Welcome to Myanmar Burma!
Burma (or Myanmar, its official government name) has few equals as an exotic travel location, with hundreds of significant temples, and a lack of commercialism that most travelers find refreshing. Getting around in Burma is not as easy as in other Southeast Asian countries, but the visitor is rewarded with fewer crowds in historical sites. If you’re not sure whether to visit or boycott Burma, read WoWasis’ short essay on the subject, then make up your own mind.
Our top 6 favorite spots include:
In addition to the WoWasis Top 6, fascinating tribal village treks can be made from the hill city of Kyaing Tong (Keng Tung) in the north.
There are three caveats important to recognize when traveling in Burma:
1) Credit cards and travelers checks are not honored in Burma. You must bring cash (U.S. dollars are preferable), which can easily be exchanged into kyiat at any bank, or through numerous street and market money changers. Remember to bring more money than you think you need, as there is no easy recourse when your money runs out.
2) Many countries have restrictions on importing souvenirs from Burma. Be sure to check your own country’s regulations to ensure your goods are not confiscated upon return. Burma does not allow Buddha images or antiquities to be exported.
3) Burma is under military rule. Residents and visitors alike are monitored by plainclothes police, and although Burma is a safe country, you could be questioned if you’re overheard discussing national politics. This could also be uncomfortable for any Burmese person who discusses politics or the military with you. If you are a reporter or writer, you will probably be denied entrance into Burma, so keep that in mind as you fill out the “occupation” field in your visa application.
Burma is also a land of engaging, friendly people who are eager to talk with visitors. By western standards, they are economically very poor, and even a one dollar tip is welcomed. If you receive good service from a cyclo driver, boat pilot, or informal guide, please consider giving a small tip. We’d encourage you to bring enough one dollar bills to spread around a bit.
We’ve found Burma to be a great destination, extremely rewarding to those who wish to break away from timeworn itineraries. Travel can be slow, but you’ll travel in ancient carriages, buses, and boats, and you’ll meet a great many interesting people. Travel infrastructure does exist, you’ll find good hotels, and terrific Resort/hotel spas everywhere.
Visas are readily obtainable from any Myanmar embassy, for two passport-sized photos and a fee, currently $20 USD. In the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, you fill out your paperwork, use the handy gluepot to affix your photo to the documents, pay $20, then return the next day at the pre-arranged time to pick up your visa. Tourist visas are good for 28 days, and you must have at least six months time remaining on your passport, from the date of entry, to be allowed into the country. You are no longer required to exchange $200 for FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates) at the airport, upon entering Burma.
You may also get quick on-the-spot day visas at most overland border posts. You will be expected to leave your passport at the border crossing, and reclaim in later in the day on your return.
- International air departures
You must confirm your outbound flight the day you intend to leave, best done at the city desk of your airline. If not, you may find that you’ve been bumped. You’ll be dunned a $10 exit fee before exiting Customs. Air travelers may only depart Burma from the airport at Rangoon.
- Burma’s internal airlines
Generally, if you can catch a flight, do it, rather than taking surface transportation, which is slow in a country with poor roads and meandering waterways. There are 20 airports in Burma that will accept jets, and approximately 40 more than have an airstrip suitable for propeller craft. You will encounter three airlines in Burma, Yangon Airways, Air Mandalay, and Myanma Airways.
Yangon Airways is the best, with a newer fleet of planes, a friendly, well-trained staff, and is generally on time. It seems to boast a business model similar to the exceptional boutique airline of Thailand, Bangkok Airways. Their cute smiling white elephant logo is a welcome sight for the tired traveler, who can’t wait to get to the next stop. Yangon Airways is chartered to fly only within Burmese airspace. www.yangonair.com
Air Mandalay isn’t much of a step down from Yangon Airways, and flies the same routes, usually on alternate days. Air Mandalay ground staff has proven to be particularly attentive to the traveler at Mandalay Airport, even going to the trouble of contacting Yangon Airways to help a visitor get to a destination on a day Air Mandalay wasn’t flying there. Air Mandalay flies inbound from Chiang Mai to both Mandalay and Rangoon, and outbound from Rangoon to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. www.air-mandalay.com
Myanma Airways is run by the Burmese government. Older aircraft and dodgy commitments to schedule tend to keep veteran travelers away, especially considering the well-run Yangon Airways and Air Mandalay fleets.
- By bus
Buses are ubiquitous in Burma, but local buses are slow, and Burmese roads aren’t always the best. Fast air-con buses (without toilets) run from Rangoon to Mandalay, Mawlamyaing, Meiktila, Pathein, Pyay, and Taunggyi (Inle Lake). On these routes, the bus is faster than the train.
- By train
Private train lines are faster than the government-owned Myanma Railways, but cost considerably more, and there are over 500 rail stations in Burma. Veteran train travelers insist on the yellow-painted express trains, and eschew the slower, blue trains.
- By car
Car and driver combinations are offered in all cities and most towns, and are an effective way to get to outlying destinations. Price is negotiable, generally $20-25 per day.
Rental cars are increasingly more available, at a rate of approximately $50 per day. Since many roads and areas are off-limits to foreigners, be sure to ask your rental agency to draw no-go areas on your map.
- By boat
Boats go everywhere there’s a waterway to be navigated, but do take a fast boat when you can, particularly if you’re going upcurrent. Cheaper watercraft will generally have no seats, but will give you an assigned number that corresponds to a deck space, for you and your belongings. If you have the time to spare, Burma’s boats are wonders from the past, living history that’s still doing its job.
- In town
Trishaws, or pedicabs, are the most common form of city and town transport. Taxis are common in cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, almost always in a real state of disrepair, rusty, and commonly with broken windows. Cities and many towns also have buses, and pick-up truck jitneys that run in-town and out-of-town routes. Consult your hotel for stops and routes. Horse-drawn carriages are common in country towns, and in archaeological zones, such as Bagan and Myauk U.