Burma/Myanmar has made Top 10 travel lists for 2012 because of the recent opening of what was one of the world’s most reclusive regimes. The largest country in Southeast Asia, even its name causes confusion among potential travelers. Known historically as Burma, the new political regime re-dubbed the country Myanmar in a spat of changes to all monikers evoking the revolutionary sentiments that gripped the global political stage. Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “The Lady,” is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burma’s most recognized political figure both at home and abroad. Her father (General Aung San) was a political hero and after many years raising a family in Britain, she was called home to lead the new political revolution to free Burma and guide it into a new era of growth and democracy. However, she was put under house arrest by the government for nearly two decades, which ended only in the last few years. Since then, she has provided new encouragement to tourists as Burma opens its doors both literally and metaphorically to foreign visitors and ideas.
That woefully inept summary leads me to the real point of this post, which is to assist travelers who wish to travel to Burma/Myanmar. The country still lacks many modern amenities such as ATMs, online booking systems, and reliable telecommunications or internet. The sea of conflicting (mis)information available online makes travel planning intimidating, as do the constantly changing rules and regulations that make older postings obsolete. For the slew of travelers who will undoubtedly want to plan their trips in the near future, I want to offer thorough and up-to-date advice as of the time of writing (July 2012).
Even tourist visas are highly controlled by the Myanmar government, and all applications now have a mandatory “work history” section. At the risk of never being able to enter the country again, it behooves me to tell you that I flat-out lied about my work history on the application form to the embassy in Bangkok, and nothing came of it. I left everything out about my NGO and US government-related work, and listed an age-old position as a library assistant in college. I also said I was currently a student (this part is at least soon-to-be true!). Anything you list that is remotely close to journalism, TV, communications, etc. puts you at risk for auto-rejection.
It seems, however, that they ask you for verifying documentation in many Myanmar embassies and consulates around Asia (not sure about the one in Washington DC). My friend in Phnom Penh was asked for her business card and a letter from her employer. The application at all of these embassies/consulates also takes several days and is more expensive. However, we met travelers who successfully received their visas in Seoul, Beijing, Kunming, Kuala Lumpur, etc. Ostensibly they were not in “problematic” professions, however.
By far the most common and convenient route is to get your visa in and fly out of Bangkok. Air tickets from Bangkok to Yangon are also dirt cheap on Air Asia (ours were $100 RT), which increases the incentive. The entire visa process is also cheaper – less than $30 USD for normal processing or about $40 USD for a rush one-day option, as opposed to the >$100 charged at some other embassies. You can pursue the one-day rush option only if you show a booked air ticket departing within 24 hours (though if it’s 48 or 72 hours, they might still allow you to do it if you plead/pay the extra fee). The total fee for the rush visa is 1280 Thai bhat, or $41. It is extremely easy – go in to queue in the line before the embassy opens at 9 am, turn in all your documents, and come back for pick-up between 3:30 and 4:30 pm on the same day. They are closed on the weekends however as well as Thai and Burmese holidays.
Directions to get to the Myanmar embassy from the Bangkok BTS Station:
The embassy is located at 132 Sathorn Nua Road. Take the BTS train to Surasak station, and go to exit #3. Turn right after you go down the stairs and walk down Sathorn Rd., a wide street (traffic goes in two directions with a divide down the middle). After about 200 meters, you should see St. Louis hospital marked in clear lettering on your right, across the street. Turn left down that intersection and you will see the embassy (marked on a plain gray wall).
[Photo source, though beware the text is outdated!]
Further notes about the visa: you must turn in the application form (front is basic info, back is mandatory work history section), two passport pictures (one paper clipped and one glued), a COPY of your current passport ID page, and of course the passport itself. You can take photos, copy your passport and obtain glue/paper clips and application forms at a lovely little copy place right down the street from the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. As you walk down the street away from the main road, you will see a yellow sign that says “PASSPORT COPIES,” pointing to the right. Turn right down the alley and the copy place will come up shortly on your right. Passport copies cost 5 Thai bhat (less than 20 cents), and the app forms/glue/clips/advice are all complimentary. These guys deserve some kind of medal.
