Monday, August 22, 2011

Day 71 - Yangon, Myanmar - First Impressions

Sleeping at the airport was actually somewhat entertaining. Quang and I decided to grab a couple beers from 7-Eleven and play some cards at night. It was actually more luxurious than some of the dingy rooms I've stayed at. We had rows of seats to sleep on, airconditioning, and nice bathrooms that were constantly cleaned.

Quang left back to Ho Chi Minh City while I moved onto Yangon, Burma. The flight was around 1 hour and 15 minutes. It was interesting to compare the aerial views of Bangkok compared to Yangon. You could definitely see the difference in development of both countries. Huge buildings and strong infrastructure filled Bangkok, while in Yangon, everything was green and natural.

Upon arrival, I went through customs smoothly and hired a taxi cab to take me to the center of Yangon. The cab ride cost $10 USD. I tried to lower the cost to $8, but the cab driver explained about the decline in the value of the dollar, which has continued ever since the shake up in the government in the country. A year ago, you could get at least 1,000 Burmese Kyat for each US Dollar. Now, you'd be lucky to get 800 on a good day.

I've read articles about the matter, and some of the blame is put on the influx of US Dollars by the Chinese who are attempting to take over many of the new business opportunities that are now afforded foreign countries since the government shakeup.

After settling into my guesthouse for $8 USD, I found out that most hotels only accept US Dollars. I changed about $100 US Dollars at the airport into smaller denominations, but felt I needed to change more, so I walked around looking for someone to change my money. I managed to get a jeweler to change by $100 to 5-$20s. The $100 bill had to be in crisp, pristine condition with no creases in the center of the bill or else it wouldn't be accepted. I went through some of my bills before one was accepted.

I researched on the internet about the best places to convert currencies. The best place was through the black market and at some of the local markets in the city. The official exchange rate is less than 10 Kyat per $1 USD, which is useless. I headed to the Bogyoke Aung San Market and walked around looking for money changers. I asked around to establish the expected exchange rate before agreeing to change money with a Burmese man of Indian descent named Pale, who agreed to change my money for $1 = 765 Kyat. Walking to his store, I asked him why the US Dollar was depreciating so consistently over the past year, and I suggested maybe it was because of the government. He agreed, but then also told me to keep quiet about any open talk about the government...

There is a certain procedure to take when exchanging money. Since the foreigner would be getting around 75 paper bills for every $100 exchanged, they are given the money first to count. After establishing that the amount is correct, the foreigner hands over their money in exchange. If you do not count the correct number of paper bills, do NOT let the money changer count the money, as they could scam you with their sleight of hand.

I ended up not having any “acceptable” $100 bills to exchange because there were slight creases in the center of Benjamin Franklin's face, and some of the ink was fading, so they agreed to exchange them for $1 USD = 740 Kyat. I'm worried that I won't have enough “acceptable” dollar bills to use on this part of my journey!

After lunch, I walked around the city just to see the city life. The sidewalks and streets were very underdeveloped. I think you'd easily trip on one of the slabs of cement that was used as part of the sidewalk if you didn't watch where you were stepping. Most of the people in the town looked of Indian Descent, and many people (including the men) wore traditional Burmese sarong-style pants called Longyi. Many people also had what appeared to be mud smeared across their faces. In actuality, this substance is called thanakha (powered bark) and is used by everyone as make-up and sunblock. Some of the women looked as if they were crying because of the way their applied it to their faces.

The internet access is very slow here, similar to a dial-up connection, and there are restrictions on some of the websites you can access. It was a little difficult for me to find a place to purchase a bottle of water. There aren't any chain convenience stores here, and after asking around, I had to purchase one at a market that was hidden in the back of a clothing store.

I'm a little worried about traveling here alone, not because of any safety concerns, but because I don't have a clue which routes to take around the country and which modes of transportation to take to get there. There are so many suggestions online, but it's a little overwhelming, and there isn't really a standard “backpacker” route since this country isn't as commonly visited by backpackers. I messaged some couchsurfers and local, so hopefully I can meet up with people!

At night, I walked around again, and settled on a Chinese-Shan style restaurant where I had some Shan Noodles with Chicken and Myanmar Beer. I figure I should avoid some of the street food and stick with restaurants that look crowded to make sure the food has high turnover and is fresh and hot. The last thing I need is for me to get sick here.

It was difficult walking around at night because there weren't too many street lights, and if there were, they were all dim. There weren't many lively buildings that could provide more light either. The city sleeps early. By the time I finished dinner and after using an internet cafe, it was 10PM and the streets were empty. I think it'll be like this the whole trip, unless there is some sort of festival or celebration I can hopefully stumble upon.

What $300 USD gets you in Kyats

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