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So far in his series about his round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen has written about his tips for visiting Myanmar and his experiences in the country’s largest city, Yangon, as well as tips for planning domestic travel within Myanmar. Today he reviews the flights he took to the other destinations he visited in the country.
I spent a week total in Myanmar – three days in Yangon and then two each in Bagan and at Inle Lake. Getting to Bagan and Inle required flying to each place. I covered the process of booking domestic airline tickets within Myamnar in my last post. I had the help of my hotel in doing so, and they put me on flights on two airlines: Mann Yadanarpon and KBZ, which seem to have a partnership and operate almost identical schedules and fleet along the typical tourist circuit from Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and finally back to Yangon each day.
All my flights were operated on twin-prop ATR 72-500’s or 600’s. The flight from Yangon to Bagan (Nyaung U) was about an hour and 15 minutes. From Bagan to Heho was actually two flights since the airplane stops in Mandalay for about 15 minutes to let passengers off and let others board. The Bagan-Mandalay leg was about 30 minutes, and Mandalay to Heho was also about 30 minutes. Finally, the flight from Heho to Yangon, which departed in the afternoon at around 2pm, lasted just under an hour.
At the Airport
Friends of mine had just been in Myanmar before me, so they prepared me for the whole flight experience, so I knew what to expect, and I have to say, everything ran pretty smoothly.
In Yangon, the domestic flights take off from a different, smaller, older terminal than the international flights. I arrived at about 5:30am, well before my flight, to get my ticket and check my suitcase, and the terminal was already teeming with tourists. The drive from the central city to the airport takes about 30 minutes at that time of day, but well over an hour in traffic.
The domestic airline check-in counters open about 2 hours before departure and close 30 minutes before departure, so if you are checking a bag, be sure to make it within that window.
I walked up to the Mann Yadanarpon and there was no line. I showed the lady at the counter my e-ticket while one of the men in an airport uniform (a button-down short-sleeve shirt and slacks) took my suitcase from me and waited with me at the counter for further instructions from the airline agent. It took her a moment, but she located my name on the passenger roster (yes, she literally checked my name off a list on a piece of paper), printed out a boarding pass for me and put a sticker on my t-shirt denoting the airline and flight I was on. I thought that was kind of funny, since how hard could it be to figure out your flight at the boarding area, but as I saw later, it was a good idea!
Having confirmed I was indeed a passenger, she gave a baggage tag to the airport guy with my suitcase, who took my bag somewhere, and then stapled the claim check to my boarding pass and sent me to security. There was no line here either, and I did not have to remove anything from my carry-on bag, or my shoes or belt, before passing through the x-ray machine.
Inside, the terminal looked kind of like a dilapidated Greyhound Bus terminal. It was big and cavernous with row upon row of plastic seats where people were waiting for their flights to be called. There were a few “gates,” which were basically just doors out onto the tarmac. Though aging, the facilities were decent, and the terminal was air conditioned, so it was comfortable enough.
Inside the terminal, there was a little grocery store selling drinks and snacks, but they did not carry water, which was what I wanted, so I didn’t buy anything.
As 7:00am approached, there was a series of announcements in Burmese as flight after flight began to board. As I mentioned, all the domestic tourist flights depart right around the same time, so the genius of the stickers came into sharp focus as tourists constantly went up to try to board and were told that based on their stickers, their flight was not called yet. Then when it was their turn, they were allowed to pass out the door and onto a waiting shuttle which took them to their plane. It made the whole process a lot simpler, especially when there was a language barrier between the staff and passengers.
When my flight was called, I showed my ticket to the agent at the gate, went onto the shuttle and waited while other passengers boarded. Then we were driven out to our plane on the tarmac and boarded from the back.
The First Flight: Yangon to Bagan
The ATR 72-600 was a small twin-prop plane with about 20 rows of seats in a 2 x 2 configuration. The airline was only launched back in mid-2013, so the plane was pretty new and looked nice and clean. There was one male flight attendant and three females, all in colorful uniforms that reflected traditional Burmese dress (I was not allowed to photograph them).
Boarding took mere minutes and the cabin door was closed as the final checked bags were loaded. The flight attendants made the safety announcements in Burmese and English, then took their seats and we were off, right on time.
During the flight, there was a quick beverage service of water and soda (no juice), then the flight attendants came around with boxed breakfasts that included a Danish-like pastry with shredded cheese on it, a roll and a piece of frosted white cake along with a plastic cup of water. They then served coffee and tea before clearing the trays. The entire service took about 20 minutes, which was good because the flight was only just over an hour long. Before landing, the flight attendants also carried around a basket of hard candies in various tropical flavors.
We touched down in Nyaung U right on time and the passengers staying there were deplaned onto the tarmac and into a waiting shuttle, which drove us to the new-looking airport terminal.
Once there, those of us with checked bags waited in a little room, and the bags came a few minutes later on a cart, which was unloaded by hand by several attendants who lugged them from the cart into the room. The passengers were a little rowdy going for their bags, but I snagged mine pretty quickly and went out into the main terminal to meet my guide. On our way out, I paid the $15US fee to enter the Bagan national park area and got a ticket that I had to keep on me at all times.
