Several people have asked me for advice on travelling to Myanmar and what to expect, so given the recent announcement of my Discover Myanmar Tour I thought this would be a great time to write about a few of these things. Yes, Myanmar is definitely one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world right now, but it does have its quirks when it comes to the actual nuts-and-bolts of traveling there.
When To Go: The high season for tourists in Myanmar is between November and February. This is when it rains the least and isn’t too hot. March through May tend to be unbearably hot. The monsoon rains usually begin in late May or early June. For the Discover Myanmar Tour I purposely chose the ‘shoulder season’ time of September/October to best avoid any potential tourist crowds at the major sites, to be able to see the landscapes covered in green due to the prior months of rains, and so that we can experience the Phaung Daw Oo Festival at Inle Lake, one of the largest and most colorful annual festivals in the entire country.
Visas: Unless you are a passport holder from an Asean country, China, Bangladesh or Russia you should obtain a visa before you go. You used to be able to apply for one online, but unfortunately that is no longer the case. Now the best way to apply is directly through a Myanmar consulate or embassy in your home country. It only costs US$20, is good for up to 28 days of traveling within the country (can be extended once you are there), and is valid for 90 days from the date of issue. You need to make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 more months when you apply, and when you describe your occupation on the application you probably shouldn’t say that you are a journalist, photographer, writer, videographer, publisher or anything along those lines. Given the political situation there the government tends to frown upon ‘those kinds of people’. If you need to do so, be creative.
Money: The kyat, pronounced chat, is Myanmar’s official currency. There are no ATM’s in Myanmar, and you will get horrible exchange rates if you try to change money at the airport or at any of the banks in Myanmar. It is BY FAR best to use the black market for exchanging money – you will literally get around a twenty times better rate, as is evidenced by the ‘bricks’ of money you get for exchanging a mere two or three hundred dollars. And make sure to bring only crisp and clean US dollar bills with you. Seriously, try to have brand new bills that you got directly from your bank if at all possible. A heavily worn $100 bill may as well be toilet paper to the locals, and even a slightly worn bill may be extremely difficult to exchange. Larger notes like $100’s or $50’s will get better rates than $5’s or $1’s. However, due to concerns about counterfeiting in the past make sure none of your $100’s have ‘CB’ at the start of the serial number – they may not be accepted. Likewise, you get about a 10% better rate in Yangon than in other places. Credit cards and travelers checks are practically useless in Myanmar, as only a few high-end hotels in Yangon and Mandalay accept them. And they charge really high commission fees for doing so. Cash is king.
Getting Around The Country: The roads between cities, even the major ones, can be pretty horrendous and may even be impassable during the rainy season. So unless you have lots of time and a very strong constitution it is best to fly the longer stretches between major destinations. However, make sure to use one of the private airlines like Air Bagan, Air Mandalay or Yangon Airways, and do your best to avoid Myanma Airways which is run by the government. Myanma’s planes are known to be unsafe, and using them puts more money into the military junta’s pockets. Same goes for using what few trains there are – they are government-run and in pretty bad shape. It’s also possible to travel by riverboat for some long stretches which can make for interesting scenery, but if you are short on time beware that it can literally take days to get to your destination.
Like I said, Myanmar definitely has its quirks when it comes to traveling there. But the way I look at it these relatively minor inconveniences are greatly overshadowed by the experiences to be had while visiting this beautiful and exotic country. On top of that, the traveler inside me finds these sorts of nuances make the journey that much more interesting.