Myanmar remains relatively unexplored territory; however, since 2012 it has begun to change – bringing many of the conveniences that make travel easier. The fact the country is opening up means that many of the barriers to easy and comfortable travel are being eroded.
With change at such a pace it is likely that you will hear stories about travel Myanmar that are no longer true. Things like there are no ATMs and a shortage of accommodation, might be enough to put you off planning a trip, but having been recently I can assure you this is no longer the case.
In this article I want clarify some things about travel in Myanmar and give you some facts based on my first hand experience of the country as of November 2016.
Myth #1: There are no (or limited) ATMs in Myanmar
“Make sure you take crisp, new US dollars into Myanmar and exchange them all in the big cities. There isn’t anywhere else to get money.” – an over dramatic warning that many people have heard since the country first opened to travellers. People went so far as to tell you that you had to find US dollars with specific serial numbers on them.
Thankfully this is not the case. There are now (and have been for a while) ATMs everywhere in Myanmar. They accept foreign bank cards and dispense the local currency – Myanmar Kyats (ks).
ATMs are accessible from when you arrive at the airport to the major cities and now in some of the smaller towns. There are often multiple ATMs from different banks lumped together and they seem to accept most international cards. The ATMs usually charge between 5000ks – 6500ks (approx. $5AUD) for a withdrawal and the common withdrawal limit is 300,000ks.
The Myanmar Kyat is a closed currency, which means you technically should not take it out of the country and will not be able to exchange it once you leave Myanmar. Try to only withdraw what you need to spend, unless you know someone else planning to visit Myanmar in the coming months.
Like other parts of Southeast Asia, it is a good idea to carry some US dollars with you anyway and this can act as a helpful buffer when working out how much you need. A lot of places like hotels or more expensive restaurants will accept USD and they will calculate the exchange based on the official government rate or something around that. If you have some USD try to spend these last because you can at least take these out of Myanmar and exchange them when you leave.
There are now (and have been for a while) ATMs everywhere in Myanmar.
The beautiful botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin.
Myth #2: You can’t buy a SIM card in Myanmar
After reading our Lonely Planet and doing a quick search I came to the conclusion that getting a SIM card in Myanmar would be extremely expensive or perhaps impossible. However, as soon as we arrived in Mandalay airport we were greeted by a large Ooreddo stand – the SIM card network we used for our two weeks. There are others, but this was advertised everywhere and topping up our credit was simple.
The SIM card itself was 1,500ks and the package we bought was 2,000ks for a week of data – less than $4 isn’t exactly expensive! The internet isn’t the fastest, but this is the case across Myanmar and in a lot of the hotels as well. Just part of visiting a less developed country.
You can buy phone cards to top up your SIM credit at most of the little shops all over the country. Just purchase the voucher and follow the steps to top up. Then once you get a confirmation text that the credit has been added you can type *133# to select a data package that suits your needs. This is the most cost effective way of buying data as opposed to just letting your credit balance run down.
Myth #3: There’s a shortage of accommodation
I have heard from those who have visited Myanmar a few years ago that the accommodation situation was pretty dire. People could wander around for ages looking for rooms are still only manage to find However, I am pleased to say that in my experience this time this proved that wrong. We booked most of our accommodation online in advance through a combination of Agoda, Booking.com and Hostelworld.
Unlike other parts of Southeast Asia many of the places we did want to stay in seemed to be filling up quite quickly so we felt a need to book things further in advance than we would otherwise. I think this is partly because many people go to Myanmar for shorter periods and therefore they plan their trip a bit more than when free travelling.
We found very comfortable double/twin rooms, mostly with ensuite for between $15-30 USD a night. Rooms tended to always include breakfast. The standard free breakfast in Myanmar tends to be bread and eggs is pretty rubbish for those seeking gluten free, but I did manage to get rice at most meals to replace bread. I cover how to explain that you cannot eat bread in this article on gluten free in Myanmar.
While accommodation is more expensive than Thailand and Vietnam, there are also cheaper dormitory and more basic options. If you are happy wandering around to find a place to stay when you arrive in a destination then of course you can do this, but we had a lot of success booking everything in advance.
The incredible temples of Bagan.
Myth #4: Tours are better, because it’s too difficult to organise your own travel in Myanmar.
For very cautious travellers this might be the case, but today Myanmar is a very easy place to organise independent travel. Pair a guidebook with the internet and you won’t find it difficult to find information on the best tourist attractions, great value accommodation and restaurants that cater to your needs. Organising a SIM card with mobile data is always the first thing that we do when we arrive in a new country. This is made so much easier by the fact there are usually mobile phone providers with booths set up at major airports. They do everything for you so within five minutes you can have working mobile data and the benefit of Google maps, Trip Advisor etc on your phone.
Almost all travel can be organised online in Myanmar too now. Most bus companies have their own website and booking services so getting on a bus is very easy. We only used VIP services, which are definitely worth the extra $5-10USD for extra space, water and comfort. Here are some good websites for booking your bus. Just book and pay online and then show your email when you arrive at the bus terminal.
Helpful bus booking websites
Organising train travel is a little more complicated, but definitely still achievable online. Because you need a copy of your passport to buy train tickets there are less companies that can organise train travel for you. We used 12go.com to book a train from Yangon to Mawlamyine and simply had to upload a copy of our passport photo pages and then pick up the train tickets at a specified location.
Travel between major tourist destinations can also be done in a private taxi for not a huge amount more than some of the bus fares will cost. If you are in a group of three or more, or manage to pull together some other people then do consider a private car. We took two and it meant we could set off at our convenience, rather than very early in the morning or late at night. The problem with many night buses in Myanmar is that they arrive at horrendous times, like 3:30am, and at this point you may as well pay for a night of accommodation.
Myth #5: It’s changed – you have to go now.
Everyone likes to say that they went somewhere at the ideal time. And it seems that this is especially the case for travellers to Myanmar. Due to its formally closed status there was and remains something unique about a trip to this beautiful country. However, from my experience there we have a good ten years to go before the country is, as some would say, ‘ruined’ by tourism. In my opinion countries like Thailand and Vietnam, despite record levels of foreign travellers remain wonderful places to go on a holiday or backpack.
My partner went to Myanmar in January 2013 and again with me in November 2016. In those four years he said he only noticed a few major changes to the country, that being the availability of nice and good value accommodation, more Western food options and the presence of e-bikes in Bagan. He said there were a few more foreign faces in major tourist areas like Inle and Bagan, but this was starting to happen on his previous visit.
Myanmar people remain probably the most-friendly, outgoing and helpful people I have encountered in all my travels and I honestly cannot see this characteristic changing. What may change is they get more confident in their English speaking ability and the depth of your conversations with local people improves further.
I am a strong advocate of people visiting Myanmar now, next year or in five years because it is and will remain a beautiful country with wonderful people. The rest, in my opinion, is peripheral.
So what if there are a few more Western faces at your hostel?
There is still a particular type of traveller that goes to Myanmar and in my experience they were the kinds of people I wanted to get to know on my travels.