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Travel in Burma
Subject: Travel in Burma
Author was Sebastian Hoffman
To contact Sebasian Hoffman, send an email message to me and I will
forward it. - strider@xxxxxxxxxxx
Preliminary note: This report is intended to give TOURISTS some practical
informations on travels to Burma which they will not find in the guidebooks
currently available on the market. It is NOT about politics, the human rights
situation in Burma or the pros and cons of travelling to such a country. This
does not mean that I'm not aware of these facts and I do intend to write about
them at a later stage. So please don't flame me for being naive and
Visas and plane-tickets:
It has become very easy to obtain visas for Burma. It only takes a couple of
hours and costs around 20 US-dollars. Even journalists who used to be high up on
the blacklist don't seem to get any problems.
I only had a two-week visa but there's been a lot of talk about one-month visas
which are to be introduced very soon. But nobody really seems to know when it's
going to happen...
It is quite difficult to extend a tourist visa once you're in the country. If
you're desperate to stay longer, you might like to see a doctor who could
certainly come up with some kind of strange illness which doesn't allow you to
fly out. (I got this advice from a foreign diplomat in Rangoon.) A German
traveller I met found out a different way: He managed to convince the woman at
the Air China counter to sign a paper confirming that the flight to Kunming was
full. Well, flights to Kunming only leave twice a month so he easily got an
In any case, the place to go to for an extension is Immigration on Strand Road
and NOT (as you will be told by most people) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Thai Airways now have a daily flight to Rangoon, but they're the most expensive
airline to get there (and they're usually fully booked). Biman flies once a week
(on Thursday) and you'll get a return ticket for around 3200-3600 Baht in the
bucket shops on Khao San Road. As for Myanmar Airways, most people I met who
flew them to Rangoon were quite surprised how good it turned out to be.
Apparently, they're much better than their reputation (although domestic flights
seem to be an altogether different matter...). They're in about the same
price-range as Biman and fly almost daily.
Arrival in Rangoon
Entering the country has also become very easy. Immigration and Customs
presented no hassles whatsoever and the whole proceedure only took a couple of
minutes. I didn't see anybody's luggage being checked. As a tourist, you are
still required to exchange a minimum of 200 US-dollars. What you get for it is
some funny-looking monopoly-money called Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC). If
you change dollars cash you get 200 FEC's; if you want to use travellers cheques
you only get 198. The currency form on which you have to declare all the foreign
currency you take into the country still exists. But nobody seems to bother
about it once you leave the airport. It simply seems to be a relic from the
times before the introduction of the FEC's.
When you enter the arrivals hall you'll find it packed with people. MTT is
immediately on your right hand so look left and walk past them into the throng.
The going rate for local taxis into town seems to be 3 FEC. MTT charges 6 FEC...
Whatever they will tell you, do NOT change any money on the ride into town.
These drivers are some of the very few people who will try to rip you off in
Personally, I didn't like Rangoon very much. It could be a pretty place though.
The streets are very wide, the houses amazingly spacious and there are lots of
things to see. Unfortunately, it's very run down and quite dirty. Most people I
met left Rangoon a soon as as they could. Actually, it is possible to leave
Rangoon on the day of arrival. There are three trains to Mandalay in the evening
(the last one leaves at 19:30) and you can buy tickets at the station. They are
30 FEC's (36 FEC's on the Special Express which leaves around six o'clock) and
the reclining seats are really quite comfortable. The problem with this option
is that you'll have to find a way of reconfirming your flight out of Rangoon at
a later stage. (They don't have any computers at the airline offices...)
Places to stay: Hotel-rates all over Burma are quite outrageous. Since you're
required to pay in dollars (or FEC's) it works out at about 20 times the rate
for the locals. And what you get for it is often quite a joke. This is
particularly so in Rangoon. The YMCA is a stinking pit and best avoided. The
same holds true for the Garden hotel. Fortunately, there are now many
government-approved private guesthouses around. They're generally much better
value. I can recommend the Zar Chi Win guesthouse (No. 59, 37th Street, 1st
floor). Singles are 15 FEC and doubles 30 FEC. All you get is a (very) small
cubicle hardly large enough for the bed. But the place is clean, air-conditioned
and centrally located.
Blackmarket: Rangoon is the best place for changing money. The rate is at
least 100 Kyat to the dollar. When I arrived it was around 120 - 125 but
apparently it has gone down slightly in the past couple of weeks. The whole
thing is very openly conducted. I have no idea how dangerous it really is but I
haven't met a single traveller who got into problems. Neither did I meet anybody
who got cheated, by the way. The whisky/cigarettes deal described in all the
guidebooks still works, but will fetch only about 80 Kyat to the dollar. Since
the government stopped checking on your foreign currency it's probably not worth
carrying the stuff into the country anymore.
Most people think that by changing money on the blackmarket they do not support
the government with badly needed foreign currency. Well, ordinary Burmese are
not allowed to own dollars. Apparently, you can get jailed for half a year for
having a single dollar-note on you! This means that virtually all the dollars
end up with people who don't have to fear prosecution, or in other words:
government officials and army personnel....
