Myanmar; The Unknown Entity
by Elizabeth Johnson
Sunday, September 4, 2016
Although Myanmar has had open boarders for foreign tourists for a number of years, there is little on the internet that is clear an
d complete to help you plan your trip around one of the least well trodden South East Asian countries. After the comfort of 4 months on the backpacker trail from Thailand through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia back to Thailand, the prospect of exploring Myanmar solo was incredibly daunting and I spent hours trawling through blog posts trying to get an idea of what to expect. So here I have compiled the ins and outs o
f my journey in hope that it will lend some courage to any other travellers in my position.
Myanmar doesn’t offer visa on arrival, but visas can be sorted very swiftly. An online visa is available for around 50$ (US) if you plan to fly in the country via Yangon, Mandalay or Nay Pyi Taw airport and, as of September ‘16, for the land boarders Tachileik, Myawaddy or Kawthaung. They weren’t an option for land crossings when I made my trip in early August ’16 and as I intended on making the journey by bus, I opted to visit the embassy in Bangkok.
I took a meter taxi from Khao San at 7AM (150B) which got me to the embassy a little before 8AM, surprisingly quick in Bangkok’s early morning traffic. I sat patiently in the queue until the doors opened at 9AM and was glad I’d made it so early as the queue was fairly substantial by this point and I was close to the front. I had with me my filled in application form which I had printed from the internet, two visa sized photos, my passport, a photocopy of it and exact cash, but there is a van which waits just up the street from which you can buy application forms (5B) and have your photo taken and passport copied if you’ve forgotten anything. We filtered in and each took a ticket number, as number 6 I was in an out in around half an hour. Applications are accepted between 9am and 12pm Monday to Friday. A lady sitting behind a filthy, barred window took my form and passport, enquired which route of entry I would be making and in how many days I would like to collect my visa. I opted for next day, handing over 1,340B (you can pay slightly less for 2 day collection, and more for same day) and my passport and receiving a receipt in return – do not lose this! I had heard you needed a good excuse for the same day visa but a girl in the queue before me was granted it just by asking politely. I took the bus number 15 back to Khao San for 14B, a lot cheaper than the taxi but the journey took at least an hour.
Visa pick up is from 3.30pm to 4.30pm, again I predicted a queue so left Khao San with two hours to spare on the river ferry to its final stop which cost me 30B. From Kheaw Khai ka it was around a 15 minute walk to the embassy. As predicted, there was already a queue when I arrived at 2.20pm, but there were only two people ahead of me. By 3.30pm there were about 20 people in each queue. Once I reached the front I handed over my yellow receipt and received my passport with a whole page taken up for the sticker visa, ready to be stamped into the country!
I booked a bus from Bangkok to Mae Sot (Thai side of the Myawaddy boarder crossing) for 650B from Welcome Travel which is to the right of the Starbucks at the top of Khao San. Although the bus didn’t leave until 9pm I had to be at the travel agents for 4.30pm to catch two minibuses (included in the price) to the bus station. The bus was the comfortable double decker, big cushioned seated type typical of the Thai VIP buses and I was given a black bean bun and some water as well as a food ticket for the rest station half way through the journey. Be prepared to be the only westerner on the bus however, especially if, like me, you go in Myanmar’s low season. Neither the driver nor attendant spoke any English and I became nervous as we approached the still pitch black early morning, not knowing how I would know when we had arrived at Mae Sot. Luckily it is very obvious; a big bus station, labelled Mae Sot, where all remaining passengers get out. From here I paid 50B to take a shared tuk tuk to the boarder crossing where I had to wait around half an hour in the drizzling dark for immigration to open.
I was still the only westerner and although this meant I was front of the queue and directed through immigration in about five minutes, it also meant loneliness was beginning to fester. I was stamped out on the Thai side, was herded over a fenced in bridge and stamped into Myanmar on the other side of the river, still in the dark. Before my visa could even be stamped in I was approached by a man offering me a lift to Hpa An, I decided to take him up on it as the bus station was not easy to find and I was very tired and on edge. He wanted 400B but I got him down to 300B for the 2.5hour journey, and at last I found the company of other English speakers; two Parisians also sharing the car to Hpa An.
