We spent 16 days in Burma and had an amazing time. It wasn’t always the easiest country to travel in but was certainly one of the most fascinating.
A visa in advance is required – or at least it was. While we were in Burma, the E-Visa service opened up properly. As long as you fly into Yangon, you can get a visa much more easily and for a reasonable price – $50.
We got ours from the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, via a travel agent since we were in Chiang Mai and didn’t fancy a 2 day trip down to get them. We paid 2000 THB each for ours including delivery back to Chiang Mai. The agent we used was Friendly Star Travel in Chiang Mai Land Village.
The main currency is kyat but US dollars are also used. We had read that dollars would be required for all accommodation and government run tourist attractions. While we did pay for all accommodation in USD, a lot now do accept kyat, likewise with entrance fees – Shwedagaon Pagoda in Yangon is cheaper if you pay in kyat. Dollars are largely worthless in day to day life, every restaurant, shop or street vendor will want kyat. But they are easy to change everywhere.
There is also a lot written about having crisp, new, perfect US dollars. While some of ours were in this condition, some did have marks and the odd crease that had been smoothed out – not one was refused. Either this is yet another way the country is changing or people overstate how important it is. That said, I wouldn’t turn up with dog eared tatty notes, still take the best you can – most exchange shops will give you their best notes if you say you’re visiting Myanmar. But don’t panic if some notes aren’t in absolute pristine condition.
ATMs are everywhere now, though not always operational. There is a 5,000 kyat charge to withdraw so take out as much as you can (I think 200,000 was the max) We only used one once and since 5,000 is the biggest note (there are some 10,000s but rarely seen) we ended up with the thickest wad of cash I’ve ever seen! Not all banks have international ATMs, CB Bank is the most common that does.
Mostly we just exchanged dollars at banks (you can use any bank to exchange) or money changers, both of which offer decent rates. You do get better rates for using $100 or $50 bills but they’ll let you exchange anything down to $1!
What Did We Spend?
All costs over 16 days
Accommodation – £189.59
Eating Out – £143.49
Transport – £130.60
Misc – £75.87
Attractions – £72.84
Groceries – £23.39
Shopping – £14.24
Coffee/Drinks/Snacks – £13.92
Alcohol – £7.06
Laundry – £1.84
Total – £672.85
Per Day – £42.05
Under budget! And it wasn’t too difficult.
Basic Room – $20-30
Decent Room – I dread to think
Average restaurant dish – 2000-5000 kyat
Average street food dish – 500-1000 kyat
Streetfood snack – 100-300 kyat
Large bottled beer – 1200-2000 kyat, more in some restaurants
Large bottle of Mandalay rum – 1100 kyat (!!)
Draught beer – 600-700 kyat
Can of Coke – 500 kyat or 300 kyat for local Blue Mountain cola
Bottle of water – 150-200 kyat
Short taxi ride in Yangon – 2,000-5,000 kyat
Moto taxi elsewhere – 1,000-2,000 kyat
Long distance bus – 8,000-21,000 kyat, depending on distance and bus quality
We got between cities purely on buses. We had wanted to try the trains but they sounded so old and rickety, and apparently always late, it made more sense to travel in comfort. And comfort it was, Myanmar’s night buses are the best I have ever seen!
The company to look out for is JJ Express. We used them from Yangon to Bagan and from Nyuang Shwe to Yangon. The buses have huge leather seats, like being in first class on a plane, which recline (not flat) and cosy blankets are provided. In the second bus we even had a personal LCD screen like on a plane, with a movie channel!! They even include dinner or a snack. This is for $20 or less!
Our other night bus, between Mandalay and Nyuang Shwe was run by ?? and although an older bus, was even more comfortable. Individual seats, with comfy neck pillows and blankets and a free fruit juice. They kept the TV on a bit long though.
Buses are definitely the way to get around Myanamar. The highway between Yangon and Mandalay, which buses to all destinations use as much as they can, is extremely quick and smooth. The worst section of road we found was between that highway and Nyuang Shwe, even on a nice bus that was rough. But overall the transport in Burma was nowhere near as bad as we thought it would be.
We had read mixed reports about the food in Burma but we really enjoyed it – to a point. Although the food is always delicious (save a few side dishes with a bit too much fish paste) it is also generally quite heavy and greasy.
Burmese curry is a very rich curry similar to a rendang, served with rice and a multitude of side dishes. Shan noodles are a popular street food and delicious though still a bit oily, and I got very sick from a bowl in Bagan.
Street food was at it’s best in Yangon. From samosas to bhajis to some doughy bread with spring onion, it was delicious but always very greasy. My favourite was Masala Dosa, a thin crepe filled with all sorts of goodness for 200 kyat. OK so it’s Indian, not Burmese but that’s what the country is all about.
I’ve already had a bit of a rant about this but accommodation in Burma is terrible value compared to surrounding countries. For $25 a night in Thailand or Laos or Cambodia you will get a spacious, tastefully decorated room, with a huge bed and flat screen TV. In Burma for the same price you get an uncomfortable bed in an extremely basic room with a grotty bathroom.
The argument is that because there is so much demand for rooms and not enough guesthouses, prices have been continually forced up. I can see why this happens but all it does is make the owners of very average guesthouses very rich and have little incentive to improve their properties as prices keep going up. I also doubt that the housekeepers or reception staff are seeing much of the windfall either.
Also, low season usually means lower prices. Despite Burma’s popularity, September was undoubtably it’s low season – we never had trouble getting a room at the first place we wanted and in Nyuang Shwe the guesthouse was virtually empty. Yet prices still remained extremely high.
I loved Burma but I really hope when I next return the situation has become a little more sensible. It should do, as undoubtably more and more guesthouses will continue to spring up over the next few years. People say that the country will lose some of it’s charm as it continues to develop and sadly it probably will, but it needs more of a tourist infrastructure than it currently has.