We recently arrived back from a full month in Burma trying to ensure we kept off the beaten track – and yes there is a track. Here’s our essential tips you need to know before you arrive in Myanmar/Burma in 2015.
1. Arrival at Yangon Airport
Upon arrival at Yangon you will be able to pick up a free wifi signal – but only strong enough for you while standing in line for immigration. Upon passing through immigration you will find in front of you at the end of the hall a bank money changing stand which is where you should change a good portion of your (pristine) US dollars to kyat. Lonely Planet and many other blog will tell you that you should use the black market on the streets to change your money but in recent months many banks have opened and it’s a no-brainer to use the banks over the dodgy guys on the street. We found at the airport US$1 = 1024 kyat which was better than we had expected. After changing some money head around the corner to where you exit into the airport and right before the gates you can easily miss the taxi booking stand. They are super helpful in getting a taxi for you where they issue you a ticket and walk you to an official taxi driver. Cost from the airport to Yangon via taxi is $8 or 8000 kyat.
2. When to use Pristine US Dollars versus Kyat?
This is a difficult question for many as you can’t get Kyat outside of the country – so when is it best to covert over? We found that we only used US$ when booking hotels or buses. But in reality we would suggest converting as much over to Kyat as soon as possible as there’s no places that only take US$ that you need to keep it for. The only place we found was that some guest houses would try to put their prices up $5 if we tried to pay in local currency – but that only happened once or twice and we laughed and told them there was no chance we were paying anything more for their crap room.
3. Can I get a sim card or dongle for internet in Myanmar?
The hard and fast answer is NO – but things are changing FAST. Prior to August last year the only sim cards you could get cost $200 and were only good for phone calls, not data. In August Ooredoo entered the market (you will see the signs plastered all around Yangon for their marketing campaign) and made sim cards more affordable. Hence locals moved straight onto using smart phones as they now have access to cheaper sim cards. So for the time being you have to rely on wifi at guest houses – and that’s completely unreliable at the best of times.
UPDATE: Ooredoo has just released information on monthly data packs for their sim cards so it’s worth looking at how easy it is to get one set up in your phone. 5 gig for $30 isn’t too bad a deal.
UPDATE 2 via TravellingHummingBird: There’s a few companies who offer SIM cards at the airport. On a personal recommendation from Andrea of Wandering iPhone I went with Ooredoo. A prepaid option, with a tourist bonus. For $8,500 kyat ($8.50) I got a months connection and 1.5gb data. It seems that every second man and his dog/cat/rooster sell top of vouchers if needed. After speaking to others in the hostel don’t buy the tourist offered SIM card. Less data and nearly double the price of what I bought! The perks of taking the time to get this done at the airport is having an English speaking staff member set everything up for you.
4. Where should you stay when travelling around Myanmar?
Do some leg work first. Lonely Planet is the only guidebook that has decided to publish a book while the country is still under military rule and it will take a few years before guides like Footsteps and Fordors decide to do their own. This leaves you in a pickle if you haven’t done your research and rely solely on Lonely Planet accommodation – the guest houses and hotels will be the most run down places in the country as they are the only places 99% of people are willing to stay.
I suggest getting your Lonely Planet (because no matter how against them you are, it is the bible for the country and you and every other person you see will be clutching it the whole time you’re in Burma), getting a notebook and open TripAdvisor for all the towns and cities you might be visiting (in 28 days you will visit places you didn’t think you would get the chance) and write a list of hotels that are in TripAdvisor but not in Lonely Planet. this gives you a foot in the door that most other travellers won’t have. Make a note of addresses but most importantly make a note of phone numbers so that when you know when you’ll be arriving in a town you can get your current guest house to book for you. Handy when the smaller towns have limited english on the other end of the phone.
5. Myanmar hotels vs hotels in the rest of South East Asia
You’re gonna be in for a shock at the prices hotels and guest houses expect you to pay in Myanmar. This is because Chinese hotels were the first accommodation allowed in the country so they brought their prices with them. As no one in the country has travelled, they too have used this pricing model when opening local guest houses. Guest houses vary quite a bit as you travel around the country but all expect you to be paying minimum $25-$30 per night for a double room (there’s no promise that the higher end will be a private ensuite (using ensuite in the loosest possible way).
We have travelled extensively throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and where we were able to score a great room, double bed, decent private ensuite, air con, fan and fridge for about $5 a night (best deal we got was in Cambodia for the perfect room for only $3) because you’re allowed to bargain with the local owners, you will be paying in Myanmar up to $35 for rooms you wouldn’t wish upon your friends. Just make sure you ask to check the rooms before agreeing and see what the $5 extra room looks like.
6. Booking buses and trains on the move in Myanmar
When you arrive in a town you will have a good idea how long you will have and when you want to move on. Myanmar doesn’t have a transport system like the rest of South East Asia. When you travel from city/town to town you will be most likely be travelling with locals which means buses do get booked up quite quickly. To save yourself getting a centre isle seat on a 11 hour overnight bus where every stop you will need to fold your seat up while a passenger gets on or off – as you arrive in town at the bus stop or when you get to the guest house, get them to book you a ticket immediately and ensure you ask for/get a ‘good seat’.
7. Don’t put all your faith in helpful hotel staff
Burma is new to tourism and no one has a passport to travel outside Myanmar so locals sometimes don’t understand many questions you’re wanting answers about. Generally in other countries the pool;e in the hotel have an idea where you’ve come from and what places you will be travelling onto next so can guess what you’re wanting to do. Not so in Burma. No one has traveled and many just wonder why the hell you’ve decided to visit their little town. They probably won’t have maps of the town or any idea what the sights Lonely Planet suggests you to visit. Many times we just got blank stares when asking about the big attraction like the tallest buddha in the word or the hot springs that LP says are where locals go on the weekend.
