Burmese Days is the title of a fun book written by George Orwell. People all over Burma try to sell it to you like tiger balm in Kathmandu.
Orwell is lucky he lived and wrote when he did. Ever since a Peking Duck became a Beijing Duck, Asian name changes have caused confusion, dismay, and sold a lot of new globes. I cannot imagine titling a book Myanmar Days. Or a blog post for that matter. My wife was trying to be politically correct and use the new name, but she kept saying Miramar. Hillary Clinton was in the country a couple months ago and she just called it “your country”. So welcome to Burma.
The only airport to get into Burma is in Yangon. This is the city that was Rangoon. Those international 3 letter acronyms used by airlines for cities change slower then maps, Yangon is still RGN, just like Ho Chi Minh city is still SGN. You can fly into Mandalay (no name change there) but only from China.
As you might know, Burma has just recently become a democracy. It had a rather oppressive military dictatorship since the late 80’s. People put up with it until the military killed a bunch of Buddhist monks, and then they picked up sling shots (really) and revolted. The dictatorship was only recognized by the Chicoms, who have exploited Burma’s natural gas reserves and built a pipeline to China. Every other country, and the financial world as well, refused to deal with the dictatorship. Consequently, there is not a single, not one, ATM in the entire country. Beyond that, you cannot even use a credit card anywhere. That means a tourist has to enter the country with enough cash to last the entire trip. The currency is a Kyat, luckily pronounced “chat”. While we were there, the exchange rate was 865 chats to 1 US$. Just recently they introduced a 5000 kyat note, thank you Buhdda! Tourists before us had to carry enough 1000 kyat notes around to get by. Do the math. That is a lot of paper to trek around with. However, they, like everyone else in the world, love the greenback. So if you go, bring US$. And bring brand new ones! If there is much as a inkspot on a bill, or god forbid, a crease in a bill, no one will take it. Mary Ann tried to tip a porter with a US$1 bill. He inspected it and refused it. OK, no tip for YOU!
So we arrived in Yangon, Rangoon, whatever. We were met by our tourist agency Myanmar Shalom. I thought Shalom must be a Burmese word, but no. The agency is owned by a gentleman named Sammy Samuels who is one of the last 16 Jews in Burma. As you might expect, he brings in a lot of tourists from Israel. We found him on the net. His prices were extremely good, and it turns out the guides he hires are first rate.
When Myanmar moved the capitol, they simply abandoned big buildings that were once ministry offices, and had been since English colonial times. So right now, there are quite a few beautiful colonial buildings standing empty. A couple are being converted to hotels. One ofthe buildings is not so fortunate . The head honcho of the ministry occupying it was being investigated for corruption, so he lit the building on fire. When the fire department arrived, he bribed them to not put out the fire. He went to jail for bribing the fire department.
Chapter two of Burmese Days will cover Bagan, which is quite simply one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Historically, spiritually, and architecturally, it rivals Machu Pichu and the Taj. So stay tuned. Please share this with your FB friends (all you have to do is click on a button, and type “read this” ) and I will appreciate it!