Mandalay is a pleasant city with a few interesting sights. It's also a good base
for day-trips in the area. I stayed at the Royal Guest House, No. 41, 25th
Street (single 10 FEC, double 15 FEC, very clean, friendly and helpful owner).
Mandalay hill is great for sunset, but allow at least 30 minutes for the climb!
The easiest way around Mandalay is probably on a trishaw. Many of the drivers
speak passable English. A lot of them will also offer to take you to Inle Lake
and Pagan in a rented car. I can definitely recommend this. I got together with
a Swedish couple and we rented a car (with a driver and a guide) for seven days.
The price was 100 dollars per head and this is a very reasonable offer. It makes
travelling around Burma a lot easier. It means that you don't have to leave in
the morning at 4 o'clock to get anywhere. You don't have to travel on public
buses which are the most crowded I have ever seen. You can stop wherever you
want. Your guide will know all the interesting places and as well at what time
it is best to go there. And so on. Our guide was just great. If you'd like to
contact him, here's his address:
South of Hospital
When you hire a car, it's important to ask whether the driver has a license to
work for foreigners (or maybe it's the car which has to be licensed, I don't
know exactly. In any case, the license looks a bit like a London tube sign). If
not, you might be stopped on the way and get into problems.
Before leaving Mandalay, I went to two nearby places: Mingun and Maymyo. For
Mingun you'll only need half a day. The boatride is very scenic and the area
around the jetty looks really great in the morning light! If you get off at the
first landing place you can walk through a small village to the old sites.
Chances are high that you'll be accompanied by a group of children playing
tour-guide for the rest of your time in Mingun... I really enjoyed this place.
Maymyo is definitely worth a two-day trip. This is mainly so because of the
Candacraig hotel which is simply a must! The room rates are not as exorbitant as
given in the LP guidebook and they even have economy rooms. (Actually, most
hotels in Burma have economy rooms and they are usually available for
foreigners). Huge standard doubles are 30 FEC and you can have a fire lit for 65
Kyat in your private fireplace! Since it gets very cold there (believe me! It's
freezing cold!) this can be a wonderful thing. They do roastbeef at the
Candacraig (well, actually some kind of meat only remotely resembling roastbeef,
but anyway...) and the service is surprisingly good for a MTT-owned hotel.
Maymyo has a beautiful market and some other pretty sights (some of them looking
very English, e.g. some Yorkshire-style country houses or the Purcell Tower).
Beware of the two souvenir shops in town. Their staff is a real nuisance.
They're definitely not honest and will try to rip you off. The only reason to go
to the one in the market is that you can rent bikes from there (around 10 Kyat
per hour should be reasonable). It's certainly a great way to make your way
around Maymyo! I didn't go to the waterfalls near Maymyo but I've been told
they're worth seeing.
A visit to the Inle Lake is only half the fun when it's not Ywama
(floating)-market day! Ask your guide to make a phonecall to the reception of
the Inle Inn in Yaunghwe to find out when it's on. (It's not on a fixed
weekday!) The Inle Inn is also definitely the place to stay. Prices are
reasonable, if I remember correctly, it's 8 FEC for a single and 12 FEC for a
double (economy rooms). The do a great Shan-dinner (3 FEC, but worth it!) and a
puppet-show every evening. If you arrive before sunset, somebody from the Inle
Inn will take you on a small boat to a village nearby (100 Kyat/person). The
light is absolutely fantastic and the atmosphere is very peaceful. It's a great
way to end a long day's journey on narrow and winding roads!
MTT charges 5 FEC entrance fee to the lake. Our guide organized a boat for the
three of us which was another five FEC each. There's lots to see on the lake and
that day was certainly one of the highlights of my visit to Burma.
On the following day, we left Yaunghwe for the Pindaya caves (5 FEC entrance
fee, quite an amazing sight!) and Kalaw. The Kalaw Hotel is similar to the
Candacraig and has HOT WATER! That was my personal X-mas gift. The place is
around 4000 feet above sea-level and it gets very cold in the evening! Room
rates are reasonable (I don't remember exactly but around 10 FEC for a single; I
guess at that time I would have paid this amount of money for the hot shower
alone...). The staff at the Kalaw Hotel (like at any other hotel) accept both
dollars cash and FEC's. More interestingly, the might give you back dollars cash
when you pay your room with large FEC notes! I managed to change 15 FEC's back
into dollars that way.
There are quite a lot of Christians in the Shan State. In Kalaw you can go and
visit the Italian father at the church near the Kalaw hotel who's quite an
interesting figure! Unfortunately, he's not in good health at the moment so he
might have to leave this place soon. I had a great time in Kalaw. It was
Christmas Eve and during dinner a number of local Christians came in and started
to sing X-mas songs for us. Later, I went to midnight mass which lasted a very
long two hours (all in Burmese of course...).
We didn't see the villages you can trek to in the mountains around Kalaw. It was
market day and everybody came to Kalaw so we thought it wasn't fun to visit
deserted villages. But apparently, they have become quite touristic and are not
really worth the tiring climb.
