After an early morning wake up call, I was off to the airport to catch my flight to Yangon, Myanmar.
Clutched in one hand was my copy of Lonely Planets Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Budget the other my passport bulging with a ridiculously detailed visa for Myanmar. I had no plan for the week, just a round trip ticket. I figured on the 1 hour flight over I would be able to get a game plan together and figure out where I am staying etc. I got lucky though and met a young American couple who were living in Bangkok and were traveling to Myanmar on vacation. Upon arrival in Yangon, we shared a cab together to the Motherland Hotel, a great find for only $10 a night. At the hotel we decided to hire a car and driver together for the next seven days to tour Myanmar. So far my company hasn’t been to much for them to handle as I have yet to be left on the curb.
I read that you need to have new money in Myanmar, 1996 or newer.
Before I left I made sure that I had new bills and that I was in good shape. No problem, I had about $650 left over for my final week , which should be more than enough. When we got to the hotel they wanted payment up front, no problem I whipped out my 1996 US Ten dollar bill to pay, only to have her ask if I had another. I did, yet she still asked for another. Apparently not only do they have to be “new” they also can’t have any creases, marks, stains, tears, etc anywhere on the bill. I had the front desk take a look at my money and they told me that only $213 of my money was good. After paying for my share of the driver $160 and $10 for my room that evening I was left with all of $43 for the rest of the week. To make things better, Banks and ATMs do not exist in Myanmar and since there are no banks, very, very few businesses take credit cards. This is how I got the chance to exchange money on the Currency Black Market.
The American couple had a friend of a friend, a young 20 something Burmese girl, meeting them in Yangon to give them a tour of the city and I was invited to join them.This girl happened to work at a travel agency and has had tourists in the same position as me. So, after a $1 cab ride that lasted 15 minutes, we were in a market where she knew some “people”. The stall looked like any ordinary with paintings for sale on the wall, except they didn’t sell paintings, they bought and sold US dollars illicitly. Under the counter were stacks of the local currency and USD. I gave my money to our new friend, she in turn, spoke softly and passed the money over to the buyers. After some inspection I was told that some of my money I would get full exchange, some at 7% under market and some at 15% under market. Given my options, and not knowing if or when I will be able to exchange my money again, I sold all of my money at whatever rate they would give me. I then, at a loss, sold the local currency to the Americans who had plenty of nice crisp $20’s. The last thing I needed was $400 worth of Burmese money which I am sure would not be able to purchase any USD in return.
Yangon is best described by a Belgian fellow I met yesterday, “Yangon is like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the Jungle has taken back over”.
Every building, every structure is in some sort of major disrepair. It is surreal driving around and seeing many of the old government buildings completely abandoned right in the middle of downtown. Even the buildings people are living in are crumbling. There was no new construction and I am sure there have also been no paint sales in the last decade anywhere within city limits. Yet somehow, according to our driver, this is the most expensive city in Myanmar to live in.
After spending sometime in a park, waiting out the rain, we walked through the post apocalyptic city to the Schwedegon Pagoda. I have got to tell you, I have seen a lot of amazing things on this trip, but this I believe is the most impressive. I’m not sure if it is because I expected Angkor Wat to be amazing and had no expectations for this, but this 2600 year old pagoda is breathtaking and supersedes anything I have seen on this trip so far. Pictures can not do it justice, they rarely can. The structure is absolutely enormous. After a few hours at the pagoda we headed to bed for a few hours of sleep. We were going to get an early start to drive from Yangon to Mandalay.