Mini Myanmar

January 3, 2013

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I’ve been in Bangkok for a few days over the New Year.  I was coming to get a new visa but that turns out not to be strictly necessary these days.  I had a second reason to be here so I came anyway. My normally Yangon-based monk friend Ashin is here for a month or so and I’ve been to visit him.

Ashin is staying in Bang Boon about 15K from downtown Bangkok in a makeshift monastery in the heart of an ex-pat Myanmar community of about 6000, mainly younger people, all living in the same few streets. Myanmar is spoken everywhere and by everyone, even many of the Thais living round about, Myanmar foodstuffs and Myanmar branded products are on sale in the shops. Myanmar TV is here and there is of course a lively tea shop.

Some of those I met and shared a New Year Lunch with at the ‘monastery’ came over, legally, as teenagers and are now in their late twenties. Others are still teenagers, more recently arrived. They work, mostly, in a shoe factory and a fish factory. They make about $300 a month for a 66 hour, 6 day week. Most hope to return to Myanmar sometime soon, particularly now as it opens up politically, socially and most importantly for them economically.

Over New Year they had five days off and were using that time to make donations to the monks, to head to the beach at Pattaya (where they would swim fully dressed, Bamar-style), and to get married. In front of the ‘monastery’ a wedding was being set up for the next day. A marquee was put up on a patch of dusty land, loads of balloons and flowers were added for decoration. The sound system was being tested; it worked, it was loud. There were plenty of cups and glasses to wash up, which was a team effort of course.

(Inevitably) that afternoon I ended up amateurishly (I have to say that don’t I TEFL friends?), if humorously (I like to think), teaching English for a couple of hours (again).

It’s a great way to learn more Burmese. And it was great fun.

I’ve already been back to Bangkok’s Mini Myanmar.

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.

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All editions have become pretty outdated pretty quickly and all over-focus on religious monuments (great though they are) as the ‘things to see’ meaning that much else of what is great about Myanmar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’.

One Direction*

December 28, 2012

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The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, her later by-election success, visits by Hilary Clinton and David Cameron, the Lady’s overseas trip and more recently President Obama’s show-stopping** appearance in Yangon have signalled clearly that Myanmar is no longer off limits, not that it ever was if you wanted to come.

Tourists, whilst not yet flooding in, are here in greater numbers than ever before. Next door Thailand had almost 16 million visitors in 2010, over 19 million in 2011. Myanmar will see fewer than one million this year but that’s up a lot on the couple of hundred thousand that came just a few years ago. Myanmar’s London embassy is processing two hundred visas a day. Last year it was twenty.

In Yangon there are some 8000 hotel rooms licensed for foreigners but more tourists are looking for a place to sleep. In Bagan and at Inle Lake, the prime sight-seeing spots, it’s a similar story and booking well ahead is the game of the day, even for budget travellers.

Prices are up. I used to stay in a downtown Yangon hotel for $15 a day. That place now charges $45 for the same room and I’ve found a new place to stay.

New places are coming on-stream only slowly and while that’s the case hoteliers who struggled through the barren years following the monk protests of 2007 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 are making hay while the sun shines. And the sun shines every day (though winter-fog is blamed for this week’s Bagan Air plane crash in Heho).

Ex-pats, many of them language teachers, are reporting hard times finding a decent place to live. If you want running hot water it’s going to be $1000 a month. Up market residences out of the city centre with pools and gyms could always be expensive but what was $2000 can now be as much, or more, than $4000. A month.

For many the company is paying. Myanmar families and western taxpayers and donors funding embassy and NGO staff, each with their kids in International Schools, are paying.

Yangon is now one of the more expensive cities in Asia to be paying for a western standard lifestyle.

Business is booming. Or at least starting to boom. One Singapore based company active in real estate development traded at 7 cents a share last January. Now with long-standing, long dormant, deals and contracts coming alive they are trading at 70 cents. Along with the sight of so many hard-hatted (if still flip-flopped) construction workers at roadside cafes, that’s as good a measure of the change happening here as the arrival of a smart new, temperature controlled store selling good quality wines from right across the world.

