Myanmar

Practical Information on Travel in Myanmar (as of May 2013)

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Chasing the sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar

I stayed in Myanmar for only eight days, but I think that’s enough time for me to say with confidence that your copy of Lonely Planet is already outdated. That’s how fast progress appears to have been accelerating in the last two years since the military has relaxed its stronghold on the country and slowly relinquished the reins to a civilian government.

We traveled to Myanmar during their low season (May), when the weather is at its hottest and guesthouses were almost empty. Temperatures in Bagan could reach 40 degrees! Peak season, the one which I think requires more planning, is from December to February.

Our Itinerary

Shwedagon Paya. Even more magnificent at night.
Shwedagon Paya. Even more magnificent at night.

Day Activity
Day 1 Flight to Yangon from Bangkok (via AirAsia)
Evening – Shwedagon Pagoda
Day 2 Walking tour of Sule Pagoda and downtown Yangon*
8 PM – depart for Bagan (via bus)
Day 3 4 AM – arrive in Bagan
Temple tour on horsecart/bike
Day 4 Bagan temple tour
10:30 PM – depart for Mandalay
Day 5 3 AM – arrive in Mandalay
Walking tour
Day 6 Maha Muni Paya Tour of surrounding towns (Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa)
Day 7 Mandalay Hill and surrounds
9:30 PM – depart for Yangon**
Day 8 Flight to Bangkok (via AirAsia)

*Sule Paya is very underwhelming once you’ve seen Shwedagon Paya (what Joey calls the Mother of all pagodas), so switch your activities accordingly.

**This was a gamble. Our flight the next day was at 8:35 AM, so if we’d arrived late, we might have missed our flight! Thankfully, our bus delivered. Alternatively, you could opt to fly out of Myanmar from Mandalay, also via AirAsia. This is a new route that I’d missed when I was booking our tickets.

Getting There and Away

We took the plane to get to Myanmar and back, so here’s what I feel comfortable about telling you.

The cheapest way to Myanmar is from Bangkok via AirAsia. AirAsia flies both to Yangon and Mandalay.

The arrival card they ask you to fill in would ask you to declare jewelry you’re bringing in, but you don’t have to declare your engagement ring.

Be careful about bringing jade and other artifacts out of Myanmar as they may get held up at the airport. Just check out the policies once you arrive at the airport.

Money

It’s still true; US dollars in their newest and most immaculate are still required for exchange here.

I’d exchanged my pesos to dollars at BPI (begging the cashier to give me the choicest dollars) but I hadn’t counted on the fact that the tiny purple stamp she put on every bill would not be accepted in banks or money changers in Myanmar. So yes—keep your dollars crisp and clean.

Yangon International Airport is said to have the best rates (887 kyats to a dollar when I went there), but KBZ on Mandalay’s 26th street gave 900 Ks to $1. Also, on Sule Paya Road in Yangon, there’d be locals telling you, “Exchange dollar? I give you 90000 kyats to 100 dollar!” But we’d been cautioned by the owners of our hotel in Yangon that they’d probably shortchange you by giving way less than 90000 kyats, so don’t bother, or at least have them count the money before you.

Most travel blogs and guides I’d read gave rates in dollars, so I’d thought that I didn’t have to exchange more than a hundred dollars. We quickly found out that only the hotels and guesthouses (and restaurants like the one at The Strand) accept dollars these days. Even girls selling you necklaces would refuse to accept dollars—they seem to know the exchange rate very well. This much confidence in their kyats seems to be a sign of an improved economy.

I saw very few ATMs (one was in Shwedagon Pagoda) and I’m not even sure if they were working at the time. Few shops and only the five-star hotels (e.g. The Strand) accept credit cards. Cash still is best.

Transportation

Taxis in Yangon appear to have very arbitrary rates and will probably rip you off at some point—but not by much, especially as compared to taxi drivers in (ahem) nearby countries.

Cars are right-hand drives, but they’re driven on the right side of the road. Compound that with the fact that a lot of streets in both Yangon and Mandalay are not lit. I saw two (thankfully minor) accidents when I was there. And yes, there are a lot of cars in Yangon and Mandalay now; traffic was dreadful in Yangon. You’d notice that a lot of the cars are new—this is because prices have gone down since a couple of years back.

In the travel blogs I’ve read, Myanmar buses are notorious for being mind-numbingly cold and late (and since I’ve been on buses plying the Manila-Bicol and Manila-Ilocos routes, I hadn’t really been worried about this). But we rode the JJ Express bus line from Yangon to Bagan, and I have to say that it was the most pleasant bus trip I’ve had. Ever. I’d never expected that experience to take place in Myanmar, of all places! We liked it so much that we booked the same company for our trip from Mandalay to Yangon.

