Joko MacKenna

Don't believe all you read

Sorting out internet fact from internet fiction


On my first blog here at Ajarn.com, I made some reflections on my first ten months teaching in Thailand. There was one important thought in the back of my head as I wrote that summary that I didn't include. Namely, soon I would be unemployed!

Working for a government school on a ten-month contract, the end of school year wasn't the joyous and celebratory event it was for a student. No, as a teacher, summer meant I was out of a job. Until May. There were some overtures of wanting me back next year, but that didn't take care of my immediate concern: I needed a paycheck.

Having only been in Thailand for that one year, my roots did not run deep, and so when I began my summer job hunt, once again here at Ajarn.com, I didn't constrain myself to just Thailand.

I found a couple listings for jobs in Myanmar. Apparently, the recruiters next door know where to look for NES teachers: right here in Thailand. I applied, got an interview, and a week later I was on a flight to Yangon to begin a new job in another new country. Bit of a whirlwind, but it fit my needs for a job straightaway.

Mind you, I had been considering Myanmar as my next destination for some time. I'd heard old-timer TEFLers describe it as the next place to be. It's a new frontier in a country that's just opening up. A land of opportunity. It's the Wild West, Southeast Asian style. I began doing some research into what it's actually like here.

I read some disconcerting things. I read some positive things. I read some preposterous things that I simply couldn't believe until I saw them with my own two eyes.

Now, I'm doing that. I'm seeing things here. A lot of what I'd read online about this place is turning out to be untrue or exaggerated. Some of it has been spot on accurate. After less than two weeks here, I don't want to seem like I am setting myself up as an expert. My reporting is based on but the slimmest of experience, but sometimes first impressions are the most accurate. I present to you: Myanmar - Fact or Fiction!

The internet is inaccessible or painfully slow. Partially fact. At the language institute where I work in Yangon, our internet connection is very good. Nearly as fast as anything I came across in Thailand. We're on a wifi network, and at peak times in the afternoon when everyone in the office is checking Facebook at once, it can slow down and drops you, but all in all, it's acceptable.

Mind you, as I write this, I have no internet access at home. I am still waiting for the local 3G mobile provider to turn on the data capability on my phone (which I paid for 5 days ago), from which I will use its mobile hotspot capability to go online, but since that hasn't happened yet, I rely on work and internet cafes. I was told internet cafes didn't exist here. They do, and their computers are faster than those at work. At 400 Kyats (13 Baht) per hour, they're quite reasonable as well.

The cost of living in Yangon is high. Mostly fiction. Food, beverages, cigarettes, sundries, transportation, laundry, office supplies, you name it, it's fairly cheap in Yangon. There is one glaring exception: housing. From what I've heard, the Yangon housing market is booming. Property values are soaring. These value increases are trickling down into the rental market, and particularly, the rental market for the expat.

I'm sure the middle class Burmese living in a similar place to mine pays less than I do, but at $200/mo, it's not too bad. Amenity for amenity, my place probably would have been about 5,000 Baht/month in Bangkok. One does need to come up with either six month's or one year's rent up front however. You don't pay monthly rent here. You pay it all when you sign the lease.

Western-style food is hard to find and expensive. More fiction. True, there is no pizza delivery. There are no KFCs, McDonalds nor Burger Kings. I've not roamed much beyond my little northwestern corner of the city, but even up here, I've seen three Italian restaurants and 4 or 5 hamburger joints in a 3-mile radius. Many of the sit-down restaurants sell sandwiches along with Myanmar food. They all have french fries. Having just got here, I haven't had too many cravings for the tastes of home yet, but when I do, I've plenty of choices and at about the same prices as you'd find in Bangkok.

(Photo: Burger King hasn't reached Myanmar yet. Not that Burger King anyway)

Myanmar food is unimpressive. It's all either Chinese food or deep fried, I was told. Fiction. The local cuisine combines the many influences of the different cultures and traditions which make up the Union of Myanmar. The diversity of offerings is staggering, and I've only begun to scratch the surface of this culinary wonderland.

There's also plenty of Thai, Chinese and Indian dishes available, but I'd have to say the food from Myanmar itself is the best. Furthermore, unlike in Thailand where sampling a random dish you've never tried before could leave you grasping for the water bottle, sweating and with tears in your eyes, the food here is safe for those of us unimpressed by the power of the chili. It's not too spicy.

The electricity goes out everyday. Fiction. In my 12 days here, the power has failed twice, both times when I was in the middle of teaching a class. There were a couple minutes of inconvenience while the school's generator kicked on, but it wasn't a problem. Service came back within an hour. No one is going to say that any of the infrastructure here is world-class, but the daily power outtages I'd read about haven't been my reality. We're not quite into the hottest part of the dry season yet, when I hear it gets worse because of the increased air-con use, but so far, the juice has flowed non-stop.

A choice I made out of necessity is turning out really well... so far. I feel confident that I will continue to thrive here in the Golden Land. If anything, my experience has taught me one thing that I've learned many times before: don't believe everything you read on the internet!




