A Buyers' Guide to Burma

Currency

The official exchange rate for Burmese currency, called the kyat (pronounced ``chat''), is officially set at 6 kyat to the dollar. The black market rate is 120 kyat to the dollar. At the official rate, a 50 cent soft drink costs $10 - discouraging tourists from parting with their dollars. To encourage tourists to spend, the government essentially legalized the black market two years ago by creating a special currency for foreigners: the Foreign Exchange Currency, or FEC. When you arrive at the airport, you are required to exchange $300 for 300 FEC. While changing dollars on the street is still illegal, an FEC will legally buy about 110 kyat. This makes paying for anything in the market or restaurants very reasonable. The exception is hotel bills, which are usually charged in dollars.

Hotels

The most famous and elegant hotel in Rangoon is the Strand. Renovations to be finished in 1995 will expand the number of rooms from 32 to 68. Rooms range from $250 to $700 a night.

For those on a more limited budget, private inns established since 1990 are priced from $25 to $40 a night. The one I stayed in was called the Parami Inn, a converted house with six rooms, complete with portable telephone (which worked - another change since 1990), satellite TV, breakfast, and a driver on hand.

Today Rangoon has only about 1,000 rooms suitable for most Western travelers. But by 1998, 17 new hotels will add 8,000 more rooms. In Mandalay, the Mandalay Hotel and several others are being renovated or built, but the number of 3-star hotels is limited. The real problem is Pagan, one of the greatest ruins in the world and an obvious tourist destination: There are only four hotels, with a capacity of 230 rooms. Make reservations early.

Language

Most older Burmese in the cities were educated under British colonial rule and speak English. People who went to school after Gen. Ne Win took power in 1962 have limited English. But English-speaking tourists will generally have no trouble doing anything they want.

Transportation

The good news is that flying is much safer and more convenient today. Aside from Thai Airways, there is Burma International Airways, a new joint venture with a Singaporean firm. But total capacity on flights into Burma is limited to 3,800 seats a week. Domestically, travelers have a choice between two airlines: Burma International Airways and the pricier new Air Mandalay. If you're traveling by land, the overnight train from Rangoon to Mandalay is an adventure with unsurpassable scenery - but only for those who don't wish to sleep. A new Korean train service is supposed to start soon, complete with comfortable sleeper cars.

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