JJ Express is a Chinese-owned company (like a lot of industries in Myanmar…and also in the Philippines, come to that). JJ stands for Joyous Journeys and its slogan is the no-nonsense “The Way The Truth The Life”.

Yes, really.
Yes, really.

Our host at Father Land Hotel suggested it, saying that travelers actually prefer it. Now I can see why. It has 2×1 La-Z-Boy seats, and a cabin crew (they have a cabin crew!) gave us a bottle of water and a blanket before we took off. We had a couple of rest stops, each for ten minutes only, and after the first stop we were pleasantly surprised to receive a box containing pastries for snacks. These were given by a young man, and a pretty stewardess whose perfectly coiffed hair even at 4 AM put our bleary eyes and mussed-up hair to shame.

Moreover, the bus was on time—even ahead of schedule. From Yangon to Bagan, it leaves at 8 PM; from Mandalay to Yangon, two buses leave at 9 and 9:30 PM respectively. On the dot. And they arrive at their destinations on time and even earlier. In sum:

Route (JJ Express) Departure Arrival
Yangon to Bagan 8:00 PM 4:00 AM
Mandalay to Yangon 9:30 PM 6:00 AM

Our bus from Bagan to Mandalay, while a little more uncomfortable (2×2 seats, loud music, air-conditioning that kept me awake most of the night), also arrived way ahead of schedule. Travel from New Bagan to Mandalay took us about five hours. We’re thankful that Peacock Lodge admitted us at 3 AM.

Which brings me to…

Accommodations

I was a little surprised at how expensive “budget” accommodation can be in Myanmar. They don’t always appear to be of good value for your money, either. I’d have to say, though, that I had the most pleasant experiences in those guesthouses because their owners and staff are just so damn nice.

We stayed at Father Land Hotel in Yangon—not the more famous Mother Land Inn, which taxi drivers seemed to know better. Father Land Hotel is a little ways off the city center, east of Kandawgyi Lake and on the other side of Pazun Daung Creek. On its own, it leaves much to be desired—their plastic plants and overhead lamps need some dusting, and at night the halls just seem a little dark and weirdly quiet. But your twin room does have a balcony overlooking the street below (you even have a view of the Shwedagon Paya to the west), pretty strong wifi, hot water and air conditioning, and—best of all—very friendly and helpful hosts who’d tell you stories and give you travel tips. They arranged our bus tickets for us, and even called for taxi every time we needed to leave.

I could recommend two guesthouses in Bagan—Kyaw Hotel Bagan and Mya Thida Hotel. They’re both in New Bagan, which means that they’re a little far from the main temples—but knowing the history of the place, you’d want to stay in New Bagan. Long story short: Old Bagan used to be where the locals’ houses were until they were demolished and the people forcefully relocated to New Bagan to make way for the “luxury” hotels for tourists. Guesthouses in New Bagan are cheaper.

Kyaw Hotel is just a little more upscale; rooms are in bungalows and are air-conditioned, and their bathrooms have hot water and bathtubs. Mya Thida, on the other hand, is more budget-friendly; its bathrooms are spartan but it has working WiFi and clean air-conditioned rooms. We even had a good, illuminating chat with one of the owners about Myanmar and what has changed now that it has “opened up”, and it was one of the best conversations we’ve had in our trip.

We stayed in Peacock Lodge in Mandalay, a good hour’s walk from Mandalay Hill. As mentioned above, they let us in at 3 AM—and yes, they allowed us to go to their spare room and sleep there! We’d booked a standard room, but since it was occupied at that time, they asked us if we wanted to take the vacant deluxe room instead. They went out of their way to arrange the room and add a spare bed (for an additional price) at that hour, and it turned out to be the swankiest room we’ve ever had in our trip. Electricity was fluctuating in the block, though, and I’d suggest you bring a bug spray. WiFi wasn’t installed yet when we were there—which turned out to be a good thing as I finished reading a couple of books in our three-day stay. They also had a taxi service which took us to Amarapura and Sagaing, and eventually to the bus station going to Yangon.

Here’s some information on the hotels we booked.

