UPDATE: I have received many emails asking about the ethics of travelling to Burma in light of the elections. As a result, I have updated the links section to include some of the nonprofit organizations involved in encouraging democracy in Burma, in order to provide a different lens for viewing the situation within the country. I will say it again: it is up to you to decide whether or not you want to travel to Burma, but at a minimum it is extremely important to read up as much as you can about the history and politics and conflicts within the troubled country before you go.
I have been threatening to dive into a massive set of posts about Burma, and having since spent time exploring the beautiful ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, visiting friends in Chiang Mai and then taking pictures and closely following redshirt political protests here in Bangkok, I am finally ready to get started with a ‘before you go’ crash course.
While I’ve set forth some practical tips below, the most salient advice I have can be whittled down to the following: keep an open mind, even when that seems counter intuitive to you. These are the quirky, non-linear excursions that lead you to some of the more fulfilling and fascinating times in Burma. Though I realized this fact quite early on in my trip, it wasn’t until Mandalay that I had solid proof: having left my Blackberry in Yangon – with no cell network, I figured I did not need it – I realized I had no alarm clock. And with sporadic electricity, something battery-related was required. At Mandalay’s night market, I picked up this gem of a clock for $1 (1,000 Kyat):
It was cute, green and would wake me up in the morning, all for a good price. The problem was, when I put in a battery and time started moving backwards. As in, the second hand moved counter-clockwise, and the hands on the clock actually rotated the wrong way as well.
In the next few days, I picked up a replacement but the story remains relevant to all things Burma: in such a complex country with a tangled, tragic history don’t even expect the time to move the way you are used to. Open mind. It works wonders.
Here’s what you need to know before you head to Myanmar (Burma).
1) Should you Go?
Most travelers I meet on the road are enthusiastic about visiting Burma, but remain concerned about where their dollars are going within the country, and how to visit responsibly. Since the initial call for a tourist boycott in 1995, plenty has been written about tourism supporting the military government, and many tempered statements and press releases have been issued with a modified, softer stance on visiting the troubled country. With the upcoming elections, however, a cleaner divide has emerged between those supporting a boycott and those opposing it. Having spent only six weeks there, my opinion is not the be all and end all in ethical travel, but I would encourage people to visit using the following guidelines:
- Read as much as you can beforehand. What you see is what you are permitted to see, and there are many other facets (uglier ones) to the country. Read up on the history and the conflict before you leave.
- Tour the country independently , hiring as-you-go tour guides in a particular city, instead of tours through Myanmar Travel & Tours. There are certain parts of the country (such as the far north or the Chin foothills) that require a government permit and thus use of MTT as a guide. Outside of the restricted areas (of which there are many – much of the country is still locked in conflict) you can travel on your own, with or without a guide.
- If you can avoid it, try not to fly or take the train – local bus companies are privately owned.
- Stay at smaller bed & breakfasts or guesthouses if you can. Some towns will offer you no choice – for example, in Bhamo in the northern reaches of the Ayeyarwaddy , there was only 1 place licensed to house foreigners. No options there. But usually towns will have bigger, government run hotels and smaller inns/hostels, both of which will be licensed for foreigners.
- Spread your money around: try and purchase things at a variety of shops, and when buying paintings or sculptures, from the artists themselves.
- Do not bring up politics or other potentially sensitive subjects with locals: if someone feels comfortable enough talking to you about politics or religion, allow them to broach the topic, in an environment of their choosing. You are only endangering them by initiating a sensitive conversation, and undercover police abound – do not take any chances.
The bottom line for me is this: some will continue to disagree with my choice to visit Burma, and there is no question that a portion of the money I spent – no matter how carefully distributed it was – will make its way to the Government. But the local people I met were so thirsty for dialogue and human interaction, and so desperate to communicate with outsiders, that I feel comfortable with my choice. As a friend of mine said: people to people links can expand choices and enable opportunity too.
2) The Money Issue
There are many rumours circulating about Burma’s complicated money situation, and I am here to tell you that they are almost all true. The country works on a closed money economy, so the official currency (the Kyat) cannot be purchased outside Burma. Interestingly enough, the official exchange rate when I visited was 6.61 to the US Dollar and that same dollar fetched me 1,100 Kyat on the black market. Like many things in Burma, what is on paper is not necessarily reality. But here is what you need to know:
- There are no ATMs in the country. Yes, there are banks. No you cannot withdraw money from them.
