Trip Report: How To Book Domestic Flights Within Myanmar

by on August 7, 2014 · 7 comments

in TPG Contributors, Trip Reports

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On his recent round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen visited Myanmar for a week. He wrote about his tips for visiting Myanmar and his experiences in the country’s largest city, Yangon. Today he discusses the flights he took to the other destinations he visited in the country.

Although Myanmar continues to open up to the outside world after years of international sanctions and isolation, traveling there still feels like a bit of a throwback travel experience – one that requires a visa application within a certain window of time, necessitates carrying a fair amount of cash with you to pay for expenses, and where only certain parts of the country are open for tourism, and foreigners’ movements are somewhat restricted. Like the rest of the travel experience here, flying within the country to various destinations also feels like something out of the past.

That is because only domestic airlines operate within the country, so if you want to fly from Yangon to another city like Mandalay, you have to purchase your ticket from one of these small carriers. Not only that, but unless you have someone already in the country arranging the tickets for you, you will probably have to wait until you get there to buy your airline ticket from a travel agency or tour operator, and you almost always have to do so in cash, so you should budget for it and bring the money you need with you. Here’s how I got everything done.

The tarmac at Yangon early in the morning.

The tarmac at Yangon early in the morning.

The Flight Circuit

My own plan was to spend two nights in Yangon, then fly to Nyaung U, the airport that serves Bagan (where there are over 4,000 ancient stupas and temples along the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River. I would spend two nights there, then continue on to Inle Lake (the closest airport is Heho), and then finally fly back to Yangon for one final night before departing the country. That was my preferred itinerary because all the domestic tourist flights in Myanmar all pretty much follow the same circuit, and all the airlines that fly it depart within minutes of each other from each destination.

From what I could tell, the typical circuit is Yangon to Nyaung U (Bagan) to Mandalay to Heho (Inle Lake) then back to Yangon. And the airlines all fly this circuit each day. The other thing I noticed was that all the flights left very early in the morning (like around 6:30-6:50am) because temperatures in many parts of the country (and especially Yangon and Bagan) can get so high that the planes would not have enough lift to take off if they left later in the morning or in the afternoon.

Getting Tickets

I had a pretty tight schedule and did not want to leave anything up to chance, so when the business office at the Shangri-La Sule, where I was staying in Yangon, contacted me before my trip to ask if they could help with any travel arrangements within Myanmar, I took them up on their offer to book my plane tickets and hotels for me.

The hotel usually suggests a few other hotels around the country to their guests, but I had done my research and asked them to book specific ones in Bagan and Inle (I’ll get to that in a later post). As for the airline tickets, I left it up to them, but just gave them the dates I needed to travel and a nice woman named Stella took care of the details for me, sending me flight information, times and prices before booking anything.

Though Stella said that it would be possible to book the flights once I arrived in the country and pay cash for them, she suggested that I have her book them for me and pay the hotel by credit card just to be sure I was confirmed on the specific flights she had found at the price she was able to quote. That way, I could just give my credit card number to the hotel, they would charge me then pay for the tickets on my behalf, and everything would be set. The one consideration was that the hotel would require a 7% surcharge for booking my ticket that way, but since that only ended up being about $20, I decided to go ahead and do it for my peace of mind.

I would be flying an airline called Mann Yadanarpon.

I would be flying an airline called Mann Yadanarpon.

I had asked about flight times when Stella had sent them over to me, and she told me that my options were fairly limited and that no matter which airline I flew in the country, I would pretty much be departing around the same time, so I just went with the ones she had nailed down. She emailed me a form to fill out with my credit card information, and I scanned it then emailed it back to her and she sent me a booking confirmation for my flights.

When I arrived at the hotel in Yangon, I popped down to the business center and picked up my waiting airline tickets and hotel reservation. Stella wasn’t there (I wanted to meet her after all our emails!), but instead her colleague gave me a printed page with my e-ticket with my entire itinerary on it. The paper actually said that my booking was confirmed and that because the e-ticket was already recorded in the airline’s system that I did not need to take a printed version of the sales receipt with me, but they asked for it at the airport, so it was good to have on hand.

The hotel booked it through an entity called May Flower Travels & Tours, which has offices throughout the country in tourist destinations including Yangon, Mandalay, Tachileik (up north near the border with Thailand) and Heho.

The tickets came to $299, but my final tally was $319 including the 7% surcharge for using a credit card to book them ahead of time. What was interesting to me was the fare/fee breakdown. The Yangon-Bagan and Heho-Yangon fares were both $74 plus a $30 fee each (with no explanation given), while the Bagan-Mandalay-Heho fare was $69 with a $19 fee. I figured the $30 fee must be the one for flying into and out of Yangon. My airfare also entitled me to a checked bag weighing up to 20 kg.

My first two legs would be aboard an airline called Mann Yadanarpon, and then the return flight from Heho to Yangon would be on KBZ, though the e-ticket was issued through KBZ, so they must have a partnership. All the tickets were on a single itinerary, and once I had them in hand and the business center called the airline the day before my first flight to confirm times and my ticket, I was all set to go.

