Myanmar/Burma 101 – travel info June/July 2012

Myanmar, or Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi still dares to call it, is changing. Fast. This country is at last beginning to open up, with NLD offices apparent in every town we’ve passed through in our three weeks here, not to mention a willingness to openly talk about The Lady herself. Hell, we even drove past the airport the day she returned to Yangon from her European tour and the streets were lined with flag-waving supporters.

For all that, Myanmar remains desperately poor and is lagging way behind the rest of South East Asia. Yangon’s streets are filthy and its people seem abandoned by a regime that’s moved lock, stock and barrel to the fantasy capital Nay Pyi Taw, a couple of hundred miles north.

In the six months since the most recent Lonely Planet Myanmar guide was published, it seems much has changed on the ground for tourists too. So, I thought I’d provide a quick snapshot of what to expect if you’re planning a trip here in the coming weeks. Doubtless, much of this will change as the pace of opening up to the wider world continues, but hopefully it’ll be of some assistance if your Myanmar jaunt is imminent.

Money changing
The current Lonely Planet says you’ll only get a good rate from black market traders. This is now no longer true, with the government switching to a market rate back in April 2012. That means you can exchange cash safely at banks in Yangon and Mandalay, although you will get the best rates in the former. On arrival on 11 June, we got a decent 845 Kyats to $1 at the bank on the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Market (which opens from 10am except on Mondays when it’s shut). When we left on 2 July, the rate at the bank at the airport had risen to 874 Kyats to $1. The bank at Bogyoke will count the cash in front of you using machines and will also count by hand on request. On 30 June I was quoted 900 Kyats to $1 by a black market trader near Sule Paya. Be aware though that scams are common and this is much riskier than using official outlets.

One other key reminder – bring plenty of perfect condition, post-2006 US dollars, ideally $100 bills as these attract a better rate. There are no international ATMs in Myanmar. We heard one tale of a guy arriving with $30 cash only – doubtless he was back in Bangkok the very next day. Remember you can withdraw US dollars at Bangkok airport at $500 a time. Be aware though that UK banks may see this as exceeding your daily current account limit. If you ask nicely at Siam Commercial Bank outlets at Bangkok airport, they’ll give you lower denomination bills to help cover taxi costs when you arrive.

Prices have seemingly skyrocketed since Lonely Planet researched its book in 2011. Double rooms at Beautyland 2 and Three Seasons in Yangon cost $30 including breakfast, the latter up by $12 from the book’s quoted rate. Peacock Lodge in Mandalay (my pick as the best of some seriously good guesthouses in Myanmar) is now $27 compared to $24. The cheapest double we found was for $15, at the Eastern Paradise Motel in Kalaw.

Eating out is not cheap either, compared to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos at least. A meal for two including drinks comes in at around 7,000 Kyats in a basic restaurant in Yangon. This gets cheaper in Kalaw and Inle Lake (down to 5,000 in restaurants and 2,000 at Nyaungshwe’s Night Market).

With those price considerations in mind, Keeley and I spent $73 a day between us on everything – food, accommodation, transport and odds and ends. That included a couple of extravagances such as high tea at the Strand and dinner at 50th St Bar and Grill in Yangon and we really did do everything possible in each of our destinations. We brought $100 a day just in case of emergencies. Be aware that each person can only bring in $2,000 maximum without declaring it on arrival at Yangon (although surprisingly relaxed customs and immigration officials are unlikely to check your bags).

Lonely Planet says the food in Myanmar gets a bad rap. There’s a reason for that, because despite their platitudes, it by and large sucks. After weeks of amazing Thai and Vietnamese street food, the oily curries and fried rice are a real disappointment. We ate curries swimming in peanut oil, filled chappatis that made our hands glisten and noodles that were impossible to lift from the plate (despite what I can immodestly say are now some mean chopstick skills). That said, Shan food is much better than the local fare in other parts of the country, especially the veggie noodle soup. Pyae Pyae Shan Noodle in Kalaw and Nam Kham Family Shan in Yangon both do tasty versions.

Buses are 100 per cent the best way to get around Myanmar and are nowhere near as bad as they are made out to be in the horror stories you read on Thorn Tree and Trip Advisor. We took four journeys, the details of which are as follows.

