Changing money in Myanmar (Burma): 2012

I just returned from 18 days in Myanmar — most of the time was with an Intrepid Travel group, so I don’t know the prices of accommodation (they took care of that). But here are some facts that might be helpful:

1. The official currency exchange (in modern offices with formal signage above the door) exchanged U.S. dollars for anywhere from 830 to 880 kyats (per $1). The rates for Singapore dollars and Euros were not bad at those offices. Because the U.S. dollars must be absolutely perfect (never used and never folded), it is easier to change Singapore dollars or Euros, because they do not show wear like the paper U.S. money. They reject many U.S. bills for very minor folds or marks.

2. There is an official currency exchange office in the Yangon airport near the baggage carousel. The rate was about 10 kyats less per dollar than the office at Bogyoke market (Scott market), on the same day (front side, at the east end). Given that 10 kyat is about 1 cents, this is not bad. And it’s convenient to get it done right away.

3. I used a free currency rate app on my iPhone ( that turned out to be very reliable for kyat rates. If you update it before you fly, you can check the rate in the airport against that and see if you’re willing to accept it.

4. Prices: You can easily eat something nice in a basic sit-down tea house or restaurant (I use the word loosely) for 1,000 to 3,000 kyats. A liter of bottled water costs 300 to 500 kyats most of the time. Fresh fruit juices are usually 1,000 kyats in safe (using bottled water) places. Small yellow mangoes were in season and cost 100 kyats each. Common souvenirs cost 1,000 to 5,000 each (little ones can be 10 for 2,000). I negotiated with a woodcarver for a beautiful 10-inch-high sitting Buddha image (not sandalwood, which costs more) and got a price of 28,000 kyats (his first price was 50,000). Longyi range from 2,000 to 7,000 (higher prices for nicer ones).

5. Single dollars and $5 bills: There are special prices for foreigners for entry to many things, such as some temples and the National Museum in Yangon. These prices are written in U.S. dollars. If you do not have U.S. dollars, they will always accept a one-to-one conversion, which is slightly bad for you (e.g. U.S. $1 = 1,000 kyats) because 1,000 kyats (today) is $1.13. So if you want to pinch pennies, be sure to have some clean, crisp U.S. $1 bills and two or three $5 bills. They are not so picky about these, but the bills still cannot be too worn. In shops where prices are marked in dollars, they will always accept kyats and usually (at least in my experience) the conversion rate in shops is fair. If not, argue with them.

6. If you must change money somewhere other than Yangon, the rates will certainly be unfavorable to you. But it (usually) can be done somewhere if you are desperate. Just be prepared to get a bad rate. Hotels (even good ones in Yangon) have poor rates, sometimes 100 kyat less than the market rate.

7. Make sure you get 5,000-kyat notes. That is the largest note available. Some money changers will try to give you 1,000-kyat notes — this will be 5x as much weight and bulk for you to carry! You will be able to get change in 1,000’s when you buy stuff. For example, 100 kyat notes (5,000) is about U.S. $570.

8. You can change kyats back in the Yangon airport just after going through immigration (international side) — there’s a bank office on the right side, “AGB” or something like that. The rate there on Monday was 860 or 870 kyats per U.S. dollar (sorry, I didn’t write it down). They also had some other currencies there.

9. There are black-market currency-exchange guys on every street corner in Yangon. They say politely, “Change money?” I asked two of them what their rates were, and they were lower than the official offices (780 and 790).

10. The official office at Bogyoke market (Scott market) has limited hours: 10 a.m. to noon, closed for lunch, then 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. They are closed on Mondays and all holidays.

A word about phở

After years and years of eating phở in America (spelled “pho” here, and often pronounced like foe, but it should be fuh), I finally got to eat phở in Vietnam. The very first bowl I had was at Phở Vuông on Giang Vo Street in Hanoi. It was very tasty, but despite being surrounded by Vietnamese diners, I felt like a complete tourist in the clean, well-lighted, air-conditioned restaurant. As written in the Vietnamese God blog in 2006:

It is a bit pricy but it is worth it for the comfortable chairs, high tables, and air-con which is great in such a hot summer.

