It seems that the country of Myanmar has decided that rather than create a no-fly list it will just put together such a long obstacle course that no ill-intentioned person would ever go through the work of visiting the country at all. From obtaining the necessary visa to surviving the local buses, Myanmar is bar-none the most physically difficult country I have ever traveled to. However, I can also tell you it is worth it. But remember if you like it you can only visit for 28 days and you will most likely not be able to return for five years.
First and foremost you must obtain a visa, you are required to go to the visa office in person. This means, for example, that if you are from the United States you will get an extra trip to Washington D.C. along with your trip to Myanmar out of the deal. A better option unless you really want to visit the Lincoln Memorial is to fly to Bangkok, which is widely believed to be the fastest for processing Myanmar visas. I can only presume that the workers at the Myanmar visa office were lonely and therefore the government decided to require an in-person visit, because the visa office was packed when we went to apply for ours.
Even with the crowd at the visa office it was a very easy and efficient process taking only three days when we applied in Bangkok during low season (April-July). You will probably want to allow for up to a week to have your visa processed, just in case, unless you are willing to pay a fee for express service. Like applying for any other visa you will need two small passport sized photos and to complete a short application. In addition you will need a copy of your passport and to pay the visa fee in Thai Bhat, you cannot pay in U.S. dollars.
You must apply for your visa within a month of your departure to Myanmar as it is only valid for thirty days from the date it is put in your passport. The dates that it is valid will be printed on your visa, don’t let this confuse you, the period it is valid is not how long you have to stay in the country it is how long you have until you must enter the country. Once you land in Myanmar they will stamp your passport with the date you entered and the date you must leave (28 days after you arrive).
With your visa in hand you’ll need to book a flight to Myanmar. AirAsia has a flight once a day from Bangkok to Yangon and if you watch the fare sales this can be really cheap. We were able to get our flight, booked three months in advance, for just 80 U.S. dollars round-trip. There are other carriers that fly to Myanmar as well, making getting a flight the easiest part of your preparation.
Once you have your visa and flight figured out you’ll want to do your research. One of the first things you will learn is that the entire country is devoid of ATM’s. This means you’ll need to bring all the money you will need for the duration of your stay with you in the form of U.S. dollars to exchange. Make sure you don’t get just any old dollars, these have to be pristine, new and completely unwrinkled dollars. This is most likely very easy to do from your home country at a bank. If you are on the road you can always exchange local currency to dollars at a bank. We were traveling in SE Asia and were able to get dollars in Cambodia as the ATM’s dispense them.
It is important to bring big bills and to inspect them to make sure that they are 2006 or newer, not creased or folded (especially on the president’s face) and there are no tears or writing on the bills. This may seem exaggerated but any of the above issues will get you a lower exchange rate when you go to trade money. The best rate is given to people who have hundred dollar bills in excellent condition, fifties are given the next best rate, then twenties and tens, but if you have dollars that are in bad shape you run the risk of having them rejected all together. The more you exchange the better rate you get, but the rate only fluctuates about 2%.
The best place to exchange is in Yangon, many guesthouses give competitive rates, but the gem shops at Aung San Market (Scott Market) are the best. Avoid exchanging money at the airport, banks or any other official exchange place as you will get a significantly lower rate. A good rate, when we were there in May 2011, is anywhere between 800 and 850 kyats (pronounced chets) to a dollar. Make sure that you are paying attention when you exchange and if possible have them give you the kyat before you hand over your dollars.
You will pay for all accommodations and government fees with U.S. dollars and typically they are less picky about the condition of your money. You will want to inspect any dollars you get in change as there are counterfeit dollars out there. More than that if they give you dollars in bad condition as change you may have trouble using them.
The real challenges involved with traveling in Myanmar come once you’re there. I would not categorize the travel on the ground ‘easy’, however it is pretty straightforward. Basically all tourists visit the “big four”, which is Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake with a popular fifth stop being Bago where you can make the pilgrimage to see the Golden Rock. Buses travel to each of these destinations and although they are not comfortable they are affordable. You can break up long bus rides with some creative planning, adding extra stops or doing a few legs via boat or train. In addition flying is an option, while not as economical it is reportedly much, much more comfortable
Most backpackers, like us, make the circuit by bus in one direction making a loop from Yangon. This popular route takes you from Yangon to Mandalay (12 hours by bus), Mandalay to Bagan (8 hours), Bagan to Inle Lake (12+ hours) and then Inle Lake to Yangon (17+ hours) in that order, however it can easily be reversed. Bago is an easy overnight or day trip from Yangon if you choose to go. We opted to take the train from Bago to Yangon (5-6 hours) and absolutely loved soaking up the Myanmar countryside as we barreled down the tracks. Be warned bus travel is not easy, particularly from Bagan to Inle Lake, read my first hand account here. However, don’t let this discourage you, the choice to fly won’t cost you too much more.
Flying is an attractive option when you consider how long you will be spending on a bus. When we were there it was only 215 U.S. dollars for a flight voucher that will take you to all four destinations. If you have time and want to explore Myanmar beyond the big four you can visit Myitkyina to the North, Mrauk U to the West and Ngapali Beach to the South, which when we visited could only be accessed by flying. However you decide to travel remember to book your tickets in advance to avoid having to wait an extra day to travel as there are not many buses or flights running each day.
With a little research and a sense of adventure travel in Myanmar can be extremely rewarding. The friendly and helpful people will win you over from the moment you arrive and when it’s time to go you will be looking for ways to extend your visa. So, make sure you bring enough money and enjoy your stay.