How do you plan your trip to Burma? It isn’t as easy as heading to other nearby countries like Laos, Cambodia or Thailand. You can’t just cross overland into the country, you can’t just pick up a visa on arrival at the airport, you need all your money in crisp, unmarked US$ and you have to book your accommodation in advance, or so we thought. Burma travel planning is full-on! Read on to find out more.
Burma or Myanmar?
This is a complex issue; Burma was the name the British colonial leaders officially used for the country in the 19th century and Myanmar was the name adopted by the current repressive government in 1989, changed without consulting the Burmese people at all. While we were in the country we used the name ‘Myanmar’ and before entering we had to get our visa from the ‘Embassy of the Republic of Myanmar’ and this is the official name recognised by the United Nations.
You will find that different governments and organisations use each name, for example, while the United Nations recognise the name Myanmar, many English speaking countries still refer to the country as Burma (Barack Obama actually used both names on a recent visit). There’s even disagreement between organisations such as Amnesty International (who use the name Myanmar) and Human Rights Watch (who use Burma). In support of the pro-democracy party and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi, we’ve decided to call the country Burma on our blog. It is best to research for yourself and make your own decision.
How to Get a Burma Visa in Bangkok
You need to get a visa before you arrive in Burma, we found this process fairly easy and were actually a little lucky with our timing. We applied for our Burma visas in Bangkok at the Myanmar Embassy (132 Sathorn Nua Road) which is actually located between Silom Road and Sathorn Nua Road; the nearest BTS Station is Surasak. We took a taxi to the embassy from Hua Lumpong Train Station and it cost 70B (£1.30) and then 115B (£2.20) to get back to our guesthouse near Khao San Road.
The day we arrived was between two national holidays, since the embassy is closed on national holidays that meant that there were about three times as many people there as there normally would be. The application process is a bit strange in that you need to get a form, queue up for a number, then wait for your number to be called and hand over your documents and return to collect your visa another day (depending on which processing option you have chosen – same day, next day or two working days).
While we were at the embassy the queue wound its way all through the inside of the building and out onto the street and we were there for over two hours. Our visas cost 1,035 Baht (B) (about £19) each and we picked them up the next working day. The documents you need to hand in with your application form are:
- Passport with six months validity from date of entry to Burma with a photocopy of the photo page (there’s a mobile photocopying service right outside the embassy).
- Application form, which you can pick up at the embassy or download. You will need an address in Burma to fill in the application form; we used our hotel in Yangon.
- Two passport photos.
- Cash, we were given change – a same day visa costs 1,260B (£23.50), a next day visa is priced at 1,035B (£19) and a two-day visa costs 830B (£15.50) – these prices are correct as of February 2014.
- You may also need proof of flights in and out of Burma.
- If you want the same day visa you will need to have proof that your flight is leaving the next day or some other document which proves that you cannot come back any later for the visa.
You need to hand in your documents between 09.00 and 12.00 and pick them up between 15.30 and 16.30 so get there early, we were there at about 08.30 and there were loads of people ahead of us and half of the ones behind were rudely pushing in when the doors finally opened, picking up your visa should be quicker and easier.
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Burma Travel Money
There are many ATMs around the main cities in Burma but it’s still important to take plenty of well-conditioned US dollars with you when visiting Burma, as it’s a widely accepted currency. We took US$1,200 (£720) for three weeks and returned with about $30 (£18) so we budgeted pretty well. We got our dollars from a bank on Rambuttri Road near Khao San Road in Bangkok; it advertised crisp unmarked bills which is necessary for the picky Burmese.
We tended to pay for hotels in dollars and exchange money into local currency to use for food and travel. We could change our dollars into Myanmar Kyatt at banks (though not at weekends) and hotels but we got the best exchange rates in the banks, especially when we exchanged $100 or more at a time. We had no problems with our money being accepted; we kept it in books and safe places where they couldn’t be creased or marked. While changing our money in one bank we did see the staff refuse a 50 Singapore Dollar note since it had a minute tear which was barely visible to the naked eye so be careful.
