3 Burma - Myanmar

2014 update:
Myanmar has gone from 'bad boy' to the latest thing to visit. From a place to boycott with righteous indignation and political correctness to the hottest investment and tourism destination.
It is not often that country that has been practically 'closed' opens up.

On the ground not much has changed. Hotel prices have doubled or trippled, and you need to book where once you could just turn up on the day. Busses and transport too needs to be booked a few days in advance at least.

The people are lovely and friendly. It is a safe place to travel.
Here is a link to some beautiful tourist spots in Burma  video of lovely Burmese places by Alternatif Hayat.

How do you start if you want information about travelling in Myanmar ?
Lonely Planet's Myanmar guidebook is the 101 introductory course. Basic homework reading before asking any questions.

My personal advice: Take time, go slow, meet people, don't worry about 'seeing it all'. Forget your list of things to tick off and step into a culture where 'machine time' is less dominant.
A place where spirits, and death and life are lived and interwoven into daily life. A different way of living and thinking.  

The material below was written before the 'great opening up', much of it is still relevant.  Some things are a bit easier now, others are harder.

Must Know's -

stuff ya  need ter know
 before ya go 
'cause if ya don't,
ya'd wished ya'd phoned.
or searched the net,
instead of taking a lucky bet

In Myanmar:

Take cash.
Take US dollar bills.
The dollar bills must be brand new.
This means brand NEW. The tiniest smallest mark and hotels and money changers will NOT accept it.
Why ? Because they will not be able to pass it on. They will be stuck with it and and no other Burmese will accept it from them.
The same applies to strong fold marks, creases or the tiniest of nicks and tears.
I've seen Westerners argue and get upset with locals for not taking their USD $100 just because it has an insignificant, tiny mark or crease or tear.
Don't insist. If the Burmese person takes your money they will have great trouble spending it, likely they have to spend it at a big loss.
It would be like you taking $500 from someone and you know you will only get $300 for it when you spend it, (maybe less).
Westerners can always spend those dollar bills in other countries.
Burmese can't, they take a serious loss.
So at the risk of boring you: The dollar bills must be BRAND NEW.

Money Laundering - the real meaning.

The 20 dollar bill below was given to me in July 2010 as I left the country. Notice the horizontal crease ? - that alone makes this bill useless in Myanmar.  Notice the vertical writing near his right eye ? That by itself makes the bill useless in Myanmar. Together, those two things make the bill totally worthless. I double checked by using this note to pay my airport tax (US$10, cash only, pure new notes only) . As I expected it took a second before this bill was rejected as not acceptable.
I accepted this bill because I was leaving Myanmar and could easily exchange it in Malaysia. The Burmese would have great trouble spending it, and it would be a problem for any other Burmese.
So if you want to do a good deed, just before you leave the country, ask your Burmese friends if they have any unacceptable dollar notes they want to get rid of - and which you can still spend outside Myanmar. That's the literal meaning of money laundering :-)

Oh, and one more thing: Ironed dollar bills are also unacceptable. Sometimes a dollar bill gets so worn and creased people will use a hot iron to flatten it out. For a foreigner that's not a big deal. But ironed notes are also 'not acceptable'. Ironed notes feel brittle, too flat, and may be discoloured. Use your commonsense.
But most of all: don't get too paranoid: remember even unacceptable dollars in Myanmar are fine outside the country. A dollar bill would have to be pretty badly mangled to get rejected outside Mynanmar. When you get Myanmar notes you may get notes that are old, patched, sticky taped, and dirty beyond belief, they only just hang together. That's ok for Myanmar currency. You will be able to spend it.

Friends who visit Myanmar tell me of stories where foreigners are left with no money to spend, because their money is not brand new or they relied on ATM's.
Don't rely on ATM's. The situation is changing but not fast.
Cash is king in Myanmar.

The exception: if you stay in 5 star places and take limousines and pay everything by credit card and don't mind paying commissions and taxes and VAT's and biased hotel exchange rates.

 My guess at why bank notes have to be so clean and perfect - writing my own urban legend and myth.
"Master, how did this ridiculous standard in super perfect bank notes start ?"

Ah, you see grasshopper, The people who change the money for you are not going to use that money. They 'sell' the bank notes on to a higher up middle man, who in turn sells them on to the next bigger "poobah" in the food chain and so on it goes. So the story might go something like this:
In the beginning old and crappy banknotes were accepted.
At some point a standard for how soiled a bank note can be was introduced.
After all: would you accept a note that is almost torn in half and so dirty you are not sure it's real ?
At some point "normal human greed" would have used this standard as an excuse to pay the lower down person less than the full rate.
"This note is very torn, instead of $100 I'll only give you the equivalent of $95 for it.
Make sure the next ones are clean and not torn."
And so on it would go, with an ever increasing standard of perfection spiraling ever higher.
Any imperfection in the bank note would be used by the higher up guys to pay less than the going rate.
And thus, dear Grasshopper, was born the spiral of ever increasing perfection in banknotes. 

