|US $1 = around 1,200 to 1,250 Kyat (no official exchange rate)
Well, I saved the most intersting country for last on my trip. I have always wanted to go to Burma (aka Myanmar), mostly because it is one of the least accessible places in the world to visit. Burma is bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, with another 800 miles of coastline on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Rudyard Kipling described Burma as "quite unlike any land you know about". Considering I didn't know anyone from there, or even a single person who had visited the country, Burma was certainly a mystery to me. More Burma info on Lonely Planet site
Burma's isolation has very little to do with its location however. The country has been ruled by the State Peace and Development Council, an oppressive military junta, since 1962. Due to internal protests and pressure from outside countries, the military agreed to hold an election in 1990. National League for Democracy (NLD) won an amazing 82% of the vote, despite egregious military intervention including the arrest of several NLD leaders before the vote. As of today, seventeen years later, the junta has still not handed over power.
A leader in the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, has continued to push for democracy in defiance of the military dictatorship. As a consequence, she has spent most of the last seventeen years under house arrest. The government would prefer that she live in exile outside the country, but she has chosen to stay in Burma under the threat of prison or worse, so she can continue to advocate democracy for her people. As a result of her work and sacrifice, Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991. The government's latest move, just two months ago, was to accuse Suu Kyi of tax evasion for not spending her Nobel prize money in Burma where it could be taxed. Read more about Aung San Suu Kyi
There is a debate about whether any tourists should visit the country at all, since some of the money spent will inevitably end up in government hands. There are also widespread reports that the junta used forced labor to build some of the tourist infrastructure. On the other hand, many people advocate tourism since it is one of the few ways to financially support the people there, and many feel that the presence of outside visitors discourages the government from some of the most flagrant human-rights violations. In addition, the vast majority of Burmese people want foreign visitors to come.
As you can imagine, the Burmese government exercises total censorship of the media, and any type of dissent is dealt with severely. For example, there is one internet service provider in the country run by the government, and many websites are banned. These include anything related to democracy, and sites that would allow the Burmese people to communicate with foreigners such as Yahoo mail and Hotmail. But when you enter an internet cafe, one of the employees quietly asks what email system you use, and if it is banned, they call up a proxy site that let's you backdoor the government censorship. Like in China, once the internet cat is out of the bag, there is no way for a government to effectively control the flow of information.
Seeing the people get around the censorship, and hearing carefully worded critical comments about the government, it is tempting to think that the situation is less oppressive than it is. I hired a taxi driver to show me around the capital city of Yangon. He asked if I wanted to see Aung San Suu Kyi's house where she is imprisoned. It is on a main road so there is no problem driving by, but when I reached for my camera, the driver urgently asked me to stop. He said there were spies all along the road, and if I was seen taking a picture of the house, his taxi would be taken and he would be imprisoned. I could tell from his reaction that he was not exaggerating.
Another well-known example of oppression is related to a comedy troupe I saw in the city of Mandalay called the Moustache Brothers. The group were performing at an Independence Day celebration in 1996 and they made some jokes about Myanmar generals. As a result, two of the three brothers were arrested and sentenced to seven years of hard labor in a prison camp. The two brothers were released early in 2002 partly due to international pressure, and although they are officially barred from performing, they continue to offer their show to tourists out of their home for donations. I was able to attend the show in Mandalay and meet the brothers. The troupe leader said "We are alive because of tourists. We want tourists to come. We want a Trojan horse."
You might be wondering why I decided to visit such a crazy place. First, due to the country's isolation, going there is like taking a time machine back fifty years or more. Even in the largest and most accessible capital city of Yangon, there are very few tourists so you can witness genuine Burmese life. It is what I imagine Thailand was like decades ago before their tourism boom began. In my research, I also read that the Burmese people are extremely sweet and welcoming, and they really appreciate visitors. The government also values tourists since we are a source of hard currency. As long as you are not handing out political leaflets, you are welcomed by the government and the people.
Traveling in Burma presents other challenges however. The visa application process for Burma is also time consuming, and they do a thorough background check to make sure you are not a democracy activist, journalist, movie producer, or other trouble-maker. Once you get the visa, you are only allowed to visit a few places. I wanted to see a remote area called Chin State, and this required another application (and a month wait) to get the government permission.
After Aung San Suu Kyi's most recent arrest in 2003, the US and EU enforced full sanctions against Burma. This move caused 38 foreign banks to leave the country, and Burma's 20 private banks collapsed. As a result, there is not a single ATM in the country, and almost no businesses accept credit cards. I had to withdraw about 125,000 rupees in India, and exchange them to US dollars before arriving in Burma since there is no way to get cash once you are there.
Another challenge is the local money called Kyat (pronounced "chat"). Since there is no real banking system or link to international financial markets, there is no official exchange rate. Once in the country, you need to find someone to sell you local currency. The largest note in Burma is 1,000 Kyat, which is worth about 80 cents. That is the LARGEST note. I exchanged $100, and got a stack of bills back that was literally three inches tall! There was 100,000 Kyat in 500 Kyat notes, and another 25,000 in 1,000 Kyat notes. I had to stuff cash in all my pockets!
The money has real value though for the local people. A hotel worker carried a bag to my room, and I handed him a 1,000 Kyat note thinking that 80 cents was about right. I swear the guy almost got choked up as if I was the most generous person on the planet. Burma is extremely poor, with most people living on about $100 a month, and the Economist magazine estimates that many rural households earn no more that $400 a year. It is easy to be generous here. I gave a 50% tip to a massage therapist, and the total cost for an hour session was $2.40. Another day I was invited to a family's home for dinner, so I bought 20 roses as a gift which cost me $1.60 at the inflated tourist price. Amazing!
After a stop in the capital of Yangon, I proceeded to an area called Inle Lake. The lakeshore and lake islands are home to 17 villages on stilts. I stayed in the closest town called Nyaunshwe at a nice place called Hotel Amazing. The lake is surrounded by mountains, and life proceeds at a mellow pace. I hired a boat for a day, and was able to see villages, markets, fisherman, and even a boat race! (See the videos)
There are very few cars in this rural area, so most people get around by boat or bicycle. It is an amazing sight to see a fisherman standing on one leg, and rowing with the other, thereby keeping his hands free for the fishing net. We also stopped at the Leaping Cat Monestary in the lake. Any yes, they do have leaping cats. Check out the videos!