The question didn’t surprise me. Many still imagine Burma as a place where activists and writers meet covertly in doughnut shops, trailed by secret police, and where bloggers and monks alike are thrown into prison for dissent.
But Burma is changing at a dizzying rate, as the government tries to slough off its former censorship regime and take tentative, delicate steps to build a more open and inclusive economy. The change is quite apparent, from the crumbling colonial buildings of Yangon to the hinterlands near the Chinese border. Kids in traditional dress now walk Yangon’s city streets with smartphones glued to their ears. Shop keepers gather in the evening around the glowing screen of a tablet computer. Hundreds of thousands of people in Burma — around 80 percent of Internet users there, by one estimate — now use Facebook. Even the iconic gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda offers a WiFi hot spot.
In another signal of Burma’s technological and cultural-political changes, a small group of local bloggers, technologists, and general-interest geeks banded together to host the country’s first ever forum on Internet freedom at the beginning of June. The event revealed optimism about opportunities for a newly connected society, even as bloggers and observers expressed uncertainty about growing tension between a desire for openness and a need for stability in the face of sectarian conflict.
Burma was grossly intimidating to me when I first thought about coming here. Depictions of an entrapped Aung Sang Suu Kyi, bloggers stuck in the gulag for negative thoughts and an incomprehensible monetary system conspired to make me decidedly worried after I booked my first flight to Yangon in 2012.
What if I ran out of money and was forced to wash dishes in a Mandalay whorehouse to return home? What if I sneezed in a worrisome fashion and was kicked out of the country for life?
As I discovered, these fears were largely unfounded. There are things to be scared of in Burma, but they are largely gaping sidewalk holes and buses. Here is some grossly subjective advice.
Clean money – but less so than before.
I was checking out of my hotel on Thursday and wanted to pay for my last two nights in US dollars. I realized that I had exact change — but one of my $20 bills was slightly smudged, the veteran of a turn or two throughout the world financial system. In clear-money obsessed Burma, this could be a real problem.
I desperately tried to hide the offending bill in a stack of other money, and I handed it over to the young and exceptionally clean-cut clerk, who, in typical fashion, carefully analyzed each note before deeming it acceptable. He looked at the $20, and he grimaced. He muttered something under his breath about “marked up.” And to my surprise, he accepted it.
All visitors to Burma are warned over and over to ensure that they get crisp, brand new bills for usage while visiting. This is because Burma’s banks tend to regard any bill that has the slightest mark on it as a fake — an interesting idea, as you’d think fake bills would tend to look newer, but I digress. That is the rule and so it has been, but it seems that with the liberalization of the economy, the Shiny New Bills rule has relaxed somewhat in recent months.
Don’t take this to mean you can merrily rock up in Myanmar with a bunch of manky, 1980s-era money and expect to get by. This merely means that if you’re in a jam, you can probably get away with it for small denominations, if the money is mostly clean and unfolded.
Yangon has some of the most terrifying drivers on the planet, and many of them conveniently happen to be employed as bus drivers — pilots of enormous steel boxes that can wreck mass destruction with the stray flick of a wrist. Crossing the street in Yangon is perhaps the most death-defying such experience in Asia amongst some stiff competition, as newly-minted drivers piloting creaky 20-something cars jostle for space with buses, all at death-defying speeds.
The worst are the buses, which whip around corners with remarkable speed, forcing trapped pedestrians to swiftly calculate which direction the great rear of the vehicle will actually go.
Pedestrians are an utter irrelevance in this grim battle for a foot or two of pavement: you dive out of the way promptly, or you become a pizza-like splotch on the asphalt. I shiver to think of what becomes of the elderly or the disabled in such a street-side environment.
Most of us have come to instinctually expect a driver to slow down a bit if you are both crossing the street and have the right of way: this has not trickled into the Burmese drivers consciousness yet, and as a result, you must be EXCEPTIONALLY careful.
