These notes do not include any discussion of the merits of travelling to Myanmar as this topic is widely covered elsewhere. However please note that we put this trip off for years before eventually deciding to go in part because of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and her plea for tourists to return.
Here are some tips to assist those planning a trip to Myanmar. Most people probably already know a lot of this info, but it is repeated here anyway as the information is current at February 2011.
There are no ATMs in Burma and very few places - mainly very large hotels - take credit cards with enormous fees, so all money must be brought in cash, preferably US dollars (Euros and Singapore dollars are also accepted but not as widely). It is essential to keep US dollars in MINT condition as the slightest damage (barely discernible) will cause them to be rejected in most places. If you receive change in dollars be as careful as the locals over note quality as they will respect it.
If you find a decent money changer (e.g. Scott Market in Rangoon) you can request and usually get 5,000 Kyat notes, which are acceptable anywhere. This reduces the volume of notes enormously.
US dollars are accepted most places (hotels, supermarkets, taxis, etc) and the standard rate is 800. You can get more (830 typical) from money changers but the 800 applies everywhere we went except big hotels which may only give you 750. We got 830 in all regional centres with a bit of effort. The rate is slightly worse for small denominations than $100. It is useful to have some small bills for tourist fees at the major sites, and keep $10 per head for the airport exit fee when you leave.
The main domestic airlines at the time of our trip were Air Mandalay and Air Bagan both of which fly mainly ATR72 Turboprop planes in reasonable condition. Bookings can be made directly with the airlines but the vast majority of people use local travel agents, as this is a lot easier and cheaper. More info about local agents is provided below. Flight schedules are subject to last minute changes due to the limited size of the fleets, and sometimes changes are made based on demand or absence thereof. It seems that seats are often not released until 24 hours before flights.
Our itinerary was Yangon - Mandalay - Bagan - Heho (Inle Lake) - Thandwe (Ngapali) – Yangon. The last leg went to Sittke en route to Yangon which would have been handy if you wanted to include Mruak U as a side trip from Sittke. It seemed the majority of flights from both airlines fly around this loop, which might create difficulties if you wanted to go in the opposite direction. If for example you try to fly Mandalay to Heho you end up landing in Bagan anyway, etc. Flying Heho to Mandalay might involve routing via Yangon.
All domestic flights require you get to the airport 1.5 hours before departure time which is a hassle, but we found some flights actually left early. Combined with the poor road conditions and dreadful local vehicles it probably makes sense. You do not have to go through to the departure lounge once your bags are checked in and your boarding pass is issued. All flights should be reconfirmed 24 hours before departure and any hotel will do this for you. The hotel or guesthouse will then make it a point of honour to ensure you get to the airport on time, and will prepare special breakfasts or take away for early flights.
We booked all flights via a local travel agent, Santa Maria Travel. Our agent was called Zaw and he is often cited in various forums as a good guy. We found him extremely helpful and Santa Maria were great - we changed our itinerary countless times and they were very patient. They required a money transfer as a deposit to book flights and some hotels, and they proved scrupulously honest. Zaw met us at the airport and came with us to our hotel, where we settled the rest of the payment and received vouchers for hotels and air tickets. We had some minor hassles on the ground with flights and hotels and their local follow up was very good.
Using a local travel agent is the way to go, as they got great rates for hotels (better than Internet) and flights are difficult in Myanmar. The airlines have very small fleets and tend to change their timetables according to demand at short notice, and your agent will help with this. Note that some agencies (e.g. Exotissimo) really only do group tours and will not be useful for independent travel.
There are lots of other agents in Rangoon, but S-M were good with email contact. Be aware that Internet in Myanmar is appalling so emails do go astray - no Web access was available for a week in Bagan and Inle Lake while we were there.
Local people prefer you do not use package tours (which Exotissimo specialise in) as they use private buses and larger hotels and restaurants, which limits the amount that filters down to local people. A lot of travellers use a local guide for part or their entire trip, but we found it one of the easiest countries in Asia so this seemed unnecessary.
We did the standard route (see flights) with some additional days near the end at Ngapali Beach for a spot of relaxation. Here are some comments on the places we visited.
• Yangon – a noisy and bustling city with the main sites being the Shwedagon Pagoda, Kandawgyi Lake and Scott Market. Beware the terrible pavements especially at night as many tourists get injured falling into drains or sewers on poorly lit streets. A couple of nights at the beginning of a trip, and a couple at the end to allow a buffer for international connections is enough for most people. We had a great time and started to get the feel of the place after a few days. There are some great hotels, such as The Strand, and excellent international quality restaurants (such as L’Opera for Italian) and bars (50th Street is great fun).
