Domestic Travel in Myanmar made easy with this handy travel guide
Most travelers in Southeast Asia are aware of Thailand’s incredible tourist (and domestic) infrastructure, complete with the BTS train system in Bangkok and modern, well-maintained roads, and they make comparisons of neighboring countries as such. This is a bit unfair as Thailand has been building up their infrastructure (especially for travelers and tourists) with a ferocity hardly seen in the rest of the world. Myanmar is seen a direct contradiction to its eastern neighbor in this regard as Southeast Asia’s second-largest country has just now started opening up its borders to the world. What the Golden Land lacks in infrastructure, however, it more than makes up for in beauty and unspoiled landscapes. This friendly guide makes Domestic Travel in Myanmar for the would-be traveler not only easier to navigate the massive country but easier to enjoy themselves in doing so.
Travelers have several options when wandering around the country formerly known as Burma. The best way to get around Myanmar, especially if time is limited and budget isn’t an obstacle, is to fly from destination to destination. Domestic tickets generally run $100 a piece, however price fluctuates due to the time of year you’re looking to travel. The ‘tourist season’ occurs during the dry season, from the months of October to May/June. The Monsoon season (rainy season) typically begins around June and lasts until September and prices tend to be a bit lower during this period.
Domestic airports are quite small which makes travel much faster and easier. Daunting airports like the mile-long walk of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, don’t exist yet in Myanmar and, opposed to the same city’s Don Muang Airport, you won’t have to wait an hour to grab a taxi or rental car.
Pro-Tip: Flying in Myanmar makes for incredibly-quick travel, maximizes your time in the country and allows you to see much more if budget is no issue.
Another option for domestic travel in Myanmar is by bus or private rental car. The roads in Myanmar are quite dated and in various states of disrepair, especially outside of the three main cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. Dirt roads are also numerous as are one-lane highways. It is a terrific option, however, for tourists and those whose time is limited and/or budget is a factor in your travels through Myanmar.
It has to be stated that road safety can be a real concern in the Golden Land. While traveling in a private car allows travelers the freedom of setting their own schedules and making stops at any of the incredible sites (and sights!) that dot this wonderful country, there are few streetlamps (if any at all!) and the drivers are notoriously quick and sometimes a bit too aggressive and reckless in their motoring around the land. Taking a bus allows someone else to handle the driving issues and allows the traveler to take in the incredible landscape of the Golden Land. Most destination-to-destination tour buses are well air-conditioned (always bring a sweater if the driver decides to make liberal use of the AC) and are comfortable. Buses are recommended for backpackers who want to save some extra cash.
Minibuses are another option for getting around the country but cost a considerable bit more. Since there is a dearth of roads in Myanmar, it may take upwards of around two to three times the length of regular travel to get to a destination only a few hundred kilometers away. During the Monsoon (rainy) season, some roads and paths in Myanmar can be completely washed out leaving your only option to take a flight.
Pro-Tip: Backpackers and travelers on a budget should consider taking a bus from destination to destination in the Golden Land. The more adventurous should consider car rental if budget isn’t a large concern and minibuses make for another (albeit slightly more expensive) alternative in order to take in the brilliant landscape of Myanmar while staying on the road.
A few final options to getting around Myanmar are, in certain locations, to travel by boat and train. The immaculate Mergui Archipelago (or Myeik Archipelago) in the southern Tanintharyi Region requires a boat to get around from pristine and untouched island to island. Further options for boating adventures include the slow and fast boats from Sittwe to the ancient capital of Mrauk U in the northwestern Rakhine State and from the fourth-largest city of Myanmar and capital of Mon State, Mawlamyine, to the capital of Karen State, Hpa An, on the Thanlyin River. Boat trips are generally safe and vary in time based on the season you’re traveling in. During the Monsoon season, boat rides are usually quicker while in the dry season rivers flow much slower. River boats have been known to run aground during the dry season so keep that in mind while venturing the fascinating waterways of Myanmar.
Traveling by train in Myanmar is another option for travelers however they are often crowded and are much slower than taking a bus. In fact, this is the slowest form of travel in Myanmar if you aren’t taking into account trekking! If time is no obstacle, then travelers are treated so incredibly scenic views of the impressive landscapes of Myanmar all from the relative comfort of upper class or overnight-sleeper carriages. An important aside is that not all train routes are accessible to foreigners. Make sure to check ahead of time whether or not it is permissible to take a route that may go through a restricted or unsafe area.
