Myanmar Behind The Scenes
We arrived in Myanmar thinking about travelling a bit around, visiting some temples, and enjoying similar kind of vegetarian delicacies like in Buddhist Laos. After resting three weeks in Yangon, we are happy to leave and continue our travels.
We spent most of our time walking around the city, watching locals take care of their everyday businesses, talking to them, making our projects in the quietness of our room and resting. From a pedestrian point of view, Yangon was a bit crowded, but easily navigable thanks to walkways and a ban on motorcycles, and although we could not find any vegan restaurants, we enjoyed an abundance of water melons, papayas, and avocadoes.
Why to travel to Myanmar? One travel guide advertised the country stating:
Contemplate 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the golden rock teetering impossibly on the edge of a chasm. Encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi, women smothered in tlumaka (traditional makeup) and betel-chewing grannies with blood red juices dripping from their mouths…
What the travel guide conveniently forgot to mention is that contemplating in gilded padogas and stupas as well as travelling in the country require a big pile of crisp US dollar bills. No kidding, only brand new, clean and unfolded bills are accepted in Myanmar. Santeri figured out that perhaps the generals prefer to bath only in perfect dollar bills. You can easily figure out the hassle about money because there are no ATMs that would accept foreign cards, and credit cards cannot be used for payments either.
In the streets, the betel-addict grannies the travel guide mythicized may spit on you. Moreover, you constantly have to dodge red ponds of saliva on the ground which makes the country feel as dirty as China. Longyis do look cute, but tlumaka is used to whiten the skin, which according to a local teacher, is unwelcome cultural pollution. Women want to look as pale as Western tourists. We would also add materialism, consumerism, and mobile phones to the list of cultural pollution.
The once secluded Myanmar has become more touristy in the last few years. Now it is the most expensive country in the South-East Asia thanks to the elderly American tourists flooding in encouraged by the recent international news praising democratisation and opening up.
According to our calculations, Myanmar is about 30 per cent more expensive than other South-East Asian countries. This is mostly due to the fact that there is a lack of low-end and basic accommodation options with reasonable price. The cheapest rooms available cost 10-15 dollars/night/double room. We checked a few of them and they smelled of mold and were quite grose. Guesthouses recommended by travel guidebooks, on the other hand, were fully booked and twice more expensive. Fortunately, we were able to locate a well-maintained, but a bit pricey guesthouse in a central location. For us, a month in Myanmar cost more than a month in Australia or Europe.
The current situation is unlikely to be sustainable. If the tourism keeps growing, the prices keep hiking and consequently the value is lost. Travellers have to pay dearly for close-to-nothing. This view was shared by most of the travellers we met and talked with, both Western and Asian.
Oh my Buddha
Like the temples of Tibet, the #1 Buddhist Disneyland in the world, also Myanmarian sacred places are barred with entrance fees. The very first people in the world, which by the way is what the name ‘Myanmar’ means, are very proud of their gilded pagodas.
Money motivates even the little novice monks begging in the streets. They are not looking for food like in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. After relentless begging, monks stride to mobile phone shops and food stalls serving them dishes that are prepared using flesh of slaughtered sentient beings. Although Buddhism is the most popular religion in Myanmar, following vegetarian diet is possible only if you cook by yourself, or fast.
These minor differences compared to Buddhas teachings make mundane Myanmar a perfect destination for balancing your karma. If you have too much good karma, you can get rid of it by visiting gilded pagodas, sowing your dollars to monks and ticket sellers, or even purchase some gold for gilding more pagodas.
If your travels are spiritually motivated, you might enjoy Laos. There are no gilded pagodas, dollar-priced entrance fees and money-begging monks after you, and you can enjoy awesome all-you-can-eat vegan buffets with less than 2 US dollars/person in the capital, Vientiane.
The positive thing about Myanmar Buddhism is that they treat animals better than in their neighbouring countries. We saw only one guy kicking a dog for fun, while in Muslim countries that is a far more common sight.
