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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently returned from a round-the-world trip where one of his stops was a week-long journey around Myanmar. Here are his tips for traveling to and around this fascinating Southeast Asian destination. Check out Eric’s other posts from his Asia adventure: Flying a Round the World Award Using US Airways Miles, What To Do On A Visit To Luang Prabang, Laos, Norwegian Air Intra-European 737-800 OSL-ARN, Cathay Pacific Economy BKK-HKG, Singapore Economy Class HKG-SIN
After decades of international sanctions and isolation from their military junta leadership, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) finally seems to be opening up to the outside world, albeit slowly. Elections are scheduled for next year and Myanmar’s main pro-democracy figure, Aung San Suu Kyi (who currently holds a place in parliament after years of being under military house arrest), is expected to run for president. For many years, she urged travelers to avoid Myanmar as a form of protest against the government, but about two years ago as the first of the reforms began, she changed her position and she, along with her National League for Democracy party encourage international tourism as an avenue toward opening up the country further. This NY Times article does a good job explaining the situation and what to keep in mind when making travel plans there.
I spent a week in Myanmar – three nights total in Yangon, two in Bagan and two at Inle Lake. These tips are based on my own planning and experiences, but I would love to hear from any readers who have also been to Myanmar and what they kept in mind during their travels, so please feel free to comment with questions and advice below.
Applying for a visa: US citizens require a visa to enter Myanmar. You must apply ahead of time while still in the US, unless you are in Bangkok and can apply for one overnight at the Myanmar embassy there. First, a tourist visa costs $20 in the form of a cashier’s check. It is valid for 28 days upon arrival (one 28-day period, no splitting it up). It takes about 2-3 weeks (mine was 10 business days) for your visa to be approved and your passport to be returned to you. However, your visa is also good up to 3 months starting from the date of issue, so do not apply too soon. You will have to fill out a form explaining what you do for a living, the purpose of your trip, etc. I recommend using Allied Passport and Visa service which I’ve gotten visas through several times before without having to leave home.
I enlisted the services of Allied Passport to help and sent all my materials in to them, they took them over to the Myanmar Consulate in Washington, DC, and about 10 days later I had my passport back along with my new visa. Allied’s standard visa processing fee is $45 though you get a $5 discount through the TPG link.
Seasons: Almost everything I read said the best time to visit Myanmar was the cool season from November-February when temperatures are in the 70’s and 80’s. So much so that I actually thought I’d be visiting a land of torrential rains, floods and mudslides since I was hitting the beginning of wet season. However, the weather in early June was pretty much perfect. Yes, it went up into the 90’s during the day in Yangon and Bagan, and there was a thunderstorm or two in the evenings, but the weather did not disrupt my plans at all, and for the most part it was decent if not what I would call pleasant all the time (it was up near 100 in Bagan one of the days).
Safety: Obviously take the normal precautions you would when traveling abroad – especially if you are carrying around a couple thousand dollars in cash, as you’re likely to given the restrictions on ATM’s and credit cards – but for the most part, you should find Myanmar to be quite safe and easy to navigate, especially compared to many other Southeast Asian countries. People are friendly and helpful, and the crime rate in tourist-frequented areas is very low.
Bring cash: Even just a year or two ago, you couldn’t find an ATM in Myanmar (yes, the whole country) that would accept foreign debit cards and dispense cash. While there are a few in Yangon these days as well as in a couple other tourist destinations, it is still necessary to bring cash in another major currency – preferably US dollars or Euros. From what I could see, ATM’s typically charged about 5,000 kyat ($5) per transaction.
Bring a mix of high and low denominations: I had been told, you actually get the best currency exchange at hotels or in the markets rather than banks, and you get a better rate for higher denominations like $100. For instance, the exchange rate at my hotel was about 980 kyat for $100 bills and just 920 kyat for $20 bills. However, it is still good to have some $5, $10 and $20 bills for paying for things like budget hotels, meals, and if you go out shopping since most prices are quoted in dollars.
Bring new bills: Only crisp, uncreased, unfolded, unmarked bills without any tears will be accepted, whether you are using them to pay for something or just to exchange for Myanmar kyat. Now, you don’t have to be uber-obsessive about this. I had some slightly used $20’s that I just happened to have with me, and I had no issues with them. However, your bills cannot have markings or writing on them, so just try to get some new ones from your bank. They must also be 2009 series or later, so double check the issue date of the bills you bring.
Money limit: Foreigners are required to declare any cash above $2,000 that they are bringing into the country. While I spent a lot less than that during my week full of travel and activities (and only paid for my Yangon hotel with a credit card and the air tickets and hotels in cash), it is still a consideration. The limit is per traveler, though, so if you are traveling with companions or a group, that gives you some more breathing room.
Budget: While it is still possible, and even preferable, to travel cheaply in Myanmar, it is getting harder to do so. Some sources estimate that the cost of the average hotel room shot up nearly 400% from 2012 to 2013 because just so many tourists wanted to visit and there are simply not enough hotel rooms. That means it is going to be harder to stretch your dollars there, but the cost of things like museum and temple admissions, taxi rides and eating out at restaurants is still quite low, so you can still enjoy yourself without breaking the bank.
Domestic Travel Arrangements
Though I was able to book my tickets to/from Myanmar (via Singapore) while I was planning my trip, arranging my travel within the country was a whole other story. I was lucky in that my Yangon hotel, the Shangri-La Sule (which was recently rebranded from Shangri-La’s other line of properties, Traders Hotels) has a business center that will take care of domestic air and hotel arrangements for guests. However, here is what you need to know.