Pricey: 28,000 dong for a bowl of phở bò tái (or pho tai, my fave, the one with thin slices of raw lean beef that cook to perfection in the steaming hot broth); 21,000 for ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee, one of the finest things on earth), and 3,000 for a plate of quay, my new discovery — a Vietnamese riff on fry bread that you drop into your phở to soak up the fragrant broth — YUM!

That’s a grand total of 52,000 dong — about US$3 at today’s rates. It is pricey compared with street phở (about 12,000 dong, which is less than one dollar), but it sure is nice to be sure you’ll get the lovely tái and not the nasty tendon, tripe, or even more exotic variants that local people may prefer.

Yes, I’m a wimp when it comes to eating organ meats, or other parts of animals not commonly seen in U.S. supermarkets (even though my German ancestors love munching on tripe and pig’s stomach). So I never did get around to eating phở bò tái in Saigon. Next time around.

Jodi & Co. and I ate twice at Pho24 in Hanoi — one branch at 3B Thi Sach St., and the other at 61 Van Mieu St. (that one was full of Western tourists! But the phở was lovely anyway). We found that the outlet mentioned in the current edition of Lonely Planet (at the southeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake) has disappeared. Three of the Vietnamese journalists in Hanoi told me that Phở Vuông has replaced Pho24 as the top phở restaurant in the capital city. I don’t know, but I thought Pho24’s broth had more flavor, more like the Saigon-esque versions we get around Washington, D.C. (where you can find branches of Pho24 too).

One big surprise for us was the lack of salad (or rather, a plate piled high with basil, mint, and bean sprouts) to accompany the phở. That’s a southern thing, I was told, and not common in Hanoi.

I have not a single photo of a bowl of pho. Every time it came to the table, I was so happy to see it and smell it, I forgot everything else except eating it.

Read more about phở at the Noodle Pie blog.

Our cyclo ride in Ho Chi Minh City

One of many highlights of my visit to Vietnam in June was our late-afternoon ride (all 12 of us in separate cyclos) through rush-hour traffic. If you go to the YouTube page, please look for the link “Watch in High Quality” below the video. It looks much better that way.

This video was shot on a small still camera, the Canon PowerShot SD700 IS 6MP Digital Elph (about $200), and edited in Final Cut Pro. The music comes from the Internet Archive. It’s the work of a librarian who lives in Singapore.

Book review: The Gods Drink Whiskey

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, by Stephen T. Asma (2005). See it at

Before I left the U.S. to go traveling in Cambodia this summer, I searched and asked around for recommendations for non-history books, not travel guidebooks, about Cambodia. A lot of titles came my way, but nothing seemed suitable for reading on buses and boats, at bedtime in third-rate hotels, etc. A novel would have been acceptable, if it promised me the real flavor of the country, but I couldn’t find one that seemed right.

I’m not sure exactly how this book came to my attention, but I’m very glad it did. It not only suited me perfectly while I was experiencing Cambodia for two weeks in May; I liked it so much I read it twice. I’m prepared to recommend it to anyone who is thinking about going to Cambodia.

Stephen T. Asma is an American college professor who was invited to the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to teach a philosophy of Buddhism course to graduate students there. And if you wonder how and why a non-Asian, American guy got into a position of teaching Buddhism to Asians in a Buddhist country — well, suffice to say that after you have read the book, you’ll probably feel fine about that.

The cover blurbs on this book are very misleading. They say it’s a “hippie road trip” and make it sound rollicking and irreverent, with an emphasis on pizza topped with marijuana. Such a pizza is consumed, yes — but in the company of a Sri Lankan traveler who challenges Asma with a head-pounding dissertation on Buddhist beliefs that I read four times. The pizza? Not nearly as interesting as the exploration of karma and rebirth.

Here and there, Asma’s very personal approach might have been smoothed out a bit by a firmer editor, but for the most part, his opinions humanize the story and ground it in the experience of a man who is mostly open-minded about other cultures and humble enough to know he doesn’t know them. That’s not to say Asma is an altogether humble person. (His opinions might offend someone who thinks Christian missionaries are doing good work in countries such as Cambodia, for example.) But what impressed me a lot — especially on second reading — was how a guy with a Ph.D. in philosophy doesn’t presume to fully understand the very thing he teaches. His ability to really see, and really hear, the people he met in Cambodia was in some ways a gate that allowed me to see more, and hear more, than I could have without his help.

