Travel tips for Myanmar 2013/14

Mandalay 2013-12-013This blog is for our fellow travelers who think about when would be the best time to go to Myanmar.

THE TIME IS NOW!

Don’t believe the online naggers who tell you that a few years ago it was soooo much cheaper and now you should boycott the money making government and the few who want to bank in on the boom in tourism.

First of all: Their money went into the same pockets! You actually will be able to spread your money wider than they could since way more people are now involved in the hospitality business on all levels.

You also will get something they didn’t get: The opportunity of an open exchange with locals. Travelers who have been visiting Myanmar for 10 years for business and leisure confirmed that only in the last 2 years locals started talking freely in public. And since you still can’t stay with people at their homes this is the only place you can communicate with them. Monasteries offer English classes for a small donation to any local who can’t afford expensive education. We were surprised how many people spoke at least enough English to show us the way or help us out with the menu.

On the practical end: During high season buses and trains run more frequently and at various times throughout the day than during low season.

Also, the internet is full of reports about overpriced hotel rooms, sleeping on the floor of a monastery, getting stranded because all bus tickets were sold etc. More bloggers warn you to stay away from Myanmar during high season than encourage you to go.

The main season 2012/13 (November to March) had seen an increase of tourism by 30%. The government reacted fast and handed out new hotel licenses and to speed up the process they allowed for apartments to be converted into hotel rooms. For example, in Hsipaw the number of guest houses doubled and the existing houses added additional rooms.

We visited Myanmar between Dec 5 and Dec 25, 2013. We booked our first accommodation in Yangon 4 weeks before arrival.  From there on we booked 24 hrs ahead after deciding where we wanted to go next. We had our current guesthouse calling for us. We traveled to Bagan, Mandalay, Hsipaw, Inle Lake, Mawlamyine and back to Yangon and were always able to book a double room with private bathroom for USD 20 to 25 at our favorite guesthouse. We booked buses 24 to 48 hrs before and always got tickets.

Myanmar experiences an exciting time of new beginnings, fast development and curiosity and at the same time honest friendliness and hospitality. Don’t miss out on it!

We profited a lot from travelers who blogged about the latest developments in Myanmar specifically from Darryl Hall at www.escapingthedesk.com .So here are a few tips based on our own experience:

GETTING THERE:

By land

Just recently Myanmar opened some land border crossings for tourists. We didn’t researched the locations since we had already bought our flight tickets. However, if you plan to cross into Myanmar by land make sure that you can get a transportation from where you cross to your desired location. Some travelers told us that they changed their plans after discovering that they would have needed to take a plane inside Myanmar since there was a restricted area between their crossing point and their destination.

By air

Some food for thought for those who are on a tight budget: In Yangon you need to catch a taxi from the airport into town (K7000 to K8000 / USD 7 to 8) – if you don’t feel like exploring the public transportation system – while in Mandalay Air Asia offers free airport/downtown shuttle. K8000 will buy you 4 meals.

For budget airlines check out the new Golden Myanmar Airlines (recommended by Cristabel & Darryl at http://escapingthedesk.com/ultimate-budget-backpacking-guide-to-myanmar-part-3/ ) which started recently and currently operates between Mandalay, Yangon, Singapore and Bangkok (more locations coming soon…).

MONEY:

US Dollars

By now you can pay anything except for hotels with the local currency Khyat. Hotels still accept US Dollars only. Some travelers told us that entrance fees could only be paid in khyat but wherever we went we could choose between both.

Fun fact: The entrance fee for the Inle Lake area is officially defined as Khyat 10 000, USD 10 or Euro 10 (sorry for the Euro).

There are still a few reasons besides hotels to stack up on pristine dollar bills before entering the country. Yes, the bills should look very new and cannot have any scribbles, marks etc. on it. The manager of a guest house told us that the Myanmar bank would not take any old or marked dollar bills from them:

          ATMs are popping up everywhere in the country but there are still enough locations where you need to use USD to buy local currency. You might also encounter difficulties using the ATMs depending on your card. Power outages can also lead to ATMs being out of order when you need them.

          High handling fees for ATM withdraw.

          In any case where you get stuck without access to local currency the USD will be accepted.

          Optional to ATMs you can find Western Union Money Exchange almost everywhere. There you can exchange your USD to Khyats or have money wired to you if you ran out of funds.

ATMs

ATMs have multiplied around the country throughout 2013 in a rapid speed. Even if a current tourist destination does not have an ATM machine by now we would assume this is going to change in the next 2 months.

VISA had started a huge initiative in December 2012 to introduce plastic cards in Myanmar. We use Charles Schwab Visa debit card and were able to withdraw money at any ATM we tried. The bank fees were very high with K5000 (USD 5) per withdraw but Charles Schwab reimburses all banking fees so we could care less. (Read also Nomadic Matt’s blog on avoiding banking fees at http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/how-to-avoid-bank-fees-while-traveling/ )

You might get some attention when using an ATM: I had 3 employees of a bank in Mandalay running outside and watching me withdrawing money. I guess they were not interested in my PIN code or amount of money I withdrew but in making sure I would not run into any complications.

