Prior to traveling to Myanmar my husband and I combed through blogs and message boards to find the most up-to-date information on prices, currencies, and point-to-point transport options. Guidebooks were helpful, but things are quickly changing with the surge in tourism. The most valuable information was to hear from travelers who had recently returned from Myanmar. Below are some pointers gathered from our research and personal experiences during our twelve day trip in January 2016.
Before you go you, of course, need to know where you are going. You might notice that the country is often listed as “Myanmar (Burma)” on maps and travel guides. So what do you call this country? Is it Myanmar or is it Burma? The names are used interchangeably at this time but the more commonly referred to and the contemporary name is Myanmar. This is how the people that live there refer to their country.
For background, the name was changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 by a Military Junta. The United States government and many other countries did not acknowledge the name change since the legitimacy of the ruling government was in question. Thus, Burma is the official moniker used still by the US State Department today. A stable, elected government has recently taken power and the confusion should soon cease.
The process for getting an eVisa was very easy. I applied for my husband and me on Friday and got the visa letter on Monday. After payment, I received an acknowledgment email with my application number and payment reference number which can be used to track the status.
Purchase a Tourist eVisa for $50 USD online at http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/
Read more about the specifics of the Tourist eVisa here
Important things to note:
- At this time eVisa is NOT valid for overland entrance to Myanmar. You must arrive via Yangon International Airport, Mandalay International Airport or Nay Pyi Taw International Airport.
- On the application, you will need to provide your personal information (name, address, email, etc ) passport details, accommodation in Myanmar (just one is fine) along with uploading a color passport size photo.
- Visa is valid for a 28-day stay and must be used within 90 days of issue date.
- Processing time is listed at 3 days.
- You must have six months validity on your passport.
Our itinerary took us from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) to Bagan and finally Mandalay. We took buses from point to point which worked well for us.
Yangon to Nyaung Shwe 23,000 Kyat (~$18 USD)
The bus from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe was a 12-hour overnight bus leaving at 6pm getting in around 6am. We had a very nice trip which you can read more about here.
Nyaung Shwe to Bagan 20,000 Kyat (~$15 USD)
The next bus was the same company JJ Express from Nyaung Shwe to Bagan and left around 8pm and arrived around 3:30 am in Bagan. This bus was a much older version of the previous overnight bus we took. There was no snack, the seats were closer together and worn and the three channels on the TV were black and white and not in English. It got us from point A to B safely, so for that we are grateful.
Bagan to Mandalay 9,000 Kyat (~$7 USD)
The last bus was a mini bus from Bagan to Mandalay that left at noon and arrived around 6:30 pm. They picked us up at our hotel and dropped us off at our hotel in Mandalay which was unexpected and very nice to not pay an additional taxi. Passenger backpacks are stuffed under the seats and in the aisle and there are frequent stops along the way to pick up and drop off locals and/or their sacks of food and/or livestock. There was one rest stop for 30 minutes at a restaurant with squat toilets.
We used Kyat for everything with exception to the following which were quoted in USD prices:
- Inle Zone entrance fee ($10/pp)
- Bagan Archeological Zone entrance fee ($20/pp)
- Inle Lake souvenirs
I believe Kyat would have been accepted for these had I inquired but I didn’t want to bother with conversions. The Bagan entrance fee tickets show the price as 25,000 Kyat.
Our US dollars we brought were all in denominations of $20 or less. We did not exchange any dollars for Kyat and relied solely on ATM withdrawals. ATM’s are widely available.
We came across two ATM’s in Mandalay that were out of order so we found a third, all within one a one-mile radius, which goes to show how prevalent they are.
We had read some blogs stating that Myanmar was a bit pricey to visit. We noticed restaurant prices were higher in Mandalay but tours, transport, and food was quite affordable elsewhere. For backpackers who prefer hostels, accommodation options might be lacking, leading to paying higher prices for private guesthouse rooms. Our accommodations averaged $35/night and our daily average was $82/day (including everything). This could be easily lowered by eating fewer restaurant meals and more street food.
Below are the costs of common tourist activities at the time we visited:
- Private boat tour for two on Inle Lake – 22,000 Kyat
- Entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda – 9,000 Kyat
- Circle Train – 200 Kyat
- Bicycle rental in Bagan – 1,500 Kyat
Free Wifi is standard at most guesthouses. Internet is slow and some sites have trouble loading or may be restricted. It’s a good idea to have your onward flights booked before getting to Myanmar so you don’t encounter any issues with online bookings.