The book manages to explore the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the present-day sex trade, Western pop culture, the relative innocence of young Cambodian adults (Asma’s students), crime and gangsterism, religious hegemony, and the mystifying pantheistic practices of Buddhism in Cambodia — all in a deceptively casual, non-academic manner. (My favorite: How Asma’s students reacted to a visit by Maha Ghosananda, and the backstory, set in the bloodiest days of the Khmer Rouge.)

The oddest thing about my experience reading this book was that when I came to the end the first time through, I felt kind of let down. I was sitting on a bus traveling from Kompong Cham to Kampot, with seven days remaining in a 15-day trip. I had a book about Angkor in my backpack, but instead of taking it out, I started paging through The Gods Drink Whiskey again. I was thinking the book had not been what I had expected, but for each topic my mind tossed out (Buddhism, Khmer Rouge, the character of the Cambodian people, economic development, etc.), I realized that Asma had, in fact, written about that. So I began to think that maybe jet lag (or culture shock) had clouded my brain in the first few days of reading, and I decided to just start on page one and read it straight through again. (This is NOT something I do often at all, by the way.)

Well, that turned out to be a wonderful decision. On my second reading, I felt as though Asma’s book and the country and I were all in perfect sync with one another, and we danced in a threesome that felt natural and right. I’m not saying I saw everything the same way as Asma did, but I understood what he wrote and I appreciated how he viewed what he saw. He helped me hear the rhythm of Cambodia more clearly than I could have on my own. When I felt sad to be leaving Phnom Penh in the middle of my 15th day, I had Asma to thank, in part.

Cambodia and the Killing Fields

Yesterday I watched two films — the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and the feature The Killing Fields (1984). I rented both DVDs from Netflix.

S21, and The Killing Fields

Two videos: S21, and The Killing Fields

Yeah, this was not fun, popcorn-munching movie time. But what happened — what often happens when I travel — was that I got exposed to things I knew very little about, while I was in Cambodia. Like going to Dachau while I was staying in Munich, going to the Khmer Rouge torture prison called S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and Choeung Ek while I was in Phnom Penh seemed … well … necessary.

The DVD of this documentary about S-21 is for sale in just about every video store in Cambodia. I tried to make sure to get an NTSC version so I could watch it back home in the United States, but even though the $2 DVD I bought said “NTSC” on the back cover, when I put it into my DVD player, I got a message that it was PAL format and would not play. Bummer. (Yeah, $2 wasted.) So I put it into my Netflix queue.

It’s a rather remarkable video, and as someone who watched a big stack of feature-length documentaries last year (part of doing my job), I can assure you it is unusual. If you are a fan of innovative documentary video, you owe it to yourself to watch this.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh (relocated to France in 1980) gathered together two of the 12 survivors of S-21 (out of 17,000 prisoners held there, only 12 ever emerged alive) and several prison guards, along with some other prison workers, and took them to the empty prison (formerly a high school in Phnom Penh). There, they talk. In eerily flat, monotone voices, the guards describe their deathly work, carried out when they were young teenagers or, at most, in their early 20s.

They walk up and down the corridors of S-21, playing out their former roles. They are as robotic as factory workers on an assembly line.

S-21, by macloo, on Flickr

As they sift through files, documents, and photographs (the Khmer Rouge were scrupulous about keeping records of each prisoner taken in, each interrogation, each execution), the former guards remember out loud. Yes, I interrogated this woman. She was 19 years old. Yes, I remember this family, with their five children. All were killed. The children were taken out first. The husband and wife were separated.

Throughout, one very articulate survivor of S-21, Vann Nath, asks questions. How could you do these things? How were you indoctrinated? Did you never think of these people as fellow human beings?

The answer that emerges chills the blood: They were enemies. There was no question that they were enemies. The authorities (Angkar) never made mistakes. If someone was arrested, then that one was an enemy. It was not for us to question. Our duty was to get their confessions. There must be a confession because Angkar never made a mistake, so each one of them was an enemy.

I have no conclusions to offer, but I did have a disturbing feeling when I was watching this video, and that was a connection to Abu Ghraib and all the secret prisons operated by the CIA.