Pro-Tip: Traveling by boat is an absolute must if you are in the south of Myanmar or heading to one of Myanmar’s more mysterious and exotic destinations. It can be a bit pricy but it’s well worth the expenditure. Traveling by train requires and inordinate amount of time but on the plus side, you can catch some incredible views as well as get a decent night’s sleep. Book your visit to the Yangon Circular Train by Clicking Here (http://flymya.com/tour-package/27) or Click Here (http://flymya.com/package-location-lists) to catch a boat in the Mergui Archipelago.
Personal Security in Myanmar
Myanmar is an incredibly safe country to travel in. As most of the conservative country adheres to the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, crimes such as thievery, rape/harassment and worse are incredibly rare (especially against foreigners)! Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and second-largest city, is considered to be the safest large city in the entirety of Southeast Asia. Some of the only seedy behaviors you’ll see in Myanmar are panhandlers, black-market money changers and the occasional ‘lady of the night’ in one of the big cities. If you happen to be in one of these situations with one of these individuals, you’ll be shocked by how genuinely friendly the people of Myanmar are.
Be Advised: As a newly-opened country, Myanmar allows foreign travelers complete freedom of movement throughout all the big cities and tourist sites. There are, however, certain regions were security issues are primary concerns as well as remote border regions which are poorly populated and remain off limits to foreigners. Some areas still require special permits to access them so you’ll have to check ahead of time before heading off ‘into the bush.’ FlyMya recommends carrying photocopies of your passport, visa and any special permits you’ve received during your stay in the Golden Land. Officials may demand them.
The major security issues in Myanmar lie within the border regions, where populations are scarce and armed ethnic groups claim sovereignty. A ceasefire was signed several years ago putting a halt to most of the conflicts while a country-wide peace treaty is being drafted and worked on as we speak (or in this case, read). Foreign observers are optimistic that it will be signed shortly after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s (NLD) party takes office. Until the official agreement is signed, it is advised to steer clear of these areas until the political situation calms down.
As far as personal security goes, foreigners should be advised of the aforementioned current state of Myanmar’s roads, poor state of pavement and sidewalks (watch out for gaps in the concrete!) and stray dogs. Packs of stray dogs may follow you at night (when they are most active) and avoid serious injury by always walking in a group and try not to pet them. Rabies shots are recommended when traveling to Myanmar and you can find out more about which vaccinations to get by Clicking Here.
Walking alone at night isn’t necessarily dangerous for female travelers (though always use caution when traveling abroad or in any big city). Certain religious sites prohibit women from entering and when at the Golden Rock Pagoda at Mount Kyaiktiyo, for example, women are forbidden from touching the rock itself. Even at Inle Lake, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda has several golden globes with religious significance that women are forbidden to touch. They may enter the pagoda itself, however. Women are also encouraged to blend in with the very conservative and Buddhist religious culture in Myanmar. Keeping shoulders and knees covered is recommended, not to mention respectful of the locals and their culture.
Disabled travelers or those with certain medical conditions may find it hard to not only receive proper medical care while in Myanmar but getting around can be a challenge in and of itself. A seriously-lacking infrastructure means wheelchair accessibility is incredibly low and private transportation arrangements will be needed. Travelers with medical conditions should bring all the necessary medications and extra equipment along for their journey. It’s difficult to find proper medication and healthcare of a “Western standard” in the Golden Land.
Dehydration is another main concern for travelers in Myanmar. Make sure to drink plenty of bottled water (don’t drink the tap water!) and if needed, bring along rehydration salts for the trip. Myanmar is one of the hottest and most humid countries in the world and in certain months can make long trips outdoors even more challenging. If you plan on eating street food, keeping some Loperamide or Imodium handy is a great idea. Traveler’s diarrhea in a region as hot and humid as Myanmar is can lead to severe dehydration, not to mention unpleasant travels. Food preparation and storage in Myanmar is of a much different standard than westerners are used to, so check restaurants beforehand and steer clear of food that’s been sitting out all day long. Pro-Tip: Check out the queues and those sitting at restaurants. As a good rule of thumb, if you see only male taxi drivers eating street meats – stay away. If you see women and children – chow down!
