The Book

Part II: The First Journey
Into the Heart of Burma: Bagan and Mandalay

Yangon-The Capital of Myanmar

When my flight from Bangkok to Yangon came in for landing, the pilot must have misjudged the altitude, for he set the plane down with such force that the ceiling panels popped open and the passengers were nearly thrown from their seats. What a welcome to Myanmar!

Although most flights into Yangon probably have smoother landings than mine was, it seems appropriate here to make a small digression from arriving in Myanmar to mention just a few other things about the country that might take some getting used to if one is a first-time foreign visitor. For instance, the time difference from Bangkok is not a full hour, but just thirty minutes. Another example is the measurement system. Myanmar is one of only three countries in the world-the United States and Liberia being the other two-that has not adopted the metric system. It has viss and tikal for weight and uses miles, yards, feet, and inches to measure distance.

Then there is the currency system. Kyat, pronounced "chutt," is the name of their nonconvertible currency, which comes in both new and old bills and in unusual denominations such as 15-, 45-, and 90-kyat banknotes. On arrival, foreign visitors who are not part of a tour group must exchange US $200, for which they will receive not local currency but dollar-denominated Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs), at the rate of one to one. (Using these certificates I paid for my dollar-denominated hotel bills and flight tickets.) The kyat is generally available on the currency black market, either against FECs or dollar notes. One should never change dollars at the bank because banks can pay only the official exchange rate, which is less than seven kyat for one dollar. Generally, only one foreign currency is accepted in Myanmar-the American dollar. It is a bit ironic that in this country an illegal market, the currency black market, is perhaps the only free and well-functioning market. It is illegal, of course, to make use of its services, but everybody knows where it is and how it works. The ineffectual government seems to tolerate its existence. Since I did not want to engage in illegal activities, I would ask hotel employees and tour guides to exchange some dollars for me (only after having obtained the latest exchange rates). Changing as little as twenty dollars into kyat leaves one with a very fat wallet, and I saw merchants and traders walking around with large stacks of kyat that would not even fit in a wallet. At the time of my second visit, the exchange rate was roughly 245 kyat to the dollar, and only a year later the rate had fallen to 360. With an annual rate of inflation of some 40 percent, the value of the kyat against the US dollar can only move one way, and that is down. Consequently, the kyat exchange rate temporarily dropped to 580 sometime in February 2001, recovering a few days later to 510. It should be noted that local currency obtained on the black market cannot be officially reconverted when you leave the country, so one should spend it all. As for credit cards, they are accepted only at expensive hotels. The method of payment is almost always cash, so it is convenient to bring not only large dollar denominations but also many smaller ones.

And now we return to arriving in Myanmar. Entry formalities amount to an extended bureaucratic procedure, with lots of forms to fill out. After I had just passed one inspection desk, there would be another one, where a different officer wanted to look into my passport-again. I did not mind the long procedure because all the officials were polite, but when the customs inspector told me to open my suitcase, I simply refused, spoke to him in German, and walked away unchallenged.

Outside the air terminal, I was met by a young Burmese woman from the Europa guest house, which I had contacted after I found its advertisement in the official Myanmar travel magazine, Today. The Italian-Burmese guest house, with its own travel agency (and an antique shop, which I never found), was run by Maria, a former official of the UN diplomatic service who had been stationed in Lebanon, Iraq, and Viet Nam, and who had been unhappily married twice (to Germans!). She was the proud mother of three adopted children from Cambodia; another was soon to come from a pregnant Burmese maid whose boyfriend had conveniently disappeared. Maria had found her happiness in a handsome younger Burmese man from Mandalay who lived with her in her guest house and, in good Burmese fashion, left the work to her, which is not unusual in a country where women typically do most of the work and men sometimes help.

The Europa was situated halfway between the airport and the center of the city, in a poorer neighborhood and not far from Yangon University, which like all universities in Myanmar was closed from the end of 1996 until July 2000. (The campus borders on University Avenue, which is strictly off limits to everyone-heavily armed soldiers have kept visitors away from the house of Nobel Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ever since the free elections of May 1990.) Surrounded by high walls, the Europa consisted of three or four structures, but only a few rooms were available for guests; employees and their families occupied most of the rooms. A few unpacked boxes containing household items sat on the patio, as though the owner had moved in only yesterday. The main building had a small office and a bar, managed by Gerhard, a German who had married one of the Burmese maids the day before and who called himself "Deputy General Manager."

In the bar were several French guests, probably expatriates working in Yangon. They did not know what to do with this new non-French-speaking arrival, so I was ignored. Later, while having a Tiger beer at the bar, I was asked by a not-so-sober Frenchman, who was complaining that the bar had run out of J&B scotch, whether I wanted to accompany him to a "place of ill repute" where he had just telephoned to reserve two girls. So much for law and order under the military government.


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