- If you run into a serious bind, there is one hotel in Yangon (The Strand Hotel) that will allow you to withdraw as against your Visa card, with 12% commission charged. Note: commenters have said that they withdrew at 10% after returning several days in a row to ask if they could withdraw the funds] You must go first thing in the morning as they have a limit on the amount of money they will permit to be withdrawn this way.
- You must bring new US Dollars with you. By new, I mean ‘brand spanking new’. No bends at all, no creases, no spots and certainly no tears. I got into a small argument with a government official about a US bill because he said there was an ‘invisible spot’ on it and it could not be used, even thought it was otherwise pristine. When, in my annoyance, I licked the bill and handed it back to him he was not a happy man.
-Said new US dollars must be printed after the year 2000, preferably after 2003.
- They must not contain the serial numbers CB, BC or AB. This is no joke, as I have personally witnessed people trying to exchange a $100 with a CB serial number in several locations and get rejected each time. The genesis of this ban allegedly stems from a mass counterfeiting of $100 superbills by North Korea in the past.
- You will only need to exchange about half of your budget: trains, boats, hotels and plane tickets are all sold in USD. Buses, food and souvenirs are all sold in Kyat. It is also helpful to have some smaller USD on you for taxi rides.
- The best rates for exchanging on the black market were in Yangon, but you can exchange money elsewhere in the country, including Mandalay and Inle Lake’s Nyangshwe. I exchanged inside the Bogyoke Aung San market itself, deep in the bowels of the maze of stalls, and it was a fairly painless process. Higher bills will obviously get a better rate. Remember: do not use the money changer if he/she refuses to let you count all your Kyat before handing over your USD. Many of the money changers on the street (outside the market) will try to scam you by refusing to let you count (and counting for you, very quickly of course) – I just walked away and went into the market instead.
–> Update as of 2012: Per Mark Olwick, who visited early this year, the best rates are now at the official moneychangers and no longer on the black market.
3) The Visa
I obtained my visa at Bangkok’s Myanmar Embassy, and if you can build the time into your trip, I would suggest doing the same as you do not need proof of onward travel when applying, unlike those I spoke with who applied from home. You will need 2 photographs, a filled out visa application (including the last 10 years of employment history), and at the time of application 810 baht. It took 3 working days to get my visa and it was a painless process. Those who are photographers, lawyers or journalists do have good chance of their visa being rejected; most people I know in those fields put a different occupation down and even had fake business cards made up in order to back up their ‘employment’.
There is a risk, of course: the embassy has taken to Googling people once they apply. A friend told me a story about a photographer who, upon being told he was rejected due to his falsified employment information (and the fact that he was a photographer), tried to convince the embassy officials that it must have been someone else with his name – a claim that faded fairly quickly once they pulled out a huge file of printouts with both his work and his profile picture. No denying things at that point.
4) When to Go
Like many countries in South East Asia, there is a predominately wet season, a predominately dry season, and the shoulder seasons in between. Per most guidebooks and people I have met, the best times to go are between mid-November to mid-February. After that, it gets increasingly hotter, with the rains beginning sometime in May. I went in early January to mid-February and while it was quite hot (especially in Bagan) it was not unbearably so.
5) Approximate Costs
With the exception of Indonesia, my daily budget in Burma was much less than elsewhere in Asia. The country has been touristed by independent, solo travelers for quite some time, and the infrastructure that does exist is quite accommodating to them. Thus, room prices are almost always single and double, which is definitely not the case everywhere in Asia. A rough breakdown of my budget:
- ROOMS: I paid anywhere from $4 (in Hpa-An) per night to $10 (in Yangon) per night for a single room, which always included breakfast and usually included an ensuite bath. Double rooms ranged from $8-$15 for the same area. These are, of course, budget guesthouses – but I am on a budget. However, many of the guesthouses were some of the nicer places I have stayed in Asia. In particular, Mingalar Inn in Inle Lake ran me $8 a night for a beautiful, huge with its own bathroom, a hearty breakfast and ‘welcome lime juice’ every time I came home. Traveling solo, I would budget $8 per night and in a couple $12 per night to be on the safe side. This is presuming that budget accommodation is what you are looking for.
