Monks, Pagodas and the Black Market

Yangon Travel Blog

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$100 in kyats

People i met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Zach (Canada)

Having not slept the previous night, we arrived into Yangon airport somewhat 'zombified' and were only too happy to take up Motherland Hotel on their free airport shuttle service, as we didn't really have a clue where we were or what was going on! For an international airport, the atmosphere was rather subdued and orderly, which really surprised me, but we did get our first opportunity to experience the local banking system.

Several years ago with the military junta on one of its regular rampages, and the countries economy collapsing at a rate of knots, pretty much all foreign investment was withdrawn from Myanmar, with the result that there are no longer any banks, ATM's or credit card facilities left in the country! This poses the problem for any traveller of how to acquire the necessary funds when travelling there.

St Marys Cathedral
The simple answer is to withdraw a lot of Thai Baht and convert them into US Dollars in Thailand and bring these with you. The next issue lies with converting USD into the local curreny, which is kyats. The Burmese government offer a joke of an exchange, around 500 kyat to the dollar, whereas you can instead try to change it on the black market for around 1200 kyat to the dollar!

So when a guy with a large plastic bag walked up to us offering his money changing services, i figured it would be a good idea to get $100 changed to at least have something to be going on with. Expecting to get back maybe 20 large denomination bills, i couldn't believe it when he started counting out 1000 kyat bills. I explained that this really wasn't very convenient as i had nowhere to put 120 large notes, but was then informed to my horror that this was the largest denomination available within the country! Knowing that i would be changing another $300 in the near future left my head spinning with the logistics of what to do with nearly 500 notes and inquiring as to the services of dumper trucks that may be available to transport the cash around the country for us!

My first impressions of the capital were positive as we passed through some local gardens and wide boulevards on route to the hotel.

Inside St Marys Cathedral
The realism of the cities poverty finally hit though, when we made it to down town, where dirty, yet character filled streets replaced the parks and gardens. At the hotel there were 5 or 6 taxi drivers sat outside waiting for tourists custom and this kind of thing would become commonplace during our stay. We checked into our comfortable little room, where $10 got us a communal hot shower and a free breakfast each day. Obviously seeing the state we looked in, they offered to give us a free breakfast for that morning too, which was a nice gesture. 2 eggs, bread, cake, fruit, juice and coffee followed by a shower and my head had just about stopped spinning and the little starry flashes that had been appearing in my eyes subsided. It was time to go sightseeing!

Canadian journalist Zach joined us on our first venture into the centre and was keen to be taking photos of anything that moved.

Narrow Yangon street
By law he shouldn't really have been in the country as he was a journalist, but lied about his profession on the visa application and was enjoying his last few weeks in Asia before jetting out to Afghanistan to start a new job there. Brave man.

Having come from Bangkok, it was like stepping back in time to be walking the streets of Yangon. The sidewalks were filled with small plastic tables and chairs, where locals were gathering to drink tea and eat cakes. Both men and women wore longyis instead of trousers, which are long pieces of cloth that are shapeless, until wrapped around the waist and tucked in at the front, to create a loose fitting long dress almost. The cars that were zooming around resembled something from a distant yesteryear and the methods of public transport were crammed little buses, which appeared to have done more than their fare share of work over the years.

Street market
It was just as likely however that you would jump onto a trishaw to be ferried around town than to take one of the scarce taxis. Due to trade sanctions it now costs up to $60,000 for the locals to import a 1988 Toyota car and with the government have limited fuel to supply, drivers then have to turn to the extortionate black market dealers who can charge anything up to $3 a litre. No wonder most people prefer leg power, whether it be by bike or walking.

I was wandering around trying to let it all sink in, this was a country that i could easily fall in love with. The locals watched you walk past and it felt like they didn't get many visitors in some areas, as they often didn't seem to know what to make of us. It was all friendly enough though and if you smiled at them, they would also issue a big grin back to you.

View of Yangon from the Sakura Tower - Sule Paya centre

Our path firstly came to Sri Devi Hindu Temple and i was not surprised to see this, as there was a strong Indian influence in and around the downtown area, as families remained after the British ended their period of colonisation. As we continued down one of the main thoroughfares we spotted 2 towering steeples and went to investigate. The imposing St Marys cathedral was the culprit and it was a real beauty of a cathedral. We were invited in to take a look around and enjoyed spending 20 minutes within the church and the surrounding grounds.

