Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Ben and I recently spent three weeks in Burma, which was certainly different to any of the other countries we've been to here in Asia. Probably the main reason behind these differences is the bizarre and seemingly arbitrary behaviour of the Burmese government. As you may know, Burma has a military dictatorship. In 1990, the opposition party won the election in a landslide, but they were then outlawed by the government, and their leader is still under house arrest today.

Surprisingly, we saw very little military presence anywhere on the streets, but they certainly made themselves felt in other ways.


There are no ATMs in Burma, no banks for foreigners, and no-one accepts travellers cheques or credit cards (due to international trade restrictions). This means before you go, you have to withdraw and carry with you all the money you will need for your whole trip. As you can imagine, for a month-long holiday that can be quite a bit - Ben and I took US$1600 in cash!

The Burmese have their own currency of course - the kyat (K) - but no-one really trusts it. You can't trade kyat on foreign exchange markets, and everyone there prefers to deal in US dollars for anything but small purchases, even though it's illegal for locals to possess US currency without a license.

So for small change, you need to convert USD to K, which you have to do on the black market. This is because the "official" exchange rate is about 6K per US dollar, but on the street you can get over 1000K per dollar - almost a two hundred times better rate!

The reason why no-one really wants kyat is because on several occasions in the past, the government has suddenly declared that certain notes (eg the 100K note) are no longer legal tender. This doesn't mean you could exchange them for new notes, it means all those notes were instantly worthless (you can see why no-one wants to keep their savings in kyat!). They also introduced strange new denominations like 35, 45, 75 and 90K notes.

Today the biggest denomination you can get is 1000K, equivalent to a mere US$1. Actually these are the only notes being printed any more, because the smaller ones (eg 100K, equal to one dime) cost more to produce than they are actually worth. They are still in circulation, but are so old they they're hard to read and practically falling apart.

Apparently this situation is better than it used to be - until 2003, foreigners had to change at least US$200 into FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), basically the government equivalent of Disney Dollars. Of course that money went straight in the government's pockets, which you can mostly avoid doing these days.


It's normal for foreigners to get treated differently in Asia (see: "tourist price") but on top of this, Burma has a bunch of extra laws that only apply to us.
  • We can only stay in government-registered hotels. Each place you stay will take down your full passport and visa details and report this to the authorities, so they know exactly where you are and where you're going all the time.
  • Foreigners are not allowed to drive cars, if you hire a car you have to get a driver with it.
  • Much of the country is off-limit to foreigners, and other areas you must apply for a special visa to enter. This includes a lot of the roads to border crossings, so you need to fly to the border to cross overland. Some of the borders are actually one-way, so you can enter, but can't leave the country the same way.
  • Foreigners are not allowed in the capital city, Naypyidaw. Our trekking guide suggested this was because the Burmese were obtaining nuclear technology from the Indians and were paranoid about future invasion by the US. He says this is also why in 2005 they moved the capital from Rangoon to the more mountainous, easily defended area.
  • Tourists can't buy a mobile phone SIM in Burma, and even for locals it's prohibitively expensive (several thousand USD).


As could be expected under a military regime, all media outlets are either government owned, or have to go through government censors. Even the internet access is restricted, albeit inconsistently and almost randomly. For example, most news sites are unaffected yet some (eg are blocked. Wikipedia and Google are fine, even articles critical of the local government. Access to most blog sites is unfettered, but is not available. Flickr is OK, but Picasa Web albums is not. Gmail and Yahoo Mail are blocked, but can easily be accessed by using their secure or mobile versions.

Regardless, most of the internet cafes have proxies set up to circumvent these restrictions on request.


Blackouts are not just a common occurance in Burma, they are a daily scheduled event. Even in Rangoon and Mandalay, two of the biggest cities, the power goes out for most of the day. Hotels and offices all have big generators out the front, so there are thousands of these spewing out unneeded noise and air pollution constantly. Usually the "scheduled hours" for electricity are just bizarre, like 11pm to 6am, when most people are asleep anyway. Even during these hours, blackouts are common. Apparently Naypyidaw is the only city which has 24 hour electricity.

It is quite an experience to ride down a main city road at night with no street lights though, with only the headlights of the occasional car glowing through the thick, fog-like dust.


Apart from flying, moving around between cities in Burma is a slow and painful experience. Because of the terrible state of most roads, even a short 100km journey can take 3 or 4 hours by bus. The local buses are usually packed full, although this doesn't stop them from trying to pick up more people along the way. They are certainly not designed for people over 6" either - once I had to buy two tickets and sit sideways just to fit in the seat.

Although we didn't catch any, the trains are apparently even slower than buses. Most of them seem to only average a glacial 25 kph.

Strangely, although they drive on the right, most of the cars in Burma are right-hand drive. At some point the government must have changed from driving on the left, in their tradition of making unnecessary changes for the sake of it.

Despite sounding like a bumbling and ineffective government, the Burmese military junta has a history of extreme corruption and violent repression. It is far more concerned with making billions by selling out it's country's natural resources to China and India than with the welfare of it's people. More people need to learn about what's happening over there if there is ever going to be a chance to fix it.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Haha, I meant those over 6 foot, not 6 inches :)
Bloody imperial units.