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 (http://currencyapp.com/) 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.

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 Amazon.com.

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.

Air travel in and to Vietnam

If only I had found out about Jetstar before I went to Vietnam!

Flights on the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, are nice enough, but booking is a giant pain in the neck — because you must pay cash. Yes, the national airline does not accept credit cards! Even inside the country, when I booked a flight through my hotel, I had to get 2 million dong in cash to hand over for my ticket. (The same hotel accepted my credit card for my hotel bill.) Ridiculous. Especially because many of the Vietnamese banks’ ATMs would not give me cash, even though they recognized my card.

Jetstar is a budget carrier, a joint venture between Australia and Singapore. Like the fabulous AirAsia (which I recommend very highly!), Jetstar offers bare bones service, charges for extras, and has nice new planes that make travelers feel perfectly safe. I have flown on AirAsia at least six times, including recently from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh — check out their wonderful fares. Unfortunately, they don’t fly domestic legs within Vietnam.

I guess I didn’t search hard enough, because before I left the U.S., I didn’t find out about Jetstar. We flew from Danang to Saigon on Jetstar last week, and it was a perfectly nice flight — for about US$40. (The hotel charged me $103 for a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Hanoi; Jetstar has it for $53 t0 $84.)

Vietnam Airlines does not publish ticket fares on their Web site. This enables travel agents to totally gouge travelers — like the taxi drivers in Hanoi, I might add. (All the taxi drivers I encountered in Saigon were honest.) The first travel agent I contacted in the U.S. to try to buy a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City wanted $198 for it. Another agent (TNK Travel) wanted only $110 for the same ticket, same day and time. (Oddly enough, the first travel agent, VINA Travel in San Francisco, was recommended by Vietnam Airlines, which will not sell tickets directly in the U.S.) I had to wire TNK the money via Western Union because they too do not accept credit cards (unless you fill out a crazy form with way too much personal information on it and MAIL it to them — yeah, right). They wanted a bank transfer, but my U.S. bank charges $35 for that; Western Union charged $4.

Jetstar (like AirAsia) permits you to book on the Web site and pay with a credit card (like any normal airline, ahem).

Watch out for extra baggage fees if you fly on the cheap carriers — weight limits and number of bags are strictly enforced. Both AirAsia and Jetstar make this transparent on their Web sites.

Back in the U.S.A.

The strangest thing about traveling is that as soon as you’re home, it seems as if you’ve never left. Of course, there’s a lot to process, to digest — much will be integrated into my world view over time. But day-to-day life can return almost immediately to normal routines.

I was in the Saigon airport at 3 p.m. Thursday to catch the first of four flights that brought me to Florida. A late afternoon flight on a weekday, Saigon to Hanoi, a lot of business travelers, traveling light. What caught my notice as I stood in line to board the bus that would take us to the plane: Almost everyone was carrying a big vinyl-sided briefcase with a metal rim. I haven’t seen that style of briefcase here in about 10 years. (I used to have one.)

I looked around, searching for other styles. I saw two people carrying something more updated. Thinking back, I realized that U.S. business people carried those briefcases before we all had laptop computers.

I had a lot of thoughts about development (as in “developing nations”). Many times I thought, while in Cambodia or Vietnam, this must be what Malaysia looked like 25 years ago. The traffic in Phnom Penh and Saigon and Hanoi did much to explain to me why roads are designed as they are in Kuala Lumpur — motorbikes lead to cars, and cars are bigger, and then new roads are needed. But pedestrians were not considered in the plans when Malaysia modernized the arteries in its largest city, and as I walked in the gutters of streets in Hanoi and Saigon, I understood why it’s so hard to walk around in KL’s famous shopping area, the Golden Triangle.

In Hoi An, to preserve the old part of the city, the government is forbidding all but foot traffic, one day at a time. Eventually it will be a wheels-free zone all week long, to the benefit of tourism — brilliant.

Another thing I considered after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam was the retarding effect of war. Cambodia held its first free elections in May 1993 — before that, real economic development was not possible. Vietnam “opened the door” in 1986-89, but I would estimate Vietnam is at least 10 years ahead of Cambodia on the development scale. Other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Thailand have been able to focus on economic reforms, infrastructure, and education instead of cleaning up after a country-wide destructive conflict. When I thought about the chaos in Vietnam and Cambodia only 30 years ago, I had to judge their progress as pretty remarkable.

Vietnam has a mission right now to improve the education system at all levels, so it can properly train the next generation of skilled workers and information professionals. Night schools for learning English are everywhere, and many of the 60 journalists I met were enrolled in one. Our Intrepid Travel trip leader, Cong, had studied Russian in school for many years, but started learning English when he was 24 — about eight years ago. The level of English right now in a lot of the hotels where I stayed was poor, but with the government’s emphasis on tourism as one of its income centers, I would bet that will change soon.

I posted some new photos today on Flickr.

Another departure, with regret

Sitting in the business-class lounge in the Hanoi airport, using free wi-fi and drinking a can of passionfruit juice imported from Malaysia (huh?!), waiting for the second leg of the seemingly endless journey from east to west (although my route is eastbound, from Seoul to Atlanta). I’m sorry to be leaving Vietnam — would have liked more time in Hue, in Hoi An, in Saigon.

Tuesday night in Saigon, I walked around and watched people eating, drinking, and just generally hanging out on the sidewalk, as they always do. While I felt pretty fed up with the helter-skelter motorbike traffic and the almost impossible task of walking on the sidewalks (too crowded with seated people and motorbikes to permit much walking), I also thought I could really get to feeling comfortable in Saigon. Much more so than Hanoi. Saigon seems warmer, less harsh. Maybe I just didn’t spend enough time in Hanoi.

Our Intrepid trip leader in Vietnam, Cong, lives near Hanoi. He said if I had one month in Hanoi, I would grow to like it. But he also said, as we sat in the giant colonial-era post office building in Saigon’s District 1: “If I could live anywhere, I would live here.”