Comments

Oh, and in addition to my very long comment, wrt internet speed, just wait until July when the extremely patriotic sea creature cuts the underwater cable leaving all of Burma with excruciatingly slow, nearly unusable internet for nearly a month. Happens every year at the same time for the 8-8-88 anniversary...

Enjoy. :D

By Marguerite, Burmanity (5th April 2014)

Burma is a place which is changing fast. I know that you acknowledge in your article that after two weeks, you can't really call yourself an expert on Burma, but still, hey, after two weeks, you REALLY can't call yourself an expert on Burma.

I lived in Yangon for nearly three years and I can honestly say that many of the things which you claim to be fiction are actually (or in the recent past) were entirely true. The electricity does go out every day. Or nearly every day. You may not have noticed it because it usually goes out during the day when you're likely to be at work. And your work likely has a generator (oh! just reread your article and your work *does* have a generator-- you do know that using generators at home in Myanmar is prohibitively expensive for most teacher-types in Yangon, right?). Or your apartment has a generator, but if your apartment has a generator, you'd likely be paying a LOT more than $200/mo, which actually leads me to another thing...

You pay $200/mo for your apartment? Really? Are you exaggerating the cheapness of it? Are you slumming it? Are you living with three other people? Is your school subsidizing your rent? Are you ethnically Burmese but born and raised in the West? Or did the housing market suddenly and drastically change in Yangon? When I left a few months ago, the cheapest digs available for a Westerner, even with the help of a Burmese friend, was $400/mo and those places were extremely grotty and slummy.

Regarding food, everyone has their tastes and preferences, and to each their own, but I found Myanmar food really unpalatable. Mohinga, Shan noodles, and tea leaf salad are good, sure, but everything else was just too oily and fermenty-fishy. Not too mention extremely likely to give you food poisoning. Report back to us about how much you love the local food after your first bout with amoebic dysentery.

Regarding cost of living... maybe it's possible that this has recently changed, too, or it could also be possible that you, personally, have not yet been affected by the cost of living as you're still in the honeymoon stage with the country, but I felt Burma (specifically Yangon) was ridiculously expensive. My favourite snack, which would cost about $1 in Bangkok, Seoul, or North America cost $3 in Yangon. Actually, it used to cost $1 in Yangon, but overnight, CityMart increased the price threefold. I also have pictures of magazines which were six months out of date, which Popular (on the ground level of Marketplace on Dhama Zedi Road) was selling for $15. Also, a small-ish tub of Haagen Daas sells for roughly $17. Those are just three examples off the top of my head, but there are many, many more and imo, those prices are astronomically expensive. One more thing to be aware of is that the exchange rate between the MMK and USD varies often and widely. One day, you might get 1000 kyats for your dollar and the next day, it could be down to as low as 600 kyats to the dollar (600 was the lowest I saw it, but it held at that rate for quite awhile and took almost two years to creep back up to 900ish kyats to the dollar). When the exchange rate sucks, EVERYTHING gets more expensive because local prices do not change. Actually, local prices do change, but only ever in the upward direction. Which means that while your spending power is reduced because of a poor exchange rate, things actually are getting more expensive because prices are going up on top of that. So that's another thing to consider/beware/lookforward to regarding cost of living.

But it sounds like you're happy in Yangon, so I hope that it continues to go well for you. I was neither lucky nor happy in Yangon and that did colour my perception of the place. Actually, I was so unhappy in Yangon, and the cost of living was so high for me, that not only was I hardly able to afford to live there, I couldn't afford to leave there, either. I was veritably stuck, and it took months and months of planning and quite a lot of luck to get out for good. I'll be the first to say that, as far as foreign teachers go, I was the exception, not the norm, but if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone, so for anyone reading Joko's post and feeling all warm and positive and go-get-em about moving to Yangon, just be aware that if or when things get tough in Burma, things get EXTREMELY tough and, while it's possible that in the three-ish months that I've been gone things have drastically change, I think Burma is at a point in its opening up and democratization that things will get worse for quite awhile before they get any better.

By Marguerite, Burmanity (4th April 2014)

Great article. I'm also moving to Myanmar (Mandalay) for contract beginning Aug 4. Would you mind if I asked you some questions regarding the move? I have an electric bicycle (Honda imported from Japan) and would love to bring it with me to Myanmar. Any clue where to start? I've googled but haven't turned up useful info.

Thanks!

By Mary Moss, Vung Tau, Vietnam (31st March 2014)

Great article Mr. Mackenna! Thanks for sharing this information; I, too, (as an old timer) have long thought Myanmar is the next place to be should my 20+ years here in the LOS change course. Please do keep us readers here updated when you can as I love reading about my second favorite part of SE Asia! Thanks!

By M.Ed., Surin (22nd March 2014)

Thank you for your report nice to see this as I applied to late for the same job. Now in between jobs have to wait till that time in May when there will be many jobs I am sure here . Good luck to you and do keep us posted

By Michael Fiammetta, Surratthani, Thailand (21st March 2014)

Great start... Please keep us up to date with your life.

By Mark Newman, LOS (20th March 2014)

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