Sadly the market that we had been heading towards was closed when we arrived, something to do with a public holiday, but nearby was the Sakura Tower, which we ascended in the lift and offered spectacular views across the city below.

Colonial architecture
The next important feature on the Yangon skyline to spring into sight was Holy Trinity Cathedral and i was surprised to be seeing all these religious buildings and yet still to not have come across anything Buddhist!

My belly was rumbling again and the decision was made to go and try out the local cuisine, so we headed to a little cafe and ordered a large portion of Biryani with chicken. It was in this restaurant that i also got my first taste of Star Cola, Myanmars answer to Pepsi. To be honest it tastes like a cheap ice pop, but when the sun is beating down and you are dying of thirst, they really hit the spot!

Sule Paya was the next destination and it is what i would describe as the real town centre. The golden paya is located in the centre of town and is surrounded by the crumbling yellow Town Hall, a Baptist Church, Mahabandoola Gardens, which contains the Independence Monument and an array of cheap and tacky hotels.

Botataung Paya
Also in the area are a plethora of money changers and an old timer called Ethel, who is always eager to get chatting with foreigners. To paint a picture for you, she is the offspring of a Burmese woman and western man, with dark features yet pale eyes, carries a walking stick, has a humped back and is missing most of her teeth - the ones that remain are rotting. Even though we were stood within ear shot of a couple of police men, she immediately began to tell us about the disgraceful military junta running the country and how they wouldn't dare arrest her. She seemed pretty serious when she waved her walking stick a little and said they would get a fair beating with it if they ever tried, i certainly wouldn't have fancied my chances, even if she was pushing on to 80!

After our discussion we decided that we would try and change some more money and managed to get offered a very healthy 1250 kyat to the dollar, on a crisp new $100 bill.

Kandawgyi Lake
The problem came when the 1000 kyat notes that were brought were a different size to the ones that we had changed in the morning. Still unsure with the ins and outs of everything, we decided to keep our money tucked away and left it for later. As it turned out, these notes were completely genuine and the country has at least 2 different types of note for each denomination, one is old and the other new, but both are still legal tender. Better safe than sorry though.

Heading away from the centre and down towards the docks, we passed by the customs house on the way to Botataung Paya. Zach decided to leave us for the time been and instead we were joined by a little boy trying to sell postcards. I felt sorry for him at first and said if he would sell them individually and not as a pack of 10 then i'd buy a couple, but he didn't want to do this and i didn't want a load of useless postcards.

Butterfly at Kandawgyi Lake
I therefore said sorry and carried on walking. My sorrow for him soon became tested, as he just wouldn't leave us alone. For 10 minutes he followed along saying 'postcards, just $1' about every 5 seconds. When we arrived at the paya he eventually left us alone and although it had been a minor annoyance, it was still our first day and we'd seen things like this plenty of places before, so smily happy faces were maintained.

Botataung Paya maintains a healthy flow of local worshippers and international tourists due to its claim of housing ancient Buddha relics. Supposedly when the RAF blew up the paya during the Japanese occupation in the second World War, the said relics were found at the bottom of the rubble, still in their protective casing and thus the legend continued and a new paya was built to protect them once again.

Kandawgyi Lake
It was reasonably hard to get up close to the small viewing windows to see and it seemed pretty disrespectful to push worshippers out of way to get a gander, so we observed from afar.

The ticket collector at the paya also gave us our first insight into what a hassle we could have using certain dollars in the country, as he wouldn't accept our $1 bills and wanted a $10. We were told to come back after looking around the temple to collect our $6 change and when we did, he claimed that he'd never seen us before and we owed him another $4 for admission fees! I was gobsmacked and began to protest. He kept denying having seen us and eventually another woman came over and explained that we not only owed $4, but a further $2 for our camera fee! Now i was starting to get annoyed.

Huge Buddha in the Temple next to Shwedagon Paya
It took several minutes to eventually get the lady to believe our story and then she began chatting in Burmese with the ticket guy, who eventually realised he had little other choice than to miraculously remember us and give us our change. In the end i laughed about it, just thinking what a forgetful old fella he must be, but knowing what i do about Myanmar now, i have little doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing all along.