Visa on arrival in the Yangon airport was recently made available for business visas only. The relaxed regulations do NOT apply to tourist visas; you will still need to get your visa in advance.
One of the most inconvenient things about travel to Burma is the limitation on currency exchange and money acquisition/usage. My sister and I met more than a couple travelers on our trip who had their less-than-pristine bills either changed for a much lesser rate, or downright rejected by the extremely stringent money changers in the country. For some of them, it really ruined their entire trip as they were stuck without cash. Here are the rules and a few debunked myths to keep you afloat:
- Bring brand new, pristine US dollars from after the year 2000. The bills may NOT have any folds, tears, or marks. Even the tiniest spot or bend will land you a lower exchange rate, and older or visibly used bills will be flat-out rejected. We cut out pieces of cardboard to put our money between, and I advise keeping those in waterproof envelopes in case of rain. We were told not to bring bills starting with the serial code “CB.” We also heard rumors not to bring 2006 bills, which proved impossible because that was all we could find in both NYC and Beijing, but it ended up being a myth. You may also bring Euro to use/exchange, but I advise against it (some tourist fee rates were quoted as “5 USD OR Euro,” so you would lose money paying in Euro!).
- If you are coming from Bangkok, you may exchange your USD bills for pristine bills at no charge from the SuperRich money exchange unit not far from the Myanmar embassy, at 491/5-7 Silom Plaza Building, Silom Road. It is a great and very reliable money exchanger colored in bright orange, and their USD to Thai bhat rate is also excellent. Tell them you are going to Myanmar, and they will know what you need.
- Myanmar currency is the kyat (pronounced “jat”), and the highest rate we got as of July 2012 was 878 kyat to 1 USD. The rate is closer to 850 for lower denominations (50, 20, 10 or 5 USD bills), and those too must be pristine. You can get a decent rate (~850) at the airport in Yangon, or you can pay for a taxi from the airport in USD ($5-$6 for the whole taxi, bargain your way down!) and have them take you to Summit Parkview Hotel in the center. There we found a high rate of 870 kyat per 1 USD, but more importantly it is a reliable exchange venue with absolutely no shenanigans. The best rate we found in country however was at the government bank at Inle Lake in Nyaung Shwe (878 kyat per 1 USD), so if you need to exchange more kyat you always can do so later on in your trip.
- There are no ATMs available in country that will allow you to withdraw from a foreign bankcard and only a few big hotels in Yangon take credit card at an extremely high surcharge, so you must bring everything you need for your trip with you in cash. This is obviously not ideal as a traveler, but it is some reassurance that petty theft is uncommon in Burma because of the locals’ strict adherence to Buddhism. Still, anything is possible and it is highly advised to split up and hide your bills, and/or use a money belt.
- DO NOT use street/black market money changers. Always go to an official bank, or a big international hotel in Yangon such as the one recommended above. Street changers may offer you too-good-to-be-true rates of 900+ kyat on the dollar, only to use “hand magic” while counting out your bills. We met one traveler who discovered too late that he’d actually been given 500 kyat on his dollar at a shady street exchange. We met another traveler who was swindled with a 10-15% exchange fee from her hotel in Yangon. Beware, and re-count all your bills in front of them before you leave!
- You will want mostly 100 dollar bills, as they will bring you the best rate. However, contrary to what I often read, you will ALSO want to bring pristine bills in lower denominations, particularly 10s, 5s and 1s. This comes in very handy for negotiating a taxi from the airport, and for all tourist entrance tickets, which generally cost $10 or $5 and can only be paid in USD, not kyat. If you can’t find pristine lower bills or come with only 100s as we did, you can have the Yangon airport exchange your pristine 100 for pristine bills of lower denominations (at no charge).
- Contrary to popular belief, over the course of your trip, you may pay for lodging in either USD or kyat, and the best rates are generally in kyat. You should bargain even for hostel rates! Flights MUST be paid for in USD. Everything else (transportation, food, tours or guides, souvenirs) are best negotiated and paid for in kyat, though everyone will also take USD. I will cover information on costs in the next section.