One more note from the Bagan flight: if you like to snap photos from the plane and want to get a good view of all the stupas and the river on your flight, get a window seat on the left side of the plane (it should be the A seats) because those have the view of the plain and the river as you land and take off at Nyaung U.
The Other Flights: Bagan to Heho via Mandalay
My other two legs were pretty similar to the first. My flight from Bagan to Heho via Mandalay left just after 8:00am, and as with my Yangon-Bagan flight, it was one of several on the tourism circuit that left right around the same time in the morning and there were more stickers! My guide had taken my ticket the day before to confirm both my place on the flight and that the flight would leave as scheduled, and there were no issues, so we got to the airport around 7:00am.
Check-in and security were a breeze. I was again confirmed on the passenger manifest, my luggage was taken for me, and I was directed through the basic security x-ray set-up. I ended up waiting in the main terminal with all the other tourists, including several I had flown up with a few days prior, and others that I had seen out and about in Bagan and over at Mt. Popa the day before. There was also free WiFi at the airport, so I sent a couple of emails while we waited.
The flight from Bagan to Mandalay was really quick – just enough time for a fast beverage service of pre-poured water or soda. When we landed, about half the passengers including some tour guides deplaned while the rest of us stayed onboard in our original seats. Some other tourists then boarded and we took off again, all in about 20 minutes.
The leg from Mandalay to Heho was just under half an hour (no beverage service on this one), and pretty much everyone got off the plane there, walked across the tarmac to the terminal and collected our bags when they came in on a suped-up cart. Heho airport is really old and authoritarian-looking – not the place you want to stick around for a long time, but service was quick and efficient, so I was able to get my bags quickly and meet my guide at the exit.
The drive from Heho to Nyaung Shwe (the town at the northern tip of Inle Lake) is about 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. So when it came time to return to the airport, my guide budgeted about 90 minutes from my hotel, which was about 20 minutes past Nyaung Shwe, and we arrived back at the airport about 90 minutes before my flight.
This time, I was flying KBZ Airlines, though the experience was pretty much exactly the same as with Mann Yadanarpon, with check-in done by hand with a paper list, and a quick jaunt through security that only involved placing my bag on the conveyor and walking through an x-ray machine myself.
The terminal looked a bit rundown, but was comfortable enough with air conditioning and plenty of seating, though no functioning WiFi here. There were a couple of convenience stores (counters, really) selling drinks and snacks, as well as a café, some souvenir shops, and even a shop selling locally made wine! I got some chips and a bottle of water, and did some work while I waited for the flights to begin boarding. Mine was the last one called (another set of stickers to verify which flight I was on), and the other passengers and I walked out onto the tarmac to our plane.
KBZ operated an ATR 72-500 that looked the same as MY’s planes, and their staff was also dressed in traditional garb-inspired uniforms, though theirs were green to MY’s purple. The flight was only half-full, so I had two seats to myself, and boarding went very quickly. The announcements were also made in English and Burmese, and within a few minutes, we were taxiing onto the runway and taking off.
The flight was just over an hour, so the flight attendants (all ladies this time) served a boxed lunch that included a sandwich roll filled with some sort of sausage meat (I skipped it), and a white cake with strawberry jam. There was also a regular beverage service and the basket of hard candies that came around before landing, though the flight attendants were seated for most of the descent.
The descent into Yangon was sort of exciting as there was a thunderstorm outside the windows, but it actually wasn’t really turbulent. It was more of a dramatic stormscape out the windows that was beautiful to watch as the clouds rolled in over the lush countryside.
When we landed in Yangon, we taxied to a parking space on the tarmac and waited for a moment for the door at the back of the plane to open. When it did, there was a line of KBZ employees holding umbrellas up for passengers to walk under on our way to the shuttle bus that would take us to the main terminal. It was a nice little touch.
All the passengers waited for about 5 minutes in the baggage claim room, and then it was another free-for-all as passengers scrambled for their bags as the handlers brought them in one by one. I got mine quickly, though, and was out and into a taxi within minutes.
Although I had been a little anxious about flying within Myanmar since I knew very little about the airlines operating there, had few choices of itinerary or airline to select from, and had heard from friends that the whole domestic travel experience could be a bit hectic, I have to say, the actual experience for me was not at all stressful. Though some aspects like the hand-checked passenger lists seemed archaic, all the airline staff I dealt with were very polite, professional and spoke English fluently. The airport security and boarding processes were smooth, the planes I was on were fairly new, and the flights themselves were pleasant. All in all, I had a very positive experience and would have no qualms about traveling around the country again.
I do, however, wish it were easier to arrange travel from outside Myanmar, or there was a way to avoid a 7% surcharge for using a credit card, but I was still willing to pay it for the convenience of having all my flights booked ahead of time.
Have you flown around Myanmar? What were your experiences like?