How to travel: My time was limited so I chose to fly around the country rather than brave the buses or trains. Train travel in Myanmar is notoriously unpredictable – you might arrive a whole day late, there might not be air conditioning, etc. – though buses are apparently better and very cheap, so if you are on a budget they can be a good choice. You can also hire a car to drive you around, though now that the government has built a series of new highways between the major tourist destinations, you likely won’t see much. On the luxury side of things, there are riverboats that ply the Ayeyarwady (Irawady), but keep in mind that these do not run all year round, including when I was there in June, which is just the start of the wet season where the river level is low and there are sand bars.
Flight plans: Chances are, if you’re coming to Myanmar as a tourist and planning to fly, you’ll follow a specific route. There are currently six little domestic airlines (some owned by government insiders and some…less closely tied to the government) that fly a pretty set loop each day from Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Heho (Inle Lake) to Yangon, and all the flights depart right around the same time, so you will likely see a lot of the same travelers in each destination and it feels more like a shuttle service than a modern airline trip. Still, the service I experienced on Mann Yadanarpon Airlines and Air KBZ was fast, efficient and on new ATR 72-600’s.
Air tickets: As with most else in Myanmar, when it comes to domestic airline tickets for flying to/from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake, you will likely have to pay cash once your arrive. The business center at the Shangri-La was actually able to find all the flight options for my itinerary – I wanted to go from Yangon to Bagan for two days, continuing on to Inle Lake, then back to Yangon – price it out, and accept payment for them using a credit card, though that carried a 7% surcharge. It was worth it to me because the hotel was able to confirm the flights and it meant that I could carry about $300 less in cash with me. Otherwise, you can go to a specific airline’s office once you arrive in Yangon and pay for your tickets there. Unless you are going during the height of high season like over the holidays in the West, I suspect you would actually have no problem simply booking your flights once you arrive in the country. I was just being overly cautious.
Hotels: The Shangri-La was also a big help in nailing down my other hotel accommodations in the country. While they actually have a couple hotels in the various tourist destinations that they typically send guests to and quoted me the rates for without my asking, when I pushed back and asked about specific places I was interested in staying, they were able to make the reservations without any problems. They issued me a hotel stay voucher and I just had to pay for the hotels in cash at the business center at the Shangri-La when I arrived in Yangon, so I budgeted for that when deciding how much cash to bring with me.
Though Myanmar has opened up its lines of communications fairly quickly, the country is still lagging when it comes to the kinds of access Westerners are used to, so be prepared to be without your Instagram feed for large portions of the trip!
Internet: Most of the major hotels will offer you free WiFi, and it does work, but it is quite slow, and usually only available for certain parts of the day. The Shangri-La actually is known for having the best internet access in the whole country. Literally. It has a FIOS connection so think about popping into the lobby if you really need to connect. My other hotel in Yangon, the classic Strand Hotel, also had a very good connection with no issues. I was able to Skype at both places as well as emailing and streaming YouTube videos. However, at my hotels in Bagan and Inle Lake, though the internet did work fine at certain times, it did not work at all at others – either in my room or the public areas – so be prepared to be offline for a few days.
Phone: The major US carriers do not offer coverage in Myanmar, so if you really need to stay in touch, you’ll likely have to either pick up a cheap cell phone somewhere else in Asia or in Myanmar itself and buy a local SIM card.
Unlike many other Southeast Asian countries – even those that opened up fairly recently like Vietnam and Cambodia – Myanmar is still very much in the beginning stages of developing its tourism industry. So it is still more conservative than you might expect. For instance, you won’t find much nightlife in Yangon (in fact, you won’t find much open after 10 or 11 at night), and many if not most people still wear traditional dress including the long, colorful wrap-skirts called longyi that both men and women wear. That said, many guidebooks are quite strident about complying with local mores like not pointing your feet at someone (who points with their feet, anyway?) and not dressing like an extra in a Ke$ha video when visiting temples, but just use common sense and you should be okay.
And one final cultural tip – those red puddles you see everywhere, and the red stains on car doors? Try to avoid them. That’s the red juice produced by the betel nuts and leaves people in Myanmar chew and what you see is basically what they have spit out like with chewing tobacco.
Healthcare in Myanmar is a bit precarious so it is a good idea to check out the CDC page on visiting the country and pay a visit to your physician to make sure you have the vaccinations and medications you need.
Travel doctor: I visited my travel doctor about 3 weeks before I went and he made sure I was up to date on the following vaccines: hepatitis A and B, tetanus and typhoid. You also need proof of a yellow fever vaccine if you have recently traveled to regions where it is present, which I had not. My doctor also prescribed me antimalarial medication for my trip. Though Yangon and Bagan are not typically malarial areas, because it was the start of wet season and I was going to Inle Lake, he thought it was a good idea. He also cautioned me that rabies is present in the country so to stay away from animals and if I happened to get bitten by one, to get medical care immediately. Happily, I can report that this did not turn out to be an issue at all.
Don’t Get Overwhelmed
That might seem like a lot to keep in mind, but really, I found Myanmar to be such an easy, wonderful, charming, and totally mystifying place to travel and I had not a single issue during my stay. It was a little nerve wracking carrying that much cash around, but I felt safe at all times, and I was relaxed and able to enjoy my time there not only thanks to the amazing sights I visited and delightful people I met, but also by just using some common sense and just taking it all in.
Have you been to Myanmar too? What were your experiences like? Share below, and let Eric know if you have any more questions about his trip!