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Travelling in Myanmar - it's complicated.

Last update: Sept 10, 2017

Until a few years ago Myanmar was one of the Asian countries which used a Dual-currency money system. Dual-currency means the common use of 2 different currencies in one country. For example in Siem Reap, Cambodia, one can use US-dollars for everything because Cambodia is a dual-currency country - even the ATMs dispense dollars. In Myanmar however there are no dollars bills dispensed but only Kyat notes.

Myanmar also has a dual pricing policy just like its neighbors India and Thailand. The Taj Mahal for example has a 40 Rupees entry fee for Indian nationals, but 1000 Rupees for foreigners. The dual pricing system in Myanmar was be set up so tourists had to pay most hotels, zone-fees and all airfares in dollars. Burmese citizens can pay in Kyats and ... the Kyat rate is lower than the dollar rate. Foreign tourists can nowadays also pay hotels and guesthouses in Kyats but - not at the lower rate for Burmese citizens.

Recently the government has started to reduce the use of dollars; since 2013 nearly all museums and archaeological zone fees are payable in Kyats. Airline tickets are paid in dollars, and most hotels can still be paid in dollars, but also in Kyats. Exchange counters in Myanmar do not charge commission and the difference between buy and sell rate is about 2%. In Europe the difference is closer to 20%. Most banks and exchange offices have about the same exchange rate, whether it is in Yangon or anywhere else.

Tourism news.

Ashin Wirathu at the Jumping Cat monastery. Wikipedia  
He is partly responsible for the Rohingya question. Ashin Wirathu at the Jumping Cat monastery, 2017

2016 has been a turbulent year for Myanmar. The rapid increase in the number of tourists has stopped abruptly, an earthquake shook central Myanmar, armed conflict and refugees have been prevalent in the border regions.

In 2015, 4.68 million tourists visited Myanmar and the ministry of Hotels and Tourism of Myanmar which had for years been surprised with higher tourism numbers than forecast expected six million visitors in 2016. However in 2016 the international tourism numbers decreased by 38 percent to 2.9 million tourists. These are the total number of visitors over land and through airports; the tourist arrivals in airports dropped only marginally.

Despite hopes that the new NLD government would bring an end to fighting, the Burma Army has intensified offensives in Rakhine and the northern Shan states. burmalink.org

More than 100,000 people have been displaced across Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states since October 2016, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The OCHA status report is here: reliefweb.int.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s de facto leader. The world has waited a long time for her to address the Rohingya problem in Rakhine. The failure of the NLD government to act on the atrocities committed by the Burmese army and the unrest in other parts of the country is having an impact on tourism.

To be fair, Aung San Suu Kyi has limited options since the Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, retain significant power in Myanmar. Under the army-drafted constitution, the military controls the three most powerful government ministries: home, defence and border affairs. Ruling a country with as many conflicts as Myanmar is like Shovelling Frogs into a Wheelbarrow.

Myanmar has embarked upon a Road to democracy after the first free elections in 2015. Are they still aiming for full democracy or is one party "Kicking the can down the road"? Perhaps there is no road? Perhaps no democracy either?

 


bagan quake map

The hotel situation in Myanmar

Hotel prices in Yangon have doubled in 2012 and tripled in 2013, but in recent years the hotel rates have been declining. The overall picture is that the number of tourist arrivals in international airports has had a temporary adjustment this year.

The hotel and tourism situation:

The hotel situation   (30 Aug, 2017)

 


bagan quake map

Earthquake damage in Bagan.

On 24-aug-2016 Myanmar was hit by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake; the quake damaged almost 400 temples in Bagan. The restoration of some temples can take a few years. Here is more information on the damage and a map of the affected pagoda's and temples:

BAGAN earthquake

 


landmine Namkhan trek

Situation in Northern Shan state.

In 2016 there have been a number of reports of landmine victims in the northern Shan State north of Hsipaw and Kyaukme. In april 2016 two tourists were hurt by a landmine in the northern Shan state. There is a negative travel advice from most governments for the area outside of the Mandalay-Lashio highway and railway.