Stay tuned for future posts with my reviews of the flights and what to do in Bagan and Inle Lake.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Bruno

    I flew straight to Mandalay from Chiangmai, Thailand on Mandalay Air. This was about 15 years ago, long before the country started to “open up”. The flight in from Chiangmai was surprisingly easy (in fact, it was about the only thing that was easy about dealing with anything akin to officialdom in Myanmar then). After a couple days in Mandalay we then flew from there to Bagan, where we spent several days. From there, we flew to to Yangon (then Rangoon) for another couple days. All the flights were on Mandalay Air (we flew from Yangon back to BKK on Thai – in Business Class, which was dirt cheap – IIRC the flight cost less than $100 in business).

    Is Mandalay Air (and the flight from Chiangmai to Mandalay) no longer an option? It was easy and convenient. No FF program, but hey, no complaints.

    We made all our flight arrangements (including purchasing tickets) from Thailand in advance, quite easily. The only slightly tricky part was getting a visa for me (I’m American, my wife’s Thai passport made it easy for her; we arranged for a “business visa” for me, which did the trick). My wife being Thai certainly helped in many ways, both in preparation and once we got there.

    It was an interesting trip, to put it mildly. Loved the country, but I had a couple of unusual encounters – e.g. upon arrival I refused to exchange the required amount of cash into the fake, special tourist currency the government required for all foreigners to do at their ridiculously unfavorable exchange rate – IIRC I think they demanded $200 per person per day (would have been something well over $2000, and I knew we could never spend that much even if we tried – and the “special currency” could not be converted back upon exit). I loudly refused and openly mocked the entire idea…they were shocked and didn’t know what to do. They got v-e-r-y uncomfortable and implored me to cooperate. We eventually negotiated down to a much smaller number, which was OK (and we later exchanged money on the street at a dramatically better rate). Also had a little argument with the machine-gun wielding security guard at the Rangoon Airport when we were departing who insisted on x-raying all 100 rolls of film I was carrying, despite my polite requests to please hand-inspect them instead (oh, I do not miss film…).

    I enjoyed Myanmar back then – it felt like I had parachuted into a remote part of China in the late 1940s. Very few motorized vehicles anywhere, only bicycles, some old military-style trucks and a few taxis (and this was in Rangoon, not some remote village). There were large Stalinist propaganda billboards in Burmese and English all over the place in the cities, imploring everyone to “Resist the foreign bandits Interfering with the People’s Desire!” and to “Crush the Imperialist Stooges!” (I did not see Moe, Larry or Curly – but my cab driver thought I was completely crazy when I asked him to stop so I could get out and take pictures of those billboards). I never met or saw a single other American anywhere I went in the week or so that I was there. Everyone was friendly and nice to me (well, except for the 16-year-olds in army uniforms with the AK-47s…). I bet it has changed a bit since then.

  • Raj

    Don’t book flights locally in Myanmar. You’re supporting the local cronies! Use buses or private taxis so your money goes in to the local economy. The appeal of Myanmar is that it’s been isolated for so long and that it’s people are amazing. Don’t support the local Junta and please practice Responsible Tourism!!!

  • Mieke

    I was in Myanmar last year. Do serious research before flying on a domestic airline there. Their safety standards are less than stellar. Many neighboring countries do not allow Myanmar airlines to fly into their countries due to safety issues. Thailand is one of them. Air Asia, however, can fly you to and from Mandalay and Yangon via Bangkok. Safety first! Plus, like another comment, do what you can to support the local economy, not the corrupt government.

  • Eric

    As I mentioned in previous posts, that is definitely a consideration when traveling in Myanmar, but no matter which transport you take, your money does end up with the government – just the amount varies. Time was also a factor for me and I did not have the luxury of being able to spend an entire day driving from one destination to the next each time, so the flights turned out to be my best option. I was, however, conscious of the political context in my decision, though, and it is good to keep it in mind.

  • Raj

    Eric, you’re right that the Junta will profit no matter how hard you try to direct your money. That is just more reason to plan your trip to allow enough time to travel responsibly there. Please just read a page on Aung San Suu Kyi’s thoughts on travel in Burma. Visiting a country like this deserve the respect of us allowing for enough time to travel responsibly.

  • Michael

    You can book Air KBZ on their website and pay by credit card. I think they are the only domestic carrier that enables travelers to do so.

  • esme travels

    I flew Malaysian Airlines (yikes) in and out of Myanmar, but my Yangon – Bagan, Bagan – Heho (Inle Lake), and Heho – Yangon flights were booked through

    I was very happy with Oway. I booked my flights online in advance, and the site allowed me to compare all the airlines, flight times and prices on one screen. Then, to Mieke’s point, I compared airline safety records prior to booking my flights.

    Oway sent immediate confirmations and notified me when I booked the flights and notified me of flight changes. I encountered no hitches at the less-than-high-tech ticket counters.

    As for the actual flights: all went smoothly. I felt like I was flying a domestic (U.S.) airline. One flight left an hour late.

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