TRANSPORTATION:

We used buses in any country we traveled on our trip around the world and were surprised about the high quality of the long distant buses in Myanmar. Every passenger receives a bottle of water and the bus stops for a lunch or dinner break at a restaurant on the road. If the quality of the roads keep improving there will be smooth traveling around the country.

There are more bus companies now offering VIP buses. Not all of them are really VIP. Confirm that they have 3 seats (2 + 1) per row and not 4 (2 + 2).  “VIP 2+1” seems to be the label. Their seats are wider and more comfortable to sleep in. All VIP buses we used offer blankets and a little snack and some also had neck rolls.

We booked buses 24 to 48 hours before and never had a problem to get 2 seats.

ACCOMMODATION:

Don’t think everything is booked just because you can’t make a reservation weeks ahead. This is not how it works in Myanmar. As we were told from a local travel agent most guesthouses take bookings for their cheaper rooms only a few days ahead. So calling in from you current guesthouse 24 to 48 hrs before is your best option. Walk-ins usually get the more expensive rooms. If they offer you a room out of your budget range just ask them for a cheaper room. We always found what we wanted. There is a shortage on single rooms. Therefore the situation for single travelers is more difficult than for couples.

We agree that you can get a better value for the price in Thailand or Malaysia. However, all rooms were spacious (except for the first 2 nights) and clean, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Considering that prices for transportation are reasonable and you can feed yourself on USD 5 a day – if you go where the locals go – the whole package still works for budget travelers.

Guesthouses in Yangon offer the least value for the money. This seems to be related to the explosion of real estate prices.

INTERNET:

Yangon offers the best internet. E-mail, SKYPE, Facebook etc. is slow but possible. In the rest of the country you should be happy to have e-mail access. But again, thinks change fast and network technology improvement is on top of the government’s to-do list for 2014.

LOCATIONS:

Here are a couple of practical tips for some locations.

Yangon – Shwedagon Paya

We had the choice to pay the entrance fee in Dollars or Khyat. The ticket is valid for the day; keep your sticker and receipt and you can leave and come back in the evening to see the pagoda illuminated.

Locals come here to worship, meet and rest. Bring food and drinks and a blanket and you can hang out in one of the side temples, take a nap or use your computer to surf the internet – there is free wifi at the pagoda! There are also multiple ATMs at the pagoda if you need cash.

Bagan

There is a USD 15 fee for tourists to enter the area of Bagan. Buses stop at a control booth where every tourist is required to buy a ticket. However, night buses arrive so early that the ticket booths are still closed. Therefore you can end up without a ticket when you reach your hotel. Our hotel told us where we could buy the ticket but we could never find the ticket counter. We were also never asked for our tickets. I heard from one traveler that he had been asked to show his ticket at one of the most visited pagoda.

Lake Inle

When you go to Inle Lake you will most likely stay in Nyaungshwe. We were told that the final destination of buses going there would actually be Shwenyaung. From there we would have to take a pick-up for K500 or a taxi to travel 20km south to Nyaungshwe.

However, our bus went all the way to Nyaungshwe, even bypassing the area entrance fee booth. We were too tired to realize that we already arrived at our destination and boarded a pick-up which all of the sudden cost K1000. The first thing he did was driving us back to the entrance fee booth where we had to pay our fees. After this he drove us around the corner to drop us off in front of our hotel with a big smile. If we would have been more awake we would have just walked away from the bus ignoring the ticket booth and making it to our hotel in 5 minutes by foot.

When we left Nyaungshwe per VIP overnight bus to Yangon the shuttle from the hotel was free. The VIP bus left from the entrance of the city. It seems that all buses now go to or leave from Nyaungshwe directly.

Hsipaw – Hike to Pan Kam

It’s a nice 5 hour hike and you can stay with a local family in Pan Kam for the night. You can find more details about it in any travel guide.

If you contemplate to take a guide or not; you can definitely find the way yourself. Our manager at the Nam Khae Mao Guest House gave us a map to make sure we find the way. Some travelers told us that Mr Charles’ Guesthouse wasn’t as helpful and rather wanted to sell a guide. Frequently ask locals on the way to make sure that you are still on the right path.

The dirt road starts at the cemetery at the North-West corner of Hsipaw from where you hike north. The hike goes through 4 villages – Naa Lwe, Phar Phae, Naa Mon and Man Peak. After Man Peak it goes steep up the mountains and takes about another 1. 5 to 2 hours to get to Pan Kam. The person to stay with in Pan Kam is Oo Maung. When you ask for Oo Maung you will most likely find his wife who speaks very well English.

The family provides authentic Myanmar dinner and breakfast besides accommodation. If you arrive early you can also get lunch. The price is between K5000 and K6000 / person. We stayed with Oo Maung’s mother who is adorable and gave her K6000 / person since we had lunch, dinner and breakfast. Food was amazing!

Enjoy your trip!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s