so you want to go to Myanmar, do you? great, because it’s so worth it. here are some (long-winded?) tips i put together after my visit. note that $ indicates US dollars. (p.s. i’m going to use Myanmar and Yangon instead of Burma and Rangoon because that’s what the people i encountered said. not taking sides, just picking one and sticking to it.)
internet speeds are still horrendous. if you’re old enough to remember modems, do you remember your first? yeah, it’s slower than that. the fastest internet i had was at the airport lounge in Yangon, but the connection to the internet at large went down for the last 30 minutes i was there. just because you see a hotspot doesn’t mean the hotspot is actually connected to the internet, at least in any reasonable fashion.
there is a stand renting SIM cards at Yangon airport for $60 for five days of data (minimum, additional days on top of that are available at a discounted rate). i opted not to go for it, especially since i wasn’t sure if they had nano-sized cards and if the speeds were worth it.
i had no trouble with power outages during my (albeit) brief stay. it was very reliable as were the air conditioners in my rooms. in fact, the first night it was too cold. outlets in both of my hostels were a two-prong European + two-prong American combo style, no grounding pin.
there are loads of ATMs throughout Yangon and i saw several in Bagan; they take MasterCard and Visa, no American Express. if you are exchanging money, you want the crispest bills you can get. seriously you want them to look like they are fresh from the mint: one crease and they will reject you. exchanging $100 bills gets you the best rate, with a lower rate for smaller denominations. the rule of thumb is that larger transactions are carried out in dollars (e.g., buying plane tickets, renting a taxi for a day in Bagan) while everyday purchases (like at eateries or convenience stores) are done in kyats. officially it’s pretty much 1,000 ks = $1, but when you exchange at a “money changer” the rate is around 98,000-98,800ish ks for a $100 bill). did i mention your bills need to be PERFECT? seriously, keep them tucked into the pages of a book so they don’t get any damage. that alone is worth harkening back to the days of paper.
expect to pay 400 ks or so for a bottle of soda (try local cola brand Star, it’s pretty good) and 300 ks for a bottle of water. my most expensive meal was around 6,000 ks including a drink. i had a very big breakfast (noodles, soup, coffee, tea, and four samosas) one morning for 1,700 ks and lunch was 4,200 ks including way too much food to eat, a bottle of soda and a bottle of water.
even if you order one dish, it’s usually just one tiny portion of a bunch of other dishes served like banchan in Korean cuisine. you didn’t order all the other stuff but it just comes with your meal. eat up!
the hostels i stayed at gave out bottles of water; be sure to take one with to keep you hydrated during the day.
i ran into a place that just served coffee and tea, no food, even though it looked like a food place. (i just assumed no one else was hungry…) in any case, do try the tea (around 300 ks for a cup), it’s sweetened with condensed milk! mmm! (the coffee is as well, but i enjoyed the tea more.)
what to wear
despite reports, knee-length shorts were fine for visiting Shwedagon in Yangon and all of Bagan, though i must admit now i kind of regret not getting a longyi. they look fun! anyways, yeah, knee-length shorts for both men and women seemed to be just fine.
you cannot wear shoes or socks when visiting religious sites, whether in current use or an ancient ruin. you may want to practice walking barefoot out on the sidewalk at home.
your feet will get dirty and it will hurt.
you will more than likely step on bird poo.
you will more than likely step on small pebbles causing you to wince in pain.
you may step on ants.
you may step on red-tinged betel nut spit (that’s what men chew and spit out and why their teeth are red and nasty).
you may step on bat guano inside certain temples in Bagan.
your ideal shoes are something that slip on and off easily especially if you’re going to Bagan or somewhere else where you will be visiting temples because you will be taking them off and on many many many times a day. i highly recommend espadrilles or TOMS-style canvas shoes, no socks. i got these for $8 on sale at Urban Outfitters and they have been perfect. (yes, i realize they may get problematic in the rain.) many people wear flip-flops like the locals, but i think shoe-ier shoes are more comfortable and a bit cleaner. plus they squish into nothing for packing. i haven’t worn Teva sandals since college (lordy pie, the mid-to-late ’90s weren’t really fashion highs) but those would be great as well. you will know where the shoes/socks-off boundary is because there will be a ton of shoes just sitting around (no, they won’t get stolen). when in doubt, any time you step onto something raised or brick or marble, you shouldn’t be wearing shoes.
traffic in Yangon is horrible. it took over an hour to get from the airport to my hostel on the southeast side of the city center. there aren’t enough lanes and way too many cars. plan for extra time, especially if you’re going to be traveling during rush hour.
