24 Jul Magical Myanmar: How to get in, get around, use money, and what to see
What is Myanmar? Where is Myanmar? Were those your first thought when you saw this blog pop up? You, and most of the world.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was under a military junta until 2012. They had their first democratic elections in 2015. Subsequently, they only very recently opened their borders to tourism. It is located in Southeast Asia between Bangladesh and Thailand. This was without a doubt, the most authentic travel experience of my life.
What do I mean by authenticity? This is one of the few countries left in the world that hasn’t been dominated by Western influence, tourist traps, and is still coming into its own the global platform. Tourists were rare, we had to figure out a lot of things on our own, and basically wing it the whole way through. The people are amazing, you can feel this spirit of pride in their nation, they are excited to show their country to foreigners, yet still timid of what that means. This is a place where some people have never been on the internet or seen western tv shows. Although I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare them to North Korea, imagine tourism in Myanmar as if North Korea toppled its totalitarian military dictatorship and opened its gates to tourists. It still feels a bit like that.
However, travel to Myanmar is slightly tricky, but with proper planning, research, and being prepared in advance, you too can have a travel experience to remember.
Getting into Myanmar
Myanmar has not yet started a visa on arrival program, however I read recently that they are working on implementing one. Before you arrive in Myanmar you must have a tourist visa, you can apply for and eVisa online here. It is very important to know that you will not be allowed in without one.
Several airliners in the region have expanded services to the Yangon international airport and reasonable flights can be purchased on low-cost carriers such as Air Asia from Bangkok. When checking in at the airliner they will request to see your visa and your ticket exiting Myanmar. I hadn’t booked an exit ticket because I wanted flexibility but given the fact that I couldn’t check-in without it, I stepped out of line, quickly booked a ticket online, and showed it at check-in again. The flight to Yangon was surprisingly more full than I had anticipated.
Getting around Myanmar
In Yangon the infrastructure is quite advanced and I would say even Westernized. Be aware though, Myanmar was originally colonized by the British so their traffic operates on the left, but somehow the US introduced them to vehicles so the steering wheel is still on the right. This creates a strange exit of cars and busses to oncoming traffic in places.
Getting around each city can be done on foot, motorbike, or taxi. Not all taxi’s are marked as taxi’s so you can have the airport or your hotel call a taxi for you. Taxi’s are not abundant downtown so wear comfy shoes or rent a motorbike. Within Bagan I would say a motorbike is essential. You can rent one for about $5-$7 a day. This is payable in cash, no check of drivers license or insurance, and its unlikely you will get a helmet. Drive with caution but enjoy yourself.
Getting around the country can be done by bus, train, or air. Considering my time restrictions in the country I elected to fly between cities, however I have read from other traveler bloggers that the busses can be nice, but the trains are methodically slow.
If you are unable to find flights online within the country you can book flights directly at the counter – I say the counter loosely because there really is only about one counter per airport that does everything – flight booking, luggage, etc. I was unable to find flights between Yangon and Bagan online so when I landed in Yangon I went straight to the counter and was able to book two flights on KBZ for $90 one way, payable in the perfect cash as noted in the section on money.
Do not be surprised when your boarding passes are handwritten, and you get a sticker to wear on your shirt indicating what airline you are supposed to be boarding.
There is no air-conditioning at the Bagan airport so you will be more than relieved when you board that plane blasting a/c. Myanmar is hot year round but I went during their hottest month of the year – April – not to mention La Nina was in effect so the temperature regularly passed 100F.
I flew Air Bagan from Yangon to Bagan and I really enjoyed them, even though it is not safe. They are not on the EU list of banned airlines like good ole Yeti Airlines, but both Air Bagan and Air KBZ have 3 and 4 star ratings respectively out of the standard 7 scale on airlineratings.com. No domestic airliner has a rating over 4, so fly at your own risk.
Depending on where you come from, your country may or may not still have Myanmar on the international sanctions list. Think current state Iran. I had heard a handful of things regarding getting money in Myanmar, but here is exactly how I handled it. It requires planning. I called my banks in advance and they were unable to tell me if my bank cards would work in Myanmar due to sanctions. I have two banks and when one card didn’t work I would use the other and vice versa, thus I never really encountered problems accessing cash abroad. None of my bank cards worked in Myanmar and I was unable to access cash from an ATM, but ironically one of my credit cards did.
I had read that they will change USD for the local Kyat, however the USD has to be crisp, perfect, and unadulterated, and they mean it! My cousin was meeting me in Argentina so I had her go to the bank in the US and request PERFECT $20 bills. I got $300 in $20’s and I thought that would be more than sufficient. Only about half of my bills were deemed perfect enough for Myanmar standards so luckily the person I was traveling with was from Europe and had access to their money at the ATM. We had planned this in advance, I would bring USD to change and he would bring his bank cards. Between those two we were able to make it work. It sounds unsafe and like overkill, but if you are traveling from the United States, bring enough cash to cover your entire trip plus some. Most of it won’t be accepted and if your cards are declined you are SOL.
ATM’s are few and far between. There are three ATM’s in the Yangon international airport, and no ATM’s in the Bagan international airport. You need to be carrying sufficient cash to change at change counters within the airport. I typically advise people to not change hard currency as you lose the most money, however this is an exception since you pay for almost everything in cash, including flights.
What to see: Yangon and Bagan
There is A LOT to see in Myanmar, one could easily spend two weeks covering the entire country. I only had about a week so I decided to see the two major cities I had heard of: Yangon and Bagan.
The best way to describe Yangon is enchanting. Everything about it is serene, peaceful, and calm. I had read reviews from other travel bloggers that Yangon was dry, boring, etc. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Burmese are devout Buddhists and the Shwegadon Pagoda in the city center was absolutely the most calm and tranquil place I visited on my entire trip around the world. The 2,500-year-old pagoda is said to hold pieces of Buddha’s hair and this is an utterly religious paramount for the local people.
It was well over 100F the day that I visited and eve in the heat you could sit, sleep, mediate, pray, and relax. To watch the sunset over the Pagoda as it starts to shine brighter against the dark sky is a once in a lifetime view.
Bagan is about a one hour flight from the capital of Yangon. It is located in the Mandalay region and is becoming famous for its iconic hot air balloon photos that pop up on every major travel Instagram account. What is left of Bagan is 2,000 of the 10,000 pagodas constructed during the 9th-13th centuries. This is seen as a heritage site for Buddhists and is a very holy region.
Bagan is spectacularly vacant, beautiful, quiet, and chaotic all at once. It also spans about 40 square miles so to cover ground and go quickly between your hotel, Old Bagan, New Bagan, and the riverfront you I highly recommend renting a motor bike. There are bicycles for rent, but the area is vast so you won’t be able to see as much on a bike per day as on a motorbike.
There is not much else to do in the evenings, so watching the sunset from the top of a pagoda is a must. I recommend finding one that is away from the beaten path, one you can perch yourself on top of with plenty of room. As the sun starts setting you can see the tops of each pagoda and the actual behemoth size of Bagan becomes very apparent.
There are so many other places to see in Myanmar: Lake Inle, Mandalay, Bago, I have only scraped the surface of this incredible country.
The current lack of tourism, and birth of a new nation are spectacular things to see. If you are thinking about a trip to Myanmar I would plan one as soon as you can while they are experiencing a turning point in politics.
Click here to see more photos of Myanmar.