Lonely Planet is significantly and dangerously wrong about visiting Myanmar.

January 1, 2013

Lonely Planet is on Edition 11 of its Myanmar travel guide. None of the previous ten editions were especially good or bad but they were a pretty necessary and helpful aid to getting around the country and finding a place to sleep, particularly when the tourist economy and infrastructure were even less developed than they are now.


All editions have become pretty outdated pretty quickly and all over-focus on religious monuments (great though they are) as the ‘things to see’ meaning that much else of what is great about Myanmar does not get a mention.

Edition 11 is significantly wrong in that the massive recent inflation in accommodation costs has overtaken the book’s relevance. But that’s the slow-moving* print business for you and the worst impact might be some travellers under-providing themselves with dollars and having to sleep a bit ‘down-market’.

The explosion in tourist numbers that is driving that inflation also means that all types of room are in short supply right now and booking ahead for Yangon, Mandalay, Inle, Bagan and even Hpa An are essential.

Edition 11 is dangerously wrong in one particular. I don’t think it should be on sale, at least not without a correction sticker on page 13.

What’s dangerously wrong is the advice on changing money;

“Avoid the official exchange counters, which undercut black-market rates substantially (by more than 50%). In fact, the official exchanger at the Yangon airport told us to go outside for better rates. You will be asked to ‘change money’ many times on your trip. Technically, the only reasonable way to buy kyat is through the ‘black market’ – meaning from shops, hotels, travel agents, restaurants or less reliable guys on the street.”

Changing money on the black market always was the way to go and was pretty safe, even on the street, if you chose the right time, place and moneychanger and did not allow yourself to be hurried.

Since currency exchange -rate unification in 2012 this is a dangerous thing to do, dangerous advice for Lonely Planet to still be giving.

Banks and other money exchange counters, including the one at the airport, are offering the best available rates (some are even a little less strict about only changing pristine notes).

The black market is now totally upside down.

‘Legitimate’ – very nice guys in my experience – on-street money changers are offering BELOW the bank rate to Myanmar people who want to change foreign currency without having to show ID at the bank.

Anyone offering ABOVE the bank rate (these are not the same guys that always have changed money on the streets, but new arrivals) is going to try to rip you off. Hotels are safer of course, but offer a lower rate than the banks, so why use them unless the banks are shut?

Every day right now new-arrival travellers in Yangon are following Lonely Planet’s advice, walking past the airport money exchange, heading into town with no Kyat in hand, changing dollars on the street and being robbed. Some of them anyway. And sometimes of a lot of money.

It’s hard to be clear about how much crime there is in Myanmar. Certainly you hear of local people losing belongings whilst asleep on a train or having their purse picked on the bus, but it’s also a country where men walk around with their wallet simply tucked, pick-pocket-ready yet safe-and-sound into the back of their lungyi and where it’s not an uncommon sight to see people crossing the road carrying big bundles of cash.

It is clear that there is – or has been – very little crime against foreigners, perhaps with the exception of when changing money, but where in the world is that not the case?

I’ve changed money on the street in Myanmar many, many times. Almost always without any trouble at all. Once, at night, I was tricked, hardly robbed, out of $20 by a guy I did not know who could count better sober than I could drunk. Lesson learned.

Now I change money at the airport and at the bank. It’s safer and I get the best available rate. It’s the new way to go.

Edition 11 is also wrong in saying that there are no ATMs in Myanmar; Mastercard ATMs arrived in Yangon about six weeks ago.

And it’s wrong about the cost of a mobile phone SIM card. Yes, they did used to cost $1000 (and more before) but now it is down to $250 and on its way down now to $120. But that’s the price of a permanent SIM card.

If you want a phone to use while you are in the country you can pay 20,000 Kyat ($23) for a card giving $20 of credit that will last 1 month. Incoming calls cost about 6 cents a minute, SMS the same. Outgoing calls are more expensive at about 40 cents a minute (ask people to call you back, they will). Overseas calls are surprisingly good value; I had about $10 left on my card as I last left the country so on the way to the airport I called my Mum on her UK landline. We spoke for about ten minutes using up only $7 that I would have lost anyway as soon as I got on the plane.

*Lonely Planet may say (they’ve not yet replied to my email to their UK press office, but hey, it’s the holidays) there is little they can do about a print edition of a travel guide going out of date. But what’s their excuse for the download edition and website also being so significantly – and dangerously – out of date?

I’d have put this on LP’s Thorn Tree but it’s down due to ‘inappropriate language and themes’.


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