My latest adventure – Myanmar

When I quit my job 2.5 years ago, I had planned to visit Myanmar while I spent a few weeks in SE Asia. However, the dates coincided with Thingyan, the country’s New Year and Water Festival. Tour companies advised that it wasn’t good to travel to the country during this time because much of the country was on holiday and it would be difficult to see the sites so I changed my plans and visited Bali, Laos and Railay Beach in Thailand instead. So, when I had very little time to plan my recent trip in November, I crossed my fingers and hoped that November was a good time to visit Myanmar. I was in luck!

Planning 

I had about 2.5 weeks before my departure date. I checked the most important things, availability to use my Delta miles to book tickets and Visa requirements. Having previously done research with plans to visit Myanmar I was able to cobble together an itinerary, flights, and hotels pretty quickly. I tentatively booked cancelable hotels and laid out my domestic flights. Since 2015, the number and frequency of flights has increased drastically making it much easier to travel in Myanmar. Though the distances aren’t far, the roads are quite bad still so flying is the most efficient way to get around the country.

I would be able to obtain an eVisa within 24hrs, managed to use 160k Delta miles to book round-trip business class flights to Thailand on China Eastern and tentatively booked refundable hotels. All that was left was to book domestic flights and arrange for guides and drivers. In my search for the latter, I came across One Stop Myanmar and reached out to them for pricing. Thiri from One Stop was fantastic. She helped me arrange my domestic flights, transportation and guides and was able to finalize an itinerary after exchanging only a few emails. It was one of my best experiences, the process was efficient and pricing transparent. I liked that I was able to book my own hotels. But in some cases, One Stop’s rates were considerably less than what I was able to find (i.e., Hilton in Ngapali). I would suggest checking their rates before booking non-refundable hotels on your own. Initially, I found it a bit odd that they did not require a deposit, but reading their TripAdvisor reviews reassured me that I had nothing to worry about. Their price was extremely reasonable. I would highly recommend their services and will reach out to them again for my next trip.

When to go

Research and everyone I interacted with agreed that Myanmar’s winter season (November – February) is the best time to visit as the rains have cleared and the temperatures are warm, but pleasant. During my stay Nov 26th – Dec 3rd, I encountered 0 rain. And while it was considered their peak season, none of the hotels I stayed at were busy and generally I did not find sites overly crowded. If you’re only going to specific areas of Myanmar there are other optimal times to visit. My guide at Inle said while summer is rainy season, it usually only rains 1hr a day. Inle is cooler than Yangon or Bagan, so the heat won’t be an issue. The plus side is there is more sun as when I visited it was quite foggy. The thing that would be most to consider if wanting to visit in Summer is the chance of monsoons and the temperatures in Yangon and Bagan are in the 100’s Fahrenheit, 40 Celcius.

How to get there

There are no direct flights from the US or Europe, you’ll need to transit through Thailand, China, or the Middle East. At the time I traveled, I was only able to find non-stop international flights from Yangon and Mandalay. So, wherever your final destination, plan to transit through one of these cities.

As I booked my international flights using miles, I can’t provide insight on flight prices. Using 160k Delta miles, I booked business class tickets on their partner China Eastern, transferring through Shanghai to Chiang Mai and via Bangkok to Shanghai on my return home to JFK. I have flown them before and for a Chinese airline, the service, food, and seats are pretty good. From what I’ve read, better than Air China.

After spending a couple of days in Chiang Mai, I flew from Chiang Mai on Bangkok Airways to Yangon. While the flight only cost about $125 USD, the plane was so old my seat was in permanent recline. I have to admit, I rarely get nervous on flights, but I was a bit on this one. But at least the noodles they served were quite good!

Entry, Exit, Visa Requirements for Myanmar

US citizens need to apply for a visa. While there are Visa on Arrivals services, the e-Visa process is so easy. For $50, you fill out a short application and upload a picture. I received a confirmation email within 24hrs.

Like with most other destinations, your passport has to be valid for 6 months from the time of entry. At customs in Yangon, I handed a copy of the eVisa to the customs official along with my passport. Keep this with you during the duration of the trip just in case. There is no requirement to show an exit flight as there might be in other SE countries.

Money, Costs, Tipping in Myanmar

The local currency in Myanmar is the Kyat. In Nov 2017, $1USD = K1,352 and €1 = K1,576.

Usually when I travel I rely on ATMs to withdraw local currency. The only country of the 36 I have visited where this has been an issue was Brazil. My research on Myanmar led me to believe that getting cash upon arrival via ATMs would be challenging. I prepared my One Stop payment and additional spending money in new, crisp, marked $100 bills to exchange in Myanmar.

