TRAVEL PLANNING AND TIPS
Getting Your Visa
The process is now really easy, and can be done entirely online at http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/NewApplication.aspx. We filled out and submitted our online applications on September 11 and received the visa approval letter 5 days later via email. Before you apply, you will need the following:
- Your passport
- A passport photo to upload
- A credit card to pay the $50 USD fee
- Your address in Myanmar (i.e. the address of your first hotel)
You will also need your onward / return air ticket before you travel to Myanmar. They will check that you have it (or your printed confirmation) when you check in at the airport. At the time of this writing (November 10, 2014) you can use your eVisa to enter the country at either the Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw or Mandalay airports.
Arrival at Yangon Airport, Getting Cash and a Taxi
The airport is pretty small. If you have your printed eVisa approval letter, skip the Visa On Arrival desk and go straight to immigration. Most of the money changers are located before customs. 1,000 kyat = $1 USD so figuring out the currency here is easy. We saw one ATM before customs but it was out of order. Don’t worry though – there are two more past customs. Right after you leave the baggage/customs area you’ll see a pre-paid taxi desk where you can order a taxi to your hotel. They charged us 9,000 for the ride to our hostel – Sleep In Hostel in Chinatown. It would have been 8,000 without A/C. (Trust me – you want to spend that extra dollar.) Our taxi on the way back to the airport charged us 8,000 and included A/C.
Getting a SIM card
The only advice we can give you here is what company NOT to go with if you’re planning on traveling to the same 4 places we did. The company is heavily marketed and is called ooredoo. We paid $19 USD for 1 GB of data over 30 days including 600 MB extra for Facebook and 2,500 kyat in calling credit. The problem is, we only got service in Mandalay. It kind of worked in Yangon. It didn’t work at all in Inle Lake and Bagan. They did say they are planning on expanding their service in Yangon but there’s just not much choices in wireless carriers for Myanmar. Expect things to change over the next year or two… it’s only recently that the government allowed for the sale of SIM cards. For many years they were expensive and difficult to obtain.
Itinerary Planning: Where to Go?
Like most tourists, we hit up the four most popular places: Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay. Don’t miss Inle Lake and Bagan – they are absolutely stunning and fascinating. The famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is actually a huge religious complex and the #1 sight so if you’re flying in or out of Yangon anyway it’s worth at least one night if not two or three to explore the city. Mandalay was our least favorite so if you’re pressed for time you might give it a miss or go to another part of the country instead, though we did enjoy the unique teak monasteries in Mandalay.
Itinerary Planning: How Much Time?
We spent a total of 20 days in Myanmar. If pressed for time, you could spend 1 day in Yangon. Two would be better, three would be best. Add on travel days to our recommended times below.
Yangon | 1-3 non-travel days
Inle Lake | 3-4 non-travel days (plus more if trekking)
Bagan | 2-3 non-travel days
Mandalay | 1-2 non-travel days
Transportation: Plane, Bus or Boat
Once you’re in Myanmar, it’s very easy and cheap to take buses between these four places, and judging from the pictures the buses seem nice though you’re in for a long ride. Here are some sample bus trips and prices from Inle Lake:
We opted instead to take 2 flights and a boat while in Myanmar. After extensive online research to find the cheapest flights and routes, here’s what we got:
Yangon to Inle Lake | flight for $116 USD pp | 35 minutes flight time
Inle Lake to Bagan | flight for $89 USD pp | 1 hour flight time
Bagan to Mandalay | boat for $34 USD pp | 13.5 hours
Some of the most prominent airlines are:
- Air Bagan
- Golden Myanmar Airlines
- Yangon Airways
- Air Mandalay
First thing to know are the airport names:
Yangon | YANGON (RGN)
Inle Lake | HEHO (HEH)
Bagan | NYAUNG-U (NYU)
Mandalay | MANDALAY (MDL)
Second step is to determine which flights you want to take by going to the individual websites and reading the timetables.
Then, you may or may not be able to book and pay for your flights online – it depends on the airline. We choose Air Mandalay and had to reserve the flights via email and pay for them in person once we arrived in Yangon. If you go this route too, be aware that the address for the Air Mandalay office has recently changed and is not correct on Google Maps. It’s located on the corner of Aung Taw Mu Lane and Golden Hill Road. They only accepted USD cash to pay for the flight. Once we arrived at the office we found out the 2 flights we reserved were cancelled so they booked us 2 new flights on the same days within 90 minutes of our original times. The funny thing is, these new flights were with Yangon Airways and Air Bagan so I guess they have some sort of partnership.
Boat From Bagan to Mandalay
We had a choice here that we debated: take a 6-hour bus (for $9 USD pp) or a 10-hour boat on the Irewaddy River. Going on the boat seemed to offer more of a scenic adventure as well as transportation, so we went for it. The boat was actually a pleasant experience, though it ended up taking 13.5 hours! About 7 hours in I got bored, and the last 3 hours I really could not wait to get there. In the end, we were still ultimately glad we took the boat even though it was a very long trip. It was nice to be on the river and observe local life along the banks. In the beginning you’ll look back at Bagan at sunrise and see the hot air balloons rising. Near the end you get a great view of Sagaing, famous for its many hundreds of white, silver and gold pagodas and monasteries that dot its hilly landscape.
You may want to look into other boat companies to check out all the options but the boat company we went with was Shwe Keinnery Vessels and we booked it through our hotel.
Overall the experience with Shwe Keinnery was fine, just bring some snacks and drinks with you as they don’t provide all that much and a Coke cost 3x the normal price. The ride is slow and steady, so sea sickness is not an issue. There are western toilets. When you arrive in Mandalay locals will bombard you to help you with your bags and offer rides into the city to your hotel. I gave 1,000 to a woman who hoisted my backpack on her head (pretty impressive) and we got a taxi for 7,000. There were also tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis. Our boat left at 5:30am and got there at 6:30pm.
After hearing that accommodations in Myanmar are in short supply, and internet weak, we decided to book all of our accommodations a month ahead of time via agoda.com. I’m not sure we really needed to but I think it gets more crowded in November at peak season. Still we were glad to have them booked and paid for ahead of time and did not mind paying a little bit more for the convenience of using the online booking service (which by the way is clearly the leading hotel booking site in Asia.) When one of the places turned out to be a nightmare (so we found another hotel) Agoda refunded our money for the remaining nights, no problem. Here is a summary of where we stayed.
*originally at Golden Myanmar Guest House – do not stay here!
Eating and drinking in Myanmar is incredibly – unbelievably – cheap. If you spend more on other things, you can make up for it here. Also, there is a ton of street food in Yangon and Mandalay.
Keep in Mind…
As with other developing countries, power outages are frequent. And, always carry a roll of toilet paper with you along with some hand sanitizer or wipes. We found Myanmar to be very safe and the people very friendly.
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