- FOOD: Oh, the food. I plan on doing specific posts on Burmese tea leaf salads (lahpet thouk), mohinga soups, annd delicious snacks, but suffice it to say that there is no shortage of street food, and it is fresh and safe. I did get food poisoning once, but that was where the woman was using river water to wash the dishes and didn’t dry them – big mistake. Overall, I spent approximately $0.50-$2 a meal, with most heartier meals coming in at $1 or $1.50. Tea shops with delicious naan accompanied by a bean dip are everywhere, and that terrific snack will cost you less than $0.50. The times I did eat at a restaurant (which was rare – usually I stuck to market and street stalls), meals were anywhere from $2-4, including water. Food, when eaten on the street, is incredibly cheap and delicious. To stave you off until I start on food posting, check out Uncornered Market’s great post ‘An Overview of Burmese Cuisine‘.
- TRANSPORTATION: I tended to either rent a bicycle, take a motorcycle taxi or walk up to a random group of people and ask “who wants to take me to ___ for 1000 Kyat?”, each of which worked just fine. Transport within Yangon is via taxi, and slightly more expensive; much of my transportation within the other cities involved tuktuks or walking. To get from city to city, I often took overnight buses, which cost 2x the price for foreigners than they do for locals. For overnight hauls, the buses will run anywhere from 7,500 to 15,000 Kyat (approx $7.50-$15).
6) Internet Access
Gone are the days where Internet cannot be found in Burma. With the exception of Kinpun, near the Golden Rock, almost every single town had internet access. Granted, it wasn’t the quickest connection I’ve ever had, but it was certainly available and very cheap. In Yangon, Internet cafes were plentiful, and stuffed with young Burmese playing games or on Google Chat. Even in the northern town of Myitkyina, there were two Internet cafes – surprising for such a small town.
Of course, access is censored. Twitter was available most of the time, as was Facebook. Hotmail and Yahoo were, from those who use them, fairly unavailable – and thus most of the country has a GMail account and wants to know yours. In order to access GMail, I had to use https instead of http at the front of the URL – the former is not blocked, but the latter is. Blogger / blogspot sites were systematically unavailable, with the exception of two times: once in Bagan’s Taste of Old Bagan restaurant and another time from Inle Lake’s Nyaungshwe (Comet Internet Cafe). In both cases I was able to access Blogger because of a proxy run through (of all places) Saudi Arabia. Many news sites are also blocked, as are chat forums and MSN Web Messenger. Gtalk is widespread, however.
7) Burma or Myanmar?
One of the questions I get frequently is whether Burma or Myanmar ought to be used as the country name. The official English name was changed from “the Union of Burma” to “the Union of Myanmar” by the government in 1989. According to the Burmese I spoke with in the country, Burma is known as either Myanma ( , the written name) or Bama ( , the informal, spoken name), and people I met most shrugged their shoulders and said it did not matter when I asked which name they preferred. Notwithstanding their non-preference, the choice of name has become politicized, with several countries still refusing to use the new name of Myanmar.
8 ) You Can Overstay Your Visa
Many people have asked me if it is possible to overstay the 28-day visa issued by Myanmar. While some countries still advise their citizens not to overstay, the Embassy itself told me that it is fine to do so, provided you pay a $3/day overstay, which goes up to $5/day after 2 months. However, the Embassy did say that overstaying more than one month is not recommended. I have had friends who overstayed several weeks with no problem and who paid their extra fee on the way out, and I overstayed by two weeks with no issues whatsoever.
9) Important Burmese Phrases
It is always important to learn a few choice phrases in a new country. Here are my picks for Burmese:
- Hello: Mingala’ba
-Thank you: Cezu timbadeh (pron. ch-eh-zu tin-bah-dey)
- I do not understand: Namleh ba-bu
- I already ate, thanks! Sa-pi bi, cezu beh
- No problem/No worries: Yabadeh or keisah meeshibu
- Too expensive: ze chi-deh (literally big market)
and for the ladies, this one comes in handy when the punk teenagers are “helloooo pretty lady”-ing you: I will slap you in the face (be sure to say it with a smile!): bacho meh!
