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“I’m so sorry, it’s not okay” explained the Air Mandalay agent as she politely handed back my perfectly crisp and lovely US $100 bill. It wasn’t exactly the welcome we were looking for when we arrived in Myanmar but I would imagine we’re not the first to arrive in the country formerly known as Burma with worthless cash.
After a quick flight from Bangkok, we had just landed in Yangon, Myanmar, Our first mission was to find the Air Mandalay ticket office to pay in cash for our domestic flights later in the week to Bagan and Mandalay.
We’d made the reservations online but ticket payment was strictly in cash in US dollars. So after clearing immigration without a fuss we emerged into the arrivals area of the international terminal in search of the office.
We were directed to the domestic terminal for the Air Mandalay office which sounded as though it was right next door but turned out to be a half-mile walk in the sweltering heat…with luggage. We finally found the correct desk and waited patiently as they diligently hand-wrote our tickets.
Then we proudly forked over our top-quality US dollars and one-by-one the Air Mandalay agent rejected them. Uh-oh.
One of the many things we’d uncovered in our diligent research about Myanmar was the need to arrive with lots of US dollars in hand. Many hotels don’t take credit cards and we already knew we’d need to pay for our domestic flights in US dollars upon arrival. We also discovered – crackerjack researchers that we are – that said US currency had to be in good condition with no tears or writing on them.
This was not the first time I’d been faced with this issue. In fact, last summer I took a $10 bill with a torn corner on a fabulous trip around Central America. It had a great time but it was worthless until I got back to the US.
The Dollar Bill Dilemma
So yes, we were traveling with a lot of cash and we knew our bills needed to be in good condition. We’d checked them over for writing and obvious tears and were feeling pretty confident. What we failed to realize is just how drill-sergeant strict they are about the US bills they’ll accept. I knew they had to be in good condition. I did not realize we should have stopped by the US Treasury on the way to the airport.
As she scrutinized each bill with the kind of detailed precision normally reserved for a fine art appraisal at Sotheby’s, she apologetically, but firmly, explained that her finance manager was very strict. She found minuscule tears (completely imperceptible to the untrained eye) in two of my hundreds and faint fade marks on two more deeming them essentially worthless for the next 6 days.
Angela had similar issues with hers and we watched in dismay as our healthy cash supply of nearly $1,000 dollars each dwindled to a decidedly-anemic $300 or so. Still likely to be enough to get us by for the next 6 days but it was definitely time to institute a few budget constraints.
Luckily, we had enough acceptable bills to pay for our flights ($152 each) and so far we only needed cash for one of our hotel nights in Yangon and Bagan had been paid with a credit card in advance. We’d yet to decide on a hotel for our last two nights in Mandalay but it was looking like we’d need to go with someplace credit card-friendly.
While you need US dollars for big-ticket items like hotels and flights, for everything else you need local currency (kyat). For our next trick, we’d attempt to turn US bills deemed worthless by an Air Mandalay agent into kyat. Since there were no exchange booths in the domestic terminal and only one out of service ATM, this involved trekking back over to the international terminal.
We selected a few of our most suspect bills in the hopes of passing them off in the exchange process. Luck was on our side this time and none of our bills were refused. Perhaps we’d have money for food after all.
A little history…
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include Myanmar on my summer Himalayas trip and luckily it’s easily and affordably reachable from Bangkok these days. When Angela and I were discussing which part of the trip she wanted to join me for, I figured she’d be totally game for an off-the-beaten-path exotic locale like Myanmar…after all, I did meet her in Antarctica.
Like much of Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s history is a complicated mish-mash of settlers and invaders. What follows is my attempt at a simplified version to give you a little glimpse into the country’s background. In 849, the Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and founded a powerful empire centered on Bagan. The kingdom grew for the next millennium through conquests of Thailand and India but eventually succumbed to attacks from China and various internal rebellions.
Fast forward to the 62-year period from 1824 to 1886, the British conquered Burma and administered it as a province of India. In 1937 it became a self-governing colony of Britain. During WWII, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for Asian dominance. Led by Aung San, the Burmese initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British but it soon became clear that the Japanese promises of independence were empty.
The Japanese occupation was far more brutal than British colonization and Aung San eventually shifted allegiance and helped the British win Burma back. In the aftermath of WWII, he led negotiations with Britain for Burmese independence and in 1948 the Union of Burma was established.
Sadly, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 shortly after the agreement was reached and never lived to see his dream of independence come true. To this day, Aung San is widely regarded by the Burmese people as the father of independence.
But independence led to new problems for the young nation as internal ethnic groups struggled for dominance. A new unified government never solidified and in 1962 a military coup d’etat led to military leader General Ne Win installing himself as leader.
Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed and led to a new military leader who officially changed the English translations of many names dating back to the British colonial period including the name of the country itself, changing “Burma” to “Myanmar.” The name change is still a contentious issue since opposition groups and many countries do not recognize the authority of the military government.
