Friday, September 7, 2012

Money, Gold, and Life in Myanmar

I get into his 1988 taxi, which he enterprisingly rents for $15 a day, charging the above average rate of $9 for the 45 minute ride from the airport to downtown.  My luggage goes in the back, resting directly upon the gas tank.  I sincerely hope we don't get rear ended.
I'm asked to sit in the front and chat with him.  Burmese people are famous for their friendly nature, and my cabbie more than obliges.
"Where are you from?"
"America."
He smiles warmly. "We very much like American tourists here.  You and the Germans are the best, you complain about nothing and are always very kind."
"Germans?" I state dubiously.
"Oh yes, Germans.  Very nice. Excellent technology too."
"Which nationality of tourists do you like the least?"
Without missing a beat: "French and Israeli."
"Why?"
"They complain about everything. 'oh, this cab is 22 years old, the window doesn't work right, I only want pay you $5 not $10.' "
Old colonial building in Yangon
The radio turns on without either of us touching it. "Oh good, today is working," my driver states with an enthusiastic smile.
"People in Myanmar are very friendly and honest.  We very much value tourists here, and if you ever have any questions you can ask anybody and they will do their best to help you."
Average salary here I am told is just a little north of $100 per month. The security guard working in front of the building gets paid less, $50 a month.
“But he is grateful to have a job,” my cabbie explains, “many people are out of work.”
It’s best here to work for yourself (as it is almost everywhere.) My new friend tells me he makes three to four hundred dollars a month after paying expenses, and his wife has a hair salon, and makes between $700-$1,000 a month. Mind you, these people work long, long hours, but with a combined income north of $1,000 they are firmly middle class, and can afford most things in this developing country.
“Do you save up money for a house, your own car?”
“It is very hard, such things are very expensive compared to what we are able to save.”
Yangon, view from atop down a narrow street
“Where do you put your money?”
“We keep at home.”
“Not in a bank?”
He laughs. “No! No one puts their money in the bank.”
Not long ago, the dictatorship had a problem with one of the banks, and shut it down, causing many of these impoverished people to lose their life savings.  They only trust two forms of currency, cash, and he even more so- gold.
"The price of gold always goes up," my friend states, perhaps tapping into the consciousness of the sweaty, overworked printing presses magically creating paper money for the economic powers of the world. Gold, another currency used by man for thousands of years, has a much more fixed supply. Along with most other commodities, gold will, according to many, increase in nominal value as paper currency is devalued from its rapid printing.
Playing "hackysack" with a wooden ball in Yangon
You know how you buy a house for a car here in Myanmar?  Cash.  Not a check mind you, we're talking cash.  When someone purchases the house, they literally bring over wheelbarrows of cash, and considering the largest bill in Myanmar is worth $6 US, you can imagine how much time and effort it must take to count out the equivalent of say, twenty five thousand US dollars.
The price of hotels here is not cheap.  For a country with a such a poor population, you would think the price of lodging to be much less expensive (relatively.) What happened was that as the regime began to "normalize" there was a rapid increase in the number of tourists, and all accommodations became sold-out, so, as economics dictates, the hotel owners began raising their prices, and as tourists continued to pile into the country, prices kept going north.
Women transporting pots with son in Yangon
The economic possibilities here in Myanmar are mind blowing.  There's a need for everything-lodging, new cars, credit cards, and of course real banks, which will have a huge and near immediate impact as they ease the transactional friction I described above.
As a tourist, you literally have to bring all the cash you will need into the country. You cannot withdraw cash from any “ATM,” you cannot use a credit card, and most currency isn’t even accepted. American dollars, the Euro, and the Singaporean dollar are the only paper here worth anything, and each of those bills has to be in MINT, un-circulated condition in order to be exchanged or else they will be rejected.
I’m not kidding, a hundred bill I had with the most minor of creases was treated like a counterfeit bill, from the ancient planet of Noblodoom, which had,moments ago, been puked on. “We don’t want this,” they stated, shoving the bill back at me a look of disgust on their faces.
The U.S. lifted sanctions months ago and Pepsi and Coca Cola have already announced they are coming back to Myanmar, along with McDonald's and jolly old Phillip Morris (tobacco) who will do their best to put the world’s worst healthcare system under even more strain. Most people here have sadly never been to the dentist, and their smiles/mouths reek from the consequences. 
Piles of discarded durian (the smelly fruit) rinds on the street
One thing is sure, Myanmar will be changing rapidly. Seeing Myanmar as it is right now is a little bit like time travelling back thirty years. The truth, it’s like a change-up in baseball, it takes some work getting adjusted to the speed; I myself, find that I'm going to bed earlier each and very night. It's 8:00 PM here right now, I'm getting tired ...

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