Saturday, February 16, 2008

Initial Impressions of Myanmar

As our guesthouse mini-van brought us from the Yangon airport to our guesthouse across town, the alien sights of this country attacked our senses. Men going about their business wearing long skirts called longyis, faces plastered with a white paste I had never seen before, a mixture of cars with steering wheels on the left and right sides, pot-holed roads, monks walking about in their robes, and the sweaty temperature of this city as the morning sun quickly rose along with the temperature. I could tell this was going to be an adventure, I just was not sure whether it would be an epic adventure or one to forget.

That afternoon we made our way down to the central market to change money. The "official" exchange rate is a joke and no one actually exchanges money except on the black market. And the only money generally accepted for exchange here is the US dollar, preferably large denominations for the best rate. There are no ATMs in Myanmar and we never did see anywhere that accepted traveler's checks or credit cards (apparently the latter can only be done by proxy by a Thai affiliate for the few businesses with such a capability). So the US dollars that you bring into the country on your person, all in cash, are all that you are going to be able to spend on your visit here -- there is no other way for a tourist to get money from outside the country. In fact, it is not even legal for Myanmar citizens to save dollars although this is ignored by everyone. For our first money change, we changed a single US $100 dollar bill for 124,500 Kyat (pronounced like Chat). So we received 124 bills of denomination 1000 and a single bill of 500 denomination. This amount of money does not fit into your pocket and you feel like a Colombian drug lord carrying around such a wad of cash.

The wad of Khats in the picture below is worth less than $50 US dollars. We never did see any larger denominations.

One of our early observations was that there are almost no foreign brands here. Even Coca-Cola is imported from Thailand and the words on the can are in Thai sanscrit writing. We never did see a Western chain store of any kind during our visit.

The power was out for most of the day at our guesthouse (which was quite nice at $10 per night), but they have a generator that they often run which is fine except that it does not power the A/C. Any business worth their salt here has a generator. That first evening when we went out, we were shocked to see that the city is mostly dark. We could hear generators which were apparently the power source for most of the scant lighting that we saw. Power is a scarce commodity here, especially consistent power. Even routine walks at night require a torch lamp (thankfully provided by my former co-workers as a going away gift!) If it was like this in the country's wealthiest city, where the Burmese generals who control the country live in relative opulence, what would it be like in the rest of the country?

Although during the anti-government protests in September the media and internet were mostly shut off, I was able to view BBC broadcasts in our guesthouse. Internet access is spotty in the country and accessing email sites requires using proxies which every internet cafe we visited knew exactly how to set up. A mobile phone sim card costs about US $2500 here meaning that almost no one has one. In reality, more outside media broadcasts are allowed here in Myanmar than in a tightly controlled country like China which I discovered during my visit there still maintains a shocking amount of control over the fundamental freedoms of its people.

As we toured the country, the Myanmar that began to emerge is a country where the people are incredibly warm and friendly, a people who have a deep and special admiration for the USA and the beacon of freedom that it represents to them, and a people that thoroughly understand the situation with their oppressive government even if there is nothing that they can do about it.

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