5 signs Myanmar is getting easier for travelers
The reforms that anticipated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Myanmar (also known as Burma) -- the first visit by a high-ranking U.S. official in 50 years -- underscore an apparent desire by the military junta to turn from pariah state into global participant.
Round after round of sanctions in the late 1990s and early 2000s left Myanmar isolated, transforming it into a vast bucolic playground for the privileged few who benefited from the land’s legion of natural resources while businesses and banks went bust.
But since the release of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on November 13, 2010 from house arrest, there have been several significant signs that Myanmar is changing: state press has been unfettered; political prisoners released; unions and public protests legalized; and, perhaps most telling, the National League of Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s opposition party, allowed to register in upcoming elections.
Visitors can now expect to encounter a country on the cusp of progress, and for travelers that means easier and less restricted access.
For the more adventurous, not to fear, isolation has left plenty of oddities that won’t be endangered for some time yet.
1. ATMs are back
Private banks in Yangon installed ATMs in November 2011, reintroducing the machines after an eight-year hiatus, according to The Myanmar Times.
ATMs left Myanmar along with the implosion of several banks during the financial crisis that hit the country in 2003, in turn forcing visitors to budget their trips down to the last dollar because of restricted access to foreign accounts.
While this situation still remains (only current account owners can use the new machines), the return of ATMs portends Myanmar's possible return to the international banking arena.
Residents have already spotted lines in front of ATMs, suggesting their return was not only highly anticipated, but also long overdue.
2. Internet access is improved
Internet access in Myanmar is clearly segmented: what you can see in your hotel is not the case outside closed networks.
Within closed networks such as those at the Savoy Hotel in Yangon, messaging services for Facebook and Gmail work, and YouTube videos stream, albeit at snail's pace. Hotels are starting to install these networks.
Outside closed networks, all messaging services are disabled. This means that travelers logging on at Internet cafés or locals' homes will not be able to use Gchat or Facebook’s messaging system or Twitter.
This may be fine. If you do find yourself in an Internet café you may not be able to hear yourself think over the cacophony of battle from online games.
3. Foreign exchange banks are growing
In the past, travelers to Myanmar often resorted to the black market to change money.
Men darting around dilapidated British colonial buildings downtown or Bogyoke Aung San Market would invariably approach offering the unofficial rate, more than 100 times the official rate which currently hovers around 6.5 kyat to US$1. It is kept artificially low to deter private investment and further isolate the country.
While the rogue traders are still there, demand for their services is decreasing.
Foreign exchange centers in Yangon have already opened up next to Monsoon on Thein Byu Road, a popular expat/tourist bar and restaurant, as well as in the Traders Hotel.
Inside the exchange center on Thein Byu Road, six bank windows are divided by a large LED dot matrix displaying the day’s rates in U.S. dollars, Singapore dollars and euros.
Conspicuously absent is the British pound, and, as in the past, only the crispest of notes are accepted. Even the slightest smudge will result in your note being rejected.
The Central Bank of Myanmar will give a poorer rate for imperfect notes, meaning that they probably have a hoard of some of the cleanest dollars in the world.
On Merchant Street, a block from Maha Bandoola Garden, another foreign exchange center is under construction. The smell of fresh paint is still strong in the air. A scent redolent of more open times and a strong signal that the central bank may soon officially recognize the unofficial rate.
4. Yangon-Mandalay Expressway
Opened in December 2010, the 563-kilometer Yangon-Mandalay Expressway paints an asphalt streak up the backbone of the country, connecting the two largest cities and the new capital, Nay Pyi Daw.
The often-labeled “secluded” capital can even be visited by travelers without the need of any permit.
There are “no document checks, just pay the toll,” says John Handley, an American business consultant for SAIL Marketing & Communications in Yangon, who has driven the expressway many times.
However, for travelers, car rentals are limited and must include a chauffeur. This may be a blessing since there is no form of car insurance. You may be thankful for your guide if it comes down to interpreting Burmese-style damage assessment.
5. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi for sale
Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi went on sale in Yangon two months ago, according to one street vendor located next to Sule Paya in downtown Yangon.
Burmese now proudly display her picture and that of her father, Aung San, the revolutionary leader who brought about independence from British colonial rule, without fear of retribution.
Once quoted as saying that traveling to Myanmar was akin to “condoning” the junta, Suu Kyi has now ended her political boycott. It now seems that Myanmar could pose as an increasingly attractive loop on the Southeast Asian travel belt.