The times, they are a changin’…

I’m lucky to have been joined by my friend Kim for a fun-filled 2.5 weeks through Myanmar and Thailand!  It’s so nice to have someone else around for the mosquitoes to target.  😉

We’ve enjoyed our welcome to Yangon airport- like BKK in Bangkok, it looks to be a sleek new building. As with many other things, so much is new and changing so quickly in Myanmar, that not only are the 2-year-old guidebooks out of date, but so is the internet. I’ve never seen anything like it.  Hotel prices have doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in just a year or two.  And our information keeps turning out to be incorrect.

For starters, I kept reading that there are no good and sanctioned ways to change your money into Myanmar kyat and get a good rate, (you can’t use atms, travelers checks, or credit cards here) so you have to find a guy on the street and change it through him.  And this is risky, according to all I’ve read, because these black-market guys are slippery pros. Apparently they grab your money from you and count it out repeatedly, and then shuffle it around and distract you so that even the most careful and alert person ends up losing a few bills before the process is over.

Well, now you can change your money at banks and get a very fair rate, without the hassle. I only learned that from a fellow blogger who was here a month ago. Oh, and I don’t even know what the bank rate is, because I changed my money at the airport. I had no intention of doing this, because I was told by 3 different sources that you can only get the official government rate at the airport (of $1 = 4 kyat), instead of the actual current rate ($1 = 850 kyat).  But as we arrived and waited for the others who were headed to our hotel (you can get a free 40 min. van ride from the airport if you book with certain hotels- even budget ones), the driver advised us to change our money at the airport, because the rate was even better there than at the banks in town.

We checked it out and when we were quoted the rate we expected anyway, we happily changed our money. So, Lonely Planet was wrong again!  I’ve also heard a rumor that the multi-day visa process we went through in Bangkok(which we were told was either a next-day regular charge, or a same-day expedited fee… but turned out to now be broken up into 1,2, or 3 day return rates) may not be necessary because they might be offering visas-on-arrival to Americans now, maybe with a visa-approval letter like Vietnam allows.

But that’s just a rumor… things are changing so quickly here, nobody can keep up.

One thing that has stayed the same is that they will only take pristine, un-creased, and unmarked US dollars for exchange. It also seems unfair that they won’t take Euros or Pounds, etc, but there you go. I got a handy little plastic case to keep my bills in good condition until they were needed. Other travelers have mentioned using cardboard and saran wrap. And if you don’t use all your bills in Myanmar, you can always save them for Vietnam and Laos, etc, where they may accept them for payment instead of local currency.

Incidentally,  some of the visas here in SE Asia are the coolest I’ve ever seen. Instead of a boring stamp, you get an official pre-printed, personalized sticker that takes up a whole page in your passport.

Until my next post, please enjoy the hard-hitting headlines in the Myanmar newspaper…

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Kuala Lumpur

I had a long layover at the airport here, and thought I’d got it made- time to try some regional food, a chance at getting some small denominations of currency for souvenirs, potential interaction with people in yet another country, and a cozy, quiet, modern airport (rated runner-up in the “sleepinginairports.net” guide) to spend the night in. Well, the plane was late, and the shuttle bus between the cramped low cost carriage terminal (LCCT) I arrived in, and the fancy nice one (KLIA) stopped running at 12:30 am.

So, I missed it. The LCCT was packed with masses of people just lying on the ground to sleep for the night. By the time I got to the sleek modern terminal when the buses started back up in the morning, it was already after 6am, and the overhead announcements had begun. I still managed to get some sleep, but nothing like I was planning. So it could have been lack of sleep that led to my feeling the most foreign and out of place so far on this trip, despite the fact that Malaysia is not usually a country you’d put at the top of the list in SE Asia to make a westerner feel out of place.

But, I sat down in “Taste of Asia” for lunch, and besides a guy who walked in 20 minutes later, I was the only Caucasian in a room packed noisily full with over a hundred people. It was nice to observe them to see that they ate with either two forks, or a fork and a spoon- pushing their rice and sauces into a compact and cohesive shape to eat each bite.  But since my mouth was burning from the heat in my Nasi Lemak, and I stared feeling concerned about the lack of physical heat in the lukewarm dish (I’ve been advised- even by a Malaysian, just hours earlier!- to make sure to eat only hot food- not food that’s been sitting out at all, cooling and becoming bacteria-friendly.) and the tiny dried fish that came sprinkled on the dish were tasty, but were a bit hard and had started to cut my mouth, which was already burning… I called it quits and got up to leave.

Unfortunately, I must have dragged my sleeve through something, and then must have rested my hand on my knee and also my bag, because all were bright orange at that point.  Ah… traveling.  I’ll have to go back another time to give KL another chance. Maybe I’ll even make it out of the airport next time.  🙂

Travel math- currency (or, I’m a millionaire!)

When confronted with the need for cash, luckily, you can just head to the ATM in most countries these days. But deciding on an appropriate amount to withdraw can be a challenge. I was reminded of a similarly uncomfortable math dilemma in Costa Rica with Brian a few years ago when also tackling wildly different currency values. But here’s how it played out for me at the the airport the other day:

“Do I really want to withdraw 300,000 Rupiah?!?!?!”

<Finger tentatively poised above confirmation button>

“Ok- it seems like so much, but let’s do it!”

<ATM transaction completed, fake-looking colorful local currency delivered>

“Oh, wait… that was only $32? Crap. That won’t last me the whole week!”

But since dinner last night was only $3.50… with the exceptions of the 2 hour taxi ride here (195,000 IDR) and all those souvenirs calling out to me, it will likely last me a few days after all. 🙂