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Formerly known as Burma, the gorgeous Southeast Asian country of Myanmar was completely shut off from the outside world by its military government until just a few years ago. With a recent announcement that the emerging democracy’s historic election will take place on November 8, TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino feels this is the perfect time to share accurate, up-to-date information for those who want to visit Myanmar for themselves. (All photos are by the author).
As Myanmar opens itself to elections, and increasingly to the rest of the world, it may choose to modernize its traditional way of life — so if you want to have a historically authentic, largely non-commercialized experience, you should visit as soon as possible. For now, Myanmar’s men, women and children still wear a traditional skirt called the Longyi and many people still paint their faces each day with yellow thanaka, a natural sunblock made from tree bark. It’s unlikely that you’ll experience luxury — especially if you venture outside of the city of Yangon — but a trip here will surely be eye-opening and educational, and possibly even the best of your life.
A great amount has changed since Eric Rosen wrote a post on useful tips for traveling to Myanmar just over a year ago — so much and so quickly, in fact, that guidebooks, travel writers and bloggers can’t seem to keep up. I learned the following things during my recent travels in the country, but by the time you take your own trip to Myanmar, these could well be outdated/inaccurate — so please comment if you notice that something has recently changed or was different in your own experience.
1.The bigger the US bill you exchange, the better rate you’ll get. Before traveling, most information I found online suggested that in order to change money in Myanmar, bills must be crisp and perfect. However, at various money exchanges in the Yangon Airport (RGN) and a few different cities, I changed new but decidedly not perfect 50-euro bills, $50 bills and $100 bills to Myanmar kyats with absolutely no issues. The only things that seemed to matter was the size of the bill: the bigger the bill I used, the better the exchange rate I received. Note that you’re likely to receive better exchange rates in non-touristy areas than in ones that are used to catering to visitors.
2. There are some ATMs available in Myanmar, but it still pays to bring cash. Despite info I’d found to the contrary, there are in fact ATMs in Myanmar — but since I didn’t think I could rely on them by the time I left for my trip, I just ended up bringing cash. While in Myanmar, I spoke to fellow travelers who’d had both problems and successes with ATMs — as well as the usual fees charged by overseas ATMs not affiliated with their banks — but if you have some cash on hand, you’re safe either way.
3. Especially because you’ll be expected to pay for some things in kyats. Prior to my trip, I’d read that many items would be quoted in dollars, but in fact, most menu and retail items were quoted to me in kyats. (When taking tours, however, I was given the option to pay in either US dollars or kyats.) In any case, it’s a good idea to have kyats on hand — because there’s a good chance you’ll actually need to use them.
4. Book hotels ahead of time so that you can get the best prices. A few years back, it seemed that the hotels simply couldn’t be constructed fast enough to compete with Myanmar’s growing tourism demands, and this boom kept hotel prices sky-high. However, prices seem to have leveled off, and now, booking a room doesn’t have to be expensive — especially if you book in advance.
Via the online travel agency Booking.com, I booked the Hotel Sahara in Mandalay for about $30 per night and the Oasis Bagan in Bagan for about $55 per night. (Note that there are both higher-end and cheaper options available in both cities.) Both of these properties said that they would accept Visa and MasterCard credit cards, but I prepaid in order to have peace of mind, as well as earn double points for this travel spend on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
5. You can book domestic flights in advance via online travel agencies, but not directly through airline sites. After learning from various guides and forum threads that foreigners can’t book domestic flights within Myanmar through airline websites, I wanted to see if it would be possible to book a domestic flight to/from Bagan through an online travel agency in advance of my trip. I can happily report that it’s possible — but not necessarily free of confusion.
About six weeks before my desired travel date, I made on online inquiry through Asia Pearl Travels. Within 24 hours, a representative named Win responded to me with my charter-flight options and the cost, which would be $61 each way, per person from Bagan’s Nyuang-U Airport (NYU) on Air KBZ. After some more research via online forums, I found this quoted price was accurate (and possibly even less than I might have paid if I’d booked in person at an airport). I sent money via PayPal to Asia Pearl Travels and received a reply email that included my flight times and the assurance that I simply needed to print out the email and take it to the airport on the day of my flight.
