Social icons

Monday, March 25, 2013

Burma Travel Tips


37
Kalaw - Inle Lake Trek

Most backpackers who travel in Southeast Asia do not include Burma in their itinerary. It’s considered to be relatively more expensive, dangerous because of the political climate, too much of a ‘hassle’, and technologically isolated. 

But this is exactly what made Burma so interesting for me. I’ve always tried to give countries like this a chance. People said India and Nepal are not safe places to go to but I had a safe and great time traveling in them for two months. 

I wanted to see and experience Burma for myself. I stayed there for 17 days, I wanted to stay longer if not for the food sickness I experienced twice. But Burma has been worth all the ‘hassles’. I found it gave me such a memorable and unique travel experience.



25
Kalaw - Inle Lake Trek

Burma has so many faces and sides that will captivate you and intrigue you. Captivates in you a way that somehow it feels like you're stepping into an idyllic country side painting. An intriguing side that you can only read in books or those rare moments when a village chief and a taxi driver speak up about freedom and the hope and need for change. These are just some things that make traveling in Burma an experience like no other. 

Hope this post can convince you to go see and experience Burma for yourself, and help you in your planning stage! 

Let’s discuss first the reasons why people don’t seem to want to include it in their itinerary. 


Is it safe to travel in Burma? 

For more than 50 years now, the country has been under the rule of military junta. Several violent protests have been held in its major cities – Mandalay and Yangon – and other towns in the country. Recent developments especially the release of its democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the winning of NDL (National Democratic League) seats in the parliament has somehow changed the atmosphere in the country. But for tourists like us, the country is considered safe. The military or police wouldn’t normally hassle you, most of them would even freely assist you when you need help. 

I believe the only hassle I heard was the possibility of being ripped off while exchanging your dollars in the black market. 

As with any country, precaution is always advised. Just as long as you travel smart and safe, you’ll be fine. The Burmese are one of the nicest and most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered in my travels. 

Is it expensive traveling in Burma? 

The accommodations (which I will discuss further later) are considered not as cheap as that of Vietnam’s or Laos'. Food prices will also depend on where you eat. I guess transportation will determine how cheap or expensive you can travel in Burma. If you have enough time to take buses to go around the country, then transportation costs shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you don’t have enough time and feel like you need to take flights then it would be expensive. Flights are expensive in Burma because they are owned and controlled by the military government. But I highly discourage you from taking flights as a big part of the proceeds go directly to the military government officials, and in turn supports their long rule over the country. 

What are the hassles in traveling in Burma? 

Burma has been closed off from the international market for so long. This is mostly a result of the government’s decision to control the people, and of the economic sanctions imposed by other major countries. Given these, there are no international ATMs in the country. Well, there are two now. It was only last year that these two ATMs are now available in Yangon Airport. Otherwise, only local ATMs exist in the small towns you’ll be traveling in. This means having to bring dollars when you travel. 

It was only a year or two that Burma had internet. So imagine how slow the connection is, and only the major cities have internet. Your international sim/phone cards are of no use in Burma. I had a friend who bought a local sim card but found it costly to make calls to her parents. 

Transportation infrastructure can also be bad in most of the towns you’ll visit. Trains and some buses can also be uncomfortable. But India, Vietnam, and other third-world countries are no different. 

PLANNING FOR YOUR TRIP 

Best guidebook to bring? 

The Lonely Planet Burma was the first ever LP book I bought. And I found it to be very useful and very informative. I suggest you buy it, it’s going to be worth it. They also have an extensive and well-researched section on Burma’s history. They also provide the estimated contribution to the military government per type of transportation/accommodation you use. It's a good guide on independent and responsible traveling around Burma. 

How do I go to Burma? 

Some major international airlines fly to Burma. Cheapest one is Air Asia that flies from Bangkok (DMK Airport), Chiang Mai, and Kuala Lumpur. 

Do I need a visa? 

Yes, one needs a visa to go to Burma. Most people get it in Bangkok. For Filipinos, you can apply in the Myanmyar Embassy in Makati City in front of Makati Cinema Square. The visa application is pretty straightforward, costs USD25 and takes 3-5 days processing. 

Money matters? 