It was gone 3pm and both opf us were dead on our feet. It had been 30 hours since we'd last got some shut eye and our comfy double bed was calling. It was planned to take a 2-3 hour nap and i was therefore a little startled to wake up with my clock showing 10pm, still drowsy and unsure whether to go back to sleep or get up.

Shwedagon Paya
My stomach had the final say and i woke Julia and we went down to the hotel restaraunt to have a late Dinner. Having satisfied our stomaches, we went back upstairs to read for a bit and just relax and wait to start getting drowsy again. Julia managed to do her usual trick of falling asleep within 2 seconds and i managed to do mine of becoming an insomniac who had too many fresh thoughts in my mind to even contemplate sleep! Sometime around 5am, my brain eventually switched off and i fell into a deep sleep that i didn't want to wake from!

It was 11am when i finally woke Julia up, somehow she always manages to get to sleep first and wake up last, i often liken her to a cat who eats, naps and prowls around a bit. Luckily breakfast ran until 11am, so we darted downstairs to get a decent feed and prepare ourselves for the day.

Shwedagon Paya
Before leaving to sightsee, i decided to enquire about the hotels bus ticket purchasing system, as they claimed to do it as a free service for all guests. I'd been warned that foreigners were normally grossly overcharged for transport in the country and was therefore a little surprised that a ticket to Bagan would cost a pricey 15,000 kyat. I said we'd think about it and come back later.

Our first destination for the day was Kandawgyi Lake, where we took a pleasant stroll around for a few hours and enjoyed the tranquility of the place. We were walking around side by side but not holding hands, as we believed that it was disrespectful to show public signs of affection, but we soon realised this was nonsense.

Shwedagon Paya
The park seemed filled with young couples in love, sat on benches hugging and kissing, walking around hand in hand. For those wealthy enough to own a car, this also seemed the place to bring your sweetheart. I must say that i always thought couples in cars normally drove to some remote place in the night time to get up to their funky stuff, apparantly the opposite is the case in Myanmar, but i won't say anymore.

Next on our agenda was Yangons star tourist attraction, Shwedagon Paya, a temple dating back more than 2500 years. Covered in gold the central stupa climbs 98 metres and is circled by 82 other buildings and is thought to house sacred Buddha relics, including 8 hairs and possibly a couple of toenail clippings (just kidding). Incredibly the main stupa is thought to have 53 metric tonnes of gold leaf plastered on to it and also has the pleasure of containing 5000 diamonds and 2000 other precious stones.

Young girl ringing a bell at Shwedagon Paya

Slightly annoyingly were the shoe collectors who told us we needed to leave our shoes at the entry and couldn't take them off and carry them with us in our plastic bag. This was a blatant lie, as we saw the locals doing this once we entered, so we went back and got them to take in with us. At this point they started demanding a 'donation' for the service they had just provided. I smiled at them, explained i wouldn't be paying for their phony 'service' and went back to enjoy the paya. Equally surprising were the monks who were not coming with collection plates asking for donations, but ones who were just begging to Westerners. I was more shocked by this more than annoyed, but after already paying a $5 entry fee, which supposedly went to the up keep of the place and its resident monks, i didn't really feel it necessary to be paying out even more.

3 novices at Shwedagon Paya
Walking around the site was a treat however and this was enhanced by getting to watch the sun set over Yangon and the lights begin to be turned on, in and around the paya, giving it all a completely different perspective. To coincide with the end of the day a whole troop of women were walking around in unison sweeping the floors, whilst bells were been dinged and donged by both sexes and all ages.

Less enjoyable was the local guide who cottoned on to us and kept following us around, even though we said that we didn't want a tour and would like to enjoy the setting in peace. When he asked us where we were from and we told him, he firstly claimed to speak Russian and secondly said he had an old English penny, which i really must see. His first claim was rather bogus as he only knew 2 words in Russian and his second claim wasn't much more accurate, as his penny really didn't interest me.

Worshippers at Shwedagon Paya
But his main aim wasn't to show me his penny, it was to show me all the notes that he had collected from around the World. Miraculously he had never seen any notes from England or the Euro and also didn't have any dollars in his collection. If i had any of these notes and would care to leave them with him, he would be ever so greatful, which didn't really surprise me, as the lowest English note is 5 pounds, which is worth $10! After telling him i didn't and trying to hint once again for him to leave me alone, he then pulled out an English 1 pound coin and told me it was no use to him as he could't change it and would i change it for him into kyats! Clearly some poor soul had taken pity on this bloke before and generously offered to contribute a coin to his collection, which he was now trying to palm off on me.
Sweepers clean the floor at Shwedagon Paya
I was disgusted and i think he could tell, as he shortly afterwards left us in peace.

