February 11, 2015

the visa run

visas are the bane of travelers.  some countries have more complex rules than others.  Thailand, for example, doesn't charge for visas and it's quite easy to get a 60 day stay with an extension.  you just show up and they stamp your passport.  

a visa is just a stamp in your passport that grants you the right to be in the
country. some countries penalize severly for overstaying and will prevent you from rentry if you are a repeat offender.  others like Myanmar just charge you $3 a day for every day you overstay.

in most SE Asian countries, there's a really complex set of rules around when you apply, where you apply, how long the visa is valid, how many entries are allowed on one visa, when you want to visit and of course the type of visa [tourist, buisiness or diplomatic].

for Myanmar, they grant 28 day tourist visas and you can stand in line at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok [see my earlier post about that delight] or in late 2014 they launched a VOA [visa on arrival] which can be applied for online and picked up at the airport if you fly in [not available or overland travel].  see, it gets complicated.  

for a Myanmar Business Visa, with the proper paperwork, you get 70 days in country.  so that's what i came in on.  initially i thought it would be inconveinent and a pain in the ass.  now that my 70 days are up and i need to do a visa run i am thrilled to be getting kicked out.  i am going to Thailand.  i am going to find the fat westerner beach, sit at a luxury resort and imbibe fancy drinks for three days.  then it's back to Myanmar.

February 9, 2015

check for ants

so, i had a friend over for a cocktail before we went to dinner.  i poured some dinks and then offerred the ice tray so they could decide how much ice they wanted in the drink.  then i said, 'check for ants'.  

there is a bit of a problem with the tiny ants in my apartment and sometimes i'm too tired when i'm filling the ice tray so there may be one or two tiny ants in the tray.  i just throw out the ice cubes with frozen ants.

yeah, CHECK FOR ANTS, is what i said.  it's a new low for me when i offer up iced ants to my friends. 

February 6, 2015

housing in Yangon

it's quite grim at the moment.  the sanctions have isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world for so long finding housing either temporarily or longer term is a mess.  there just aren't enough hotel rooms or apartments available to accommodate the influx of visitors and expats coming to support development.

i know housing costs are relative to location and Southeast Asia has some of the lowest housing costs in the world.  in Thailand i paid $350US for a very clean and contemporary condo. 

another $40 or so a month for water, electric and cable.  there was 24 hour security and key card access.  the doorman would drop whatever he was doing when he saw me coming on my scooter so he could park it for me.  it is quite comfortable there.

so my first trip to Yangon was a bit of a shock.  the least expensive clean hotel room with ac, internet and hot water was $70US per night.  payable in cash - clean US notes accepted only.

when I was negotiating my contract i knew housing was going to be an issue.  the HR director at my company was tasked with helping me find accommodations.  being that he is a national I thought surely he would come up with some good options for me.  with a couple of friends for support I went with him to look at apartments that were available.  the first was a 3 bed 2 bath apartment on the ground floor.  Partially furnished with one horrible sofa. One western toilet and one Asian toilet (google it if you don't know what that is).  the shower was just a hose coming out of the wall in one of the toilets.  no hot water.  the second toilet - the one with the Asian toilet had a bucket shower.  let me elaborate although it's pretty self descriptive.  a bucket shower is a 50 gallon drum in the toilet room filled with tap water.  a bucket is supplied and the shower part happens when you scoop the water with the bucket and pour it over your head.  in the hallway outside the door was a stack of car tires and several bikes chained to a stairwell.  all were covered in a thick, thick layer of dirt. my HR Director fearlessly went to battle for me against the landlord agent (that just so happened to be his sister) to negotiate that they add a hot water unit in the price of $1200 per month.  oh, and he wanted me to pay the agent a commission of $1200 to secure the rental.  let me do the math for you.  that 48,000 we smiled and i said we'd need to keep looking.  as we are in the car getting ready to leave the 'agent' says there is another apartment in the same complex we could look at - because it was furnished it would be $1400.  we walk over to take a look.  the bizzare pink color of the walls and dirty uphostered furniture were a turn off and i was able to turn that one down really quickly.

three days later i saw the same apartment easily identifiable by the wall color and furniture advertised on the expat connection site for $1000/month.  let's just say the HR guy wasn't helping me.  i've gotten to know him a little better since then and turns out he's what we would call an 'asshole'.

oh, and lease terms are very unflexible.  landlords expect one year of rent plus deposit paid in advance in cash.  crisp, clean US bills only.  if something happens during the lease, a water pipe bursts or electrical problems, the landlord will say 'that is your business'.  it's pretty fucking crazy.  to get housing comparable in comfort and style to the condo in Thailand or my house in the US it would cost $3500US a month in Yangon.

in the end, the company i'm working for came up with a workable solution.  they own multiple properties on the same street.  they have a villa that has been used for training classes.  they are transitioning the classes into a new building that was being built so they converted one the rooms in the villa into an apartment for me.  i am a bit spoiled because i walk to work, have 24 hour security, generator and reliable high speed internet.  it's not fancy but i have tons of storage.   the cleaning staff comes in to clean and iron for me three times a week.


February 4, 2015

the state of the internet

as i mentioned, most people have adjusted well to life without internet.  it's a little harder for the newer arrivals.  it takes about a day for newcomers to figure out that Traders [a five star hotel downtown] has exceptional service.  the lobby is always filled with foreigners who for the cost of a coke [$4.00] or pot of tea [$3.00] get hours of high speed internet.

there aren't a lot of other options.  the 'internet cafes' are dark, dingy and dirty and don't serve coffee.   the tea shops bare no resemblence to coffee shops in the west.  no internet, no a/c, no espresso machine and no Starbucks.  that's not a complaint and the rumor is that Starbucks will be here in 2016 so that's sure to change the landscape and culture considerably.

my boss likes his coffee western style so i have really good coffee at the office.  the rest of the staff drinks tea or what they call 'three in one' and that my friends is really not yummy.  it's a small packet of instant coffee with dry creamer and sugar mixed in.  

but i digress, recently i was talking with an NGO director who had dsl service installed in his apartment.  the cost $1500 to install.  that doesn't include the monthly charge.  there is no service level commitment so you may have access one day and then nothing for three days.  there is no intention to build out land line access anywhere.  Myanmar is leapfrogging over desktop technology straight to smartphones.

just a few years ago a SIM card would cost $2000US if you could even get one.  so SIM cards were passed around and resold.  i know someone who got a SIM card 18 months ago.  they 'rent' it from their company at $15US a month.  previously the SIM had been used by a magazine so about 40% of the calls she would get were from people looking for the magazine.

the cost of SIM cards and usage have come down immensly.  it may now be some of the cheapest phone time in the world.  i paid $1.50US for a SIM card in October.  i put $5.00US credit on it and with normal voice and data usage i have still not used the $5US.... that's three months.

there are three companies offering wireless voice and data service but the original MPT [Myanmar Post & Telecommunications] still has some level of control over all of them.  it's common knowledge that when there are active protests or anything that could reflect badly on the government the wireless networks of all three go down.  

i am quite thankful every day that i have the access that i do at the apartment. 

February 2, 2015

sriracha - a taste of home

the most popular, best selling chili sauce in southeast asia is Sriracha.  it's found in every kitchen and every restaurant.  makes sense, right?  it's made by Huy Fong Foods and was created by a vietnamese man.  it's got asian writing on the label.

fun fact:  sriracha is an American product, produced in the US and exported to southeast asia.  so whenever i see a bottle it's just like being at home.