15 March 2010
Myanmar is a country I had wanted to visit but one that is a little less accessible than others in the region. For travel to China and Vietnam, Americans need to apply for visas in advance. This is relatively easy and efficient, done through a visa service (Vietnam) or a modern embassy (China). But, the process for Myanmar – known in the West as Burma – is a little more involved. First, you have to go to the Myanmar embassy, which is housed – well – in an old house just off Tanglin Road. No embassy row, no tight security. You walk through the gates and parking area into a cramped, low-ceilinged first floor room filled with people waiting for I-don’t-know-what-service to talk to the Singaporean uncle (term of endearment for older man) who staffs the embassy. Then, you find out what you have to bring to get your visa. Don’t think that what you read on the official website is sufficient – I had all that. Completed forms, three passport pictures, passport, hotel and flight reservations. But, the passport photos had to be all the same, and I would also need a letter to the Myanmar government explaining why I wanted to visit their country. So, I would come back the next day. The uncle did promise he would expedite the process if I returned the next day, and he did. I got my visa and was off to the Golden Land.
Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that has taken a developing country and turned it into a true third world country. When the British ruled it, they called it Burma, after one of the ethnicities of the vast country. The current dictatorship has renamed it to be more inclusive of all the peoples. Not that they care particularly about the people. The name change was a response to colonialism, much as was the decision (apparently, overnight) to change the side of the road on which cars drive from left to right, to eradicate all reminders of British rule. Never mind that most of the cars in the country are right-hand drive. That makes passing quite an exhilarating experience, to say the least.
I arrived at the former capital Yangon’s international airport and took the short trip into the city center, where I would stay in one of the hotels designated for westerners (you can’t just stay anywhere). I would find that Myanmar is incredibly inexpensive, if you do local things. Western hotels (I was in the Traders) are still expensive – I paid more than $150 a night. But, it was in the heart of the city center, and I could walk to the local markets and even to the big temples.
The local currency is the kyat (pronounced “chyat”), and it trades for about 1,000 per US Dollar. The locals are hungry for hard currency, so you find opportunities to exchange money everywhere you turn. People approach you, and the first thing they say is, “exchange money?” And most of the exchange seems legitimate, done at the prevailing rate. You must, however, have crisp dollars, with no markings, or you probably won’t be able to make the exchange.
I went to the Central Hotel to change my dollars, and I gave the man a crisp $100 bill. He then asked me to walk into the back room, so he could hand me the kyat that I had just purchased. I got 107,000 kyat for my dollars. No big deal, except that the largest denomination in Myanmar is the 1,000 kyat. So, I got a wad of bills that I would have to carry around for the next few days. That wasn’t really a problem, however.
Heartlifting, the Myanmar people are the most gracious I have encountered in all of Asia. They truly are nice and happy people. They are not free to leave the country, and they crave interaction with foreigners. Myanmar law deals harsh penalties on locals that harm foreigners, so it is also a safe place to visit. But, even without this, I found the people wonderful. I am fortunate to have gotten to know my Abacus colleagues, and they acted as tour guides for the first two days of my visit. It doesn’t hurt, of course, when they are three lovely young ladies. After I spent an afternoon walking around the markets near my hotel (with the assistance of my friendly local guide, Mr. Toe, who I met on the street), Sandar, Phyu Sin and Ei Mon picked me up for dinner at a local place (the excellent Myanmar Food by the feel Group). It was delicious! And they wouldn’t let me say no to the food, so we had a little bit (well, they did – I had a lot!) of everything. I even topped it with a Myanmar beer, the tasty local brew (it is much better than Mandalay Beer, the namesake of the mystical city in the country’s interior).
I was joined by Mr. Toe the next morning, giving me an expanded tour of the city center, from the river and the old Strand Hotel to vast street markets to the Sule Paya, a 2000-year old temple that occupies the middle of primary traffic circle at the intersection of Mahabandoola Road and Sule Paya Road, major east-west and north-south streets in the city centre.
I even decided to partake in a local custom – chewing betel nuts. Although officially frowned on (because of the ubiquitous red stains carpeting the ground), you will find betel nut vendors everywhere on the street. They roll the crushed nuts with a choice of sauces inside leaves, and you chew the leaf. It is similar to chewing tobacco in that it gives you a little kick. Or, a lot of kick if you aren’t used to it. I probably chewed for a minute before spitting it out, just to make sure I didn’t pass out on the street. I had just started spitting red (it is green to start), and Mr. Toe had a laugh, but I thought it would be poor form to lose control there. Chewing the betel nut leaves the tell-tale sign of a red mouth, however, and I had it. It is a rare sight for locals to see a foreigner with a red mouth, and one even remarked to me that I was “beautiful”. When in Rome…
Before I met my Abacus guides for an afternoon tour of temples, I headed to Bogyoke Aung San Market, a large indoor market named after Myanmar’s national hero number one, a leader of the independence movement that eventually led to Britain relinquishing their colonial hold over the country. He is more well-known in the West as the father of the current opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Yangon.
The market is filled with all kinds of shops, selling what one would expect – textiles, trinkets, local food, crafts. Myanmar is known for its lacquerware, and several shops had beautiful pieces, of which I bought two. I’ll bet that the one sitting in my bedroom is the most ornate repository of multiple tubes of chapstick that exists anywhere.
Just as my guides arrived, the rain started to come down. In buckets. It would make for an interesting afternoon of touring.