Published on April 13th, 2013 |
Myanmar – latest info
Burma has over several decades changed its name, its flag, the side of the road they drive on, and the location of its capital – but very little else. Until a year ago.
Now the country is being accepted back into the international community, things are changing at breakneck speed. The biggest impact on tourists is that much of the published information is seriously out of date. As of April 2013, based on a visit to Mandalay, this is the best advice I can offer:
- Kyats (pronounced ‘chat’) are not available outside Myanmar. You cannot exchange anything you take out of the country – not even to buy food on the plane.
- Bring perfect US$ notes to exchange. Any marks, folds, cuts, or older issues may be simply refused for exchange.
- The approximate exchange rate is 8,500 to 8,900 per US$1. There are exchange offices in Yangon and Mandalay international terminals after customs. Keep your receipt as it may be demanded if you need to change Kyats back to US$.
- Hotels offer variable rates – none as good as the airport – with up to 10% commission. Do not be tempted by onstreet exchange dealers – they are experts at offering higher rates and then distracting and shortchanging.
- There are now ATMs offering Kyats to Visa and Mastercard holders. At this point I would use this only as an emergency source, as the technology has been in place only three months, and Myanmar technology is not well-developed.
- Kyats are accepted everywhere (with the possible exception of a couple of government tourist sites who still demand US$). Your hotel will probably quote in US$ but accept Kyats. The reason not to pay in US$ is that your change may be in Kyats or US$, you have no control over the exchange rate, and the change may include bad or damaged US$ notes which you will not be able then to use in Myanmar.
- Kyats come in 1,000 ($1.20), 5,000 ($6), and smaller denominations (beware that the 200 Kyat notes are a very similar green to the 1,000 Kyat ones). Newer notes are larger format than the older but both types are in circulation.
- An increasing number of international airlines serve Yangon and Mandalay. In my experience one of the best is Air Asia with services from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon and Bangkok to Yangon or Mandalay. The service from Bangkok permits an ‘open jaw’ arrangement which avoids the hassle of at least one flight from Yangon to Mandalay. Thai Smiles and Golden Myanmar Airlines are two more low-cost carriers flying to Mandalay.
- There are very few land border crossings and I have not heard of anyone taking such a route.
- Despite plenty of advanced announcements, a Visa on Arrival system has yet to be introduced, so you will need to get a full page visa glued into your passport. For those transitting Bangkok, I’ve posted intructions here.
- Immigration is efficient and standard rate taxis are available to the city (Yangon $10 approx; Mandalay $15 approx).
- Do not try to travel during Burmese New Year in mid-April. Most services are suspended or overbooked.
- There are seven (yes 7) internal airlines. Most have no online booking or payment facility. The only one I have seen with this is Asian Wings. You would be wise to book all your internal flights in advance, especially during travel peaks. So your choices are to try online booking with Asian Wings, or contact your first hotel and ask them to make a booking for you which you will pay for on arrival. They may or may not be willing and there will almost certainly be a small fee.
- Almost all the airlines fly turbo-prop aircraft with no seat assignments. As they typically follow a standard route Yangon-Heho-Mandalay-Bagan-Yangon or vice-versa, you should check arrival time as well as departure to avoid a three hour flight from Yangon to Bagan which takes you via two intermediate stops including refueling.
- The domestic terminal in Yangon is separate from the international one – and a good deal more basic. Passenger announcements can be rudimentary and there are no departure screens, which is why they give you stickers at check in to make sure you board the correct flight – so don’t remove them!
- If you are a fan of railways, you will like those in Burma. Mostly installed by the British, they haven’t changed much, aside from the addition of some ageing ex Chinese carriages. There is no airconditioning. See my description of a full day rail journey to Moulmein here.
- As a tourist, you have to buy your ticket (at a hugely inflated rate) from a foreigners only area. In Yangon this is on the right immediately before you cross the railway as you come from Sule Pagoda. It is not in the station itself.
- Food of all kinds is for sale by vendors who jump on and off the trains.
- This is how most locals travel. The buses are of variable quality and can be very overloaded with stools placed down the centre aisle to accommodate surplus passengers. They may be airconditioned, but this is rarely switched on.
- There is invariably a food stop of about 45 minutes around noon.
- The biggest disadvantage is that city bus stations can be well out of town and given traffic conditions, this can add an hour or more, plus a taxi fare bigger than the bus fare.
- Private car
- Probably the most expensive option, though perhaps not for a group. You need to remember that although the drivers fee will be low, petrol costs about US$1 per litre so this will contribute most of the cost.
- Even though they will add a markup, I would engage a driver and car through your hotel as they are at least nominally accountable for delivering you to your destination. Research the route and what you want to see – the trip can be turned into a sightseeing experience of out of the way places.
- Make sure the car has a spare tyre, jack, and lug wrench (the driver will be entrusting this to Buddha). And be clear with the driver where you want to go and by what time as they may have little concept of what you want to see or any constraints like closing times.
- Burma is now one of the more expensive Asian countries for hotels whose rates have gone up by a factor of three over the past two years, without any corresponding increase in quality.
- The major cities and tourist sites have properties aspiring to be 5 star, though most are four at best and normally a throwback to the 80’s in standards. They can be very expensive.
- There is little in the middle ground, and most smaller hotels/guesthouses offer two star level facilities, though the friendliness of the staff can easily make up for this.
- All will suffer power outages several times daily and almost all have their own generator to provide emergency power. This will probably not include aircon or internet.
- Credit card facilities are still extremely rare and so guaranteeing your reservation is not possible in the normal way. You should send emails to reconfirm and ask your current hotel to call your next one to confirm your arrival, otherwise a late arrival may result in your room being reallocated to someone else.
- Dress standards are becoming more relaxed, but generally shorts/skirts ending above the knee (men and women) will result in demands you put on a longhi which may not be available.
- Spaghetti strap tops and t-shirts without sleeves are also frowned on.
- Without exception shoes and socks must be removed at every temple entrance (even if it’s a ruin), so something easy to slip on and off is a good idea. You can carry them yourself or may be asked to deposit in a storage box area. I have never heard of thefts from such areas.
- Travel as light as you can. Unless you are on a guided tour, you will find you will need to carry your bags in places where there are stairs/huge kerbs/gravel roads/no elevators.
- Medication. Include something for mild stomach upsets – however much care you take, this is most likely to be necessary at some point.
- A torch. Many locations – even major cities – have no street lighting. If you plan to rent a bicycle (for example in Bagan) you may want to think about a torch with a headband so as to keep your hands free.