As I listened to the former S-21 guards talking, I thought about the conditions under which a person works as a guard. The conditions of any prison — especially one where the prisoners are believed to be hiding valuable information. The more I heard from the guards, the more I thought that almost anyone might act the way they acted. The alternative for them was severe punishment or even death. So how many people will stand up, in that situation, and refuse to do what they are ordered to do?

I like to think I would rather die than torture a person. But in the real situation, would I be strong enough?

Torture, by macloo, on Flickr

A few hours later, I watched The Killing Fields, with Sam Waterston as New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, and Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian who worked as his interpreter and became his friend. I saw this movie when it came out, more than 20 years ago, and I’m quite sure that then I did not know exactly where Cambodia was on a map.

As a journalist and journalism educator, this movie has a special appeal for me. But it’s also quite disturbing, and this essay by British journalist Jon Swain sums up the troubling aspect:

The difference between us and the band of local journalists we hired to interpret the language, politics and culture was that they were seeing and reporting on their own country being destroyed. We, on the other hand, were reporting from the privileged position of visitors who could always bail out. For them, there could be nowhere else to go: they and their loved ones were trapped by the war and their survival was dependent on the outcome.

(Swain was in Cambodia with Pran and Schanberg. I found his memoir on the blog of Andy Brouwer.)

Mass grave, by macloo, on Flickr

Watching this movie now, I wonder how much of it I even understood in 1984. All the references to “Angkar” (the supreme authority of the Khmer Rouge) would have flown straight over my head. The passing notices of Buddhism would have been invisible to me then (e.g., Pran makes a “wai,” or praying-hands mudra, and then we see that the ruins he and Schanberg are walking through are, in fact, a destroyed Buddhist temple; Pran is bowing to a statue of the Buddha there). The beauty of the Cambodian people would have been indistinguishable, for me, from the features of any other Southeast Asian people; but yesterday, watching, I thought: The people really look Cambodian — how did they get all these Cambodians in a movie shot in the early 1980s, when Cambodia was still in chaos?

The movie was shot in Thailand and in Toronto; apparently Cambodians from a refugee camp near the Thai border participated.

Even the wart-like scene when Schanberg is in his apartment in New York, watching Richard Nixon on a Sony Betamax videotape (the VCR is almost as big as a steamer trunk), would have done little, back in 1984, to orient me — in my profound American ignorance about Southeast Asia — to the U.S.’s large contribution to the horror in Cambodia, which shares a border with what was then called South Vietnam.

1969: In an effort to destroy Communist supply routes and base camps in Cambodia, President Nixon gives the go-ahead to “Operation Breakfast.” The covert bombing of Cambodia, conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American public, will continue for fourteen months. (Source)

Two things struck a strong chord for me — apart from the compelling personality of Dith Pran, and his terrible experiences as a peasant under the heel of the Khmer Rouge: (1) the foreign journalists in Cambodia were so utterly unaware of what was really going on outside the capital, Phnom Penh; and (2) when the KR tanks rolled into Phnom Penh on the day that the war supposedly ended, even the Cambodians there thought the worst was over.

The scenes of young boys carrying automatic rifles have become too familiar to us since then — in Africa, in South America — and movies such as Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond remind us that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge continue, carried out by other armies and so-called governments, in other places.

What does this teach us? I’m not really sure.

I’d estimate that the footage in S-21 was shot in 2001 or 2002, because the video was entered in competitions held in 2003. Only six or seven years ago. Those men, those former guards, walk free in Cambodia. They are not even elderly. Out of a population of 7 million, as many as 2 million were killed, or died from starvation, from 1975 to 1979.

As I walked and bicycled and rode in tuk-tuks and boats and buses throughout Cambodia, I marveled often at the warmth and sweetness of the people. This is a tangible thing; many visitors comment on it. (You can see it, the Cambodian character, in Haing S. Ngor’s face and body language in the early scenes of The Killing Fields.) Yet all the people my age (and older) lived through those years of terror. All of them were either guards or survivors, torturers or victims. How can it be that they smile so brilliantly, touched my hand or arm so tenderly, when they carry that inside them?

I don’t know what I might finally understand, if I ever manage to understand this.