I have left the backpacking hub of Bangkok to go to a country that very little is known about, and one that very few people see in spite of its close proximity to the Southeast Asian travelling trail. A short flight took me to Yangon, the former capital and largest city of the Union of Myanmar.
In Britain the place is commonly known by its former name: Burma. It would, it seems, from talking to locals, that it would be a mistake to refer to this country by its colonial name. The reason I was given for the change was that the Burmese are one of several ethnicities within this surprisingly large territory, and that the modern name encompasses all groups of people.
Myanmar has been in the news over the past few years due to political issues. I haven’t asked questions about this yet, having read that locals may avoid such a controversial topic. The picture of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, however, is emblazoned upon many T-shirts sold in the boisterous Scott Market, suggesting awareness about the current issues. In a very short summary, the country is edging closer to becoming a fledgling democracy, albeit one that is under the watchful eye of an aggressive military that has done bad things in the past. As I learn more, I will relay the progress and problems in more detail.
The military junta has recently moved its capital city to a small town in the centre of the country, and a significant amount of Myanmar’s resources are being ploughed into its speedy construction (remind you of anywhere??). However, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is still the economic powerhouse of the country. This is where I have started what promises to be a potentially mind-bending ten day trip.
The country has only recently opened up to tourism, and Westernisation in general. Whilst aspects of this are heartening, it does result in a lack of infrastructure. There is a sense that Myanmar may not capitalise on this fairly rare opportunity to expand its economy. There are reasons for this, which will become evident in different blogs. However, people who have visited the country before have said that the place has already changed significantly, and they may also have a point.
The standout facts from my research before arriving were that internet access was slim-to-none, and that there are no ATMs in the country. Both of these pieces of information are technically incorrect, yet also very relevant. Myanmar’s biggest city by far has only two cash machines that I’ve seen, with one being in the airport. The very slow and unstable internet networks in the former capital also suggests that, when considering the country as a whole, key infrastructure for a traveller is missing.
As Myanmar has a closed currency, the kyat, it cannot be obtained outside of the country. This, in tandem with the lack of access to ATMs, means that you have to take US dollars into the country. But not just any dollars. They have to be as clean as a whistle. No rips, tears, creases or folds. No notes that have a certain serial number – CB. I thought this was an exaggeration until I went to exchange further dollars in a bank, having exchanged $100 in the airport. Though my money, expertly preserved in birthday cards and my Kindle, was fine, I saw some other tourists with faces of horror as they were being told that their money was not of a good enough standard. They need to be in mint condition for the bank to transfer them within Myanmar, so they’re very careful with what they will accept.
Incidentally, I had read that the most favourable notes were to be found doing dodgy dealings with street changers. This is no longer true, as highlighted when a short man with stained red teeth offered me K845 to the dollar. I pointed out to him that I could see the bank’s rate through the window behind him, which was better at K852 for every $1. Even the airport rate, 850, seemed decent.
This is just one aspect of Myanmar’s culture that I am sure I will experience over the next 10 days. The people are kind-hearted, and are naturally intrigued when they see a foreigner nearby. However, a smile and saying ‘min-ga-la-ba’, hello, brings a look of joy without fail.
One particularly eccentric man we met went by the name of Uncle Khain. If people think that I have confidence and a bit of an ego, they need to meet this old, bearded man. He has six books filled with notes written by travellers, all telling him how great he is. The fact that he seems to have most of these memorised is, quite frankly, concerning. Our favourites included:
‘I’m like Robin Hood’
‘All the American girls like me…and the boys’
‘I’m a competent man’
‘I’ve been in Lonely Planet…I’m on the internet’
‘They said that in the four hours we spent with you, we learnt more than twelve days with a tour guide’
So as you can see, an interesting start to a challenging trip. There are sights to see as well – next time I’ll show you the jewel in Yangon’s crown, and one of Buddhism’s holiest sites.
Love you all