Father Land Hotel
No. 232-A, Yamonna Street
Waso Quarter, Dawpon Township
Yangon
Email: fatherlandhotel[at]gmail[dot]com
Website: http://www.fatherlandhotel.com

Kyaw Hotel Bagan
Nwe Ni Street
New Bagan
Email: ayelion[at]gmail[dot]com
Website: http://www.kyawhotelbagan.com

Mya Thida Hotel
FF-55, School Street
New Bagan
Email: myathidahotel[at]gmail[dot]com
Website: https://www.facebook.com/MyaThidaHotel

Peacock Lodge
5, 61st Street
Mandalay
Email: peacocklodge[at]gmail[dot]com
Website: http://www.peacocklodge.com/

Halfway to the top of Mandalay Hill
Halfway to the top of Mandalay Hill

 

Communications

Internet and WiFi is available in computer shops and many guesthouses in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay. There’s WiFi even in the Shwedagon Pagoda, which was a lovely surprise and caused me to Tweet a quick HI MA I’M HERE NOW photo.

The usual websites I go to (Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress) weren’t blocked, though I might have encountered a news site that I couldn’t access.

Cellphones appear to be widely used. SIM cards used to cost more than $200, but now they cost 1500 Ks (less than $2)—if you’re a lucky Burmese. SIM cards are sold by lottery as the country is still in the process of putting up more transmission towers to cope with the demands of the rapidly progressing nation.

Fees

As of May 2013, Yangon International Airport does not charge a departure tax for tourists.

Below is a breakdown of entrance and tourist fees in major tourist sites in Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay:

Site Price
Shwedagon Pagoda 5000 Ks
Sule Pagoda $2 or 2000 Ks
Bagan Archaeological Fee $10*
Mandalay Zone Admission Fee $10*

*Certainly not optional, but there’s a way around it if you’re willing not to enter certain temples…and if you ask around 😉

U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. No fees here.
U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. No fees here.

 

Current Events

In spite of the horrifying recent unrest between Buddhist and Muslim communities, Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan felt safe. Muslims walked around Yangon in peace, it seemed.

No one is afraid of declaring their love for Aung San Suu Kyi or the National League for Democracy any longer.

Books sold on the sidewalks of Yangon
Books sold on the sidewalks of Yangon

 

People

I have to admit that beyond the golden payas and Buddhas and the temple ruins, it’s the people of Myanmar that will always stay with me.

Most of them would be seen in their longyi (the Myanmar version of a malong) whether for formal or casual use. Myanmar men who go to their offices wear it with long-sleeved shirts, and they look quite good in it. The ladies’ longyis are, or course, more richly decorated with prints or embroideries.

The men especially chew betel nut and it’s a bit of a shock at first when you see them suddenly spitting red juice on the sidewalk. Indeed, what looks like drops of blood on the sidewalks are just betel nut juice. (Some time in the past, though, there were probably actual drops of blood there.)

I felt safe all throughout my stay, even when I was walking in downtown Yangon with my camera visibly slung over my shoulder. It was all right to ask around for directions; there’d always be someone around who can speak a little English, and even if not, you can understand them through sign language or even by their smiles.

Young monks lining up for noontime meals at the Mahagandhayon Monastic Institution in Amarapura
Young monks lining up for noontime meals at the Mahagandhayon Monastic Institution in Amarapura

When I remember the people we met there, I feel a little choked up because they were some of the nicest people we’ve ever met. It was humbling, in a way, to realize that your government can screw you over many times, but you can choose to remain optimistic and passionate towards your nation.

I loved Myanmar and its people. You should go.

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17 thoughts on “Practical Information on Travel in Myanmar (as of May 2013)

      1. I see. It’s a bit more expensive than the rate I typically see online, but I guess their selling point is the speed. I’m also concerned about getting back to Yangon from Mandalay in time for an 8:30 am flight. I thought we’d need to leave Mandalay at around 4:00 pm just to be sure that we’d catch the plane.

      2. Do you have an email address I can contact? I have a few more questions and I’d hate to flood your comments section with all that. Thanks!

  1. Hi, I have been looking at ways to reserve JJ express tickets to Bagan in January. I am not staying overnight in Yangon therefore no hotel to help book so would really appreciate if you have the contact details of JJ express to share.
    Thanks
    Rina

  2. Hi!

    This is the most informative blog post about traveling to Myanmar that I’ve read by far. Hope you do not mind answering a few questions.

    – Where is the terminal of JJ Express in Yangon? How far is it from Yangon International Airport?
    – How did you go around Bagan? What mode of transportation and how much did you spend for it?

    Thank you very much.

    1. Hi! Thanks for visiting! 🙂 I hope this info still holds true, but buses to Bagan from Yangon are typically stationed at Aung Mingalar station which is on the northern part of Yangon. It’s a short taxi ride from the airport – you can check Our Google Maps to see how near it is. Going there from our hotel in Yangon, our hotel’s staff just helped us get a cab to the station.

      You can either hire a horse drawn cart or rent a bike to go around Bagan! 🙂

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