Upon arrival at Yangon I was surprised to find several available ATMs and free WiFi! When driving around Yangon, I saw ATMs everywhere. They won’t be available in the villages and more remote areas, but are available in the city centers. My hotels in Inle and Ngapali both had ATMs onsite.

The ATM fees are quite hefty, about $5 USD each withdrawl. If your bank does not offer no-fee withdrawls, plan accordingly. If you travel often, you might consider opening an account with Fidelity, eTrade, or Charles Schwab, all electronic banking products offering unlimited no-fee ATM withdrawls everywhere in the world. Many smaller regional banks and private client accounts offer the same.

The max amount ATMs allowed for withdrawl was K300,000 which is approximately $220 USD. Be prepared to carry a stack of bills, they will not fit in your wallet. I kept my money in the zippered compartment of my tote bag.

With regards to credit cards, Mastercard is the preferred method of payment, but any vendor that took Mastercard also accepted Visa. On the rare occassion I used a credit card, I relied on my Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d usually recommend carrying at least 2 Visa or Mastercards and an AMEX but I didn’t see any vendors accepting AMEX during my time in Myanmar. Even the lotus weaving workshops on Inle Lake accepted credit card.

While tipping is not expected, it is appreciated. Some restaurants include a 10% service charge. A plate of fried rice or noodles costs about K2000, less than $2 USD. I usually left an extra K500-K1000. At the resorts, an hour massage cost $40 USD, I tipped K10,000, approximately $7 USD. One Stop recommended $5 USD/day for my driver and $10/day for the guide. In cases I felt they went above and beyond I tipped more.

Getting Around Myanmar

Flying is the most efficient method of transportation to get around the country as the roads are quite bad. I had a guide with me during the days so I didn’t need much transportation on my own.

In Yangon, I used Grab to meet my friend. It was easy to use and a 15min ride cost me about less than $2 USD. In Bagan, bikes or e-bikes are readily available for rent. If you plan on biking, be prepared that it is quite dark at night so make sure the bike you rent has a flashlight, and if you go out walking at night to bring one with you. It was too dark for me to venture out on my own so I had my guide arrange for a car to take me to the village for dinner. Including a 2hr wait time, this cost me K10,000. In Ngapali, the Hilton offered shuttle service to get to the beach and village area, tuk tuks were also available.

WiFi & Cellular Data:

While WiFi is not as readily available as Thailand, the hotels all had good working WiFi. The Yangon airport and even the Schwedagon Pagoda had free WiFi. My guide in Yangon helped me get set up with a local SIM card. I saw shops everywhere in the city centers and airports. There were even vendors selling SIM cards on the local train in Yangon. There are a few different service providers, the one that I used was Oreedo. A 6GB SIM card cost me less than $5 USD.

In Yangon, I was able to get 4G in most areas. In Bagan, service was a bit spottier, with 4 or 3G and in some areas no service. Around Inke Lake I had 3G service except for some of the remote areas of the country side and in Ngapali Beach I had 3G service.

Electrical Outlets & Adapters in Myanmar

Coming from the US you won’t need a converter. The outlets available in all the hotels I stayed were 2 flat-prong as we have at home. Traveling from Europe and the UK, you will need a converter.

Preparing for your departure

  • Order prescriptions for the duration of your trip
  • Apps to Download
    • MAPS.me, an offline map and navigation app
    • Google Photos for photo back-up and editing – I think it’s much better than Instagram!
    • Grab Taxi (Yangon)

What to wear

You’ll be visiting religious sites which require modest attire and no shoes. As the temperatures are quite hot, women may prefer long maxi dresses or skirts and linen pants. A lightweight scarf to cover your shoulders is handy, and if you can find one that is large enough to use as a sarong, even better as you can use it to wrap around your waist if you prefer shorts. I picked up a great one at the Zadig & Voltaire outlet.

Men must also dress modestly. No shorts or open tank tops are also not allowed in religious sites. You can pick up a Longyi which is the traditional wear for men in Myanmar to wrap around your shorts if needed similar to a sarong.

You’ll need to take off your shoes before entering pagodas or temples. Wear shoes that are comfortable but easy to slip on and off. Be prepared to walk barefoot most of your time in Bagan, even on outdoor structures.

Where to go

I had about 9 days to spend in Myanmar. In hindsight, I regret not spending my entire time in SE Asia in Myanmar but I was trying to reduce the amount of transfers. Initially I was going to focus my time in Bagan and Ngapali. But a friend that lives in Yangon highly recommended Inle Lake so I adjusted my itinerary to fit it in and was so glad I did. More to come on the destinations.

  • Yangon – 1 day, 1 night
  • Bagan – 2.5 days, 3 nights
  • Inle Lake – 2 days, 2 nights
  • Ngapali Beach – 2 days, 2 nights

Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

Ballooning over Bagan, Myanmar

Sunset over Inle Lake, Myanmar

Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

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