Myanmar

Get around

23/04/2013 10:16


Myanmar's infrastructure is in poor shape. As a result of the political situation, Myanmar is subject to trade sanctions from much of the western world, and this can cause problems for unwary travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - although whether these "guides" accompany you to look after you, or to keep you from going to places the government doesn't want you to see, is moot.

Restricted areas

Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travellers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travellers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. In theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit any restricted area or to travel on any restricted land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of time, or at all. Permit requests can be made locally in some cases (for example, requests for the land route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most cases, the request has to be made in Yangon. Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon (Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon). Applications for local permits can often be made at a local MTT office or at a police station. As of writing this, local permits are available only for the following places & routes:

  • Shwebo - Kalewa. A permit is necessary if going by road. It is uncertain whether one is required if going by boat.
  • Kengtung - Tachilek. This used to be straightforward but the availability is now uncertain.
  • Myitkyina - Indawgyi Lake. Easily available in Myitkyina but must travel with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
  • Mrauk U Chin/ Zomi village tours. Easily available in Mrauk U but must visit with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.

All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.

Myanmar is not North Korea, and you are free to walk around, go to shops and interact with the locals. That being said with many of the more far flung places, and places restricted to foreigners it is better to arrange your internal visa in advance. Companies that can help with internal visas.

By plane

The poor state of Myanmar's roads and railways make flying by far the least uncomfortable option of travelling long distances.

State owned and appallingly run Myanma Airways (UB) - not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) "MAI" - is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible.

There are also four privately owned airlines serving the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are Air Bagan (W9), Asian WingsAir Mandalay (6T) and Yangon Airways (YH). While more expensive, they are a safer option and would get you to all the main tourist destinations from Yangon or Mandalay. If you want to plan domestic travel ahead, you can buy Asian Wings tickets on-line.

The private airline companies are usually on time, and even depart early (10-20 min), so be on time and reconfirm your flight and flight time 1-2 days before departure. Sometimes the itinerary might be altered some days before departure (meaning that you will still fly to your final destination on the scheduled time, but with an added or removed in between stop, e.g. Yangon-Bagan becomes Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan). This usually only affects your arrival time. En route stops have only 10-20 min ground time, and if it is not your final destination, you can stay inside the plane during the stop.

Important for Yangon: Yangon international airport serves all domestic flights from the old terminal building. This building is located about 200 m further on the road than the main (new) Yangon International Airport building. When taking a taxi from downtown to the airport, mention to the driver that you are on a domestic flight so you'll not end up in the wrong terminal.

The table below gives some example rates for Air Bagan and Air Mandalay (January 2011) between most visited places in Myanmar (note: these are high season prices, and usually the fare in the opposite direction is the same price. Check for more up to date rates!)

Example fares between important destinations (through local tourist agency)

From

To

Approximate fare

Yangon

Mandalay

US$ 95

Yangon

Bagan

US$ 85

Bagan

Heho

US$ 65

Heho

Yangon

US$ 85

By train

Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, noisy, often delayed, have frequent electrical blackouts, and toilets are in abysmal sanitary condition. Never assume that air-conditioners, fans, or the electrical supply itself will be operational, even if the train authorities promise so. Train stations also charge exorbitant prices from foreign travellers making buses a cheaper and faster alternative. Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Mandalay (Yangon - Pathein and Yangon - Mawlymaing) are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although, in the high season, you may want to reserve a few days in advance (the Yangon-Mandalay trains now run in the daytime only, apparently because the government does not want trains passing Naypyidaw at night). Food service is available on the express up and the express down between Yangon and Mandalay as well as on the Yangon - Mawlymaing run.

Except for the new bridge and rail line that connects Mawlymaing to points on the western side of the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the way it was in British times. The most used line is the 325km line from Yangon to Mandalay with several trains a day (this is also the only double line in Myanmar), and the only one that is competitive in time with buses (note that the fastest trains take 15 hours for the 385km run, an effective rate of 25km/hour!). A second line connects Yangon with Pyay (9 hours for the 175km journey!) with a branch heading off into the delta region town of Pathein. These tracks, the earliest constructed are in poor shape. With the construction of the bridge across the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing (8 hours for the 200km journey) and on to Ye (Ye is closed to foreign travellers). From Mandalay, trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin State (350km in 24hours) and to Lashio. There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan, but bus or ferry are better alternatives (The 175km from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10hrs).

There is a new (as from March 2010) railway service between Yangon-Bagan (16 hours, first class US$30, upper class US$40, sleeper US$50).