Even though it was dark, we decided to continue on the sightseeing tour and walked to nearby Maha Wizaya Paya, which was now prettily lit up and completely deserted. Normally we would have spent longer in such peaceful surroundings, but we were absolutely famished, so began to walk home, stopping along way for a well earned dinner. A cheap internet cafe was also on our way home, so we ducked in to use it for a couple of hours. When we emerged back into the city it was only 10pm, but the streets were deserted, with the exception of some kids playing football infront of the Baptist Church and a dog that wanted to take a chunk out of our legs.

After breakfast on Thursday morning, we decided that we would buy the bus tickets to Bagan, as we'd seen most of the things that we wanted in Yangon and would be coming back here at the end of our trip, to fly back to Bangkok.

Shwedagon Paya
I went to reception and couldn't believe it when they told me the tickets were 20,000 kyat, an extra 5,000 from the previous day. When i mentioned they were only 15,000 the day before, the woman said that it was 15,000 to Mandalay and not Bagan, which was strange as Zach had gone to Mandalay and paid 10,000 the day before! I politely declined their tickets and decided to buy them ourselves at the bus station.

Walking down to Sule Paya to catch the local bus to go to the station took around 30 minutes and we were exhausted when we finally made it. I was still in need of changing some dollars into kyat, so happily followed a guy who said he would change $100 bills for 1260 kyat.

Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
We sat in a small outside tea shop and waited what seemed an eternity, before he eventually came back with the money. The next few minutes were a farce, as we tried to count the notes and he kept taking them back from us saying 'police, police'. Then you begin counting again and every stack of 10 actually only has 8 or 7 in. He'd then make the stack up to 10 and start with the police thing again and recollect all the notes. Clearly this was a scam and we got up and left without having to take any dollars out of my wallet, or i'm sure they would have taken off with them.

Having met Ethel the day before, she mentioned she could help us change money, so we went and searched for her by Sule Paya. She eventually turned up and took us to her friend who supposedly wouldn't try any 'monkey business', this was her favourite saying! The guys weren't as bad as the first ones, but many of their stacks were short and some of the notes were also unusable.

Shwedagon Paya
It took checking by me and re-checking by Julia to make sure we weren't been duped. For $300 we were supposed to receive 375000, but they tried to test our maths by giving 307500. Thankfully we noticed and after a long time managed to finally exchange the money to fill up my daypack! It was strange to be doing this on the streets, with local people stood there ogling the loot, which amounts to as much as some of them can earn in a year. I certainly didn't feel safe.

The bus to the main bus station took over an hour and when we arrived a group of touts swamped us with offers of Bagan for 10,000 kyat. We followed them across the sprawling mass of whats meant to be a bus station, until we reached the Bagan terminal. Seeing we were white they immediately tried to make us pay 20,000, so we walked away.

Shwedagon Paya
A tout told us he would get them for 15,000, but came back empty handed, explaining there were only a couple of seats left and thus the sellers would hold out for more. He told us that locals only paid 10,000 or less and thus i wasn't going to pay 20,000 on principal. In the end we changed our plans and bought a ticket to Mandalay, which was only 10,000, even though it was a much greater distance! Go figure.

There was 4 hours to kill until departure time, so we ate in a little restaurant and watched some tv in the ticket office. The journey itself was relatively ok with two exceptions. Firstly they put a prayer on as we left, which lasted nearly an hour! The words were just repeated, something about pissyor and pissya whatever that means! Secondly they woke you up at every stop for food and made you exit the bus and sit in the restaurant all together.