I did just that, but only to find the Air KBZ desk at NYU completely empty. Rather than freaking out, though, I took my printed email over to the nearby Air Mandalay desk, and they politely directed me to the desk for Air Mann Yandanarpon, a code-share partner of Air KBZ and the operator of my flight. Once I checked in at this correct desk, I thankfully made it to Bagan and back with no issues. Whew.
6. Arrive at major airports two hours prior to your flight and you’ll be just fine. Even Myanmar’s major airports are generally small and a bit scruffy and disorganized, but I still found things rolled pretty smoothly, with only slight delays and relatively short waits at security and customs. At both NYU and Mandalay (MDL) airports, I found that arriving two hours ahead of my flight time allowed plenty of breathing room.
7. US citizens and most European citizens (among others) can apply for an eVisa. The eVisa is available for arrival by air in three cities: Yangon (RGN), Mandalay (MDL) and Nay Pyi Taw (NYT). To illustrate how quickly things are changing, I paid $30 for my visa in June, in order to enter the country within three months’ time. It’s now October and the visa price has since increased to $50. (Note that a new business eVisa is also available for $70.)
The process to obtain an eVisa is as follows:
- Download and fill out the eVisa Form (relatively easy, asking general and passport info)
- Pay the fee using credit card (Visa, MasterCard and American Express are all accepted)
- Wait up to three days for approval (mine came in less than 24 hours)
- Print out your eVisa and take it with you. You’ll need it when you check-in for your flight in whatever country you are departing in, and of course when you go through customs at one of the three airports where it’s allowed.
Your eVisa will be valid for use from three months of the approval date. You can find more information here, as well as a list of nationalities that can apply for the eVisa. If you aren’t flying into Myanmar or have a complicated itinerary with multiple entries, you could also visit the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand to obtain a visa for Myanmar, or simply get in touch with Allied Visa & Passport before you travel.
8. You can easily get to Myanmar from other Southeast Asian destinations. As travel to Myanmar quickly increases, new flight options are becoming readily available, especially from other cities in Southeast Asia. For flights to Yangon (RGN), for example, you can fly Star Alliance member Singapore Airlines from Changi Airport (SIN), Air Asia from Bangkok (DMK) or Bangkok Airways from Chiang Mai (CNX). Generally, once you’re in a major city in Southeast Asia, you can get to Myanmar for fairly cheap. My own Air Asia flight from Bangkok (DMK) to Mandalay (MDL) was about $75 round-trip.
You could also opt to use your Citi ThankYou or Chase Ultimate Rewards points to score a Singapore Suite from the US to SIN (like TPG did this past June) and then just hop over to RGN. Or, you could arrive via Oneworld member Cathay Pacific or Oneworld affiliate Dragonair from Hong Kong (HKG). There are a lot of options, so rest assured — you’ll get to Myanmar.
9. Be aware that infrastructure and services can be unreliable. Even at Myanmar’s nicest hotels, you should expect a few power outages per day (each lasting a couple minutes or so). Sometimes there are water shortages, so long showers may not be an option. Having your laundry done might be expensive, as most “laundromats” will wash your clothes by hand in a river or well, as washing machines are considered a luxury in Myanmar. Wi-Fi is available at hotels and some restaurants, but it tends to be slow and spotty. Bring your medications from home, as it may be difficult to find what you need in Myanmar, and of course, check if you need any specific vaccines before going (noting that the CDC still lists Myanmar as Burma).
10. Traveling during the rainy season could disrupt your plans. There were huge floods over the summer in Myanmar, and many areas just aren’t prepared for torrential downpours. I personally didn’t experience bad weather until the last day of my trip when I had trouble leaving my hotel in Mandalay. The rains were so severe that the surrounding streets, which lack a proper drainage or sewer system, were flooded with high water and floating garbage. Rainy seasons vary by region, so inform yourself and prepare a Plan B if you think floods could affect your Myanmar trip.
Have any TPG readers out there recently been to Myanmar? As travel logistics for the country are constantly changing, please feel free to share if you’ve had any similar/different experiences, or any advice to offer!
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