Plus information for travelers on the nuisance that is kyats vs. dollars...
06.05.2012 - 20.05.2012 46 °C
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Burma: Land of Wonder
Myanmar (Burma) is the least developed country we've traveled in with the exception of Kenya for Leah, and in many ways it is like taking a step back in time. Most of the people live in small villages or towns, many without electricity. Villagers cook over wood fires inside their homes made of woven bamboo. Outside the cities, indoor plumbing is nonexistent. Oxen-pulled plows are used for cultivating land and in rural areas horse and buggy is the main mode of transport. The major roads and highways, although significantly better than anticipated due to very recent improvements, are often unpaved and uneven, making travel through the country long and arduous. Even the cities, albeit more developed than the countryside, are not exactly thriving metropolises. Most of the low, stone buildings are dirty and decaying, although the architecture can be quite beautiful. Electricity flickers on and off. Cars from the 70's and 80's whiz down cracked roads with little regard for order, filling the air with dirty exhaust. Garbage fills the streets and sidewalks, spilling into the open sewers. Filthy, barefoot children wait tables in street side restaurants, which offer plastic tables and chairs for dining on slow-cooked curries that simmer over barrel fires. Mobile phones are rare, but for a fee, calls can be made from telephones that sit on folding tables at most major intersections. Even as I'm writing this, I'm watching from my hotel window in Yangon as a goat wanders aimlessly down the street, which doesn't seem to be an unusual occurrence to passersby on foot and bicycle. Despite this description, however, it should be stated outright that Myanmar is easily one of the most amazing countries we have had the pleasure of experiencing.
As soon as we arrived in Myanmar, a few things stood out. First, all of the men wear the traditional longyi, or sarongs. Women wear them, too, but it is especially unusual to see men wear them outside of Buddhist temples in Asia. Women and children wear beige face paint. It is applied as a kind of sunscreen to the whole face, but then more is added in big circles or other shapes on the cheeks and forehead because it is considered aesthetically pleasing. The men constantly chew "betel nut," which is actually an Areca nut rolled in a betel leaf. Chewing it is carcinogenic and stains teeth the color of blood; many Myanmar men have badly damaged or no front teeth at all from excessive chewing. Like chewing tobacco, you spit a lot, so we noticed it right away since men were taking turns spitting into airport garbage bins. Cars are outfitted with the steering wheels on the right, even though traffic moves on the right. Apparently, the government changed the driving side from left to right, but of course the cars haven't been updated to accommodate. Motorbikes were banned in Yangon, which is almost shocking compared to the whole of Asia, where they are absolutely everywhere. The streets are incredibly dirty. Although littering is a problem all throughout Southeast Asia, it was particularly bad in Yangon with massive piles of trash lining the sidewalks and spilling into the streets, inviting thumb-sized cockroaches and huge rats to thrive in the filth.
Perhaps the most striking thing we noticed upon arriving in Myanmar, was the outrageous cost of petrol at an average of $4.75/liter (over $14/gallon)! As such, the country overall can be quite expensive, which also did not take us long to notice. Like anywhere, one can find ways to eat cheaply. Street food was as little as 12 cents for a piece of bread and a dollar for a decent meat curry. Clean, reliable restaurants, however, were much more expensive, averaging about $3 for a main. Beer was expensive everywhere at about $1.75/bottle. The real expense of traveling -transportation and accommodation- was unavoidably high. For obvious reasons, transportation costs were out of control. Taxis charged about a dollar per kilometer, and buses across country were about $15-20, which is expensive for Asia. Hotel rooms that would cost $8 or $10 for two people anywhere else in SE Asia, were anywhere between $15 and $25 in Myanmar. This is because the government either owns the "foreign-friendly" hotels or will only allow certain establishments to accommodate foreigners, taxing these places about 25% or more.
The money situation in Myanmar is strange and annoying. Any government good or service (hotels, tourist sights, etc.) can only be paid for in crisp, unfolded, uncreased US dollar bills, so for two weeks, we were forced to carry around a book to keep our bills flat and undamaged. Everything else (transportation, food, etc.) can be paid for in Myanmar kyats, which of course can only be purchased within the country itself in exchange for undamaged bills. (We planned to trade back our remaining kyats at the airport before we left, but the counter was conveniently closed... We donated it to the Red Cross instead.) Exchange rates seem arbitrary. Businesses collecting USD do so at a rate of anywhere between 750 and 820 kyats/dollar, which rarely reflects the current market rate.
- *If you're planning to travel in Myanmar, despite what you've read or heard, make sure you carry more kyats than dollars, as you'll use them more. Change your money at the airport or banks and insist on the amount you'll need, despite their efforts at talking you out of exchanging what they consider to be "too much." Ignore Lonely Planet's advice of carrying small US bills and don't waste your time trying to track down crisp 5's and 1's (especially if you're in Bangkok, where it's basically impossible to track down dollars with so many people departing from there to Yangon). The bigger the bill, the better the exchange rate, so trade in your 100 dollar bills and keep a handful of 20's for hotel rooms.*
Despite some annoyances, we also noticed straight away how genuinely warm and friendly the people are. Also with the exception of Kenya, the Myanmar people were the nicest we've encountered on our travels throughout the world. People were always waving or shouting "hello" from passing bicycles or cars, or stopping us on the streets to chat or offer assistance. (Before anyone living in Korea makes comparisons, let me say that the Myanmar people were not pushy, and were less condescending in their approach, especially since it was obvious we were tourists and not fellow residents.) Even in hotels or other tourist spots, the people were unusually friendly and accommodating, a refreshing change from our experience with the tourism industry in Vietnam. Even those, mostly children, who watched us with skepticism, would break into bright, warm smiles if we smiled first. In many cases, we were invited into villages and homes, which gave us rare and precious glimpses of rural life.
