Typically consisting of many curries served cafeteria style like Malaysian Nasi Campur, you pick the ones you want and they’re always accompanied with rice, raw vegetables served with a spicy salsa and soup with greens and a relatively blah soup base.
Influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai, Myanmar cuisine is less spicy and not as complex as Thailand and its curries are quite different from saucy Indian curries. Using an excessive amount of oils, they boil down Myanmar curries twice or even three times,, leaving them looking like an oily mess and many westerners complain they’re all the same. Protecting them from air-borne spoilage in a country without adequate refrigeration is the primary reason for this technique and be warned that almost all street food sits in the blazing hot sun almost all day with flies buzzing about, Rendering most street food unfit for western stomachs, they cook most traditional Myanmar food with untreated water which is a recipe for disaster. Always more daring than Diane, I suffered a 36 hour bout of horrible stomach cramps and diarrhea in the less touristy but awesome city of Mawlamyine after eating grilled street food. But that’s part of the fun and if you try the more reputable restaurants that keep food more protected it’s worth trying. Compared to Thai and Chinese we found it kind of blah but Yangon has lots of other choices including good Indian, Thai and real western so you won’t go hungry in the city.
And that’s a basic primer on arriving in Myanmar. Understanding the food, transportation, currency, hotels and knowing a bit about the city helps and everything changes very fast. Unclear why reliable and up to date information isn’t as widely available as expected surprised me so I hope others find this post while in the planning stages. Although flamed in my first post by a know it all wannabe “online reporter” that’s most likely someone from today’s sad generation that thinks they understand life, I remain highly optimistic for the nations’ future but understand that it ranks far below the rest of Southeast Asia on the international quality of life scale for 191 countries. Realize that certain things may surprise visitors used to decent infrastructure, less garbage on the streets, reliable trains, clean breathable air, modern transportation and villages not entirely built on dust and dirt. Judging a country or its people by its outward appearance would be missing the point of travel. Experiencing the early 21st century in places just emerging from military rule needs to be done with an open mind and closed-minded Trump supporters who think their lives are so horrible could use a lesson in the other 82 percent of the planet instead of complaining about the one percent.
Here’s to Myanmar. Leaving a beautiful impression and endless memories, please check back in the next few weeks for detailed stories of places we visited and travel stories we hope leave you enriched and informed.
Comments and questions always welcomed and appreciated. Life is a never ending education that you never graduate from.