But the single most noticeable change in Yangon (I’ve not been up to Mandalay in my first four weeks here, hopefully next month) is the number of new cars streaming from the docks onto the streets and into the new-phenomenon traffic jams that have turned the thirty-minute ride to the airport into an hour’s journey at the worst of times. These new cars (right hand drive as ever despite driving on the right) are obvious for there newness but also for their still having the auction lot numbers written on the windscreens; a status symbol of sorts?

Ten years ago there was barely a motorcycle in sight. Now wherever you go (except central Yangon where, along with bicycles, they remain banned) they are ubiquitous; I met one guy in small-town Hpa An (of which more later) who is selling seven a day.

Is there a trickle down effect from all this new money flowing through the economy of a country always rich in natural resources and sitting neatly at the crossroads between China, India and Thailand?

Tour guides of course benefit quickly from the tourist boom (come soon, it’s changing fast) and my friends in that business are upping their day rates and picking up some hefty commissions from the shops the tour buses call at. I first got a hint of the change when emails from a friend I helped with his $25 a month rent a couple of years back said ‘sent from my iPad’.

Inflation never helps those at the bottom of the pile getting by on a few dollars a day which is how most people still live and will do for some time to come. Through troubled times Myanmar’s people have looked out for each other. Despite lots of very real poverty very few go without something to eat, somewhere to sleep. How this communitarian spirit survives an increasing economic polarisation of society will be as key a test of Myanmar’s future potential as how long-standing political, religious and tribal divisions lines, long held together by fear and force, stand the test of new times.

On a scale of one to ten friends say Myanmar has changed something between one and two, much less than the impression the presidential and prime ministerial cavalcade may give. But the most significant change they acknowledge as real, that I sense tangibly on this my eighth visit to this fantastic country, and that they describe as felt at all levels of society is that the fear is gone. People have real hope now. They have room for optimism.

I think I can see it in the way people carry themselves in the street, the way they engage with each other in the tea shops. Of course they worry about sliding back towards the bad old days, that the military-powers behind the civilian-scenes may become frightened by change running away at a pace they cannot control. I think probably not, not with so much money to be made.

Ashin, my monk friend of ten years, has a whiteboard that he uses for teaching in his room.

Two words are never erased.

“Irreversible process”.

* Ten years ago Westlife posters were on sale on Yangon street markets. They’re gone, replaced by One Direction (those boys get everywhere).

** Obama’s visit was big. But if Manchester United were to turn out here that would really be something.

In 200 Words.

February 13, 2011

Living on a few dollars a day, under a military regime, can be pretty challenging; few luxuries, few opportunities.

Yet the motto could be; “Life is difficult, let’s try to be happy” and the welcome you receive will be as warm as anywhere, maybe more so because Myanmar gets so few visitors and needs friends.

See the sights and get off the beaten track to find people, influences, landscapes and settlements of great variety; the Bamar, the Rakhaine, and the Shan; Britain, India, Thailand and China; golden pagoda, silver beaches, mile-wide rivers, deep jungle and high mountains; two stunning big cities, tiny villages, hill stations, railway towns, fishing ports and just a few holiday resorts.

Public transport can be basic. Waiting for it is a national pastime. But you can travel widely, quite easily and relatively freely, as a companion traveller moving amongst the Burmese.

Some of your tourist dollar will inevitably go to the government. So spend your time and money in locally owned hotels, teashops and restaurants. Make a small effort to pick up a bit of the language and you’ll have a trip to remember for ever, as one of your best ever.

The food’s great too.

There’s a little debate going on the guardian website.  Tim Garton Ash has explained why he says Burma, not Myanmar having written a piece about a videolink with Aung San Suu Kyi at the LSE.

I quite see why he uses Burma.  I often do.  But I use Myanmar too.  So do my Burmese / Myanmar friends.