Flights to Burma
While researching we found that we were only permitted to fly into Burma, not travel overland so we booked return flights from Bangkok to Yangon with AirAsia for £104.90 including 20kg of luggage for one person; our flights weren’t at very convenient times but they were the cheapest we could find. We’ve since heard that overland travel into Burma is now possible; keep checking when you plan your trip as the rules seem to change.
Getting around Burma
Unless you want to book domestic flights in advance, you can organise all your transport while you’re in Burma. Given that we only had three weeks to explore the country we decided to split our time between the main tourist areas; Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Lake Inle, with an overnight stop in Kalaw included in our itinerary. We took buses to get from city to city except for one taxi from Kalaw to Lake Inle. The best journey was on a deluxe wide seated VIP bus with our own TV screens and movies from Yangon to Mandalay. None of the buses were terrible and the prices ranged from $11 (£6.60) to $22 (£13.20) per person and the journeys lasted between two (Kalaw to Lake Inle) to 12 hours (Lake Inle to Yangon).
All of our buses were booked through whichever hotel we were staying at – we were picked up and dropped off at our hotels everywhere but Yangon, where we had to get a taxi to/from the bus station about an hour out of the city (costing about £6). You could also take the train in some places, however we decided against this after finding out how bumpy and expensive it is.
Hotels in Burma
Hotel prices in Burma are high; we knew this before we decided to go and were prepared for it. As the tourism industry is so new in Burma there aren’t enough hotels to meet the number of tourists in high season which increases the prices due to lack of competition; hotels also have to pay for an expensive tourist licence which bumps up the cost of rooms for guests. We booked three out of our five hotels before arriving in Burma and rooms ranged from $25 (£15) to $35 (£21) per night and included breakfast. When we visited Burma in February and March it was pretty quiet and with the exception of Yangon, I think we could have found accommodation as we went; in fact we did in Bagan and Kalaw. Here’s a list of our accommodation for Burma:
- Yangon: Motherland Inn 2 – $30 (£18), twin room, lots of friendly staff, air con, good breakfast, free airport pick-up and shuttle service, free tea and coffee.
- Mandalay: Fortune Hotel – $30 (£18), dingy double room, nice staff, air con, breakfast, kettle.
- Bagan: Shwe Na Di Guesthouse – $25 (£15), double room, air con, breakfast.
- Kalaw: Seint Hotel – $25 (£15) – double room, nice staff, average breakfast.
- Lake Inle (Nyaungshwe): Princess Garden Hotel – $35 (£21), double room, nice staff, great breakfast, free afternoon fruit shake, pool (see pic), awesome one-eyed brown dog, our favourite hotel in Burma.
We’ll write more detailed info on what we saw in Burma soon, but here’s a quick glance at our sightseeing list:
- Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda, Bogyoke Market, Bogyoke Aung San Museum, Circle Train, Sule Pagoda
- Mandalay: city tour, ancient cities tour
- Bagan: temples, temples and more temples from sunrise to sunset!
- Kalaw: not much, but you can trek from here to Lake Inle in a couple of days
- Lake Inle: Lake Inle tour by boat
What to Expect When Travelling to Burma
Here are a few points about what to expect when you plan your trip to Burma:
- We found most of the people in Myanmar to be really friendly and welcoming, and that was our favourite thing about this country. While most people were genuinely nice some were trying to sell things to us with heart-breaking stories at the ready. We were stared at a lot, almost as if we were back in Java, Indonesia, since tourism is still fairly new in comparison to neighbouring countries, the Burmese are not so used to Westerners; Amy found herself posing in a few photos for the locals.
- Good food was rare except in Bagan and Lake Inle, there’s a lot of Indian and Shan food and lots of (surprise!) rice. We were very happy to get back to Thailand for its food!
- When entering Bagan and the Lake Inle area you will have to pay an entry zone fee of $15 (£9) and $10 (£6) respectively which covers the cost of visiting temples in each area. For the amount of temples we saw in Bagan this seemed worth it but for Lake Inle we didn’t really get our money’s worth.
Have you been to Burma? What did you do to prepare? Do you have any more tips?