Myanmar was one of the countries that T-Mobile coverage doesn’t work in so we purchased a Telenor Tourist SIM card on arrival at Yangon airport. It was 12,000 Kyat (~$9 USD) for 1 GB Internet and had a 5,000 Kyat credit for calls and data usage. Incoming calls and texts and Facebook usage were all free. Coverage worked well in all places we traveled.
I encountered some squat toilets but luckily didn’t have to break down and use them. Western toilets were available everywhere I needed one. Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you at all times.
We weren’t crazy about the food in Myanmar. Every restaurant had similar dishes on their menu which were noodle and rice based and very spicy. Our favorite meals were Western food from 50th Street Café in Yangon and Chinese food from Live Dim Sum House in Inle Lake which gave our palette some variety. Myanmar tea is sweet and light and very tasty. I bought some bags of tea to bring home as a souvenir.
Power outages are not uncommon. Our hotels in Mandalay and Yangon had backup generators that kicked right in when we experienced outages. Nonetheless, I tried to avoid taking the elevator to the sixth floor in Yangon, especially after we experienced a minor earthquake.
Don’t forget to pack a power adapter so your plugs work. Some battery packs will also be handy as the power to the room shuts off when you take the key so you can’t charge your things while you are out and about.
We felt very safe in Myanmar. The people are very warm and will greet you with a big “hello” and smile as you pass. People are also quite honest, we hadn’t noticed we were shortchanged when renting our bikes in Bagan and the shopkeeper returned the extra money to us before we rode away.
The biggest safety concern was walking on the sidewalks which were blocked with motorbikes and food vendors forcing us to walk in the street. Where we did find a stretch of sidewalk it was still quite challenging to walk with our heads up due to a myriad of obstacles and uneven pavement.
Bring sneakers for the cities as the streets are dusty and sandals will not be safe to walk in. When visiting Bagan a pair of sandals that can easily slip off at temples will also be needed. A headlamp or flashlight is helpful for walking back to your hotel at night. Bagan and Inle Lake were cooler in January. Check the weather and bring a light fleece or jacket for mornings and nights.
Our trip included three nights in Yangon, three nights in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake area), 3 nights in Nyaung- U (Bagan area) and 3 nights in Mandalay. Below are my thoughts and advice about each stop.
Three nights seemed to be just right for Yangon. We had two full days to see the sights, one day was the circle train and the next we visited Shwedagon Pagoda, which was incredible. These could be combined into one day if you are short on time.
One day is enough to see Old Bagan, two days will allow you to explore a little deeper. I got sick one day we were in Bagan so we missed out on a second day of temple exploration. I don’t know that I would have wanted to ride a bike around again, though. I was a little sore and we saw a lot of the temples in the range of our accommodation the first day. We were staying at Innwa Inn in Nyaung-U which I wouldn’t choose again. I was under the impression many of the restaurants were located there and I wanted to be within walking distance. It seemed like most were more towards Old Bagan which was just down the road.
Inle Lake Area
Do not plan a trip to Myanmar and miss Inle Lake! It’s a fascinating place full of photo opportunities and a step back in time. One day was enough to tour the lake and the second day we visited a winery and meet some interesting travelers. I would suggest staying in Nyaung Shwe and not on the lake itself. Nyaung Shwe is full of restaurants and accommodations, easy to walk around, plan tours and onward travel.
If we were to do it over I would limit our time in Mandalay to just one night before flying out. We hated it, probably my least favorite city I’ve visited. To be fair we did not see any of the tourist attractions. We looked on TripAdvisor and did not find anything compelling enough to spend the effort and money to see. We found the food was pricey and hard to find, it was hard to traverse the sidewalks and cross streets with the steady stream of motorbike traffic.
Our trip covered the top tourist places in Myanmar. If you are looking to travel off the beaten track you will need to do some careful research and may need to allow time to apply for extra permissions to transit through restricted areas. For example, we originally thought to enter Myanmar from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand from which buses run people daily for visa runs purposes. In my research, I learned that traveling through the country from this border crossing was not possible. Thus, I strongly suggest you plan to fly in via Yangon or Mandalay airport. Tourism Transparency has a nice map showing restricted areas in Myanmar.
Our trip to Myanmar took a little more advanced planning but was such a rewarding experience. The people are warm and welcoming and the sights are awe-inspiring. Enjoy your trip to Myanmar and please reach out if you have any questions or need advice planning your itinerary!