- At the end of your trip, be aware of the rules in exchanging leftover kyat. If you exchanged currency at a hotel or anywhere other than an official bank on your trip, you will NOT be able to change your kyat back to dollars at the Yangon airport. They require an official receipt of the original exchange (USD to kyat) that you can only obtain either at the airport itself or a government bank. We saw travelers who were vexed at this situation and ended up stuck with leftover kyat. However if you either obtain an official bank receipt to show the airport exchange, or leave time to go back to the hotel to exchange before you head out to the airport, you will be fine.
Even more so than for other destinations, knowing true costs of travel is imperative for trips to Burma because you have to bring all your cash with you in advance. Definitely budget a few hundred extra for emergencies, since there is no real way to get money once you’re in country. That being said, below is a list of costs for the savvy budget traveler. We routinely met people on our trip that paid double, triple or 10 times these costs because they didn’t bargain. Tourism is on the rise in Burma and the locals are also savvying up to price gouging, so shop around for the best deal!
Accommodation, Bagan: $12/double room, $8 10/single at local hostel
Accommodation, Inle Lake: $14/double room, $8-10/single at local hostel
Accommodation, Mandalay: $15-20/double room
Full-day bicycle tour guide in Bagan (shared among however many people): $5-10/day
Full-day boat on Inle Lake (shared among up to 6 people): 12,000 kyat (~$14)
Bottled water: 250-300 kyat (tourist prices are 400-500, bargain!)
Street food: 200 kyat for any number of street foods at all the stalls in Central Yangon/elsewhere in the country. This includes a packet of green mangoes, a coconut pancake, a samosa, a bag of spicy vermicelli rounds, etc. Whole, large fruits will be more expensive (1000 kyat for a pomelo).
[Burmese street food: Indian-inspired chickpea curries with samosa; long spring rolls; purple maize; sweet taro-banana stew; small vermicelli rounds; coconut pancakes; fried prawns; goat cheese…]
Restaurant food: 1500 kyat for a fried rice/noodle or vegetarian entrÈe, 2000-3000 kyat for meat/fish dishes, 800-1000 kyat for delicious fruit smoothies/lassis
One-way taxi in Yangon from airport to city: $5-$6 USD, though they’ll quote you at least $10
One-way taxi from Nyaung U town to Nyaung U (Bagan) airport: 4000 kyat by taxi, 3000 kyat by horse cart. May be as much 2x from New/Old Bagan to the airport, since it’s further.
One-way taxi from Heho airport to Nyaung Shwe/Inle Lake: 25,000 kyat. It’s run by the mafia so apparently it really isn’t negotiable. Bunch into groups of 4-5 travelers to share costs!
One-way flights Yangon-Mandalay, Yangon-Bagan, Yangon-Inle: ~$100-110 if you book in Yangon
One-way flight Mandalay-Bagan: $45-50
One-way flight Inle-Bagan: $70-80
One-way bus Yangon-Mandalay: $11-12
One-way bus Mandalay-Bagan: ~$15
One-way bus Inle-Yangon: $17-18
Souvenirs: $5-10/piece for lower-quality lacquerware items at the Bagan temples; more like $20+/piece from the high-end lacquerware workshops, but the quality difference is palpable. ~$5 for sand paintings at the Bagan temples. ~$5 for a beautiful, small-sized hand-painted umbrella (Bagan and Inle, but they’re prettier in Bagan!), $8-15 for larger umbrellas that are waterproof. Books with pictures of Burma run $40-50 easily, and even the crazy photo-copied ones are $8+. Bargain everywhere, rates are better in kyat!
[See costs in a nicer spreadsheet form, here]
Traveling in Burma is quite budget-friendly if you are aware of price gouging and can bargain, though accommodation actually costs many times more than the $1-5 backpacker and youth hostels in Thailand/Cambodia. As two people traveling and sharing a room, we spent a total of $700 for both of us ($350 each) for our entire 10-day trip – internal accommodation, flights/busses, food, tours, local transport and souvenirs. We changed $375 USD into kyat and spent the rest in USD, and ended up with the perfect amount of kyat. Our RT tickets from Bangkok on Air Asia cost $100 per person booked about a month in advance.