Yangon to Mandalay
We took a day bus from the north Yangon bus station. A taxi from the Beautyland 2 cost 7,000 Kyats and took 40 minutes. The bus ticket, for the 9am departure (which left 30 minutes late) cost 11,500 Kyats each. This didn’t include the much-vaunted ‘ferry’ service from town to the bus station, which despite asking at every bus company at Aung San stadium, appears to no longer exist. Hence the pricey taxi. The bus ride took 10 hours in total, with two 30 minute stops along the expressway for food. A taxi from the chaotic Mandalay bus station to our hotel cost 7,000 Kyats.

Mandalay to Bagan
Tickets for this six hour ride (not the eight quoted in the book), cost 9,000 Kyats each, although we did book via Peacock Lodge, so paid a small commission. A taxi to the bus station cost 6,000 Kyats. Dropping in Nyuang U, there’s no need for a ride to your hotel unless you’re staying Old or New Bagan. Be aware that this is one bumpy ride, with most of the route covering stony, unsealed roads.

Bagan to Inle Lake
The supposedly hellish ride from west to east. With the $25 shared taxi service run by Ever Sky in Nyuang U no longer running, we paid 11,000 Kyats each for the bus, which picked us up directly from our hotel, the New Park in Nyuang U (a bit of a dive in case you were wondering). The ride was relatively smooth, even on the endless hairpins up from Thazi to Kalaw and only took eight hours, including a 30 minute break. The ride from Shwenyaung Junction to Nyuangshwe cost us 800 Kyats each, crammed in the back of a tiny trailer with five other travellers.

Kalaw to Yangon
Our only overnight bus cost 15,000 Kyats each and left Kalaw at 6pm from the Winner Hotel, 90 minutes later than we’d been told. In truth, the bus actually leaves Taungyyi at 4:30pm and arrives in Kalaw at any time between 5:30pm and 7pm. The sunset over the mountains was stunning and after one 30 minute meal stop, we took plentiful toilet breaks, as well as pull overs to allow the drivers to swap and stretch their legs. We arrived in Yangon at 5:30am. A taxi to town cost 7,000 Kyats

All the buses play loud music, screen somewhat bemusing live shows of Burmese pop music and soap operas that make Coronation Street look like Emmy Award-winning drama by comparison. It can be invasive, but our night bus switched the box off at 10:30 (although admittedly low level music was played all night). Night buses also get bloody freezing thanks to aircon, so bring extra clothing on board to stay warm.

We took one train, from Shwenyaung to Kalaw. This slow service affords beautiful views and gives a real insight into local life, with food and cargo piled high, even in ‘upper class’. A ticket for the three and a half hour ride (just a 30 minute delay), costs $3, with two daily departures at 9:30 and10:30 in the morning. Unlike the privately-owned buses, the money spent on the train goes directly to the regime, so we opted for a short journey to minimise how much we gave.

In terms of taxis, flagging and negotiating rates is easy in Yangon. A ride from 52nd Street to Shwedagon Paya cost 2,000 Kyats, to the Strand Hotel just 1,000 Kyats. We hired a cab for a day to take us to Bago and all the sights there at a cost of $60, the ride taking two hours in total. We worked out that we would have spent about $50 on taxis to the bus station, the bus there and taxis around town if we had done the trip ourselves, so this really is a worthwhile option.

I can’t speak of domestic flights from a personal perspective, but an Australian woman we met said the flight from Mandalay to Heho was quick and easy, with passengers getting a sticker to denote their destination, as it’s more like an airborne bus service, hopping around the country. Just remember airports are miles out of town and money for flights ends up in the pockets of the government or government cronies. On departure from Yangon on 2 July, we did not have to pay $10 departure tax, as we had read.

Just a brief note about politics in Myanmar right now. As mentioned earlier, we were amazed to see so much outright support for the NLD, in small towns as well as in Yangon and Mandalay. We had discussions with restaurant owners and taxi drivers about The Lady, brought up by them, not us. They are so proud of her work and want to tell everyone about it. Shops and restaurants display pictures of her and her father, while street hawkers flog everything from NLD T-shirts to mugs and key rings bearing Aung San Suu Kyi’s likeness.

That said, things aren’t all change. The Lady’s European tour got one brief mention in government mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar, and that for breaking constitutional rules by referring to Burma instead of Myanmar in her speeches to the UK Parliament and the Oxford Union. We saw a police wagon carting away children in the streets of Yangon too, so there remains an authoritarian undertone to proceedings. It goes without saying that it’s best not to bring up politics unless prompted, and then only when you feel comfortable.

I hope this post helps anyone heading out to Myanmar/Burma in the coming months. Do comment and let me know as things, inevitably, change. 

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