In 1990, legislative elections were held and the main opposition party (the National League for Democracy – NLD) won in a landslide. But the military government refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest which she endured for 14 years. In 2003, an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her envoy led the US to impose economic sanctions against Myanmar.
Demonstrations against the military government in the summer of 2007 were again brutally suppressed as the world watched on international news and the internet. This led the US, Canada, Australia and the EU to impose additional sanctions. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed back under house arrest and was finally released in November 2010.
For many years, tourism to Myanmar was roundly discouraged since tourism dollars primarily supported the corrupt government and not the people. However, in May 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party expressed the opinion that responsible tourism to Burma should be encouraged.
Tourists are welcome to Burma, she said, provided they are “keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.”
Her statement green-lighted Myanmar’s tourism industry and today, the country’s doors are wide open and many travelers are finally getting their first glimpse into the beauty of this long-suffering nation. I couldn’t wait to see what Myanmar had in store and Yangon would be our first of three stops in the country.
The Governor’s Residence
After our hour-long currency ordeal, we finally had our airline tickets in hand along with a solid cash supply to get a taxi to the hotel. Our hotel of choice for our stay in Yangon was one of the city’s most distinctive and historic properties, the Governor’s Residence.
Built in the 1920’s as the official residence of the governor of the Kaya State, today the Governor’s Residence is one of Yangon’s most exclusive hotels. Situated just outside the hustle and bustle of town, the teak mansion has been painstakingly restored and literally oozes colonial elegance.
The hotel’s timeless open-air design incorporates Burma’s tropical climate and culture and beckons back to an era gone by. When you sit on the upstairs lanai sipping a cocktail under the breeze of the ceiling fan you can’t help but picture a time when British subjects visited Burma to govern and do business decades ago.
Sightseeing in Yangon
We decided to start our day with a visit to Yangon’s most famous sight, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Built more than 2,500 years ago, the pagoda stands at 368ft tall and is revered as the site where actual strands of Buddha’s hair are enshrined. The pagoda glitters with hundreds of gold plates in the sunlight and with the setting sun as a backdrop, there are few more scenic spots in all of Asia.
The top of the stupa is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats and the surrounding platform is regularly filled with the faithful and just a tolerable sprinkling of tourists. For the people of Myanmar, it is the most sacred of all Buddhist sites and the one all hope to visit once in their lifetime.
It was an astounding sight and we spent a while circling the platform, watching the faithful and even taking a photo with a few of the surprisingly outgoing monks. This really surprised me as monks are generally extremely camera shy and I always try to be respectful and take photos from a distance. Not the monks of Myanmar, not only would they cheerfully return smiles, two of them even gestured that they wanted to be in our photo. Fantastic!
We noticed many of the local women and children wearing the distinctive “thanaka” make-up on their faces. Thanaka is a fragrant yellowish-white paste made from ground bark and it’s traditionally worn by women and girls and even some men and boys.
It is typically applied to the face in a circular design on the cheeks but some women had even more creative designs. Thanaka has a cooling sensation and also acts as a sunscreen and the vast majority of the women we saw were wearing it.
As we left the pagoda and made the walk back to the hotel, I was again impressed by the friendliness of everyone we passed and how eager they were to smile back at us if we smiled at them first. As if they were just waiting for an invitation to interact with us.
The best moment of the walk back was a group of pink-robed young nuns piled into the back of a truck that was stopped at a light. As soon as we saw them looking at us we smiled and they beamed from ear to ear and waved innocently back at us. They were just precious.
For the rest of the afternoon, we decided to take a little walking tour around the city of Yangon. We walked past City Hall, the Victory Monument and Sule Pagoda in the center of town (and the site of the summer protests of 2007) and then over to the Strand Hotel for a late lunch.
After lunch, we were approached by a kid on the street speaking perfect English and selling postcards. We didn’t really need postcards but he was cute and had a great sales pitch so we rewarded his entrepreneurship and bought a few.
We walked through a few of the local markets and then did a little shopping and headed back to the hotel. After our trip earlier in the day to the Shwedagon Pagoda, I was determined to make it back there at dusk to take some night photographs. So I made the walk back over again and was rewarded with an amazing nighttime view of the pagoda ablaze with lights. It was just stunning.
After soaking in the brightly shining beauty of the pagoda for a while, I hopped in a taxi and headed back to the hotel. With a 6:30am flight to Bagan the next morning, a 3:30am wake-up call was in my future so it was time to call it a night.
I was surprised by how much I adored Yangon, especially the Burmese people we met. I had thought this would be my least favorite of the three cities we planned to visit while in Myanmar but now I was wondering if this country would continue to exceed my expectations. I couldn’t wait to find out.
Next stop, Bagan!
Disclosure: Hotel accommodation in Yangon provided by the Governor’s Residence.