In case anyone is going to jump on Myanmar as particularly corrupt because of this: it's just my theory, based on general human nature. Secondly: You can see similar examples in any culture, any country. Any bureaucracy is usually more interested in its survival than the thing it was set up to do. (safety bodies, etc... many degenerate into rubber stamps and making money. Stamp duties were once upon a time service fees for a real service, nowadays they are simple an excuse for another tax) ... there are many such examples if you look around.

Oh, and once you have those brand new, pristine beautiful dollar notes, don't fold them. Don't treat them as you treat bank notes at home. They will get creased, sweaty and dirty and maybe a little bit nicked on the edges. Keep them flat, safe, dry, close to your body in a money belt that is inside your clothes and invisible from the outside.
Foreigners who folded their new bank notes found themselves with lots of money they could not spend.  Can be frustrating. Can lead to painful scenes.  Keep them clean, don't fold 'em.

"Change money?"
Those nice USD bills won't do much until you exchange them.
Myanmar is a safe country for tourists. The police look out for tourists.  People are honest.
In no other country did I leave all my luggage in the rickshaw/taxi while I went into a hotel to check the rooms.
In Myanmar I didn't hesitate, it felt totally ok to do that.

Change money INSIDE the Bogyoke Aung San market   
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogyoke_Market
Not outside, the market. You will get lots of offers outside.
Inside the Bogyoke market it's much safer, the  rate is not as fantastic but you will get a fair deal.
If you go out of Yangon for long, do all your money changing in Yangon, better rates. Don't whinge if you get worse rates in Bagan or out of the way place. Plan ahead, this is not a western country with ATM's at  every corner, (That's why I like going there :-P  ).
Mandalay is generally ok for exchange rates.

When it comes to changing money though, in Yangon around the Sule Pagoda then be careful.
The guys there specialize in slight of hand trickery.  They are the expert magicians.
They will offer you a great rate  to get you interested, then ask you to up some stairs or some place quiet and out of the way with them.
Don't go.
If you decide to exchange money with them:
Don't give them any of your money until you have the Myanmar money. Count EVERY single note you get.
Double check every USD bill YOU give THEM, or they will turn around and claim the US$100 you gave them was mistakenly a USD$10 or $1.
Their hands will never leave the table as they show you the $10 bill you just gave them.
This is the main place to be careful of when changing money.
Read the warning notes frequently left by other travellers in guest houses.
In fact, it's better you don't change money near the Sule Pagoda at all. Your choice of course.
If you want to study masters in high pressure sales and manipulation, this is an excellent place to do it. These guys are superb at it. Every move, every word is carefully crafted.  Consider it a research project if you do go.

Lonely Planet's guidebook has some good advice on this as well. (No I don't get a commission from Lonely Planet, I like their basic and down to earth advice :-)   , hope they stay that way and not go too commercial and high brow)

Update 2012
there is now a bank, that does money exchange, and the rates are a tiny bit better than the Boyoke market. The bank is not far from the Market, in fact just over the street, next to American Otpical shop.

Guys on the street offering higher and better rates are doing that to get tourists to come with them, there is no way they can make money at over the bank rate, unless there is trickery involved.  Read the notices in guesthouses about not changing money in the street, ... often interesting and sad stories of loss.

More Tips on Travel in Myanmar

On-line stuff
- probably not  good idea to book local airlines on-line in Myanmar, IT security is well...erhummm.... , things change and are not updated on the web....
It's best to go in PERSON to the agent who will then ring up directly and check if the flight is running when it is scheduled. Only then will they issue the ticket.
This is standard operating procedure in Myanmar. 
            I've used the Vega Air Ticket Center and found them very good,  in 2009 they even refunded me a ticket when my plane wasn't allowed to land because of heavy rain and had to return to Yangon. You can find them next to the Central Hotel, which is next the to the Trader's Hotel, opposite the Zawgyi Cafe and not far from the Bayoko Aung San (Scott's ) Market, manageress is "Mitchie".

Go IN PERSON, don't do it online.  Build up a relationship over time. It's the Asian way.  The only reason I got my refund when the plane was turned back was because we had an ongoing good connection, we had chatted, spent time talking about nothing much.