Yes, the junta imposed Myanmar but they had a bit of a point when they described the use of Burma as the ‘last vestige of colonialism’; Burma’s what the British called somewhere much more than simply where the Burmese live.  They make up the largest group in the country coming from the flat lands at the heart of the country but on the mountains and along the coasts people call themselves other names.  My friend’s Rakhaine.  Calling him Burmese is akin to calling a Welshman English.

Myanmar has become widely used not least because it means The Golden Land and the locals, in the main, go for that.  A generation of young adults has grown up with it.  Little resentment of it is expressed.  People speak Myanmar.  The number one beer is called Myanmar.  People are proud to be from Myanmar.  Proud to be Myanmar.

People do say Burma as well, especially older people and when they speak in English, but Burma exists more as an abstract now.  A time and place before.  When things were better than they have been, than they are.  A time and place to which they hope to return some time soon.  When change eventually comes.  Maybe they’ll all agree to call it Burma again when that comes about.

Either way it is a golden land.

Are we facebook friends?

December 14, 2010

Have you seen this map?

 

Paul Butler at facebook made it; it’s a visualisation of pairs of facebook friends around the world. He said this of it; “My curiosity was the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends. I wanted a visualization that would show which cities had a lot of friendships between them”.

Look beyond the biggest, brightest lights and you can pick out some of the smaller, yet visibly identifiable stars in this social-network-milky-way.  Just to the right of India there’s an almost Y-shaped cluster that has Bangkok at its centre.  (Click on the map it gets bigger.)  Just to the left of the Y there’s a small lonestar.  That’s Rangoon that is.

Rangoon has a population of five million and it’s not even as facebook-bright as The Faroes with its population of fifty thousand.

But it’s there and that’s a good thing.

The government in Myanmar is not internet-friendly, never has been.  Most people cannot afford to spend 20% of the average daily wage on an hour in an internet cafe and cafe owners have to report regularly to the authorities (and reportedly are now required to install and record CCTV).  If you want to use WordPress, or a lot of other sites, you need to know how to use a proxy server, but facebook gets through and is allowing some small number of Burmese people to reach beyond their closed (to them) borders and to make international friendships in cyberspace.

And that’s got to be a good thing too.

Three Cheers for the Lady

November 14, 2010

Almost everyone’s got something to say about the release today from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi including David Cameron, U2 and me.

I’ve been to this checkpoint just down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house a few times. But the first time I was in Yangon / Rangoon in 1995 the checkpoint was not there because The Lady was ‘enjoying’ one of her brief spells of relative (but very limited) freedom and on a Sunday afternoon in December we took a taxi from Schwedagon Pagoda and wandered up the street to join a crowd of a couple of thousand in the street outside her house.   Aung San Suu Kyi appeared as she has done today at her front gate (though on a higher step, more of her was visible) and spoke to those assembled to hear her, with obvious humour and charm.

Squatting beside the road I met a man who explained that his shaking was a result of vitamin deficiencies endured during his time in prison. He pointed at the (not so) secret policeman taking photographs of all present and said that he feared the government not one jot.  He knew already the worst that they could do to him and he believed that if they came for him again he would endure again or die trying. He was absolutely confident that however long it took there would come a day when the Burmese people would be free.

That day is not today.

Today Aung San Suu Kyi is not free.  She’s just less captive.

The 2000 political prisoners still locked up remain as captive as ever.

For the ordinary Burmese people, excited as they may be by the events of today, their pre-occupation will remain the challenge of their daily lives; the release of Aung San Suu Kyi does nothing about the rising price of rice or of a bus ride. It does nothing about the intermittent electricity supply, nothing about the limited healthcare and education, nothing about the lack of opportunity to make the most of your talents.

It’s unlikely, but something very extraordinary and unexpected could happen in the next few hours or days; Aung San Suu Kyi is someone very extraordinary. If she has it in her to take to the streets and can have the impact she had in 1988 anything might be possible. But it will take a hell of a lot to shift the (now elected, haha) China-backed military government and I wouldn’t hold your breath.

I’m hoping that people don’t see today’s great news, as a problem solved and that there’s nothing more to do, because this is not a Mandela moment, this is not a short walk to freedom.  There’s a long way further still to go.

Bono knows that.

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