Incentives for your escape from the wheel.
Think about bumpy low speed trains, hotel reservations via telephone, 56k internet connection, hand written airline tickets and a population who has not been morally/financially spoiled by tourism. Unlike other countries in South-East Asia Burma needs a bit of preparation prior to your journey though in the meanwhile WiFi is available throughout the main spots as Bagan, Inle, Yangon, Mandalay and Hsipaw.
1★Get your Visa. Tourist visas are valid for 3 months and are restricted to a period of 4 weeks from the date of arrival. You have to apply in advance and pay a fee of US$ 35. If there is enough time you can apply for a visa at the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in your country. Click here for a list. It usually takes around 2-3 weeks to have your passport back. After calling and informing them about our close departure date we had our express visa (slightly more expensive) within 5 days. Good job! In case you are spending some time in Bangkok get your visa at the Myanmar Embassy – a short walk from BTS station Surasak – within 3 business days for THB 800. Next-day-visas are around THB 1.000 and same-day-visas THB 1.300. They require 2 passport photos and the application in paper. Their office hours are from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. Pick up for same-day-visas are in the afternoon. Be there before opening hours as the queue will be long! Bring the printed forms and 2 passport photos with you. You should avoid to state your profession as a photographer or journalist on their forms unless you want to spend hours being interviewed about your intentions in their country. If you forgot all that you will be pleased about the little van in front of the embassy. It is like an office with copying machine, photo camera and application forms. They will help you out. The third possibility to get a visa is to apply online which might be the most expensive alternative.
2★Book a Flight. The best way to get into the country is via plane from Bangkok’s Don Mueang (DMK) airport. Air Asia offers the cheapest rates and approaches both Yangon (RGN) and Mandalay (MDL). Check their schedule as they are not departing every day. If you want to enter overland you need to get the visa prior to your arrival at the border otherwise you will face the problem leaving your passport at the immigration office. You will not be able to travel through the country as your passport is required for hotel, train and flight bookings. There are many border crossings to choose from. One of them is Phunumron which is a two hours drive from Kanchanaburi in Thailand. About 10-15 tourists are crossing every day.
3★Payment. The local currency is called Kyat (MMK). There is no real need to exchange money as US$ are accepted throughout the whole country. In case you want to go for local Kyats there are plenty of newly opened bank branches throughout the country which offer (unlikely 2010) normal exchange rates. The more valuable the note the better the rate. Euros can also be easily exchanged without commission.
4★The US$ Condition: Crisp, clean, non-folded, mint – let’s call it new. This is the way your US$ paper money should look like. You will not succeed in getting rid of torn, folded or stamped notes. Always check your US$ change in front of the seller as they often try to trick you with some damaged bills.
5★ATM headache. Many guidebooks say: “There are no ATMs in Myanmar.” Well, that was the case just some years back where your journey was a real adventure. More and more the monetary challenges seem to belong to the past. A decent number of banks opened and accept international credit cards at their ATMs. Even Maestro and Cirrus cards too as long as you have a pin code. To be on the safe side make sure to plan your budget generously as you don’t want to rely on the chances of finding one of the few ATMs and/or run out of money in the middle of nowhere. The fact that Visa and Mastercard are at least accepted in the big, government-run hotels and a few travel agencies, might help. But be willing to pay a surcharge of 7-15%. Some hotels offer cash advance for a 20% service charge.
6★When to Visit. October to February with lower temperatures (20ºC to 25ºC) and less rain are probably the best months to visit. March to June are the hottest peaking in April with almost 40ºC. Expect heavy rain fall from mid May to September. Consider that Thingyan (Burmese New Year Water Festival) takes place mid April. That means for you to be soaked in water from morning till evening. People don’t care if you carry a camera or your luggage with you – So wrap everything in plastic bags and enjoy their happy faces while emptying a bucket over your head.
7★Where to go. As a consequence of your 30 day visa limitation and the lack of proper and fast transportation it won’t be possible to cover the entire country in one go. There are areas where you need additional permissions to enter and the paper work could take already some days. Focus on the main sights like Bagan and Inle Lake. Bagan is an ancient city with more than 2.000 temples and pagodas. There used to be more than 10.000 in the 12th century but due to heavy earthquakes in the area only a fraction remained. An even more laid back atmosphere you will find on Inle Lake – a picturesque freshwater lake located in Nyaungshwe. Book a one-day-tour with a long boat and enjoy the stilt houses, floating gardes, markets and the leg-rowing Intha people. Unfortunatel the boat also stops in one of the long-neck homes where women with up to 25 kg (in rings) around their throat are exhibited to tourist crowds. For some time on the beach you can choose between the more upmarket Ngapali or the less frequented Ngwe Saung, a six hour night bus ride from Yangon.
8★Support. Big hotels, airlines, trains are all run by the government. Knowing that inofficially freedom of speech is non existing and more than 2.000 political prisoners are still kept in jail makes it hard to have your money go into the government’s pockets. If you want to support the people stick to taxis or private mini-busses and book your nights in B&Bs. They need it more urgent than the military junta (which was officially dissolved in 2011).
9★Insider. Arriving in Yangon take the circular line for a train ride in real local surroundings with real local people. Buy a ticket (passport required) at the central station for US$ 2 and make yourself comfortable on the wooden bench in the waggon while watching a wonderful scenery pass by. Your journey will take you through the inner city, the suburbs and other villages. One trip takes around 2-3 hours but due to slow motion the distance you cover is manageable. You can get off at any station and take a taxi back. Tourists are not very common so don’t get irritated by the attention you will attract. This is a fantastic adventure you should not miss out on. If you are in Bagan take the bus for a one-hour-ride to Pakokku. You will be invited to private homes, for drinks and food and be questioned a number of questions. A lovely time with Burma’s real population mentality. Stay at Mia Mia Guesthouse – shabby but the hospitality of Mia, an elder lady, and her daughter makes you forget the basic style immediately.
10★Decency. Consider the fact that Myanmar has been isolated for decades and that the population is not used to tourists invading the country. That is also reflected in their prices on souvenir markets or stalls. The more remote the location the more honest the prices. Some sales(wo)men have issues to ask a tourist for a different amount of money than they would ask a local for. Use your common sense if you negotiate and don’t push them as hard as if you were standing in the streets of Old Delhi.
Myanmar is one of the last countries which has not (yet) been spoiled by tourism.
The question is: How long will this state remain…
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