"helping n doing good"
"Oh I'd like to do something for others and help them do amazing stuff ?" Have you ever thought like that ? I have. I aimed for the sky and achieved a molehill.  Then there are people who do small things, quietly that make a difference, brick by brick... here is one such group:      www.GoodSleepNet.com
They make mosquito nets to prevent malaria and other diseases carried by mosquitoes.
I met the Myanmar country representative 'Cathy W.', and was impressed by her honesty, dedication and sense of humour.
" Do what you CAN, that's all you can do.  :-) "

Visas

Electronic visa
New Myanmar E-VisaEffective 26 April 2012,  E-Visa in 4 steps.
  • Step 1 : Go to http://www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm and fill out the secure online application form
  • Step 2 : Confirm and pay with your credit/debit card
  • Step 3 : Receive your approval letter (within 5 working days)
  • Step 4 : Receive your visa upon arrival in Myanmar
For more information, logon to www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm

Myanmar visa in Australia
the Myanmar Embassy visa info is at: http://www.myanmarembassycanberra.com/visainformation/visa_information.htm
Visa types and prices and forms: http://myanmarembassycanberra.info/?page_id=93
You DO need to show evidence of air travel in and out of Yangon, ie. booked e-ticket confirmation.

There is a new visa on arrival process, not sure about it though. Last time I looked it was a complex issues that required copies of passport to mailed to agents who then met you and issued a standard visa just before you walked through immigration at Yangon Airport. Might have changed, might be smooth and simple now.

2012 May: new government visa on arrival system, still has bugs  http://www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm/howtoapply.html

Myanmar visa in Bangkok:
Seems you can get a Visa for Myanmar in Bkk quite easily see Thorntree post http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=2027343
You DO NOT need to show evidence of air travel in and out of Yangon, - I showed the Visa section staff my air ticket itinerary, they didn't care, they gave it back to me. Not interested.
Yes you DO need to have a photocopy of your passport's photo page, and you DO need two passport type photos with white background.
A shop not far from the Embassy can do photos, photocopy, and has visa forms all ready.
If you have two passports and your Thai visa is in one and you want the Myanmar visa in the other, bring BOTH, show evidence of a valid Thai visa even if you want to use the other (non Thai visa) passport for the Myanmar visa.

Tourist visa, valid one month (28 days), 810 Baht - takes 3 working days
        For extra payment: next day and same day visa as well. Need to show airline tickets for those faster visas.

NOTE: Visa applicatons from 9-12noon only,  Visa  pick up from 3:30 pm to 4:30pm Mon-Friday, except public holidays (BOTH Myanmar and Thai public Holidays)
Address: Google map of Myanmar/ Burma Embassy in Bangkok here
132, SATHORN NUA ROAD, BANGKOK 10500
Tel : (662) 233-2237, 234-4698, 233-7250, 234 4789,237 7744
Fax : (233) 236-6898
-> above found out first hand   June 2012.

Useful Info on
My favourite place in Myanmar: Mrauk U  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrauk_U

Accommodation Yangon - Backpacker and budget:

The hardest part is getting email confirmation of bookings. Those hotels which do that, and are meticulous, have a busy schedule.

The usual internet booking of hostels on my book anywhere page doesn't apply in Myanmar.  Since 2007 the internet has slowly crept into Myanmar, but it is still rare, slow, censored, fire-walled, and often drops out totally (as of 2010).
You can however book some guesthouses directly by internet, by emailing them directly.  Some places even pick you up. The mini bus might break down on the way and you might have to help change the tire, but that is all part of the deal.

My personal favourite is  the MotherlandInn2   http://myanmarmotherlandinn.com  they are friendly, genuine, and relaxed. The manageress Madam Sozo, will make sure you are looked after.  They have a sense of humor and I felt very safe and welcome there. Facebook page here.
They will even pick you up at the airport for  free if you email your arrival and stay at their place.  Every morning at 6:30 am they run a free minibus to the airport.

For other places, search the internet or look Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree  
Some tips on my  general accommodation page here.

I've stayed at the Beautyland guesthouse and the Motherland guesthouse in the past. Both very nice, honest people. The scene changes though so it's better to search the internet for the latest (e.g. Thorntree and others...) .

More upmarket is the Classic Inn http://www.classique-inn.com/rooms.htm
And there is the East Hotel opposite the Traders Hotel - http://www.east.com.mm $85+ in 2013/double room, + free wifi (usually internet is slow in MM - but even slow is a luxury)

Cheaper places
  •  sunflower hotel <myanmarsunflower@gmail.com> ~ $45 to 50 right in the center of central downtown,  inside room (no window) is quieter - outside window rooms = downtown street noise.

  • sunflower inn near the train station also very good. cheaper and on the edge but easy walking to the downtown area in 5 mins.Clickon pictuture to enlarge.












  • The Halpin Hotel, close to downtown, but hard to book, email no replies, ask a local person to book for you by phone if you can, they don't cope well with late check-ins it seems. - this email address works: halpin@myanmar.com.mm
  • The Comfort Inn, near the Savoy, near the Winner, not far from Shwedagon Pagoda.