Maha Wizaya Paya
When its 2am, you are cold and sleepy, this is the last thing you want! Still, it was one of the better journeys in hindsight, so i shouldn't complain too much!

aoisoba says:
whaaat!1USD = 1250 kyat??? crap!! they say it's 1USD = 6 kyat!! arrrcghh!
yeah i hope i can change it well on black market...for some frigging reason am such a sucker in this kind of bargains
Posted on: Apr 11, 2008
Deats says:
On the internet the rate is wrong. Well, thats the rate the government may exchange it at, but you wouldnt want to do that! Change it on the black market and you get almost double. $1 = 1250 kyat, so 10,000 is about $8. So not so expensive :D
Posted on: Apr 11, 2008
aoisoba says:
Hi deats,am actually surprised with the rate you said, i only checked the net and it says 100 USD to 650 Kyatt only, am really getting confused with their rate hahahahah...Geez, they will really flock on tourist to get an extra dollars huh ... sorry but did i understand correctly that the 10,000 kyat bus fare to Bagan, so if 100USD to 1500Kyatt then it's around 600USD? It is quite steep! Am actaully will be going to yangon and bagan, so am trying to benchmark the costs :)
Posted on: Apr 11, 2008
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$100 in kyats
$100 in kyats
St Marys Cathedral
St Marys Cathedral
Inside St Marys Cathedral
Inside St Marys Cathedral
Narrow Yangon street
Narrow Yangon street
Street market
Street market
View of Yangon from the Sakura Tow…
View of Yangon from the Sakura To…
Colonial architecture
Colonial architecture
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Butterfly at Kandawgyi Lake
Butterfly at Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Huge Buddha in the Temple next to …
Huge Buddha in the Temple next to…
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Young girl ringing a bell at Shwed…
Young girl ringing a bell at Shwe…
3 novices at Shwedagon Paya
3 novices at Shwedagon Paya
Worshippers at Shwedagon Paya
Worshippers at Shwedagon Paya
Sweepers clean the floor at Shweda…
Sweepers clean the floor at Shwed…
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Sri Devi Hindu Temple
Sri Devi Hindu Temple
St Marys Cathedral
St Marys Cathedral
Inside St Marys Cathedral
Inside St Marys Cathedral
St Marys Cathedral
St Marys Cathedral
View of Yangon from the Sakura Tow…
View of Yangon from the Sakura To…
View of Yangon from the Sakura Tow…
View of Yangon from the Sakura To…
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Sule Paya
Sule Paya
Sule Paya
Sule Paya
Town Hall
Town Hall
Independence Monument
Independence Monument
Colonial architecture
Colonial architecture
Port authorities
Port authorities
Colonial architecture
Colonial architecture
Colonial architecture
Colonial architecture
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Botataung Paya
Gardens at Kandawgyi Lake
Gardens at Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Gardens at Kandawgyi Lake
Gardens at Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Shwedagon Paya seen from Kandawgyi…
Shwedagon Paya seen from Kandawgy…
You dont want to walk under here!
You don't want to walk under here!
Julia in the gardens at Kandawgyi …
Julia in the gardens at Kandawgyi…
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake
Statue in the grounds of Kandawgyi…
Statue in the grounds of Kandawgy…
Statue in the grounds of Kandawgyi…
Statue in the grounds of Kandawgy…
Building in Yangon
Building in Yangon
Shwedagon Paya seen from down the …
Shwedagon Paya seen from down the…
Temple next to Shwedagon Paya
Temple next to Shwedagon Paya
Terrapin and fish in the pond of t…
Terrapin and fish in the pond of …
Walking towards Shwedagon Paya
Walking towards Shwedagon Paya
One of the entrances to Shwedagon …
One of the entrances to Shwedagon…
Looking down the tunnel that leads…
Looking down the tunnel that lead…
Looking up the tunnel that leads t…
Looking up the tunnel that leads …
Walkway up to Shwedagon Paya
Walkway up to Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya seen from Shwedag…
Maha Wizaya Paya seen from Shweda…
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Monk at Shwedagon Paya
Monk at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Lying Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Lying Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Array of Buddhas at Shwedagon Paya
Array of Buddhas at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Bell the English tried to steal an…
Bell the English tried to steal a…
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Giant Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Giant Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya at dusk
Shwedagon Paya at dusk
Shwedagon Paya at dusk
Shwedagon Paya at dusk
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Retro Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Retro Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Hypnotic Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Hypnotic Buddha at Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Inside Maha Wizaya Paya
Inside Maha Wizaya Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Maha Wizaya Paya
Youngsters playing football outsid…
Youngsters playing football outsi…
Sule Paya
Sule Paya
Yangon
photo by: aleksflower