The following table summarizes travel time and prices between most visitable places in Myanmar (note: prices are approximate, check with more up to date and reliable sources!):

Train travel times and fares between important destinations

From

To

Time

Ordinary

Upper

Sleeper

Yangon

Mandalay

16 hrs

US$15

US$30

US$40-50

Yangon

Kyaiktiyo

6 hrs

US$--

US$9

None

Mandalay

Pyin U Lwin

4 hrs

US$2

US$4

None

Pyin U Lwin

Hsipaw

7 hrs

US$2

US$6

None

By boat

There is also a large river ferry network. Both are to a large extent run by the government, although there are now some private ferry services. The trip from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a day, from Bagan to Yangon is several days.

By bus

Buses of all types ply the roads of Myanmar. Luxury (relatively speaking) buses do the Mandalay-Yangon run while lesser vehicles can get travellers to other places. Fares are reasonable and in Kyat and, for the budget traveller, there is no other option because of the high price of train tickets for foreign nationals. Many long distance buses assign seats so it is best to book seats at least a day in advance. Because the roads are bad, avoid the rear of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can get. Long distance buses also have an extra jump seat that blocks the aisle and, because it is not well secured to the chassis, can be uncomfortable (which also means that there is no such thing as a side seat where taller travellers can thrust their legs). A window near the front of the bus is always the best option.

A scam about bus tickets seems to be popular in Yangon currently. While many travellers make a stopover in Bago, they are told at their guesthouse or at the bus station it's not possible to buy tickets up there in the direction to Mandalay. In a country where everything might be possible when it comes to transport, some people tend to believe is. Actually, this is not the case and tracking back to Yangon for a bus ticket up north is not necessary at all. Bago has a bus terminal with several bus offices. Buying your ticket at Bago might be slightly cheaper (of course depending upon your bargaining skills) and gives you more freedom for the rest of your journey.

The following table summarises travel times and approximate fares between important tourist destinations in Myanmar (Note: most bus fares have gone up with the recent fuel price rises, the fares listed here are rough estimates):

Bus Travel times and fares between important destinations

From

To

Time

Fare

Yangon

Mandalay

11 hrs

K10400

Yangon

Bagan

10 hrs

K12000

Yangon

Kyaiktiyo

4 hrs

K6000

Mandalay

Pyin U Lwin

2 hrs

K1500

Mandalay

Hsipaw

5.5 hrs

K4500

By pickup

Old Toyota pickup trucks run everywhere in Myanmar, inexpensively ferrying men, women, children, and monks from one place to another. The rear of the truck is converted into a canvas covered sitting area with three benches, one on each side and one running along the centre of the truck (some smaller trucks have only two rows), and the running board is lowered and fixed into place providing room for six or more people to stand on (holding on to the truck frame). Pickups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every town has a central point somewhere from where they depart to places both near and far. Tourists who go off the beaten track will find them indispensable because often the only alternative is an expensive taxi or private car.

The basics of pickups are fairly straightforward, wait till it is reasonably full before heading out. On well traveled routes (Mandalay - Pyin U Lwin, for example), they fill up quickly and the journey is quick. On less well-traveled routes (Bhamo-Katha, for example), passengers arrive (early, usually around 6AM), mark their place, and then hang around drinking tea and chatting until the truck fills up. When the pickup does get moving, it may linger or go out of its way in the hope of picking up more passengers. The inside of a pickup can be hot and uncomfortable - passengers, packed in like sardines, face away from the windows (which are tiny) and into the truck - and standing on the running board can be tiring and tough on the arms! On the other hand, the window side seat next to the driver is very comfortable and well worth the little extra that you have to pay, so it is best to go early and reserve that seat.

By car

You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licenced guides at Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a driver with a car meet you at your hotel. Another way is to arrange for a car through a travel agency, though it can be quite expensive. You can "test" the driver and the car by driving around the city for 10 or 15 minutes. If you are satisfied, a departure date and time and per diem rates (inclusive of petrol) can be negotiated. Some guides are willing to travel with you to serve as interpreters.

Road travel to tourist destinations is generally safe, although some roads may be rough. Highways are often 2-lane, and cars often pass one another recklessly. That being said, driving habits are not quite as aggressive as say, Vietnam. Allow two days to drive from Yangon to Bagan in fair weather. Pyay provides a good midway stopover point. Allow a day to drive from Bagan to Inle Lake.

In cities, it is also considered illegal to cross an amber light without stopping. Despite having crossed 3/4 of the way, you will be required to stop in the middle of the road and make your way back in reverse!

Accidents and fatalities are common. Night-time road travel is not recommended, and medical facilities are extraordinarily limited in rural areas. At government hospitals, bribes may be required for expedient services. Make sure needles are new or carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.

All taxis (and by extension all vehicles for transport of people and goods) have red/white licence plates, while private vehicles have a black/white one. Tourist agency owned cars have a blue/white licence plate.

By bike

In Yangon, riding motorcycles and bicycles is illegal. Mandalay's streets, on the other hand, are filled with both.

On foot

Cars and pedestrians may not follow the established rules, and crossing the road can be difficult. Drivers will almost never yield to pedestrians, even on striped pedestrian crossings.



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