Some of my friends (and Kat) like to tease me that after I’ve been in a foreign land for any length of time over five minutes, that I will act as an “expert” on that place and claim to know everything there is to know. I think they’re ridiculous, of course, but I can say one thing with certainty – after a few days in Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is officially known) I am not an expert. I don’t think you can be. This is a place where you can observe very closely and still have no idea what’s really going on. It’s perplexing and in many ways indescribable, but I am really happy to be here.
Burma is experiencing a real moment right now. The quasi-military government is slowly engaging in a reform program, so instead of being REALLY bad guys, they’re not-as-bad-as-we-USED-to-be bad guys (Even as I type this the government is waging a mid-scale counterinsurgency against several ethnic hill tribes and many of Burma’s Muslims are locked up in camps). Most notably, they released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest and she now holds a seat in Parliament as the opposition leader. President Obama visited the country just a few months ago becoming the first U.S. President ever to visit Myanmar. Search for Burma tourism tips on the internet and you’ll be flooded with articles with the same basic message: Everything is changing in Burma and you need to come NOW before tourism ruins it forever.
This surging popularity has pros and cons for tourists. We’d heard horror stories about travelers planning on finding accommodation on arrival in each place and finding that there are literally NO rooms available in an entire city. There’s just so much demand and not enough supply. This also has led to skyrocketing costs on just about everything. If you see a price quoted in a 2012 guidebook for a hotel, it’s likely double that now.
Given competition for hotels at the major sites as well as the fact that the internet just baaarely works in Burma (“fast” internet is probably something like AOL from 1995 – you can check email but that’s about it), making it hard for us to plan ahead outside the country, Kat and I did something we have never done: we hired a travel agent (located inside Burma). Our travel agent helped us set up an itinerary, book hotels and work out logistics, including transfers to/from hotels, bus stations and airports. It’s a good thing we did. Our travel agent told us that we got, literally, one of the very last rooms available in Mandalay.
Still, we like to be independent travelers so we made some things clear to our travel agent. First, we’d be in charge of all our own meals, this allows us to keep costs down by not eating in tourist restaurants. Secondly, we would not travel at all internally by air. Burma’s domestic carriers have very old planes and suspect safety records. Tourists fly them all the time, but I think they are just accidents waiting to happen (in fact there was an Air Bagan crash just a few months ago that killed 4 people). Taking buses will keep costs down (A bus will cost $20 while a plane will cost $100), and a lot of money spent on air travel winds up in the hands of the government, which is something we are trying to keep to a minimum. The bus rides are long and bumpy (we’ve got 3 bus rides, 8-10 hours each) but they are safe(er) and ethical.
Just getting to Burma here is a pain and I really wasn’t sure it would be worth it. The first issue is that you must get a visa to enter Myanmar. This is usually not a big deal, except Burma uses its visa process to try to weed out journalists, aid workers and other types who the government might find undesirable. The visa application requires you to fill out an employment history. This presented a problem for Kat and I – Human Rights Campaign and Department of Homeland Security would probably both raise some red flags with the Burmese consular officers, so we had to be…creative…with our work history. For the record, Kat has enjoyed a long successful career as a “party planner” and I am currently an “Office Manager” at an internet startup company. We hear that a few years ago, they used to be much more strict about denying visas, but from our experience, it seemed like they didn’t really care about politics and were just much more interested in collecting the fee and getting you out the door.
The second irritating issue about traveling to Burma is money management. There are no ATMs in the entire country and nowhere takes a credit card (I did see an ATM at the airport in Yangon – another sign of big changes coming to Burma – but it was unclear whether it was working) and so you need to bring your entire budget with you in cash – and if you run out of money, you can’t get more except through wire transfer (and I don’t think anyone under the age of 50 even knows how a wire transfer works). Oh, and another thing, you can’t get Kyat (Burmese currency) outside Burma, and they will only accept US Dollars for exchange. Ah, sorry, one last thing – they prefer $100 bills (you’ll get a worse exchange rate for smaller bills) and the bills have to be PRISTINE. They cannot have a fold, crease, mark, tear. We couldn’t carry our money in my wallet because it would bend the bills. So our last few days in Bangkok was spent going from bank to bank trying to change Thai baht for BRAND NEW $100 bills. When we changed some money at a Yangon hotel, the guy at the desk closely examined the bill, eventually deciding that he would accept it – but not before taking out an eraser and cleaning up some microscopic smudges on the border of the note. Why is it like this? I have no idea, but as a friend of ours said in response to this “Woah, so they only will accept brand new hundos? That’s pretty baller, Burma.”
Kat and I were pretty frustrated with all of this. The stress of the money and the visa, the stress of not being able to travel as independently as we like and having to map out our entire itinerary in advance. We at one point discussed bailing on Burma altogether – but I am SO GLAD WE DIDN’T. There are lots of amazing tourist sites in Burma and I am excited to see them, but even after only a few days I know that I will forever have a spot in my heart for this place because of the kindness of the Burmese people. People here are genuinely excited that you are visiting their country and want you to feel welcome. Walking down the street you will be smiled and waved at by everyone from babies to grown men. Teenagers on buses will pass you and yell out “HELLO! HEY MAN! WHERE YOU FROM?!” In other countries in Southeast Asia, this is the beginning of a scam or an attempt to sell you something. Here in Burma, it’s just because people are excited to see a foreigner and want, just for one fleeting second, to make a connection with you. It’s heartwarming and wonderful and even though this place is WEIRD for a bunch of reasons, you never feel unwelcome or uneasy. People stare at you everywhere, but it’s just because they are curious and when you wave or smile at them, they’ll break out into a huge grin and wave back. If you say hello in Burmese (Min ga la ba!), this will cause an eruption of giggles. When we say we are Americans we invariably get the same response: “America great country! Mr. Obama! Very good! Very very good!”
One down side of Burma is for sure the food. It’s…brown. Food is either deep fried, covered in oil or both. It’s sort of an odd mélange of Chinese and Indian food without any of the personality of either one. One really unique and tasty dish is laphet thoke, which is a slightly spicy fermented tea leaf salad. It tastes almost like a light pesto. The local beer, Myanmar Beer, is actually quite good though. One of my favorite things about Burma, in fact, is that all bottles of Myanmar beer are themselves a bit of gambling. Under each bottle cap you have a chance of winning a free beer (or having the beer you’ve just drank taken off your bill if you are at a restaurant) or getting a 200 kyat discount (about 25 cents).
One last observation on what makes Burma a bit odd: All the tourists here are OLD. I mean, 60’s and 70’s Europeans on package tours. Burma is relatively expensive for SE Asia, hard to get to and definitely not a place to party. Because of this, you don’t get a lot of the 20-something gap year backpacker kids that are an inescapable virus throughout the rest of the region.
Still, while it’s wonderful to be here it’s frustrating too. You never know exactly what is going on. People still can’t really openly discuss politics without fear of government persecution. You never know exactly where your money is going – you try to make sure your money isn’t being spent at hotels or restaurants that have government connections, but you really can’t ever know for sure. People seem so joyful and happy, but this is a country with a painful history and people still are suffering today due to the government’s oppression. I’m happy to be here and I can’t wait for more of what Burma has to offer, but here more than anywhere else, I feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler. One thing’s for sure – I’m no expert.
NOTE: No pics for now as we’re still in Burma and the internet is suh-looow. We look forward to uploading pictures of this beautiful and amazing place (and telling you more stories about the specific places we’ve been) once we return to lands of faster webbernets.