List of all hotels in Myanmar that can take foreigners - the full schebang of all the places http://www.myanmartourism.org/member/hotels_and_resorts.htm


Mawlamyaing

Cinderella Hotel is a newly refurbished hotel located in Baho Street, a quiet street which runs parallel between Upper Main Rd and the busy Lower Main Rd. Located near the General Post Office and the Central Park, it offers great facilities including satellite TV, wifi Internet and air conditioned rooms, and hot water.
Rates: Between $18 - $40 USD
Location: No.21, Baho Road, Sitkei Gone Quarter, Mawlamyine
Phone: +95-57-24411, +95-57-24860, +95-9-8703610, +95-9-8703611
Website: www.cinderellahotel.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/hotel.cinderella
Email: hotel.cinderella@gmail.com
other link

The "OK Hotel", at the corner of the market, great, clean good views. map lovely place

Breeze guest house, cheap, backpacker, super friendly

Phone numbers for other hotels


Accommodation
International 3 to 5+ star:
As usual, there is no problem booking international hotels and paying international rates.  You could even try the internationally famous Strand Hotel, though there are other very exotic and rare looking places if you want to splurge.
One of these is the Myanmar Savoy Hotel  www.savoy-myanmar.com  located here.    
Walking distance to downtown,  the ParkRoyal http://www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels/myanmar/yangon/parkroyal/index.html


Local prices are such that in 2005 I travelled for 4 weeks for US$ 400. This included: staying in simple double bed rooms with ensuite, aircon, all transport by bus, ship and one leg by plane (Yangon-Sittwe) as well as food.  Prices are perhaps a little higher now and it does depend if you stay at the usual tourist ghettos or not.


Ministry of Hotels and Tourism list of all Hotels... http://www.myanmartourism.org/member/hotels_and_resorts.htm

Places to go....

Respect and sensitivity - places NOT to go........

Be careful, if you do silly stuff you get the Burmese into big trouble. http://scholarshipsforburma.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/magado-travels-bureaucrats/


Links to other sites:
These two pages on gems are more about travelling, and musings on life: 


Haiko's Experiences in Myanmar:


Burma and the western media:


You've all heard the cartoon version - Read this if you want to find out more of the real story.

Like many Burmese, I am tired of living in a fairy tale. For years,
outsiders portrayed the troubles of my country as a morality play: good
against evil, with no shade of grey in between--a simplistic picture,
but one the world believes. The response of the West has been equally
simplistic:

It wages a moral crusade against evil, using such "magic wands" as
sanctions and boycotts.

But for us, Burma is no fairy-tale land with a simple solution to its problems. We were isolated for 26 years under socialism and we continue to lack a modern economy. We are tired of wasting time. If we are to move forward, to modernize, then we need everyone to face facts.

That may sound like pro-government propaganda, but I haven't changed since I joined the democracy movement in August 1988. I have lived most of my life under the 1962-88 socialist regime--another fairy tale, this one of isolation. In 1988 we knew it was time to join the world.

Thousands of us took to the streets and I joined the National League for Democracy and worked as an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi. .... by Ma Thanegi.

The full article here: http://www.burmalibrary.org/reg.burma/archives/199802/msg00286.html

Ma Thanegi's article also appeared in  the Lonely Planet guidebook on “Myanmar, (Burma)”, January 2000, 7th edition, pages 30,31.
It is no longer in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
Other articles in a similar vein:
Political background
Good background on the politics surrounding Myanmar

An example of western media misled by clever campaigners
The Thailand Red shirt crisis on Australian ABC radio:  http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2905056.htm
Original article here http://www.somtow.org/2010/05/dont-blame-dan-rivers.html


Similar situations
Cuba has been under an American embargo since 1960, - is it the best way to go ?
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/latin_america/10290492.stm
74 dissidents  have argued that isolating Cuba since 1960 only made things worse. These dissidents are people who are against the Cuban Government, people who side with the US. They are recommending not to isolate Cuba.


Yes there is a problem 

is it something the rest of world should do something about ?

If yes, what ?

Every action has intended and unintended consequences.

What are the choices ? What are the options ?

What are the effects of isolation ? What are the intended and unintended consequences ?

When we in the West isolates a country (with sanctions) we are in effect saying:

“We’ll starve you, until you are good boy/girl and play by our rules”

On the level of personal relationships how successful is such a strategy  ?

A strategy that effectively says, “I won’t play with you anymore until you ask for forgiveness and do things my way.”

Seeking to humiliate and destroy the other’s self respect.

It is what a couple might do in an argument.

My own response if I was on the receiving end would not be fit to print.
Humiliating another will not work.  You might if you are strong enough get some temporary 'results' but you will never get peace that way.

Embrace, open the doors, exchange ideas, do business, break down the walls. Not talking is understandable, but does not produce harmony or peace.
Exchange of ideas, travel business, and tourists will bring a mutual understanding on a very practical level.

2011 update: There have been recent reports that Aung San Suu Kyi has 'considered' the idea that sanctions may not be the 'best' way.




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