• Mandalay – another noisy city but a lot smaller than Yangon. It’s well worth spending at least a full day touring Mandalay itself, visiting temples and Mandalay Hill. Read a guidebook for details. There are several interesting temples just South of the hill, including a massive marble Buddha and the World’s Largest Book. A boat trip to Mingun is worthwhile and takes only half a day. There is a $5 tourist fee for Mingun that is valid for two days and includes access to Sagaing. Several of the sites in Mandalay also have a $10 tourist fee valid for three days which includes Inwa and Amarapura, where the much photographed U Bein teak bridge is located. Three full days is needed to explore all the sites at leisure. Worth seeking out he BBQ restaurants for dinner, there is a strip of them and our favourite is the one with the draft Tiger Beer sign.
• Bagan – one of the great religious sites of the world ranking with Angkor Wat and Tikal. The main town is Nyaung U closest to the airport and to the North of the main sites. Old Bagan about 5 Km South is where most temples are located, and the locals were relocated another 5 Km South to New Bagan. Old Bagan now only has large 5 star resorts, several on the river. At least a couple of full days are needed to explore, which can be done via taxi, horse cart or bicycle depending on fitness and temperature – it gets fearsomely hot in summer. Sunset from one of the popular temples is interesting, but the main ones get terribly crowded and potentially dangerous so it is more pleasant to find a less popular temple and watch from it. Climbing is not permitted on many of the temples to prevent erosion, but watch for signs. We did a boat ride to watch the sunset one afternoon, which was a bit of a waste of time and money as the same view is available for free from the temple on the riverbank near the North Gate. Many people also do a hot air balloon ride with “Balloons Over Bagan”, a very reputable and expensive company. Your travel agent may be able to get some discount if you book this through them.
• Inle Lake – accessed via the airport at Heho, and a one hour taxi ride to Nyaung Shwe which is the small town at the North end of the lake. There are many large hotels on the edge of the lake accessible by land, and a lot more out on the lake itself. We preferred to stay in Nyaung Shwe itself, which is a very pleasant town with a large market and many great restaurants, rather than be trapped out on the lake. In the town you can arrange a canoe trip around the quiet local waterways, or a tour on a long tail of the lake itself. The lake is huge and has many “floating” villages on stilts. Boat trips tend to focus on dragging you around various handicraft places and factories (umbrella, silverware, cigars, etc). There are markets at various locations depending on the day of the week, and a trip to the famous forest of pagoda spires at In Tain is worthwhile.
• Ngapali Beach – a 3 Km crescent of white sand with clear turquoise water, a number of 5 star resorts and innumerable cheap seafood restaurants. An excellent place to unwind at the end of a trip, especially as it is close to Thandwe Airport. There are a number of cheaper accommodation options (Memento Resort, Laguna Lodge, Royal Beach Hotel). We stayed at the Amata Resort which was great. Note that the entire place pretty much shuts down for the height of the monsoon, as the sea becomes very rough and flights are often impossible.
• Yangon – we stayed at The Strand Hotel. Fantastic taste of the days of the Raj. Happy hour on Friday nights is not to be missed. Beautiful rooms and great café and restaurant.
• Mandalay – Hotel by the Red Canal. Superb boutique hotel. Pool and very good restaurant.
• Bagan – Bagan Princess just South of Nyaung U on main road. Large clean pool, nice rooms, convenient location with the excellent Queen Restaurant next door.
• Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) – Princess Garden Hotel. Lovely clean pool, beautifully landscaped gardens, delicious breakfast. The owner has a boat for hire and can arrange canoe trips. Free bicycles are provided.
• Ngapali Beach – Amata Resort, friendly staff, great food, good location.
Mandalay - we found a very nice blue taxi (small open backed utility) driver called Mu Mu. His real name is Mr. Myint Aye and he can be contacted via the Hotel on the Red Canal or phone 02 30539. Taxis can be hard to find at time, especially at night, but Mu Mu will come and pick you up at a specified time and has very good English. We used his services all the time around the city, including day tours.
Bagan – a good taxi driver with great English is Nyi Nyi Lwin, phone 09 2042570 or email email@example.com. He can do a very good day tour and pick up from restaurants or airport.