Well I am here in Myanmar (Burma), arrived last night on the one-hour flight from Bangkok. It’s a strange place this country. Bad government, good people-type thing. I knew it was going to be’interesting’ getting through immigration because of stories I’ve heard from other travellers. Upon arrival each foreigner is supposed to change $200 USD into the government’s monopoly money called the FEC, or Foreign Exchange Currency. It’s basically just one big scam to force you to spend at least $200 in the country and to stop American dollars from getting to the local people. Once you change into FEC you can’t get dollars back. You can do a cash advance in Myanmar, but again, they will only give you FEC. The local currency, kyat, is a different currency entirely, and the going exchange rate is 870 kyat to one USD. You can exchange FEC for kyat, but you only get a rate of 600 kyat to one FEC, even though therorectically one FEC is supposed to equal one USD. Big scam? Yes.
Luckily I had been told by other travellers that you can get away with not changing any FEC’s at the airport but simply offering a’present’ to the officials. Well I figured it was worth a try since I really didn’t want to get stuck with a wad of worthless money. I had a few one’s, five’s and ten’s in USD ready to be used for greasing. And it worked. I went up to the counter, 3 officials on one side, me on the other. He said,’$200 to change to FEC.’ I said, well I don’t think I’m going to be spending that much money because I’m here for meditation (a half truth). And he said,’Do you have anything else to offer, like some kind of present?’ and I said how much of a present. ‘As you wish,’ he said as he slid across a paper to me. I put $3 under the paper and slid it back. ‘This is just between us you understand,’ he said. I said of course. That was it. There were 7 other foreigners on the plane. They all had to exchange into FEC’s. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who even tried to grease. What’s the difference anyway? Well, I’d like to keep as far away from the government propaganda as possible. Also, now I can pay for my guesthouse and taxi fees in dollars and by doing that I can get more money to the local people because US dollars are worth more money in the black market than FEC’s. It was a small victory.
From the airport last night I took a taxi into Yangon to one of the guesthouses where I paid $3 for a dorm bed. Spent the evening talking to some other travellers, mainly 3 Swedes and one Irishman.
This morning I woke up early to go into town to exchange money (into the local currency, kyat) and look into transport options to head north. In talking with the other travellers last night, I got more info on the bus/train/plane options and decided that I’d prefer to fly north rather than bus it. The flight is one hour and costs $68; the bus is at least 20 hours and costs $3. It wasn’t a hard decision.
Anyway I walked into town with Marcus, one of the Swedes, who also needed to change money. First we went to the travel office where I was able to book a flight for today, at 1pm, from Yangon to Heho. Then we set out to change some dollars into kyat on the black market, which is standard procedure in Myanmar apparently. You see, the locals are not permitted to exchange kyat into dollars, and as their local currency continues to devalue, they have no chance to save or make any money. Hence no opportunity to even consider getting out of Burma, to Thailand, or wherever. So with the black market they’ve created, the locals buy dollars from foreigners and then funnel them through their own system to do whatever they do with them. At the’official’ government bank you will get 400 kyat to the dollar; on the black market you get between 850 – 880 kyat per dollar.
At the travel office, I mentioned that I wanted to change money, and they basically got us a guy who helped us go around and shop for a good rate. I was aiming for 880 kyat/dollar because I had heard that this was the best rate available. The first man our’friend’ asked had us sit in his taxi to’talk’. He said 850. I said too low. We got out and kept looking. The next 2 guys we approched said 850. We have time I said, let’s go. The third guy said 870 and we said ok, we’ll meet you in the cafe across the street.
Everyone in the cafe watched as they came in, sat down, and offered us a brick of money which we split up and counted. I handed them a crisp, clean $100 bill after we verified that we had 870,000 kyat in 500 kyat notes. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a brick.
And they left. Done. I was really glad that Marcus was there with me because the whole thing, even though it’s perfectly normal for them, was a bit strange.
Now I’ve got my money and a plane ticket and I’m ready to go to Heho. My flight leaves at 1pm so I’ll be leaving the guesthouse shortly. The area where I’m headed is south of Mandalay and is known for it’s scenery and beautiful lake, Inle Lake. I’ll probably spend a day or two there and then work my way around towards Mandalay. I hope the weather is nicer up north. It was raining in Yangon all morning. It’s full-on rainy season in the south right now, but they say when it’s raining in the south, it’s good weather in the north. I’ll know for myself soon enough I guess.
Marcus and our friend negotiating kyats
Not the friendliest looking guy I know
Add comment July 10th, 2002