The journey from Kalaw to Pagan is very long and exhausting. You can have lunch
at the Red Star Restaurant in Thazi which is really quite good. You'd better not
mail any letters or postcards from Thazi though. I put 20 postcards into the
letterbox in front of the post office. None of these has so far arrived....
On the way to Pagan, we stopped for sunset at Mt. Popa. Quite a number of
tourists have stayed there overnight and apparently it really is a good
experience. The buildings on top of the mountain are nothing special, but the
location itself and the views are breathtaking!
Before you get to Mt. Popa you have to pass an army camp. For about 300 meters
you're only allowed to make 5 miles per hour (no joke)! If your driver has never
been to Mt. Popa you might like to remind him of this since I've heard stories
of drivers being beaten up for driving too fast....
The place to stay in Pagan is the Co-operative Hotel (8 FEC/single). If they
tell you they're full this doesn't mean you won't get a room there. They might
reluctantly put you up in the Burmese section (which they did in my case). There
are two sensible ways to visit the pagodas: by bike (100 Kyat/day) or by
horsecart (400 Kyat/day). Personally, I found Pagan to be very interesting but
not really that stunning. It's the sheer number of pagodas scattered about which
looks amazing. The pagodas themselves, however, are often not more than a quite
crude pile of bricks. There's hardly any delicate stonework, few reliefs can be
found and so on. Well, maybe I'm too spoiled. I went to visit the wonderful
temples of Angkor a year ago....
If you don't visit the local museum, you will not be required to pay the 10 FEC
entrance fee to the whole area of Pagan! The museum itself is another 4 FEC's so
it might be a good idea to stay away from it.
Your guide will take you to Thazi on the last day of your "big tour" in time for
the train to Rangoon. Or he might suggest driving all the way down to Rangoon,
which is what we chose to opt for (it was an additional 100 US dollars) because
we would have had to pay 30 dollars each on the train anyway. It's a very long
drive (around 14 hours including breaks) and not really to be recommended.
Since there are no computers at the airport (!), you'll have to be there almost
three hours before departure. You can stock up on interesting books for the long
wait at the Pagan bookshop on 37th street. Leaving the country is as easy as
getting in: nobody cares about your money and nobody checks your luggage.
Some general remarks
How much money will you spend in Burma? If you don't drink five bottles of beer
a day (100-140 Kyats each) you won't need to change more than 100 dollars on the
blackmarket (including souvenirs etc.). You can easily halve this amount if you
want to. Unless you stay at the more expensive hotels, the 200 FEC's are just
about enough for the two weeks you're allowed to stay in the country. Plus the
100 dollars for the car if you hire one. So two weeks in Burma work out at
around 400 dollars at the most. This is of course pretty much by Asian
standards, but as long as the FEC's (and the ridiculous hotel prices) aren't
abolished (FEC's have just been abolished in China!) you won't get it for
considerably less money...
The government of Burma is gradually opening up more regions for tourists.
However, if you try to go to these places there are still lots of hassles to
cope with. For example, a German who went to Pathein was required a number of
times to fill out several reports at the local police station.
The Kyaiktiyo pagoda is now definitely not "off-limits" anymore. I heard it's
very crowded and since the whole area around the pagoda has been filled up with
ugly buildings you won't find the atmosphere you're looking for.
There are rumours that Lashio will be opened soon. It is open already for
tourists entering from China. But they're not allowed to travel on from there to
Mandalay. Mogok also seems to be on the list of soon-to-be opened towns although
most of the people in Mandalay I spoke to don't believe it will happen.
Burmese people are crazy about Western goods. You can certainly make many people
happy by taking some useful (or maybe as well less useful) presents with you. I
got the impression that almost anything will do. T-shirts with names or pictures
of pop groups for example will work wonders. I tried to talk my guide out of
this pro-Western frenzy but apparently there's no way to stop it.
Shopping isn't that great in Burma. There's some nice laquerware around but many
pieces have some scratches or are simply not well done. However, I bought a
wonderful Budda footprint at one shop in New Pagan for 12 dollars. It's
definitely worth looking around for some time before actually starting to buy
Burma might be one of the cheapest places in the world to make an international
phonecall. The best place in the country is the Central Telegraph Office in
Rangoon. You might have to wait for half an hour but it's worth it: It'll cost
you only 210 Kyat for three minutes (less than two dollars!). In Mandalay,
international phonecalls are also possible, but there the wait is more likely to
be in the range of two to three hours. On the other hand, it is said to be even
cheaper there (156 Kyats).
If you're in Bangkok in the next couple of weeks, look out for the latest issue
of the Manager monthly magazine. I met one of their journalists (Josh Wallace)
in Burma and his article might give you some further interesting informations.
Well, hope this report will be of some help for tourists travelling to Burma. If
you've got some more questions, just send me an e-mail.
/ Sebastian Hoffmann  Auf der Mauer 6 \
| E-Mail: sebhoff@xxxxxxxxxxx  CH-8001 Zurich/Switzerland |
\ Phone: (41 1) 251 3816  Fax: (41 1) 853 3100 /