10) Some Additional Advice
- The country is fairly conservative in its demeanour and its dress: as a woman, I made sure to cover up my shoulders by wearing a t-shirt (except while climbing mountains), and wearing shorts or skirts below the knee. I also picked up a traditional, sarong-like Burmese longyi, which was well appreciated by the locals, especially in more remote areas. The amount of women who stared at my skirt and then up and my face and said, in surprise, “longyi?!” when I’d wear it made it completely worthwhile, and it is an excellent way to cover up when there’s a shared bath at a hotel.
- Blackouts are common and electricity sporadic at best. Do yourself a favour and bring a headlamp with you. You can find replacement batteries in most cities, but keep in mind they will not last as long as the ones you bring from home.
- If you want to donate supplies to children and/or schools buy supplies in Burma instead of bringing them from home. Many people who brought pens or paper from home only watched them gather dust as the recipient put them in a case to show to friends and family. It is far more useful to go to a village’s school or to an orphanage and ask what they need, purchasing the supplies locally.
- Get used to the idea of being watched. Undercover police are
everywhere, and people are afraid of them for good reason. Though I was hardpressed to find examples of tourists being incarcerated and/or deported, such a hands-off approach is not applied to the local population. Be sensitive about what you say in public, and where you go: oftentimes the townships (local areas with no commercial shops) are off limits. I was escorted out of the Bagan township local police.
- Budget your transportation time wisely. I will touch on transportation later on in my Burma posts, but suffice it to say it (1) takes longer than you think to get somewhere and (2) you might just need a day to recover. Night buses are freezing cold, the route is peppered with stops at all hours of the night and the television blares pop music or movies without a care in the world. Of course, the Burmese people on the bus sleep soundly. But you won’t.
- Keep a new $10 bill to pay your exit tax at the airport upon departure. Though you are leaving and thus expect them to be less strict about the state of your currency, they are not.
- Get used to waking up at dawn. The country rises with the sun, and often sets with it too. By the end of my time in Burma, I was heading to bed at 8 or 9pm and getting up at 5. I am not a morning person by any means, but when my days were spent climbing sacred mountains or running around a new town, it was not far-fetched to turn in early — and rising late was just not an option!
- Get used to the ‘kissing’ sounds that people make when trying to get a waiter’s attention. Though unquestionably disrespectful in Western society, you will be hard pressed to order at a restaurant in Burma without it. It took me weeks of frantic waving and/or excuse me’s until I finally decided to take the plunge; definitely something I did not get used to by the end of my trip.
- Get used to the red stains on everyone’s teeth. The irony of a country like Burma, where everyone gives you their brightest, heartbreaking smile is that their teeth are usually stained burgundy and decayed. These are both due to prolonged (and frequent) betel nut use, a mild intoxicant found throughout the country. Check out Gadling’s humourous Betel Nut article for more information.
11) Further Reading:
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint U. If you have time for only one, make this your book. Beautifully written, lyrical and making sense of the horror and wonder from centuries of tumultuous history, Lost Footsteps manages to explain so much about the Burma of today.
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
The Glass Palace: A Novel by Amitabh Ghosh
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norma Lewis
And in terms of a guidebook, the Lonely Planet was the most thorough of the available guides, though schedules of buses, boats and flights should be taken with a huge chunk of salt: they change often. Most recent version: Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma) (Country Guide)
UPDATED WEBSITE LIST:
Should Tourists Return to Burma? from The Guardian, dated February 15, 2010.
Should You Go to Burma and Responsible Tourism from Voices for Burma
Uncornered Market’s coverage of the Golden Kite trail in Burma from their visit there
For those interested in migrant workers’ rights, GHRE is a Thai nonprofit that aims to provide a safe and productive environment for Burmese migrant workers in Southern Thailand. They have a thorough and informative website as well.
UPDATED FILM LIST:
In addition to the foregoing, there are two movies I’d recommend checking out:
Burma VJ: this powerful movie was shot entirely on handheld cameras, and with great risk for those involved. It tells the story of the mon
k-led uprising in the country in 2007. I watched it after I returned, and it had me in tears. Very unnerving, brave stuff.
Breaking the Silence: Currently in specialized screenings, this movie features the troubled Karen state in Burma, where civil war has been ongoing for over 50 years. The film was shot by undercover Quebec filmmakers Pierre Mignault and Hélène Magny. Mizzima has more information about the film here.
That’s my “Before You Go” roundup. Stay tuned for more destination and/or food specific coverage.