Note that the unrest is in villages north of Kyaukme in Kyaukme township; which is a very large area more like a district and which includes for example Hsipaw, Namtu and Namshan. Trouble in Namtu is thus quite far away (100 km) from Kyaukme town.

The situation around Hsipaw is normal and for a one-day walkabout there are no problems. For multiple day trekking it is necessary to hire a certified guide. More here: Safety around Kyaukme and Hsipaw

The news archive from 2011 to 2017 : News archive

 


Tourist traps (2017)

There are some tourist traps and scams in Burma; though much less than in other asian countries. There used to be money changing scams in Yangon when people changed on the black market; before 2012. The latest popular scam is the Dala tour Scam; the hit of 2016. If you take the ferry across the Yangon river to Dala (Dallah), some rickshaw drivers offer a guided tour for "whatever you want to pay". Turns out to be quite expensive (some end up paying 100$ or more). You will be asked to buy a bag of rice at 50$ for orphans or victims of the Nargis cyclone or such things.

More on Burmese tourist traps:

tourist traps

 


Asian curry map
+ SHOW The good news.

Is there only bad news ?

The good news is about the Myanmar restaurant scene ...

Is it finally improving after all these years?

 

And finally something about the Burmese cuisine that is strongly influenced by China and India. Burmese cuisine? Let's just call it "Burmese food" because cuisine is a rather too elevated description. Burmese curry is very different from the delicious Indian curries - a Burmese curry is just a few pieces of chicken floating around in a bowl of oil. No creamy Biriyani, no delectable Makhanwala, no surprising Navratan Korma ... but they do make the regular dishes like Thali's, Samosas, Masala dosa, Dal, and so on.

Fortunately things have been improving rapidly the last few years; new reasonably priced restaurants have been opening up left and right. The value of the Kyat has also tumbled because of the high inflation in Myanmar; which helps to bring dinner prices down - except in the high-end restaurants in Yangon that are priced in dollars (e.g. L'Opera, Le Planteur and The Strand). The pricing range is huge; for example a large bottle of Mandalay beer can be 1500 to 2000 Kyat, but in a resort on Inle lake they sometimes charge 7$ for the exact same beer; about 9500 kyat. The cost of a dinner can also vary considerably; and the food hygiene is not up to the level of neighboring countries.

If you're a Foodie then you should try Shan noodles, and the Lahpet Thoke or Burmese Tea Leaf Salad is really worth a try. And if you're quite bold and interested in exotic food then you might like Ngapi (a fermented fish paste) or fermented beans (Pè Ngapi).

More on the new Inle lake eateries:

Inle lake eateries

 


And what about Ashin Wirathu?

Quote from the venerable monk U Uttara: "All suffering in Myanmar is man made. What we need is a mind change. If we don’t change the way we think, the suffering in this country will never end." (September 16, 2015, frontiermyanmar.net)

 

And what about Ashin Wirathu? In 2017 he has been newsworthy:

irrawaddy.com - "Burma’s infamous nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu was banned from delivering sermons across the country for one year, starting from March 10, due to his religious hate speeches". (11 March 2017)

mizzima.com - Ashin Wirathu is the subject of a new documentary showing at France’s Cannes Film Festival (May 2017).

frontiermyanmar.net - A shadowy group of “patriots” nostalgic for junta rule is exploiting religion in the hope of creating a national emergency that would justify a Tatmadaw takeover.

www.atimes.com - Asia Times: Despite a clampdown, Buddhist extremism spreads in Myanmar.

www.dvb.no/news - Wirathu proclaims "Maungdaw has fallen".

www.cfr.org - Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder (08-sept-2017) - Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

News archive - Tourism news and also the history of the conflict in Maungdaw, Rakhine state from 2016 to 2017.

