I am finally getting around to writing about my experiences in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. There’s so much to write about this country that this is going to get very long. Bear with me though, because it’s interesting stuff and I think people should know a bit about what’s happening in one of the more oppressive countries in the world.

In late October I flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Yangon (Rangoon) the capitol of Myanmar. I had met very few travelers who had been to Myanmar and knew absolutely nothing about the country. I tried to keep my expectations at a minimum because I’ve learned that the only time you can be disappointed with a country is when you have false expectations.

The flight from Thailand was my first introduction to package tourism in Myanmar – nearly every passenger was part of a European package tour and I quickly learned that the country is invaded by high paying Europeans who get shuttled around on air-conditioned buses from temple to temple to temple. More on package tourist later though. The medium-sized, propeller-driven plane landed next to the small terminal building of Yangon International Airport and we were quite a herd of tourists as we grabbed our luggage off a cart next to the plane, walked across the tarmac, and got in line at the customs booths. After squeezing through the throng of suitcase tourists I handed my passport to the customs official and waited as several officials recorded my info, thereby beginning the first of many official paperwork forms which would vigilantly track my progress through the Union of Myanmar.

After obtaining my entrance stamp, I walked about four steps to another booth where two more officials awaited me. This was the place where every tourist is required to change $200 US cash into 200 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) at a permanent rate of 1:1. These ridiculous bills, looking more fake even than Monopoly money, are one of many ways that the oppressive military regime profits handsomely from exploiting tourists in Myanmar. It costs the government almost nothing to print this “play money” (which is made in China) so the exchange system allows the government to easily and legally get its shameful hands on real “hard currency.”

For the budget traveler, the problem with getting stuck with $200 worth of FECs is twofold: first, the cost of traveling independently in Myanmar is so low that it’s impossible to spend $200 during the 28-day stay allowed by the visa. The second reason why 200 FECs are worthless is that tourists can get a better rate for buying the real local currency on the black market by using US dollars rather than FECs. Simply put, Myanmar has 3 currencies. The kyat (pronounced “chat”) is the official currency used by the Myanmar people and is what independent travelers need to buy food, bus tickets, and so on. The second “official” currency is the silly looking FEC (always “equal” to $1) created supposedly to “make economic transactions easier for tourists” but it really exists to help the military generals pump more hard currency into their coffers. The third and final “unofficial” currency is the US dollar which everyone wants to get their hands on because it’s so much more stable than the weak kyat. However, to keep the Myanmar people from getting too much hard currency the government has made it illegal for anyone without a special license to have dollars.

Anyway, back to the airport. I had heard from some travelers that it is possible to offer a “present” (bribes are commonly known as “presents”) to the exchange counter officials and thereby not change the 200 valuable dollars into 200 worthless FECs. I handed the officals my passport with $2 in it and said I’d like to change $50 to FECs. They said that the standard present for such a privilege is $5 and that they would allow me to leave without changing any FECs if I would be so kind as to offer them a $5 present. I said I couldn’t pay $5 so after a bit of negotiating we agreed on a $3 present which would allow me to change the $50 as I had intended. I knew 50 FEC would be easy to spend because they can be used to pay hotels and any government fees such as entrances to temples and ruins. They then handed over my passport and 50 FECs in an envelope with a receipt saying I had legally changed $200.

I then picked a hotel out of the guide book and found a cab driver to take me there. After a bit of haggling I got the cab fare from $5 down to $2 for the 30-minute ride to town. I got in the cab with the driver and then 2 more men got in with us and that was a bit sketchy cause I was about to drive off in a car with 3 men to wherever they were going to take me. I shrugged my shoulders, decided to trust them, and we took off down the road.

My first taste of Yangon was great. The men were extremely friendly and we talked about stuff the whole way into town. Along the way we zoomed past buses bursting at the seams with passengers who hung out of windows and off the back steps like monkeys. Most of the vehicles on the road were either white taxis or funky looking buses spewing black smoke. I noticed that there were no scooters around – apparently some government general had a bad experience with a scooter and made them illegal in Yangon. On route to the hotel the men asked me if I wanted to change money, meaning if I wanted to exchange dollars (not FECs) for kyats. I asked them what the rate was and they said they could give me 1,000 kyats per dollar. This was better than the rate of 350 kyats that I was expecting so I agreed to change $20. I waited in the cab on an inconspicuous side street while one of the guys left with my $20 and came back 10 minutes later with 20,000 kyats.

Shortly thereafter I was at my hotel, in a dingy windowless room for $4. I rested a little and then went for a walk around town as it got dark outside. The streets were buzzing with life as people walked to and from wherever they were going. About every 30 seconds someone would pass me and smile and say “hello” as I strolled about with nowhere to go.

While weaving through the sea of people I passed numerous street food stalls and vendors selling this and that. Above the standard city cacophony of buses, honking, and so on I could occasionally hear the clanking of bells attached to small hand-powered machines which grind sugarcane into a refreshing sweet juice to quench people’s thirst in the oppressive tropical heat. Frequently I passed small tea shops where the men hang out, sitting on low stools at low tables drinking tea and talking. While the Chinese and Latin American men mostly hang out and drink beer, the Myanmar men mostly drink tea at these little tea shops. While I meandered aimlessly down the streets, several of the ultra-friendly people invited me to sit down and join them for tea. I was too tired to join them and declined. Later a group of boys invited me to play soccer with them under a bridge but that night I just didn’t feel like doing anything.

