…continued from: Travels through Myanmar I – Mingalaba!!!
Let’s see. Where to start. Get the boring stuff out of the way – some general advice before you go:
Visa: OK, first off, I would recommend getting a visa in your home country for this one. In the states it’s a no-hassle straightforward process, although a bit of paperwork is involved. Overseas, it gets a bit tougher and complicated depending on the political situation and particular country your trying to get the visa in. I received mine in the states with no problem. Two people I was traveling with received theirs in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a lot of hassle, a few bribe attempts, and a lot of visits to the Myanmar embassy over a ten, yes ten, day period. They were worried we were gonna sell the girl (my brothers wife). They just didn’t seem to understand that if we were gonna sell the girl, we could probably get a much better price in just about any other country in the world …although she does like to shop a lot …hmmm. The Myanmar embassy in Bangkok was also contacted as an alternative but they didn’t seem to be too excited about issuing visas at the time either. So, if you know your going, get a Visa at home, and possibly avoid a lot of hassle and confusion, as well as possible human trafficking charges.
Money: It used to be mandatory for tourists to exchange $200.00 USD for FEC’s on arrival but this no longer seems to be the case. Note: this could probably change any second, so take with a grain of salt. FEC’s, Foreign Exchange Certificates, were basically a “tourist only” currency which was almost always difficult to get rid of because the locals would actually lose out of the exchange due to government taxes and exchange rates. So no FEC’s for now, that’s a good thing, both for the visitor and the people there. US Dollars are the preferred currency, although Japanese Yen, Thai Baht, Euro’s and English Pounds were also widely accepted. The trick there is that you need to have absolutely brand new currency. US dollars should be 2008 or newer. No marks, No creases, No smudges, or anything like that. This is a big one too. I mean nothing. You can’t fold bills and carry them in your pocket because the crease that causes renders most bills “illegal” and useless. We actually had to leave the country a few days early, having $2000.00 USD in cash that was useless. Spent our last good dollar at the airport. Ashame really, because the people there and the economy could probably use every tourist dollar they can get …but the government won’t let the people take them!!! Don’t blame the people for this either. There are no foreign banks in Myanmar, everyone pulled out. Visa, MasterCard, JCB, AmEx …they all pulled their services years ago. It is almost like a bad rumor that has spread. Creases in bills, illegal. A small mark in the corner, illegal… The problem is, if someone takes the bill, they lose money because of a lesser exchange rate they will receive for it.
On that note (no pun intended), my advice would be to exchange money on the black market, you’ll get a much higher rate than government rates. Illegal, yes, but even the businesses with the government rates will tell you to go down the street and get a better rate. Ha!!! As I said, great people. An alternative to black market exchangers is to book tours, hotels, flights, trains, boats or whatever else you may need through certain businesses in the country that have access to, or travel out of the country. These agents will take most bills because they know that they are perfectly fine in other countries and they are able to “launder” them in Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, etc. The trade off is that you have to use the money right there, booking through them. We found one guy who was particularly helpful in this, with offices in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. We booked airline tickets, ferry tickets and hotels through him and were nothing but pleasantly surprised with the service and honesty. I don’t want to name the company here, but send me a message if you want particulars.
The local currency is called “Kyat”, and, if your thinking these will be brand new and spotless, think again. Maybe, the dirtiest, most ripped up currency I have ever seen. We received a few bills that were actually just a bunch of parts, maybe 20 or 30, slapped between two pieces of clear tape. Mindboggling. A 2009 US Dollar is illegal, but a one Kyat note torn into thirty pieces, flushed down the toilet and covered in mud is perfectly fine. One of those “huh?” types of moments. A lot of talk about money, but well worth reading if you’re going there. This country was like nothing I have ever seen before when it came to exchanging money. Believe me, you’ll be thankful when you go to check out of a hotel and have to sit there worrying as the front desk meticulously looks at every bill, as you sit there for fifteen minutes thinking, ummm, how are we going to pay for this if they don’t take these?
Police/Military: Be prepared to see a large police and military presence wherever you go. Military on the corner all over the cities. Tanks, rolling down the street. Automatic weapons everywhere. I’ve sort of become accustomed to guns, and lately my motto has become “It ain’t a vacation until I either hear or see an AK, or someone points one at me” …having gone through Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Burkina Faso in the last couple years, to name a few of the more “volatile” countries. For those that aren’t so comfortable around guns. Well, use common sense. Don’t fight with these guys. Don’t mess with them, don’t argue, and don’t go around trying to snap pictures of them. Most are extremely nice people who are there to protect, not to harm, you. Being a “tourist”, I find that most military and police go out of their way to help, knowing I am a tourist and am just there to see the country and spend money there. The majority of military and police who I have talked too just want to make sure that I will go home with great memories, great stories about the people and country, and that I tell other people to visit when I do get home. Most are just normal people doing a job.
Local Custom: As always, try to follow local etiquette. In Myanmar, I would suggest to try a bit harder, as the people here aren’t used to the mass of tourists that some other countries in the area are used too. I had no problem whatsoever, but in respect to the people, I would suggest to learn as much as you can before you go. The usual Buddhist and SE Asia etiquette applies, and there is nothing that I would really point out in particular. If nothing else, remember the word for Hello – “Mingalaba” – and when someone passes you by and says hello, turn around and say “Ming –a –la –ba”, and often, more times than not, you will watch a huge smile erupt from the face of the recipient. Honestly, this applies to almost any country you visit. I can’t speak any other language but English, but I can say hello in Burmese, Amharic, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, French, Spanish, and about 10 different African dialects. That one word goes along way in establishing communication, even if you don’t know any other.
Also, certain things apply in Myanmar that you usually don’t see. Child labor is one of them that really comes to the forefront here. Poverty is another. Different ways of life and different foods and customs. It’s all part of traveling. Some good, some bad. Most often, very different from what your used too.
Enough of the boring stuff, and I’m I’ve already made this post way longer than I intended.
…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar III – Money Matters