 


Euro and dollar exchange in Yangon

Until April 2012 the kyat had both an official and a black market rate. The official rate was about 6 Kyat per US dollar, but the black market rate somewhat higher at 840 Kyat to the dollar. Which explains why travellers changed money on the black market. On 2-April-2012 the Burmese central bank officially floated the Kyat and normal money exchange became legal.

Only crisp, clean bills are accepted : example USD note
 
An example of Kyat notes: example Kyat notes
 
You will get a better rate for large dollar bills. Large Euro bills (100/200) are not much better.

Which currency - Euro or dollars?

Which currency to take to Myanmar; Euro or dollars? The best choice for Europeans (except perhaps the Brits) is to take Euro notes and change these to Kyats. If you find you need dollars you can also change Euro notes straight to dollars at any exchange office.

Most hotels are priced and paid in US dollars - though one can usually also pay with Kyats. Since 2013 zone-fees like the Shwedagon pagoda and Inle lake zone fee are payable in Kyats. But with the introduction of more ATMs the pristine dollar or Euro bills will be a thing of the past. At the moment it is probably smart to bring cash money - if only as a backup.

 


Myanmar Myths and Rumours

Travelers’ diarrhea is the most common malady affecting travelers to the tropics, and the rumours about food poisoning are not fake news. The chance of getting a bad tummy is much higher than catching malaria. In my experience Burmese food is cleaner than Indian and the bacteria are not that horrible, but generally restaurants are less hygienic than in other SE-asian countries. It's better to be careful and observe indian eating rules - only warm, cooked food and no salads unless from a proper and clean kitchen. The Lahpet Thoke or Burmese Tea Leaf Salad is worth a try though ...

Seventy-five drinking water brands failed microbial testing in Yangon: coconuts.co

  • "You can't change Euro's outside of Yangon." Complete nonsense, in all tourist destinations Dollars and Euros can be exchanged at reasonable rates.
  • And yes, you can buy US-Dollars at any exchange counter or bank.
  • WIFI in Burma is either slow or it's Not. Not means not there!
  • The Defense Services Museum in Yangon has been moved to Naypyidaw. Defense Museum
  • Gokteik viaduct is the world highest rail bridge at 300m high? It is only 100 meter and not the highest anymore.
  • The Burma road? It's in China and it runs from Kunming to Lashio, Burma.
  • The Ledo road? It's in Northern Burma, also called the Stilwell road.
  • The Burma railway? Runs mostly through Thailand.
  • The road to Mandalay? It is from "Mandalay" by Rudyard Kipling.
  • The road to Democracy? That's about the long road to full democracy; after the first free elections in Myanmar in 2015.

 


Myanmar / Birma links

Money exchange.

Burmese elephant drawing
Burmese elephant drawing (1910)

Jobless Elephants in Myanmar.

For hundreds of years elephants helped extract teak and hardwoods from jungles that even modern machinery cannot penetrate. The new Government of Myanmar has set a temporary national logging ban in 2016 and a 10-year logging ban in the Pegu Yoma region. It is good news for Myanmars nature and forests but a major problem for the 5500 captive elephants.
  • www.nytimes.com/2016 - Unemployed, Myanmar’s Elephants Grow Heavier.
  • nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI - Smithsonian Conservation Institute - Status of elephants in Myanmar.
  • time.com/43317/burma - Time: Burma’s Logging Ban is a disaster for Elephants.
  • www.ghvelephant.com - Green Hill Valley camp; for retired timber logging elephants.
  • Nat Pauk Elephant camp Katha was the biggest timber logging town and the setting for George Orwell's famous book Burmese Days.

  • Elephant literature.
  • Elephant Bill by J. H. Williams - The tale of Billy Williams, who used elephants to help defeat the Japanese in Burma.
  • Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke. About Elephant Bill.
  • Shooting an Elephant and other essays by George Orwell. One of Orwells' best stories and his first anti-colonialist essay, situated in Moulmein, Burma. More entertaing than "Burmese Days".
  • Travels on My Elephant by Mark Shand - Mark Shand bought an elephant named Tara and rode her over six hundred miles across India.

 


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