I would like to scare up some statistics on traffic accident deaths in Burma as I suspect they are hair-raising, but I haven’t had any luck yet. I am not sure I want to know. I haven’t seen any buses yet with little stencils of both pedestrians and the slower local dogs painted on the side like a grim WWII fighter jet, but they may well be out there.
Shifty Money Changers Are Rendered Irrelevant
When I first arrived in November 2012, the difference between “street” currency exchange and what the banks were offering was considerable. The difference was big enough to make it worthwhile to take a chance on using a street money changer — the type of gentlemen who hang around Maha Bandoola Park in nervous-looking packs, descending upon slow-walking tourists like so many seagulls.
The money changers were mostly on the up and up but not always, and some happened to be quite good at using sleight of hand or other clever tricks to trick you out of some money without you taking notice. (I don’t have proof, but I swear to this day that a money changer near the Sule Pagoda did just that to me — which indicates just how good they are).
But the bank exchange rate and the street exchange rate have now become essentially equivalent, meaning that you can merely go to a government-registered money changer in an air conditioned room to get your kyat changed over, avoiding the risk of foul play. The vague sense of cloak and dagger danger is gone from the affair, sure, but you’ll be considerably less sweaty.
They Have ATMS Now!
I stumbled bleary-eyed into the Yangon airport one early morning in November 2012, and couldn’t believe my eyes: an ATM had been plonked onto the white marble of the check-in area, where there had not been one a mere week before. I sniffed around it to see if it was real, unbelieving.
Indeed it was: the day I left Yangon was the day the ATM revolution began in the capital city, and by the time of my return in early June, ATMS had popped up everywhere, like so many mushrooms. You can even use one at the Shwedagon Pagoda, in case you find yourself short on offering funds.
The ATMs now accept most cards, although some caveats exist. Sometimes they simply don’t work, for inscrutable reasons known only to bank managers and the technological demons that reside within these occasionally fiendish but convenient boxes: it’s best not to count on them when you’re really in a pinch. It’s also worth notifying your credit card company or bank that you’ll be using the card in such a decidedly unexpected destination as Myanmar, lest they slam a hold on it instantly.
Western Union works in Yangon as well if you’re really in a pinch. However, the fee our black-and-yellow friends charges is exceptionally high, and the outlay is really only worth it for sums near or over $1000. It’s an option that beats slave labor in a Mandalay whorehouse if you’re really in a jam.
Watch Out For That Hole! No, Really
The biggest danger the average tourist faces in Myanmar, second only to traffic, is holes. I’m talking about the gaping holes in the sidewalk that lurk on nearly every street in Yangon, waiting to drop the absent-minded or merely clumsy into four feet of raw sewage.
Locals have learned to watch where they’re stepping and to occasionally test suspect looking cement panels above the sewage lines, but foreigners tend to lack these instincts. I haven’t seen it in the foreign media yet, but the first story about some hapless French tourist being trapped in the depths of the Rangoon sewage system after misplacing a step or two has got t be imminent. Be especially careful in the dark. You may wish to consider a buddy system if you’ve been drinking.
Addendum: You will see men in muddy or sewage-filled water up to their necks on a regular basis in Yangon, employed to clear out drains when they flood from regular rains. These men deserve considerably more benefits than I think they get, and a spot on “Dirty Jobs.”
C’est la vie, my dear.
In all seriousness: Western food is actually your greatest enemy in the war against contracting a devastating case of the trots whilst on vacation in Burma. Hapless tourists think they’re being safe when they order a burger or a pizza, little-knowing that the ingredients for these exotic dishes likely are decidedly elderly, and the chef likely is not exactly experienced with preparing them, either.
Unless you’re at a nicer place in Yangon, stick with the Burmese food, which is much more likely to be freshly prepared —and as with anywhere on the planet, stick with places that are doing a healthy lunch-time business.
Empty restaurants are essentially tempting-looking Venus Flytraps of disease and misery, regardless of if they offer free WiFi or magazines. Come back later and order a Coca-Cola.
If you’re really concerned, you can always live on potato chips, although I would have to question why you’re interested in traveling in the Mysterious East at all if you won’t eat any of the food.