It was only last year that they put 2 international ATMs in the Yangon Airport. Otherwise, all ATMs are local ones. I’m not so sure about Mandalay. So bring all your dollars with you when you go to Burma. And yes, they should be new, crisp, and pristine. They should not be older than 2006 and some people even say that they should not contain serial numbers beginning with CB, BC, or AB. Bring extra dollars and be smart in spending, since it would be a big problem if you run out of cash. Although some major travel agents in Yangon now offer getting cash from credit cards with a fee. Accommodation and bus tickets are normally paid in dollars, so bring short changes. Food especially if not taken from the hostels are paid in kyats. 

Changing dollars? 

I changed a third of my dollars in the airport arrival. They are already competitive compared to the hostels. Of course, the black market still offers the best rates. However, be careful when you go there and make sure you do it as a group. Our friend got ripped off more than USD100 when he did it alone. He got confused because one guy was counting his dollars, the other counting the kyats, and the other chatting him up. So as much as possible, do it as a group.

Is there internet in Burma?

There are now internet cafes in some of the major towns/cities. The fastest (well, relatively) was in Bagan. Our hostel in Inle Lake had wifi but you had to pay extra for it and it wasn't so reliable. But a few weeks without internet wouldn't be so bad, right? I'm sure the landscape, people, and different experiences will make it okay to be isolated from the outside world for a few weeks. ;)

How are the accommodations and how much do they normally cost? 

I was in Burma November last year which was the peak season. If you’re travelling during the same season, I would advise that you book ahead. What we normally did was to call and reserve hostels before we move to another place. We heard that some travellers had to stay at temples because the cheap hostels were full. Most hostels cost around USD15-20 for a double room and they are clean and decent. If you’re traveling solo, it would be best to make friends along the way so you can share the room. The most expensive rooms we got were the USD35 triple rooms in New Bagan. Most backpacker hostels are in Nyaung U. 

How is the food in Burma? 

Daily food cost (three meals and drinks) would normally average USD10-15 depending on the type of food you order. We mostly ate food at the hostels we stayed at since we found food on the street or some restaurants to be a bit oily. And yes, I got sick twice – in Hsipaw and in Mandalay. I found the food in Inle Lake, Kalaw, and Yangon good especially in Inle. Try the avocado salad in one of the hostels near the river before approaching the bridge. But after Inle – Hsipaw, Mandalay, and Bagan – we had quite a hard time looking for good food. 

How do you go around Burma? 

Cheapest option is riding the train. However, it takes a lot of time and is quite uncomfortable. We took buses to get from one place to another. Costs range between USD10-20 dollars depending on the distance. Most hostels can book bus tickets for you. The buses are fairly comfortable. But there will be some buses where the aircon would be too cold so bring a jacket. And bring ear plugs, we discovered that the Burmese LOVE their songs and movies and concerts and they play them loudly even in the early morning. 

I heard that the train ride from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin is scenic, and scary/exciting when it crosses the Gokteik Viaduct. ;) And the boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan is nice too. 

What’s my itinerary in Burma? 

Given how travellers can only visit the central area of Burma, since most places are restricted. Some restricted areas can still be accessed but would require special permits. The major destinations include Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. What I did for 17 days was the following: 

Yangon 
Kalaw 
Kalaw – Inle Lake Trek --> the highlight of my trip in Burma! 
Inle Lake 
Hsipaw for trekking 
Mandalay 
Bagan 
Yangon 

I heard that the area south of Yangon near the Thai border is nice too. There is also the beach area on the western side of the country. Otherwise, there are also small towns in between that can be found in the LP guidebook. 

Is it safe to travel solo in Burma? Especially for women? 

Technically, I travelled solo in Burma. But upon arrival in the airport, I already made a friend. And we met more solo travellers along the way. It was more fun and I was able to save a lot too. I believe Burma is a safe place to travel. People are very helpful and hospitable. 

IMPORTANT THING TO KEEP IN MIND 

People say the laws in Burma are flexible. Flexible only for the military government. Some books and movies even say that there a lot of spies in most public places. People have been put in prison if there is even a hint/rumor that they are talking about politics. It is the number one rule that travellers do not initiate conversations about politics with the locals so as not to endanger them. Or if you accidentally do, stop when you sense a hesitation from them. 

References you can read:
Burma VJ - the series of footages telling the uprising of monks and protesters back in 2007 (which left me in tears)
The Lady – a movie about Aung San Suu Kyi
Emma Larkin’s ‘Finding George Orwell

I hope this helps out in your planning stage, or have encouraged you in some way. To get more excited and convinced, read up on posts about my Burma Trip: