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.
More to come, perhaps, if I think of them.