Travel tips for Myanmar

Myanmar, more so than any country in Southeast Asia, is changing quickly. When we arrived in Yangon, we quickly realised that our guidebook (the latest edition when we’d set off) would only be useful as a doorstop on our trip, it was already so out of date. We visited the country in March 2015 and were surprised how comfortable and easy travel in Myanmar was. Here are our travel tips for Myanmar based on the latest information.

Travel tips for Myanmar: Money

Only a few years ago, visitors to Myanmar had no access to cash from within the country due to banking sanctions: the only option was to bring pristine US dollars to change at money changers. This has completely changed.

ATMs in Myanmar

There is an ATM at Yangon airport next to one of the money exchange stalls; although we could only withdraw a small amount it was enough to get us into Yangon and last the night. There are now several ATMs in Yangon; we had no issues using them and we took out cash each day which lasted us the rest of the trip (most of our hotels were prepaid). We saw ATMs in Bagan and there was even a bank on the high street in Hsipaw. Needless to say, speak to your bank before you go!

We also brought some pristine US dollars, which we exchanged in Bangkok before our trip. If you mention you are going to Myanmar, they will ensure you have pristine notes which we kept in a notebook to preserve them. We used kyats almost exclusively, but dollars are useful for paying the “tourist taxes” of Bagan and Inle Lake, for the hotels we hadn’t prepaid and as backup if you find yourself out of reach of an ATM. However, we brought back three quarters of the $400 or so we took with us.

Travel tips for Myanmar: Getting around

Travel in Myanmar often involves lengthy distances and long journeys on poor roads. This is improving – particularly between Mandalay and Yangon – but be prepared for a few bumpy, windy rides. Guesthouses and hotels are almost always able to help with booking bus tickets, or can direct you to a ticket booth or travel agent.

Buses in Myanmar

Buses are the most popular, and often the fastest, method of travel and at least one operator tends to ply a route between popular destinations. We usually booked at least 24 hours in advance – I’d recommend more if you can for JJ Express which is by far the most comfortable fleet and in highest demand. Travel times for buses that we took were as follows:

  • Yangon – Bagan: overnight VIP bus departs 8pm arrives 4am (8 hours)
  • Bagan – Mandalay: minicoach departs 9am arrives 2pm (5 hours)
  • Hsipaw – Inle Lake: overnight standard coach departs 4:30pm arrives 6:30am (14 hours)
  • Inle Lake – Yangon: overnight VIP bus departs 6pm arrives 7am (12 hours)
Trains in Myanmar

The trains are government-owned, creaky and unbelievably slow. We enjoyed the experience of taking one, but avoided it as our main method of travel. The Man in Seat 61 has a wealth of helpful information (usually very accurate and up to date) on train times and routes. Contrary to previous reports, tourists can now pay in kyats; we didn’t have any issues with inflated prices.

Visas for Myanmar

At the time of writing, Myanmar’s e-visa service for over 100 countries was up and running. The turnaround time is purportedly three days, although I can’t speak from experience. The service costs $50 for UK citizens (prices may vary but seem to be fixed from what I can see) and can be accessed here.

We opted to get our visas in Bangkok, which is cheaper if you happen to be passing through the city anyway and can be turned round in 24 or 48 hours – certainly for British citizens anyway. You’ll need two passport photos, a copy of your passport and a pen to fill in both of the forms. All of these can be picked up at the embassy if need be. Whilst I’ve no doubt the government is now super cool’n’chill about all short-term tourists, reportedly it is sensible to avoid putting your occupation as “writer” or “journalist” on the forms. We were also asked to put our current employer and previous employer down. Rather than reveal my unemployed bum status, I said I was still working at my old employer and – given I’ve had no angry letter from either party – it doesn’t appear they check these things too closely. Of course I do not condone any form of visa fraud.

Travel tips for Myanmar: Staying connected

Wifi and internet access in Myanmar

All of the hotels we stayed in had some form of wifi. Connections could be unreliable and slow, but were fine for checking emails, Facebook, confirming we were alive with the parentals and a quick bit of research here and there.

Phones in Myanmar

We have a PAYG Thai SIM card (available in all good Thai 7-11 stores) which we activated for roaming and generally had signal. SIM cards used to be incredibly expensive, but this has changed over the last year or so and phone ownership is exploding – particularly in built up areas. We met a few travellers who had purchased Myanmar SIM cards for their phones.

Electric

We didn’t experience any of the famed power outages during our two-week visit.

Travel tips for Myanmar: Required Reading

Books about Myanmar

If I had a pound for every traveller I’d seen clutching a copy of Burmese Days by George Orwell… I’d have been able to buy Craig and me at least a couple of beers.

Another couple of interesting reads are Letters from Burma – an anthology of letters written by the country’s beloved Aung San Suu Ki between 1995 and 1996. Whilst some of it focuses on the political issues of Myanmar, there are also some wonderful letters describing Burmese culture and daily life.

I also enjoyed Under the Dragon by Rory Maclean – a tale of a travel writer and his girlfriend visiting Burma in search of a basket (more interesting than it sounds, I promise). Their well-written travel tale also make you appreciate how much has changed since their visit.

Blogs v Lonely Planet

As I mentioned, our guidebook wasn’t worth the paper it was written on for Burma, simply because things are changing so quickly there. It’s well worth searching travel blogs for a more up to date picture of the country (google allows you to opt for posts within 12 or one month via “search tools”). Most bloggers are a friendly bunch (except me – I’m grumpy) and will gladly give answer any questions you may have about their articles and experiences.
Another excellent resource is the TripAdvisor Myanmar forum, which has a few really knowledgeable members able to answer questions about quite specific topics and give some really good travel tips for Myanmar.

Clothing and what to pack for Myanmar

When we visited in March, it was HOT. Pack accordingly. To visit temples and sacred sites you will need to cover your shoulders and legs to at least below the knee. Maxi skirts, loose cotton trousers and t-shirts are your friend here.

Given that Myanmar is a devout Buddhist country, and hasn’t had the same level of exposure to Western culture (one of the things that makes it so wonderful, in my opinion), you’ll fit in much better with covered shoulders all the time. I felt much more comfortable sticking to t-shirts than tank tops.

Girls and guys alike should definitely try a longhi as well! Craig picked his up from a temple, and the locals were generally very encouraging about his new outfit and helped teach him to tie it properly (there is a knack!). They make a great souvenir, and are much cooler in the heat, although I’m not sure Craig will be adopting it as a full-time part of his UK wardrobe…

Travel tips for Myanmar - Craig's longhi
Craig rocking a longhi

2 Comments

  1. De'Jav said:

    Do you think that 2 weeks was sufficient amount of time or would you recommend more?

    May 5, 2015
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      It depends where you plan to go De’Jav. Two weeks was fine for us to see Yangon, Bagan, Hsipaw, Mandalay and Inle Lake using overnight buses for the big journeys. If we’d had more time I would have liked to have gone to the southern beaches, and if the season is right the trekking is supposed to be wonderful in Hsipaw and/or Kalaw. So yes, 2 weeks fine for the essentials, but don’t be scared of adding some extra time if you have it!

      May 5, 2015
      Reply

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