I’m back in Burma, a somewhat impulsive trip I decided to take when I got an invite to the first ever Internet Freedom Forum for a story — unsurprisingly, more on that later. (It went well).
My first trip to Burma was stressful, largely of the self-generated variety. I was worried about getting the visa, worried about getting enough crisp new bills, worried about finding a place to stay during the madness of November 2012’s tourist season, and generally entirely trepidatious about the place in general.
And indeed, I did come at a bad time. The tourist onslaught of fall in Southeast Asia was coming up against a just-opened up nation with little to nothing in the way of decent infrastructure: finding a hotel room of any caliber at all proved to be remarkably difficult, buses were booked out, flights were booked out, and leaving Yangon at all proved to be rather impossible.
I stayed in Yangon for a week, walking around back-allies with my friend Terry, eating at a lot of tea shops, and avoiding the many deep and slightly terrifying holes cut into the sidewalk. I was charmed, but I was also at the same time mostly bewildered: trying to parse out this curious place, the closeted love-child of Bangladesh and Thailand and Cambodia, trying to put it into some kind of understandable context.
This time around, things seem to have clicked into place. Not that I understand Burma much more, but in that I am not stressed about the procedure, that I am willing to take it in all of its weirdness as it comes. I have decided to (once again) stay in Yangon, and am lacking the pressure to GET OUT OF TOWN SOMEHOW from before: it’s mostly been leisurely walks around downtown and through food vendors, around the marbled-paved round of the Shwedagon for the fifth time, around the parks and by the crumbling, gorgeous colonial buildings.
Myanmar Beer on 19th Street and food vendors in the alleyways, bookstores and the luxury malls that are popping up like shiny mushrooms on most corners of downtown: I’m trying to get a sense of the rythm of the place, what makes it shamble along, in which directions it is going. (It has been raining a lot. I keep trying to find a time when the weather will justify a photo expedition).
I was the other night at one of the massive new malls on the outskirts of Yangon, which featured gelato shops, the latest Korean fashions, and a multiplex: it reiterated to me that the outside percpetion of the world of Yangon — a land still full of secret police and Orwellian intruige and picturesque backwardness — has been wrong for a long time, grows more inaccurate as each day goes by.
We do not know how Yangon will develop, but we hope for the best. There’s darkness in the air, but even my in-borne cynicism is muted slightly by the hopefulness that permeates Yangon in this particular month, this particular year. Maybe, if my luck plays out, I’ll get to live here sometime soon and see for myself.
Learning to dive is deceptively easy, which is apparently a problem in some respects. Oodles of divers put through their paces in blocks of eight in a swimming pool and in a calm sea are awarded their dive certifications in a matter of three days.
They are often then convinced they can drop into current and shark-infested waters and badass their way out of the situation, giving custom to decompression chambers and rescue divers everywhere. This was not the route I wanted to go.
I earned my SSI Open Water certification in three days, which was indeed pretty painless. The scuba gear becomes more sophisticated every year and is now easily operationalby a mentally average 11-year-old.
The most important part is learning how to breathe, an instinct that can be hard to override for many people when below the water, where we’re conditioned to hold our breaths until we can come up for air. Most scuba instructors willrecite KEEP BREATHING like a sort of dark incantation.
The main trick to learn, in my estimation, is buoyancy control, which is a nice way of saying “floating in one place without bouncing off the bottom and accompanying pointy stinging coral every five minutes.” This can be achieved with a combination of proper weighting, breathing in and out when needed, and a lot of practice, especially swimming around in circles with fins.
If you want to snap a picture of a shy garden eel or a paranoiac mantis shrimp, this is especially important: understandably, the flightier creatures don’t take kindly to being suddenly fallen upon by an alien creature wearing Lycra.
I did the “open water” bit of my Open Water and Advanced SSI courses at Tulamben, a famous dive site in Bali where the wreck of the US transport ship USAT Liberty lies in relatively shallow water off the rocky black-stone beach.