Booking Internal Flights, Accommodation and Tours
Another tricky thing about traveling to Burma is that you basically cannot book anything from outside the country. The airlines are all government-run and do not have online booking. The hotels and hostels are not listed on any of the normal sites. When I was trying to plan our trip, it was unnerving to leave not knowing where we were going to stay — we joked that if worse came to worst we would temple-squat everywhere!
Turns out there was nothing to fear, and northern-hemisphere summer is actually low tourist season in Burma. We liked it because despite some rainy monsoon nights in Yangon, overall it was a bit cooler than usual (which is still quite hot) and plenty dry in Mandalay/Bagan. If you show up to any hotel or hostel without booking in advance, they are always able to find you a bed. Don’t know how true this will be in a year though, when the tourist industry will in all likelihood blow up!
In the end, all you really need is a name to tell the taxi driver when you show up to a new place. With that in mind, here are my recommendations to get you through:
Mandalay – Royal Guesthouse. Cheap rooms, central location. We stayed at Nylon Hotel down the street which was alright, but a double room was $20/night instead of $15 and the staff wasn’t too friendly. We ended up renting two motorbikes to take us around Mandalay all day, which was fantastic. We paid them $9 for both of us, and they took us to all the major sites – U Pain Bridge, the Mandalay Palace, all the major surrounding temples, and finally sunset up on Mandalay Hill. Saved us a lot of time – we ended up leaving the next day to Bagan because we felt we’d seen a lot.
Bagan – We stayed at Shwe Nadi Guesthouse in the Nyaung U area. I would tentatively recommend it; rooms are pretty clean and even come with air con for as little as $8/night. Bargain because we paid $12 for a shared room with no bathroom attached, but saw better rooms with private baths running for less. Warning however: do not use the bike guide who lives at Shwe Nadi. He was pushy, awkward and at times creepy/inappropriate, and ended up trying to gouge prices on all the tourists who stayed there. If you avoid the scamming though, it’s a fine place to stay at a convenient location (~15-20 minute bike from the temples in Old Bagan, and a short taxi/horse cart ride to the airport). Water is cheaper purchased across the street, and don’t let them charge you more than 25,000 kyat for a shared round-trip taxi-truck to Mt. Popa for a nice day trip (as many as 6-8 people can fit, so share with other guests!).
Inle Lake – I recommend Teakwood Inn, as quite a few backpackers were there and it had a nice central location close to the market. We stayed at Gypsy Inn and I can’t say I recommend it. It was infested with ants, so much so that it was infamous for it among locals. We also shared our room with a loud, chirping gecko that we named Bob. 😛 Go to Smiling Moon Restaurant on the main street of Nyaung Shwe both to eat and to book boat tours, treks and bus tickets. The woman there is very nice and knowledgeable and she will give you a better rate than the hotels: 12,000 kyat for a shared all-day boat, 8,000 kyat for a shared all-day trek guide, and 14,000 kyat for a bus ticket to Yangon. She can also help you arrange tuk-tuk transport to the market, where you can catch a pick-up truck taxi to the bus station.
Can’t recommend lodging in Yangon since we stayed with acquaintances/Couchsurfed, but I can highly recommend CS if you can find a host! 🙂
As for internal flights, Vega Air Ticket Center in downtown Yangon (Bogyoke Aung San Road) is as good a place as any to get your tickets. There are agents in Bangkok close to the Myanmar embassy as well if you want to book there in advance and pay in Thai bhat, but their rates will be a good $30 USD higher. Flights are short within the country and the airlines are actually quite fine. They provide refreshments and even sometimes meals for short flights, as well as blankets – more than I can say for Air Asia! Most of the backpackers we met were bussing instead, but it can be tiring since the roads are not great, the busses can be freezing/sweltering, and the locals tend to be sick on the busses because they are not used to the lurching for whatever reason. If you take an Air-con bus that runs along the main highway (Yangon-Mandalay, Inle-Yangon), be absolutely sure to dress warmly or bring extra layers. You will freeze otherwise and have a very unpleasant, sleepless night!
