What do people really know about travel to Burma?
I received an email from a friend today asking about travel to Burma, as a colleague of his thought he wanted to set up a business meeting there. The email made me realize how few people know much about Burma.
Here is what I told him:
Yes, we were in Burma in Nov, 2009. Fascinating country. So fascinating, in fact, that we are going back there this November. I think it will be very difficult for your colleague to hold a meeting there this December.
1. All of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand have economic sanctions against Burma. About the only major country that does not have economic sanctions against them is China.
2. Because of the economic sanctions, one cannot use credit cards within Burma. A few high-end hotels will take credit cards (by running them through Thailand, Singapore or Hong Kong) but will add an 8-20% surcharge for this. To pay for things, you have to hand-carry US dollars into the country (crisp, unblemished or they will be rejected). Some travel agents in Yangon have overseas bank accounts set up and you can send a foreign wire transfer to them for a deposit. But – you cannot tell the bank that the deposit is going to Burma or they cannot legally send it.
3. Burma has suddenly (with the recent release of ASSK) become a popular spot for more adventuresome travelers. While the tourism numbers are still very low, their infrastructure is stretched as far as it can go for this high season (Nov, Dec, Jan). We had difficulty getting the hotels we wanted for November when we were making reservations in May, and I hear from other travelers and from my agent in Yangon that the high end hotels are all basically full for this high season.
4. Visas: Burma has no visa on arrival. You must get a visa in advance. If there is any hint that a person is affiliated with the news media (for instance) the visa will be denied.
5. Internet access: High-end hotels have internet access, often wi-fi, though it is very slow. The problem is that the government blocks access to email accounts. Between the two of us, we probably have half a dozen email accounts with different providers. The only account we were able to access was a gmail account because the locals have devised a work-around to avoid the government blockade. Even with a personal VPN we were not able to get to our accounts. So none of the attendees would be able to access their work email while in Burma. The government changes its blockades as people devise new work-arounds (e.g., the use of proxy servers) so when we go back this time, we don’t know if we’ll be able to access a gmail account or not. In any case, one should just assume you will not be able to access email.
6. Satellite phones are illegal in Burma and may be confiscated.
There are lots of oddities in traveling to Burma. You pay for hotels, flights, admission fees is US dollars. You pay for purchases, taxis, food, etc in the local currency, kyat (pronounced “chat”). The official exchange rate is about 8 kyat to the dollar. Foreign aid, money to NGOs. etc comes in at this exchange rate. The actual exchange rate is currently about 700 kyat to the dollar. As a traveler, you exchange money on the “black market” (jewelry stores, hotels, etc). Indeed, if you ask to exchange money at the airport exchange counter, they will tell you not to exchange money there. And it is illegal for a foreigner to exchange money at a bank.