Fend off mosquitos with liberal amounts of bug spray! Mosquitos are conduits of many different diseases in Southeast Asia and the last thing any traveler wants is a quick exit to Bangkok for treatment of Dengue Fever or any of the other ailments that plague the tropical jungles. Taking malaria tablets is also highly recommended if you plan on traveling outside of the major cities of Yangon, Mandalay or Nay Pyi Taw.
Miscellaneous Information for a Pleasant Journey in Myanmar
As with all developing countries, Myanmar has areas with unreliable electricity or even little to no electricity at all. Keep this in mind when venturing out of the main cities and be prepared for power outages in the main cities. Power outages usually last anywhere from five to ten minutes in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw and depend on the availability of a backup generator. The “flashlight” app on your smartphone is a great modern-day solution to outages at night and most cell phones nowadays have a front light and back light option already built in. Travelers are encourage to bring a universal adapter for their electronic devices, however most luxury hotels and higher-end apartment buildings have multiple plug types to fit both American, European and Asian devices. Voltage in electrical sockets is generally between 220-240 volts.
The Myanmar people are very conservative yet they take a very “Californian” approach to time management, if you pardon the figure of speech! Most shops and businesses fail to operate on a fixed clock and generally open between 8am and close at 9pm. Banks and government offices are stricter in their timekeeping, usually opening from 9:00am and closing around 4:00-4:30pm.
Speaking of differences in timekeeping, Myanmar is unique in its own time zone and has no daylight savings time. Clocks are set in GMT +6½.
The Golden Land has a very long and rich history along with a close relationship to its tradition. That being said, there are many Public Holidays which are celebrated wholeheartedly with festivals, parades, parties and more. Chances are you’ll be in Myanmar for one of them. The largest holiday of them all is the week-long water festival held every April marking the beginning of spring. Thingyan (pronounced “Tin-Jon”) is celebrated by dousing everyone around you with water… all the time. Pro-Tip: Carry your cellphone, wallet and any other valuable item in a sealed plastic bag. It does not matter whether you are in a suit dressed for work, elderly, a child, etc. You will be drenched in water wherever you go.
Here is a full list of Public Holidays for the year 2016. Plan your trip accordingly to celebrate certain festivals in different cities. For example, Thadingyut is especially rememberable in Yangon. Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda at night during the Myanmar Festival of Lights for an incredible experience.
January 1st – International Independence Day
January 4th – Myanmar Independence Day
February 12th – Myanmar Union Day
March 2nd – Peasants’ Day
March 22nd – Tabaung Full Moon
March 27th – Military Day
April 13th – Thingyan Water Festival
April 17th – Myanmar New Year
May 1st – Labor Day
May 20th – Kason Full Moon (Celebration of the Buddha’s birthday)
July 18th – Waso Full Moon (Dhammasetkya Day)
July 19th – Martyrs’ Day
October 15th – Thadingyut Full Moon (The Myanmar Festival of Lights and ending of the Buddhist Lent)
November 13th – Tazaungmon Full Moon
November 23rd – National Day
December 25th – Christmas Day
Nowadays, most communications are sent via email, SMS, WhatsApp, Viber and a host of digital services. If you’re in need of ‘snail mail,’ post offices are available in all major cities but packages and items take inordinate amounts of time to ship. Even Inle Lake has a post office on the water and the wooden structure stands on bamboo stilts in the middle of the lake! DHL Express and EMS maintain offices throughout the country and ship internationally.
For international travelers and foreigners in need of assistance from their countries of origin, many countries now maintain either Embassies and/or Consulates in Yangon (this is as opposed to the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw). For a full list of contact information, addresses and more, Click Here
A Quick Word on Responsible Travel
The country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is an unbelievably beautiful country with a people among the friendliest and most generous in the world. A very difficult past under a harsh military rule hasn’t jaded them to the prospect of engagement with the outside world yet their isolation has left them mostly impoverished and uneducated.
For the responsible tourist, go ahead and feel free to spend locally. Governmental control over much of the country’s infrastructure, including phone services and transportation services, leaves plenty of room for them to profit but to ensure your money is going to the locals, shop at small markets and buy your gifts and handcrafts from small-time vendors. Eat at delicious local restaurants! This is perhaps the most important thing you can do when visiting the Golden Land.