It’s one of the most shallow and thus easy to dive wrecks on the planet: the ship was initially stranded on the beach in 1942 after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and then was washed into the ocean by the 1963 eruption of the Gunung Agun volcano.
Now, the area surrounding the Tulamben wreck is the epicenter of diving in Bali, and also happens to be a remarkable source of underwater Indonesian biodiversity. It’s also a gorgeous place: divers walk into electric blue water off a beach covered in black and reddish pebbles, dotted with swaying coconut palm trees. Sure, the pebbles are large and unpleasant to walk on in those obnoxiously thin scuba diving boots, but nothing pleasurable comes unaccompanied with pain — or that’s what I regularly tell myself.
I made a good choice learning to dive here, I’ve been reassured by my diving friends and by the scuba instructors — and all bias aside, they’re absolutely right.
I could have learned to dive in a silty and freezing California lake, or in an equally silty Louisiana bayou, but instead I timed it so I could dive in the heart of Indonesia’s coral triangle, spotting mantis shrimp, lion fish, and nudibranchi on my first-ever Open Water dive.
Throughout the three days I stayed at the Scuba Sereya resort at Tulamben, finishing off my certification, I spotted creatures many divers wait years to get up close and personal with, including both a red and a lavender Rhinopias scorpion fish with stern expressions and skin flecked with camouflaging tendrils, a juvenile lion fish (bright white and decidedly spiny), an emotionally distressed oriental flying gunard with psychedelic “wings,” three species of garden eels in one spot, and much, much more.
I also became personally acquainted with the strange obsession that are nudibranchi for many divers. Such a passionate international following for what amounts to an unusually colorful slug might sound curious to non-divers, but then you’re in the tropics, spot your first curious invertebrate jewel gliding along the bottom, and are seized with a sudden notion: “Hey, that’s really cool. I wonder if I can find another?”
And then suddenly you too are possessed with this curious passion to spot weird-colored species of slugs in rocky outcrops, and photograph them, and share pictures with your friends, and maybe even spend thousands of dollars to attend lectures on them (as many people do).
Nudibranch seeking is the Easter egg hunt of the tropical Pacific, or an obsession for the kind of people who might regularly collect baseball cards: best of all, they certainly don’t move very quickly. They are occasionally adorably referred to as “nudis.” I am certain someone is producing the t-shirt.
Scuba Sereya had a book helpfully titled “Nudibranch Behavior” set out in the dining area. It was short. Because, when you get right down to it, handsome little creatures that they are, they are still simple-minded slugs, with relatively simple desires. I did not finish the book but never got to the part where it’s revealed that they hunt in packs and make rudimentary tools.
Do I have any advice for those hoping to learn to dive?
Learn to dive somewhere warm full of remarkable tropical fish, that will beguilingly entice you into taking up yet another fabulously expensive hobby — one that gives you multiple excuses to visit tropical paradises, on the bright side. You can also learn to dive in: a giant Belgium swimming pool, a Midwestern missile silo, or a silty lake possibly occupied by the Loch Ness Monster, but I think this would be a considerably poorer choice.
Learn to dive at a place where you can get individualized attention. I was lucky enough to be the only student Jaka, my excellent instructor, had for my Open Water course, and I was also the only student during my Advanced Open Water course. This can be a matter of luck or expense, depending on your situation, but I think getting individualized advice and supervision during the early days is important. Scuba diving is relatively safe but can kill you if done improperly: you really want to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Borrow or buy a dive computer. Dive computers do all those pesky dive table calculations for you, and although you’re not required to have one during a guided dive, it’s important for you to be able to calculate how long you’ve been underwater and your decompression stop time in case you get in a jam. Figuring out how to use one early in the game will serve you well.
Do a night dive. Sure, it might be harder for the claustrophobic, but a night scuba dive is one of the most awarding (and surrealist) experiences I’ve ever had: floating through warmish gloom, illuminating a strange new cast of characters with a flashlight. It’s nothing if not alien. Tiny feather stars swoop into holes, nocturnal nudibranchi hover about, and the local mantis shrimp and eel population goes into hunting mode (see figure above).