This kind of warmth and hospitality is engrained in the culture. For example, while trekking, our guide stopped at random houses so we could cool off or use their facilities for cooking. When we asked what the homeowners were receiving in return, our guide looked confused and said, "nothing." He explained that it's just the way it is; if someone needs something, you give it to them. In our case, we needed a place to rest or cook, so naturally, the people opened their homes. It was a wonderful experience and a refreshing change from the self-centered mindset that dominates the West.
Our travels in Myanmar were broken down into three major areas with a day on either side for sightseeing in Yangon (which, admittedly, we didn't do much of despite the interesting architecture and many massive golden stupas): Bagan, Mandalay, and Inlay Lake.
Bagan was one of the most exhilarating places we have traveled in Asia, and an undeniable treat. The capital of the ancient kings, Bagan is home to some 2,200 Buddhist temples and pagodas which remain of the approximate 10,000 that were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. They dot the dusty, otherwise barren landscape as far as the eye can see, and we spent the better part of three days cycling amongst them, and exploring them in and out (sometimes even climbing them when permitted), in awe of the sheer number and in appreciation of their unique beauty. They are mostly made of stone, built in a similar, simple style. Almost all the temples house massive Buddhas, as per the usual Buddhist style, and the interior walls of many are filled with beautiful, centuries-old paintings, writings, or stone carvings. In our opinion, Bagan puts Angkor Wat to shame, made that much more enjoyable by the noticeable lack of tourists.
Besides temple gazing and trying to catch the best sunrise/sunset views, we also had the pleasurable experience of privately touring a tiny, local village with one of its some 200 residents. We were even invited to attend the tail-end of a wedding reception, which consisted of the teenage bride and groom sitting at a wooden table while villagers presented modest cash gifts and ate creamy curried porridge and rice. We, too, were given bowls of this delicious local dish, and in turn, presented the newlyweds with a lucky US 2 dollar bill. Also in the village, we were introduced to a cigar maker, a woman easily in her 80s that sucked on a fat cigar rolled with tobacco, tamarin, and sugar cane in a banana leaf, while simultaneously producing smaller versions of this delicious treat for sale to locals (apparently the bigger cigars, about 10 inches in length and 2 in diameter are reserved only for old women).
Following Bagan, we traveled to Mandalay, which, like Yangon, is a sprawling, dirty city that takes a great deal of patience and energy to navigate. The city is centered around a palace, which was unfortunately closed to foreigners. There is also an impressive number of temples and pagodas that fill the nearby hills, but aesthetically they didn't compare to Bagan. They were mostly white or gold, and were pretty dirty.
Although we didn't enjoy it as much as other parts of the country, Mandalay offered a lot by way of culture and history. We spent the better part of a day exploring three nearby ancient cities: Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. The first offered the unforgettable experience of seeing 1,000 monks in line to receive their lunch at a monastery. Because they don't eat after 12:00 noon, the monks each carried massive clay pots that were filled with rice by local volunteers. They were also given some other foods to eat, but we're not sure what exactly. Some locals also handed out gifts of juice or other treats, as well as some small knick-knacks, but we noticed that these, while received with gratitude, were left untouched. The latter of the three ancient cities offered another experience that made our visit to Mandalay worthwhile, a 1.2 km long teak wood bridge that we walked with several locals at sunset.
Out final stop in Myanmar, Inlay Lake, was amazing. We stayed in a small town alongside a river, and spent the first day cycling to nearby villages and exploring local monasteries. We were invited for tea and fruit by one monk into a monastery where he has lived for some odd 60 years. He was adorable, and we regret not asking to take his photo, especially since he seemed to be hinting at it. He definitely had a peculiar fascination with technology.
The following day, we had to rent a boat/driver to access the lake. We began our day by crossing the lake, moving in and out of tomato fields and small villages that were built over the water on stilts. Seeing these villages remains one of the highlights of our journey to Burma. We then stopped along the shore, visiting a bustling early morning market where all the usual goods can be bought or sold. It was most interesting to see the nearby mountain village residents selling bundles of wood (the hills surrounding the lake are almost barren of trees, since most residents make their livings selling wood). We were then taken on a whirlwind tour of various shops and factories, all built over the water, including a blacksmith, cigar maker, and the like. Most were fairly interesting, and we even got to see several Kayan women, who have elongated their necks with many rings.
Following our lakeside adventures, we decided to go into the mountains for a short two-day, one-night trek. The hills were pretty, despite the lack of trees, and we enjoyed the walk, despite the scorching 46/115 degree temperatures. We spent the night sleeping on the floor of a nursery school, which was adjacent to a monastery. We were meant to sleep in the monastery itself, but another group of trekkers beat us to it. This same group of people also did not hesitate to turn the monastery grounds into a party spot, complete with booze, drugs, and a blazing bonfire. Although it made us a little uncomfortable, especially as the monks were hanging about, all the trekking guides and even a few locals treated it like a usual occurrence, joining in the festivities with some traditional dancing and music (many bongos and guitars seemed to materialize from who knows where). Overall, it was an interesting experience, though next time we'd probably prefer a quieter night of communion with the monks. Nevertheless, the trek offered a unique glimpse into local village life, and the opportunity for communion with many locals.
Myanmar is an incredible country, and should bypass all other SE Asian options on anyone's list of places to go. Although we liked that it is off the usual tourist circuit, thus remaining relatively "undiscovered," it was such an amazing country that it wouldn't be fair not to recommend it to everyone. Our only regret is not giving ourselves more time to travel there.
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