if you take a cab, be sure to agree on a rate before you set off. i paid 3,000 ks from Shwedagon to my hostel, which i think is decent from what i’ve seen. i had my hostel arrange a ride from the airport, which cost $12, which was quite expensive, but at least someone was waiting for me and knew where to go. the ride back to the airport in pre-dawn hours was 7,000 ks, or about $7.
oh, do the circle train (aka circular train) — i’ll have a blog post on that shortly [update: here it is]. best dollar i’ve ever spent.
the domestic terminal at Yangon is old-school. like, a perfunctory security screening and then a big combined check-in area/waiting room. check in at your airline’s counter (there are specific counters for specific flights). you will get a very colorful boarding pass and probably a sticker to wear which identifies your final destination. sit back down and keep an eye out for someone from your airline holding up a sign with a flight number and yelling out that it’s ready for boarding. file onto a bus and off you go! i took Air Mandalay to Bagan: $234 total roundtrip including departure fees payable in cash either at the Air Mandalay office in town 24+ hours before your flight or, in my case, since i arrived in Yangon less than 24 hours before, someone from the airline met me at arrivals. note that you will get paper tickets. i got one booklet for each flight.
chances are you will probably be on a propeller plane. i was allowed to take my rollaboard on, which was a bad idea. they don’t fit in the overhead bins so i was told to place it on the floor in front of me. of course it didn’t fit under the seat so it pretty much blocked everything. luckily no one was sitting next to me. (you may or may not get a seat assignment depending on the flight.) on my way home i checked my bag (still free here! heh). in any case, they don’t care if you have bags at your feet during takeoff and landing, which is fine since the poor plane was packed to the gills both ways.
i can’t even begin to describe Bagan. a vast plain dotted with ancient temples, pagodas, and stupas. Angkor Wat was a bit overwhelming, like KA-POW! but Bagan is more conducive to reflection and discovery. there are some really well-preserved wall paintings inside some of the temples, too. my favorites were the smaller temples in Old Bagan. go there early enough in the morning and you’re the only one there — serene and magical and mystical all at the same time. still, i’d recommend doing Angkor Wat first. having that foundation helped me appreciate Bagan’s vast expanse even more.
if you fly into Bagan (aka NYU), you will be asked to pay the $15 (or 15,000 ks) tourism fee before you leave the terminal. otherwise, there are stations located throughout the area. you’ll get a card that you’ll have to show at random inspections at the temples, but i was never carded.
it cost 7,000 ks for the ride to my hostel in New Bagan from the airport, which is the going rate. i also paid $70 for two days of taxi (the guy who drove me from the airport organized it) to take me around to all the sites (the going rate is $35 per day, splittable if you have multiple people in your party). unfortunately you may not be guaranteed the same driver from day to day. i had two different drivers and i couldn’t tell the second one which temples i visited already so i had some overlap, which i didn’t mind actually. one long first day and a half second day should definitely be enough to see everything in town with a car. also, they are not licensed so they can’t go with you into the sites and their english is probably very limited.
your other transportation options:
- walk (NO — distances too great)
- bike (NO — while this is the most adventurous option, the poor people i saw biking were not having a good time in the heat and dirt roads — sometimes i felt like i was back on safari)
- horse cart (OK — the most traditional option is slow going, so good if you have time)
- e-bike (GOOD — electronic bikes that last the whole day and then some. a good option if you have time and are good with a map. note that riding home at night whether on a traditional bike or an e-bike is risky; good luck in the dark)
- private taxi (if you can afford it, HELL YES to air conditioning and maximizing your time)
why they don’t have tuktuks here i don’t know.
i was told there are three seasons: hot (March to May, temps well over 100°F, i was told), rainy (June-September), and cold (October-February). luckily i came (end of November) during the cold season — cold being highs in the mid- to upper-80s F. i can’t imagine it during the hot season. do not subject yourself to that!
oh, and you may have to use a squat toilet, so familiarize yourself with their use before leaving (deposit your goods at the end away from the drain, then fill the cup provided with water and pour pour pour to flush flush flush away)! also, it wouldn’t hurt to carry some TP just in case (grab some from your hotel/hostel before heading out).
the secret is out of the bag for the “not so busy” temple to watch sunset from. Shwegugyi is in Lonely Planet and while i was assured by my driver it was less crowded, no less than five tour buses pulled up before 5 PM. i got there around 4:15, sunset was about an hour later. expect lots of traffic going back to your hotel/hostel after sunset. if you’re on a bike you may wish to leave before the sun goes all the way down and it gets too dark. that said, it was amazing. A. MA. ZING.