Travelling Homebody: Myanmar: 5 travel tips for a smoother, easier visit

Myanmar: 5 travel tips for a smoother, easier visit

Last weekend, I visited Yangon, Myanmar for work. I was only there for three days, two nights, so it really was a fly in, fly out visit. It’s a two-hour flight from Vietnam (depending on whether you fly in from Saigon or Hanoi), where I am based. As a heads up, I did not one touristy thing. No sightseeing, no temple visits, no markets.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a pretty boring visit, but it was nothing of the kind. I met some amazing people and gained an insight into the culture that is only really gained from talking to people about their country. And I learned that travelling to this region, particularly in Yangon, requires a little patience and foresight, so I’m sharing my Myanmar travel tips with you.

#1 You’ll probably need a visa

Unless you are a resident of Asia, it’s likely you’ll need a visa to enter the country. Luckily, you can get your visa online BUT it can take up to a week for your letter to be emailed, so make sure you do yours ahead of time. I paid more (USD$80) because I needed an expedited service (delivery within two days) but it shouldn’t cost you more than USD$50 if you plan ahead, but not too far ahead!

Like many Asian countries that require visas, there are scam sites out there just waiting to take your money, so be careful. I used Myanmar Visa and it was fine, but I did have to chase up my letter. If you have plenty of time, use the official Government site. Make sure you print your letter out and pack it with your travel documents: you won’t be able to get your boarding pass without it.

For more information about Myanmar visas, click here. For information about visa exemptions, click here (it’s a PDF).

UPDATE: I revisited Myanmar in May 2018, and my visa came through on the same day I applied. This may have been because it was low season, but I’m thinking paying for an expedited visa may not be necessary.

#2 Disorganised immigration

A gazillion (actually only two) planes arrived at the same time. If felt like a gazillion because it took so long to go through immigration — an hour in my case.

There is a visa on arrival counter to the right as you come down the escalators. I lined up, but this counter is only for people who don’t have an e-visa. If you have your letter printed out (and you should have) go directly to the immigration line. Be warned: the queues (multiple) were long, with hundreds of people trying to get through. There were only three or so officers rostered on to cope with the deluge.

The signage is confusing when coupled with the information imparted to me by the girl who told me I didn’t need to line up at the visa on arrival countered. She waved me in the general direction of a line, but the signage was confusing, so I swapped lines and I shouldn’t have. Ignore the signage and line up in any damn line you want. You will still be processed.

Exiting the country was much easier. There were few people going through immigration when I flew out. The airport is new, and reminds me a little of Changi (my favourite airport in the entire world), but it was a wasteland. Empty shops, few customers. You can get a good feed at Gloria Jean’s though. I had a really good quiche and coffee. The wifi is free… but only for half and hour.

You can get more information about Yangon International Airport here.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: immigration is much more organised. There were more stations, and a better queue system; however, working out who was next in line was a little confusing because of the way it’s set up, and pushy people take advantage of the confusion by jumping the queue

#3 Gridlocked traffic

The government of Myanmar (or local government in Yangon… I’m not sure which) has instituted a “no motorcycles in Yangon” policy. The only way of getting around is by car, but the infrastructure doesn’t support so many cars on the road. The traffic crawls along at a snail’s pace, cars bumper-to-bumper snaking along main roads and highways as far as the eye can see. It’s slightly better off the main corridors.

If you want to go anywhere, allow one hour to get there, sometimes two. I thought I had plenty of time (three hours) to catch my flight back to Vietnam, but I was seriously worried that I would miss it. The airport was 9.5 km from my pick-up point, and it took an hour and a half to get there. My driver kept saying, twenty minutes but with each 20 minute block that passed, I became more and more concerned. I did get to the airport in time, but I was on edge, checking my watch the whole time.

You can get real-time traffic information by clicking here.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: traffic is still gridlocked, but better on the weekend. If you can, fly into Yangon on a Friday afternoon and leave on a Saturday or Sunday to avoid people commuting to and from work.

#4 Getting around Yangon 

So leading on from the traffic issue, is the transport issue. How do you get around Yangon if you can’t hire or drive a motorcycle? There are local buses, but they are apparently inefficient, and also overcrowded. So taxis (including Uber and Grab) are the main form of transport, unless you hire a local driver, walk or ride a bicycle.

The taxis I hailed on the street are generally in poor condition, and in Australia would probably be defected. Most drivers don’t read or understand English, so make sure you have the address of where you’re going, as well as your accommodation, in Burmese. If a driver doesn’t know the address or can’t read the address, he will just refuse to take you. A young person will talk to the taxi driver on your behalf if you get stuck (some English spoken among younger people because of education), as well your hotel security. I have seen conversations about addresses go on for five minutes before I a taxi agreed to take me where I needed to go.

You will also need to agree on a price before you get in: no one runs a meter. It shouldn’t cost more than USD$7 to get from the airport to your accommodation, and around 2,000-5,000 kyat (USD$2-5) to get around Yangon.

You can can get more information about getting around in Myanmar here.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: getting around Yangon is still fraught. If you can find a reliable driver, stick with him, but you’ll still have to negotiate the price.

#5 Go local

While wifi is prevalent and free in hotels, cafes and restaurants, you do need a local SIM card so you can use Google maps and communicate better with taxi drivers. I didn’t bother with a SIM because I was only going to be there a short time, but I ended up resorting to taking screen dumps of where I needed to be. It was inefficient, but the best workaround I could come up with under the circumstances.

In terms of currency, I used a mix of USD, which is widely accepted, and local currency. ATMs are everywhere, but I can’t guarantee their reliability or not because I didn’t use one. I relied on cash (I withdrew USD at BKK as I was transiting through) and that worked fine.

If you are after a couple of lovely restaurants, I can highly recommend SEEDS and La Planteur, located near the Ilya lake. Both have stunning decor and a gorgeous view, and the food is fabulous.

I didn’t eat on the street, mainly because there wasn’t enough time, but I would have been happy to. Yangon had a distinctly Indian feel and the street food reflected that.

For information about buying a local SIM card click here, and click here for currency info, For what to eat on the street, click here.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: definitely get a local SIM! And I had no trouble withdrawing kyat from ATMs in Yangon and Inle Lake.

Last word: safety

There has been much in the news about the ongoing internal conflicts in Myanmar, including with the Rohingya insurgency. The Australian government has issued a travel warning, so I was nervous about going. My contacts in Yangon told me not to worry: travelling in Yangon was safe, and the conflict was limited to the west, near the border with India and Bangladesh. I was still slightly nervous, but I needn’t have worried. My contact was right.

Photo courtesy of Visual Hunt

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