So we’re in Myanmar.
It’s a beautiful country. Not at all what I was bracing for. It’s filled with contradictions and surprises.
The first surprise came as Thomas and I stepped out of customs. They make every visitor change $200 US into their make-believe tourist monopoly money called FECs. It’s one of the only ways the government has of getting their grubby hands on actual real currency. In return you get some sheets of paper that are theoretically worth $200, and which all the hotels in Myanmar are obligated to accept. You can’t use them for much else, though. What everyone really wants is cold hard US dollars. Anyway, we knew we were going to have to do that, but what we didn’t know is that they only accept Visa and American Express. The nation of Myanmar doesn’t take MasterCard.
MasterCard cleared out of here five years ago. This is a problem because both my bank card and credit card are covered by MC, as are Thomas’s.
I unleashed Civis Romanus on the guy at the counter: We’re stuck in your backwards little country, we’d be happy to give you money, but you won’t accept it, so what are you going to do with us?
Many doubt the effectiveness of this approach, but it actually works with many cultures. After a lot of nervous staring, the guy pulled out a notebook and asked me to fill in my name and the nature of my complaint. Once I did that, he handed me my passport and sent me on my way. Thomas did the same.
So we got out of having to buy funny money, but we still had a serious problem. Wiring money isn’t simple here. Western Union has 20 million branches in 187 countries. That leaves 4 countries in the world that aren’t represented. Myanmar is one of them.
Fortunately Thomas, God bless him, had about $200 worth of cash and traveler’s checks on him. So we’re living off that at the moment. We went straight to the US consulate in the city, where they explained how we could wire money here from our bank accounts. We’re in the process of arranging things now, and hopefully it’ll go through in the next couple days.
If it doesn’t, I guess we’ll be on the next bus to Thailand.
That will suck, cause money issues aside, our experience so far has been wonderful. I was prepared for this place to be like North Korea. But it’s not. It’s not really like anywhere that I know of. It’s clean, uncrowded, and modern. The people are friendly and sweet and helpful. It’s great.
I met a Buddhist monk on the street today who invited me to speak to his English class tomorrow. They just want an opportunity to practice their conversation and hear American accents. Normally I’d think the offer was dubious, but the guy was a monk. Those threads have cred. I’m looking forward to that.
I’m sure I’ll discover the dark side to this place sooner or later. It’s a country with serious problems. But at the moment I’m still stunned by how non-bleak and oppressive it is. I’m writing from a spotless new internet cafe on a brand new machine running WinXP. Granted, almost all of the internet is blocked, which is kind of a pain.
It’s also, I think, the only place in the country where it’s legal to access the internet. I’m not kidding. The only other option available is sending emails from hotels at $1 an email. The government has a complete stranglehold.
Also, the going rate for international phone calls is $6 a minute.
All commercial web mail companies are banned, so I can’t get at my email through normal means. Fortunately, the government hasn’t gotten around to banning wherethehellismatt.com yet, so I’m able to get at it through there.
Actually, while I have the opportunity, I’d like to perform an act of seditition against the government from within its borders:
FREE SUU KYI!!!
Yippee, that was fun.
Mom, don’t worry about the money problem. Wheels are turning. Everything is fine.