Myanmar notes (Part 1 of 2)

“This is like Russia 20 years ago”, was my first impression of Myanmar I made on the way from the airport of Yangon. Shabby infrastructure, poverty, dirt and funnily dressed people. Modest steps towards westernisation and full-blown capitalism, corruption and irrationality. Similarities between Russian churches and Myanmarian pagodas and love for gold in the religious symbols sealed the impression. Like Russia in early 90s, Myanmar is experiencing rapid changes. Nobody knows where the country is heading to, which understandably scares people. The latest Lonely Planet Myanmar is horribly outdated on topics like travel times, prices and other money issues. Contrary to the guide there is no need to change money at black market and there are ATMs everywhere. Quality roads have been built and modern AC buses with onboard entertainment are a norm. Wikivoyage is more up to date, but cannot keep up with prices on accommodation, which seem to have been spiralling up due high demand and low supply. Current prices for a basic shabby room (with a TV, AC and a fridge though) start from $25, an astronomical price for such a poor country.

For a country sealed off from the rest of the world for so many years, Myanmar has developed its own quirks. For example, while mobile phones are widely sold, SIM cards are a prized possession and can be obtained only by participating in the state lottery or by buying second-hand. The price for a second hand SIM card is $150 and foreign SIM cards do not work at all. Internet is widespread, but slow to non-working. If you want a faster Internet connection, be prepared to pay something like $600 for installing a dedicated cable connection in the Yangon area. Given the sorry state of Internet in the country, DVDs and blank CDs are all the rage in the country, which give Myanmar a very 90s look. However consider current rate of change, Myanmar will likely catch up on the data communications front in the next years.
Another example is tourism industry. Hotels are heavily regulated by the government and are obliged to report all the foreign visitors to the government on the daily basis. Tourist buses do reporting as well, so technically foreigners are constantly watched by the government. Any unregulated accommodation and homestays are plain banned. Finding a room with just a bed proved to be impossible on many occasions. Either Myanmar does not want any backpackers or they are totally ignorant about the needs of an average backpacker. One can hope that the government would loose its grip on hotels (among other things) and bring the accommodation on the same level with other South East Asia countries.

A boat full of pumpkins near Mawlaymiyne.

A boat full of pumpkins near Mawlamyine.

Setse Beach. Quite popular among locals, but we were the only foreigners there.

Setse Beach. Quite popular among locals, but we were the only foreigners there.

St. Valentine's Day is serious business in Myanmar.

St. Valentine’s Day is serious business in Myanmar.

Hawkers on a rail station in Yangon. It remained a mystery what is inside those huge bags.

Hawkers on a railway station in Yangon. It remained a mystery what is inside those huge bags.

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