Hostels or Lack Thereof
There were no hostels in Hpa An, not ideal for a solo traveller. However there is the fairly sociable Soe Brothers I (around 10$ US a night) which I would recommend as the easiest place to meet other travellers. I stayed in the Soe Brother II (15$ US a night) as I was sold out online but it’s worth going in to check as when I turned up they did have rooms available and II is a fair distance out of town (500MMK motorbike taxi ride).
Nyaung Shwe boasts probably the closest backpacker orientated lodging I saw anywhere in Myanmar – Song of Travel Hostel (14$ US a night). If you
ignore the lack of wifi, this hostel could be anywhere along the standard SEA backpacker trail; breakfast, book swap, dorms and organised activities. It’s slightly pricier but for the atmosphere I would definitely recommend it. Unfortunately this recommendation only comes through visiting it as a guest of someone staying there. I opted for the cheaper Win Nyunt Inn (8$ US a night). My ‘dorm’ consisted of two mattresses on the floor in a room without a locking door or a sink in the bathroom; a half built twin room where I couldn’t choose my roomie. The breakfast they offered on the roof was its only redeeming feature, especially as no-one ever turned up to fill the other bed or any of the other rooms, making it a pretty lonely stay. The main attraction of Nyaung Shwe is the boat trip around Inle Lake, if you’re travelling alone and want to make this cheaper for yourself get to the dock on the canal for 7am at the latest, you may be able to join a group going out. The price is 15,000MMK per boat rather than a price per head. If you are much later though you may find you have to go out alone.
On a friend’s recommendation I stayed in the Royal Bagan in Bagan (17$ US a night). I had booked a bed in a five bed dorm but due to over booking was instead allocated half of a double bed in a family room. I have heard the atmosphere of the dorms is fantastically sociable; the hotel has a pool and very good buffet breakfast too. I wasn’t happy about sharing a bed but relief at finally being in a shared room, if not a dorm, overrode the annoyance and I ended up spending a fantastic three days with my new roomies. Royal Bagan is in the Nyaung U area of Bagan, I would recommend staying here over Old or New Bagan as all three sites are pretty much dirt track towns, but Nyaung U has the very sociable restaurant street (you must try the burgers at Weatherspoons!). Ostello Bello (20$ US a night) has also been highly recommended by friends if you do choose to go for New Bagan. Most hostels will offer the electric bikes you need to get around the temples but you can usually get them cheaper from street stalls, from Royal Bagan turn right and there are two stalls renting them for 5,000 MMK a day within 500m.
City to City
You can bus, train or fly between most cities in Myanmar; there are a surprising number of airports. Personally I chose to take buses everywhere as I have
heard the beds and seats in the trains are rock hard and the tracks so rickety that you can be jolted out of your seat! Unlike almost every other country I
visited in SEA, I found that the prices for a bus ticket were the same almost everywhere, including from the hotel. As these usually included a hotel pick up. I booked all of mine through the hotels I stayed in. I also never opted for VIP as I found the ordinary buses were comfortable enough with wide enough, cushioned seats, even for the 8hr plus journeys and the attendant always let me know when we had arrived at my stop. The only downside being the awful Burmese rock ballads they play from a TV at the front of the bus until late into the night. I had heard horror stories of the states of the roads but couldn’t see where they came from and managed to get a decent amount of sleep on all three of my journeys – they also run more to time than the buses of any other country I visited on my trip. No matter which level of bus you opt for the aircon will be turned down to 16 degrees however, so make sure you bring warm clothes or some sort of blanket as they very rarely provide you with one! I paid 23,000MMK from Hpa An to Nyaung Shwe, 17,000MMK Nyaung Shwe to Bagan and 13,000MMK from Bagan to Yangon.
Good to Know
As Myanmar is still in the early stages of tourism the population isn’t as used to western ways as the rest of the SEA backpacker route. Although I saw tourists dressing in short shorts and strappy tops I would highly recommend opting for something more covering like elephant pants. This earns you more respect from the locals and as such there is definitely a better level of treatment for example when haggling for prices, it also has the benefit of being more convenient for entering the temples and monasteries which are the main sights throughout Myanmar. An umbrella is also very useful as it gets very humid during the rainy season and you may as well be out in the rain in a waterproofed coat with the condensation that builds up under it from sweat; you can buy these all over Myanmar for about 4,000MMK.