What to Read
(Full disclosure: sponsored Amazon links:)
Here are some books to get you going on your trip. While I’ve included the standard Lonely Planet, I highly recommend To Myanmar With Love — a travel guide that is more in-depth, written by actual locals and residents, and will take you more off the beaten trail.
Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) (Country Travel Guide)
The “Backpacker’s Bible” to Myanmar; you will see nearly every tourist toting it around. Be warned though that the most recent 2010 edition already contains outdated information/prices! Better to print out this blog post as a supplement.
To Myanmar with Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur (To Asia with Love)
More in-depth travel guide to take you off the beaten trail on your Burmese adventure.
Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
An educated traveler’s one-stop must-read on Myanmar’s history, culture and political situation
Letters from Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous letters depicting the struggles and triumphs of her native land.
Where To Go
Travel to Burma is quite regimented by the government, and most tourists stick to the “Big 4”: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. While it does feel a bit like you’re being herded around on a set tourist route, all four destinations are plenty interesting and you can easily spend a few weeks covering them all. Tourists are allowed to go to some other destinations that are more off the beaten trail, like stops along the Irrawaddy River or to Bago, a couple hours north of Yangon. However, some areas of the country (for example in the north, where there were recent riots) are completely off-limits and you’d be ill-advised to try to show up there. Your passport number will be taken at every single hotel you stay at and every bus, plane or train ticket you book. I personally wondered about taking a peek at the new capital Naypyidaw, which is of course an artificial urban sprawl set up by the current regime and supposedly doesn’t contain much to see. Not a single tourist we met had ventured there.
I won’t actually spend much time enumerating where you should go and what you should do at each site while you’re in Burma. There’s always Lonely Planet for that – or even better, do what we did and show up without any guide book at all and ask the locals what to see. There is a lot beyond the LP backpacker’s bible, and sometimes all it takes is some meandering and spontaneous exploration to find it. And if you want to really get off the beaten trail, all it takes is a day trip by bike or trekking outside of the main tourist areas to reach some pretty untouched villages.
I will give a couple of unsponsored shout-outs though, to those looking for delectable local food and good souvenirs:
Micky Mouse Restaurant
No. 15, University Avenue Road (Say hi to The Lady when you pass her house!), near Kokine Junction
Despite the ridiculous misspelled name and stolen Disney logo, this is undoubtedly some of the best local food Myanmar has to offer. A full meal with one entree per person shared family style + drink will run you ~$5. Try the pepper chicken or the sweet and spicy fish served with dried cherries. It’s always full of locals and I have not seen it in any guides – thanks to Karen and Marek, our Yangon hosts for introducing us to this place!
The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant
Old Bagan, North of Ananda Temple
This famous place caters to tourists but has a delicious array of entrees including coconut milk vegetarian curry, and the best lassis you’ve ever had. Try the standard mango, or the stunning purple dragonfruit.
[Sweets and fruits: tamarind candy and palm sugar; mango/dragonfruit lassis; Myanmar tea with condensed milk; strange spiny fruits; green mango flowers; pomelos; Burmese rice wine; durian & taro ice cream at Nylon Ice Cream Shop in Mandalay; Yangon bakery]
Shwe Sar Traditional Umbrella Shop
U Aung Soe+Daw Kyi Kyi Win, YarKinnthar Hotel Road
On the main strip not far from restaurant road in Bagan, you will find this stunning hand-painted umbrella shop. At the risk of divulging my secret special souvenir purchase, I didn’t see anything like these umbrellas even at the umbrella-making shops at Inle Lake. Pick yourself up a small one for $5 or large for $8-15 (bargain!).
I hope this is useful for all those prospective travelers to Burma/Myanmar! It is a beautiful, fascinating and fast-changing country, and worth the bureaucracy and headache it takes to get there (which I hopefully was able to alleviate a little bit!). I highly recommend a visit in the near future to catch the country at the cusp of what is bound to be rapid growth and change to both Burma and its tourism industry. Please feel free to post updates, corrections, suggestions and additions in the comments section. If you have additional questions, I can also try my best to respond there. Safe and happy travels!