First Five Impressions of Myanmar (some of these I knew about)
- The men wear skirts. Longyi is the traditional dress of the people and over 50 years of isolation means that Western clothing never really gained a foothold, even after British colonization. The younger generation is starting to wear pants more, but the longyi remains the dominant clothing of the masses.
- The steering wheel is on the right hand side (British side), but they also drive on the right hand side (American side). General Ne Win switched the driving side in 1970 (either because his astrologist told him he should or because he dreamed he should, it’s unclear which it is), but, of course, most of the cars remained the same, built for British roads.
- You would never know you were in a country known for its oppressive, military government at first glance. The last couple of years have really changed things around in terms of economic and other basic (like internet) freedoms. I was terrified while standing in the immigration line (“am I sure I got the right visa? What if they saw that I was already posting on this blog and think I lied about my past work history, maybe they think I’m an undercover journalist!”), it was actually a very quick, easy process. Exchanging money was no big deal (as it used to be). While the country is only beginning to have ATMs and accept credit cards, the scarcity of such conveniences only makes one think of a poor country that doesn’t see many tourists, not an oppressed one. No one has had any trouble talking to me about their “leader” Aung San Suu Kyi, even though I’ve never asked. I’m sure I will hear more stories of oppression later (and, of course, the human rights abuses are well documented), but at first glance, it is masked well.
- Inflation is going to be a problem (well, it already is). A guide book I saw from just a few years ago noted prices half of what they are today. When I was planning this trip a month ago the exchange rate was 850 kyat/ 1$, today it was 972 kyat / 1$. When I changed money at the airport, I walked away with bricks of kyat in a sack as if I’d just robbed a bank. I asked a few people how they felt about it and, honestly, besides property prices, they weren’t too concerned (even though food prices have nearly doubled in less than a decade). While things are still cheap compared to a developed country, they are rapidly reaching prices of neighboring ASEAN countries, even though it remains the poorest ASEAN country.
- This place is going to take some getting used to. Even though the country is seeing a huge influx of foreigners (tourists, INGO workers, and businessmen) from all over the world, this is a recent development. While it doesn’t feel as much “back in time” to me as I’ve heard from others, there is a distinct otherworldliness about it. I usually adapt to new places with lightening speed, but I think this country will take more than a few days.