When Travelling Is Sheer Luxury
Travelling in the country is reasonably priced for locals, but thanks to a nationality-based discrimination, foreigners have to pay many times more. The train tickets are sold in US dollars only and even the hard seats cost the same 30 US dollars as sleepers. A train trip from Yangon to Mandalay (about 16-30 hours, less than 1000 km) is more expensive than travelling by train all the way from Laos to Singapore through Thailand and Malaysia. We decided not to endorse the foreigners-only price discrimination and stayed in Yangon. Later we discovered, however, that the same pricing principles apply to all sights, even the tiniest green areas. Locals get in free while the foreign-looking will be exploited.
Instead of travelling around, we took advantage of our stay by applying for a six-month double-entry visa to India. This saved us the trouble of travelling to Finland or to Sri Lanka just for the visa. Because of India’s tightened visa requirements, getting a visa for example from Africa or Malaysia is no longer possible. The Yangon Indian embassy was prompt and the process straightforward. The payment (25 dollars for a non-reciprocal fax fee, 40 for the visa itself and 2 for a non-reciprocal service fee) had to be made, naturally, in flawless US dollar bills which were closely examined.
Burma, Myanmar, McDonald’s
The Western media have been demonizing Myanmar’s military dictatorship for years. The recent positive news about democratic development and better human rights’ situation are encouraging, but when digging a bit deeper and talking with locals and foreigners working in Myanmar, it appears that there are ulterior motives and a hidden agenda behind those news: The United States is very keen on tapping into Myanmar oil reserves. Because of the neighbouring China and Myanmar’s close relations with Russia, however, it could not be easily invaded.
The actual situation in Myanmar hasn’t changed. There is still fighting between government troops and minority tribes in the border regions that originally sparked the sanctions and the trade embargo of the country. Myanmar, one of the poorest in the world, remains #2 opium producer worldwide and nothing much has changed in the human rights’ situation either. The Nobel peace price became a joke after Obama got it and Myanmar’s own Nobel laureate, Aung Sang Suu Kyu, appears to be fighting more for Western interests and mcdonaldization instead of freedom and democracy.
Are the current news justified or are they mere neocolonialism? Next time you read about Myanmar, ask yourself why that particular news dispatch was written and who benefits from it. There are no objective pieces of news.
The colonial past appears to have more influence on the lives of Myanmar people than the military junta. There are surprising similarities between Myanmar and Kenya, which are both troubled thanks to their British colonial past. Digging out reasons and fixes from the history for the current problems could be more fruitful than attacking current leadership. We are convinced that the country is much better off in the hands of locals than foreigners.
Practical Travel Tips
If you decide to go, Myanmar visa is easy to get for example in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The process takes one week and costs 30 US dollars. You need two colour photos with white background and return tickets. Flying is the only way to enter if you want to explore the country as travel from land borders is restricted.
When you arrive at Yangon airport, bear in mind that the airport staff does not allow anyone to sleep there. Unless your flight arrives before 3pm, when the banks are still open, you will have to take a taxi to the city centre and pay it in US dollars. The public buses that pass near the airport and go to city centre cost 0.5 US dollars payable only in local currency, Kyats.
Arm yourself with a stack of flawless, unfolded, stainless and preferably new 100 US dollar bills. They have the best exchange rate. Forgeries should be fine, too, as nobody is interested in checking the serial numbers. Several banks exchanged currency but the rates are the same everywhere. In March 2012, the rate was 813 Kyat for 1 US dollar. If you have smaller bills, the rate is significantly lower (793 for 50, 773 for the rest). Euro is also accepted and the rate was 1037 Kyat for 1 Euro. The rate is the same for all Euro bills. They were also less picky with the condition of Euro notes as they are plasticized.
In the street, you will be approached by black market money changers offering you much higher rates. You could actually make money by exchanging Kyats to dollars in banks and selling to street money changers, but it is a scam. The minute you start talking with one of the guys, you will be surrounded by a group of others with betel-red mouths. In the end, according to locals, money changers will complain about your notes and lower their rates below the bank rates, or in worst case, cheat you or just take the money and run. Let it be noted that the street mob excluded, local people we met were honest and sincere. For example at cash desks, when accidentally paying too much, our money was promptly returned.
At the moment we do not long for back, but might well return some day to ride the train to Mandalay if Myanmar stops the price discrimination. There is hope. For example they have already given up collecting a double-tax in the airport, which used to be 10 US dollars per person.