On your travels you will have locals or guides with a good handle on english. Use these people. Show them your suggested next towns and how you plan to move between them, show them your full itinerary and give them time frames and just see what they say. They are few and far between so when you find them, mine them for information. We found just telling them where we plan to head to next and watching their reaction would give us a good idea whether to attempt the travel or not.
8. Use Agoda strategically
We found that most of the time you could rock up to any town or city in Myanmar and you would generally find a room. This tends to be a bit harder in Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan because these are the only stops on the main tourist route. When we found was that when you had a good idea when you would be visiting these places, jump onto Agoda, winter by price and book into the ones with the highest ratings (8.5+).
You will find the cost of rooms throughout Myanmar to be much more expensive than those in other South East Asian countries, so you could end up saving some money though Agoda. The added bonus of this is that if you’re running low on cash you can book with your credit card and worry about a few days accommodation when you get home. A word of warning is to book these hotels when you find good wifi as we found it if you left it a day or hoped your next hotel would have wifi where you could book it, inevitably there would be no wifi or it would be so slow that you would click on the payment page and the page would stall with you unsure if you have been changed and the reservation made.
8. When to have a hotel splurge
You do get sick to your stomach when you realise that your $30 room each night varies in size, cleanliness, ensuite/shared bathroom can be so varied. To help you get through your 28 days look to book a room on Agoda every 1.5 weeks where you can have a decent hotel, nice bed and nice bathroom to reset you body. If you’re paying about $30 each night for a crap room then for the additional price of a coffee and muffin for 2 people, the additional $15 is a great investment. The one issue you will have is then comparing your next few rooms to these and be angry what an extra $10 can get you.
9. Keep spare change handy
There will be times you need a few coins when you need to use the bathroom so always keep a 50/100 kyat note spare for those times you’re busting to go.
10. Myanmar Power Plug Adaptors
You can pick these up locally for less than a dollar.
I’m a male and I’m putting this as an essential so you need to know it’s important. Burma is dry and dusty. More than you ever expect especially as you’re travelling in open trains, bikes, pick ups and buses. You’re whole body will dry up before you know it and you’re gonna want to moisturise your face, arms and legs every day before you turn in to a scaly lizard.
12. Contact lens wearers
Continuing on from the dry and dusty point above, you’re gonna be relying on your glasses a lot more than usual. You’re gonna find much more grit in the air in the major cities because huge buildings have yet to be built so for every car and bus that runs through the town, they will be constantly stirring up dust and it’s gonna hurt.
13. Early morning arrivals in Myanmar
If you move strategically around Burma you’re going to find overnight buses arriving at 3 or 4am in the morning. There will be taxi driver waiting without fail but you might find more of an issue at the guest house. When you make the booking make sure you tell them when to expect you and ask if you can get into your room when you arrive. It’s a bit cheeky as you basically get 2 nights in the room as you can catch some shut eye from 4am til you head out and then officially have the room for the night. If we didn’t inform our guesthouse we then spent a good 3-4 hours in a foyer full of mosquitoes in the dark as they wouldn’t let us have the room till check in time (usually 10am).
14. Economy of scale
It’s astounding the difference in prices for good and services in Myanmar but you should get your head around them asap. A bowl of Shan noodles or mohinga will cost you 50c, a hotel can cost you $25-$40, and an 11 train journey can cost you $1.70 but that moto taxi to the station 10 minutes away will cost you $6.
15. Temple étiquette for dummies
Don’t be one of those tourists that get issued a sarong to wear around because you’ve decided to go in your skimpiest outfit. A general rule is that shorts/skirts need to be down past the knee (guys can just let them hang down a few notches) and no singlets/speggetti strap tops on the ladies. The number of idiot guys we spotted walking around in sarongs because their shorts were too short was amazing. Don’t be one of them. Also on the days you’re going to be visiting temples wear thongs as yore gonna be taking them on and off 100 times a day.
16. Keep a day up the sleeve
Because there are very few tourist buses plying a well worn track, it may take longer to get places than expected or delays due to faulty trains or buses. You will find (with buses especially) that the routes they play aren’t yet made for tourists so there’s no natural connections. You may catch an early bus at 4am and get in early to a town you want to move through at 10am but the bus you needed only departs at 7.30am each day so you need to overnight it. To keep it all in perspective have a day or 2 up the sleeve until your last week so that you don’t get caught short and need to a) rush back to your departure city and b) you might have a bit more freedom at the end of your trip to have an additional stop you may learn about during your travels.
17. Booking public transport tickets at stations
This one caught us out a few times. If the guesthouse cannot book you a travel ticket you will need to take a moto taxi or similar to the station. Rather than the both of you head there, just send one delegate on ahead to do it as if you take 2 bikes it cost you twice as much for a return journey, that could be as much as the transport you went to book.
18. Pocket App is your friend
If you have a smart phone – download Pocket App (iPhone | Android). This is an app that allows you to save internet pages to read offline. Now head to wikitravel for each of the cities and towns you may visit – better to have more than less. Wikitravel is more up to date than travel guides and has more insight into towns as it’s edited on the fly by travellers. It was a lifesaver to know what to expect when you got to each town, what had changed, costs of transport from where you would get off the bus/train to town etc.
While you’re at it – Pocket App all of our Myanmar Travel Tips so you have these all handy when you need them most.
19. How much money will I need if I intend to use the full 28 day visa?
If you have travelled and have any additional tips or questions we could help with add them in the comments below.