Practical Tips for Visiting Myanmar - May 2016
Myanmar is a country that is still a relatively new place for tourist visits. After many years of US sanctions and a general tourism boycott from many travelers not wishing to support the military regime, the door is now open wide and the welcome mat is out. While not all of the country is open to visitors, millions of tourists are flocking to Myanmar. With the influx of foreign visitors, the tourism industry is in an exponential growth phase.
We found the whole experience of visiting this incredible country magical. But while doing research we were met with such conflicting information about practicalities because things are changing at a rapid pace. I thought it would be helpful to share our experience of visiting three of the stops on the main tourist track; Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. Things of course change but this is what we experienced visiting at the end of May 2016.
Itinerary: During a 6 month stay in South East Asia we decided to include a 9 day stay in Myanmar. With just 9 days we decided to not squeeze too much in and did not add Inle lake or a beach stop to our itinerary. Instead we stayed in Mandalay for 2 nights, Bagan for 3 nights and Yangon for 4 nights.
Time of Year: May is in the hot season and beginning of the rainy season. We had no rain in Bagan or Mandalay, but did have some in Yangon, The heat was intense and we handled it by venturing out early and getting back to our air-conditioned hotel just after lunch and then not venturing back out again until just before sunset. The days we had cloud cover were great for bringing down the heat, although not helpful for photographs. A big disadvantage for some who are visiting Bagan in hot season is that the famous hot-air balloons don't fly once the weather gets too hot. So if that is part of your reason for coming then you need to come in high season. The advantage of traveling at the end of May is that there are very few other tourists and hotels are much less expensive. I don't know that I would recommend this time of year, but it is not all bad and I would not rule it out.
Money: We read mixed reports about availability of ATMs, some said there were lots of them now, others said most didn't work. We decided it was just as easy for us to take US dollars. I can't really update on the ATM situation, I will say that we did see ATMs in quite a few places, some seemed to working, others definitely were not. Another area of confusion in our research was whether you still needed crisp, clean dollar bills, or whether that didn't matter anymore. I can confirm that where we changed money they would either only accept bills that we clean, no tears, or writing on them or they would give preferential rates for clean bills. They would accept all denominations but you get a slightly better rate for $100 bills. We got our bills at SuperRich in Bangkok, and specifically asked for bills for Myanmar. They knew to give us new, clean bills.
Arriving at Mandalay Airport: We flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Mandalay directly for just USD$68 each all in. Mandalay International airport was well organized and not at all frenetic, with just a few arrivals a day, it's a pretty low-key place. Once through customs there are numerous money changers and there was a single ATM. The line at the ATM was very long and I am not clear whether people were able to get money. We didn't try so can't comment. We did change some of our USD at a money changer. We also purchased a SIM card in the arrivals hall. Also in the arrival halls are people holding up taxi signs. Just as all our research had told us the costs was 12,000 Kyat for a private car or 4,000 each for a shared ride.
SIM Card: At Mandalay Airport there is a Telenor booth that you can buy a tourist SIM. Telenor had fantastic coverage all over Mandalay, including out of town areas like Inwe and all over Yangon. Coverage in Bagan was less solid, but not terrible and good enough for us to use for navigation by Google Maps, which was our main aim.
Transport: Mandalay to Bagan: We didn't book our in-country transport before we arrived, instead we asked the hotel staff to make reservations for us, and that worked out great. We took the OK bus from Mandalay to Bagan for 9,000 Kyat each. They offered door to door service from and to our hotels. The bus was just as it said... OK. Not great but OK. It took just under 5 hours, with a stop on the way for 30 minutes. You can buy hot food at that stop but, being honest, we thought it looked more than a little unhygienic. We bought some snacks that were pre-packaged instead. The bus is lightly air-conditioned and is comfortable enough. However, I wouldn't have wanted to be on it any longer than the 5 hours it took.
Transport: Bagan to Yangon: We decided to fly from Bagan to Yangon. Again the hotel staff sorted everything out for us. We paid US$93 each for an Air KBZ flight. We could have booked online but it was about $20 more, and having the staff sort it out was very convenient. Someone came over to the hotel with the tickets within an hour of us confirming the reservation to take our cash in exchange for the tickets! Now that's old fashioned service. The flight was uneventful, the planes seemed modern and they even fed us during the short flight!
Bagan Entrance Fees: For Bagan you will need 25,000 Kyat to enter the area. It was collected from us on the bus as we reached the main part of town. Our tickets were checked at some of the larger temples.
eBikes: Tourists are prohibited from renting gasoline scooters in Bagan. We rented ebikes for the two days we were in there. Just as all the other blogs I have read, I recommend them highly. Not only can you get around all the temples easily, it would be much too hot to use regular bicycles and as a bonus, they are tremendous fun. We paid 4,000 kyat for a half day, which because of the heat was long enough for us to be out in the sun at any one time. Many people share one bike between two, but we got one each because we found riding them fun in itself. But I will say that while they are easy to operate, they are heavy. I am prone to being awkward and trying to turn them around in small spots I found quite cumbersome.
Hotels: We booked everything through Agoda, We chose 4 star and up hotels and they all cost about $50 a night with breakfast and all taxes and fees included. All our hotels were excellent. We stayed at the Bagan King in Mandalay. The staff were incredible and the rooms were very comfortable. You are close to restaurants, and a short taxi ride from Mandalay Hill and the sights in the northeast of the city. The Amazing Bagan Resort in Bagan had large expansive rooms and is a pretty facility. You are a 15 minute walk from the main restaurant street in Nyaung U but that gave us a chance to walk off our dinner. The Best Western in Chinatown in Yangon is more of a business hotel, very modern with a fantastic breakfast buffet. It is just a few blocks from the atmospheric 19th street for a great dining experience.
Visa: We secured our visas online, it took about a day to get confirmation of approval. We highly recommend this over doing it in person to save a few bucks. It truly is worth the money to save the time.
Medications and Vaccinations: We already had all our vaccinations for South East Asia (See blog post on saving money on vaccinations). We checked the CDC website and Malaria precautions are recommended for Bagan (Not Mandalay or Yangon). We bought Deoxcycline 100mg over the counter in a reputable drug store in Thailand (Boots) for under US$20 each for enough pills to cover the length of our trip and the recommended 28 days afterwards. Much cheaper than we would have paid in the US and no doctors appointment to pay for. Ironically, we actually experienced far fewer mosquito bites in Myanmar than we did in Thailand or Bali.
Generally - although we did a lot of research prior to our trip, we found everything was much easier to book and arrange once there. In the height of the tourist season that may be a little difference but for us, we found that hotel staff couldn't do enough to help and we felt like we paid fair, albeit tourist prices for everything,