Back at my hotel, I met a group of Nepalese men living at the hotel. One of them spoke some English and we sat down and got to chatting. There are many Nepalese and Indians living in Myanmar, most of them still in the country after their service to the British who had colonized Burma until 1947. The Nepalese all wear a white cotton string around their neck as a way of identifying themselves in the foreign country. These men were all chewing betel nut which I had seen throughout Asia but hadn’t tried yet. Betel nut is a combination of various ingredients which the people chew continuously because it gives them a small buzz like a cigarette.

Nearly every street corner has a small cart where a person prepares betel nut through an interesting process. First the vendor lays out 5 green leaves about the size of a playing card. He then smears a bit of calcium paste from a chopped off stalactite onto each leaf. Next he sprinkles a few bits of chopped up betel palm nut over the white paste, adding a sprinkle of tobacco and a dash of some sort of yellow or brown powder. Finally he folds the leaves into a little package, always handing the first one to the eager customer who immediately starts chewing it and stuffs the other 4 into his shirt pocket. The betel nut makes the chewer’s mouth salivate like a dog with rabies, except that the spit (and the teeth) turn blood-red from whatever chemicals are in the nut. Experienced betel nut chewers are able to keep the red betel juice in their mouths for up to half an hour before they need to spit. This means that they talk like their mouth is full toothpaste, with their head tilted slightly back to keep themselves from drooling. I quickly learned in Myanmar never to stand next to a bus with open windows because the people are always spitting this bloody looking juice out of the windows without aiming or considering where the gob will land. I also learned not to ever pass someone too closely on the sidewalk or sneak up on anyone because they just might spit in the exact spot where you’re about to place your next step.

Anyway, the Nepalese guys offered me some betel nut to try. I inserted the green leaf package into my cheek and started chewing. Involuntarily my face immediately screwed up into a contorted mess as the wretched bitter-spicy flavor overcame my manners. Within 30 seconds my mouth was so full of horrible betel juice that I couldn’t talk and was in immediate danger of spilling over. I hurried to the sink and spat out a mass of bloody looking juice, rinsing my mouth out with fresh water to prevent my teeth from becoming the same nasty red color as everyone else’s. They weren’t offended though and we kept chatting while I kept drinking water to try to get the taste out of my mouth.

These men had all heard of the United States and though they’d never been, all said that in their next lives they hope to be born into the USA. I asked them where in the States they wanted to live. New York? Hollywood? Florida? Iowa? It didn’t matter as long as it was in the good ole’ USA. This desire of the Myanmar people to live in the States was a theme I encountered so often that I stopped saying where I was from so I wouldn’t have to listen to them tell me how great my country is and how much they want to visit.

The next morning I headed to the bus station to try to find a night bus north to a lake I wanted to visit. The ticket offices were clustered along a random building with each closet-sized room big enough for a small desk, chair and telephone. As soon as I walked up, I was surrounded by a group of men trying to sell me tickets. That day I learned the hard way that it’s imperative in Myanmar that you purchase bus tickets several days in advance. The ticket for the “16 hour” bus ride was only $4 if I wanted to wait several days. I didn’t want to wait so I pressed the ticket seller to see if there was anything else that could be done. He made some phone calls and said a “black market ticket” to leave in two hours had become available for $18. I bargained the ticket down to $11 (they wouldn’t accept FECs) and then hurried back to the hotel.

I needed to change dollars for kyats before leaving on the bus and started wandering around near the hotel waiting for someone to approach me. Within a few minutes a really sleazy looking Indian guy with lots of gold jewelry and gold rimmed sunglasses and a flashy smile approached me, asking if he could help me with anything. Knowing he was a black market money changer, I asked what his rate was. He asked me how much I wanted to change because there are different rates for each US bill. A $100 bill gets the best rate, followed by a lesser rate for $50s, lesser still for $20s, even worse for 10s, 5s, and 1s, and worst of all for FECs. I said I wanted to change $100 and he offered me a rate of 950. Lying, I told him I had changed for 1,200 a few days ago, and we bargained until we settled on a pretty good rate of 1,080.

The whole clandestine operation was quite interesting. First I followed him for a block or so before we ducked into a small restaurant where I sat down at a table and was handed a menu. He then disappeared into the back and came out a few minutes later with a 2 inch thick stack of bills. Hands under the table, I counted the 108,000 kyats (in 500 kyat denominations) and then handed him my $100 and left, checking over my shoulder to see that no one followed me out. The reason the black market money changing is done so
secretly is that these men don’t have government licenses to change money or possess US dollars so it’s a double penalty. In a country with as poor of a human rights record as Myanmar, it’s no wonder that the people don’t want to get caught doing something illegal.

Incidentally, the official exchange rate for kyats to dollars is 7:1. I know it sounds crazy that you can buy over a thousand kyats on the black (or “free”) market and only 7 officially. Nobody actually changes money through the government, but the “official” rate exists because it allows the government to profit nicely from joint venture foreign investment. Basically, for a foreign company to set up a joint venture in Myanmar they must deal at the official rate, meaning that for every $70,000 the Myanmar government invests, the foreign company must invest $1 million, even though they split the profits equally. Shocking I know, but this is just the beginning of the gnarly things I learned about this government.

So far I’ve only written about my first 24 hours in Myanmar. It’s getting a bit long so I’ll continue in the next email…