Here are some travel tips tailored to the independent traveller in Burma.
Bus: long bus rides
Buses usually stop every three hours. So you can’t reach a toilet all the time. I prepare by not drinking too much the last 5 hours before the bus ride. If you start in the morning, don’t drink coffee or tea for breakfast, because that dehydrates your body and you’ll have to go to the toilet more often.
Bus-stations in Burma are never paved, so keep watching where to walk. Here an example of the bus-station in Yangon:
Eating new foods
Eating new foods or eating spicy can sometimes result in diarrhoea. My advise to you is to try new foods, if you know, you’ll not have a long bus or train ride the next day. If you have one, stick to easily digestible food like fried rice, steamed vegetables, etc.
Getting around on your own
It varies all over the country. In Mandalay it’s no problem to rent a motorbike with or without a driver, while in Bagan, Inle Lake and other places, a bicycle is the best you’ll get to move around cheaply. Renting a taxi for sightseeing for the whole day is not possible for less than 20’000 Kyats, usually rather around 30’000 or more, if distances are greater.
Guest-house and hotel prices
Have gone up 25 to 50% compared to the prices two years ago. This is due to the weakened dollar, a lack in supply of good basic rooms and also due to the rise in tourists numbers, of which they take advantage. For the next high season from November 2012 to January 2013 double the prices you find in any guidebook and you might be near the price you’ll have to pay.
My prognosis for the most basic accommodation types: Expect to pay 7 to 10 USD for a dorm bed, 15 USD for a room with shared bathroom and 20 USD for a simple double room with en-suite bathroom. Take 3 to 5 dollar off this prices for low season from March to October, respectively bargain the price down to this level.
Money issues (take this very serious!)
There are no international ATMs anywhere in Burma (there are local ones, but your card won’t work). This might change in the next two or three years but certainly not immediately.
US dollars are like a second currency and can be used to pay guest-houses, tours, government fees, plane flights and train tickets. Food and bus tickets are paid in Kyat.
The US dollar bills you have to bring in should look like new (no writing, no spots, no bends) and they should be newer than 2006. If the design didn’t change before 2006, they also accept older bills. E.g. I got rid of two 20 dollar bills of 2004.
Tip: If you spend enough time in Bangkok and don’t mind about the double exchange from your currency to Thai Baht and then to US dollars, go to the Bangkok Bank (open Mo – Fr 8:30 am – 3:30 pm) in the Silom area near the BTS Sala Daeng. They are specialised on this. If you mention Myanmar, they will provide you with the right bills.
US dollar exchange in Burma:
Exchange them to Kyat (sometimes also Euros and Singapore dollars) in most banks of the bigger cities (I did it in Yangon, Mandalay and Nyaungshwe/Inle lake) for a good rate.
–> Banks in Burma are only open from 9 am to 3 pm!
For a less good rate you can exchange dollars only in hotels and guest-houses. There is no reason anymore to go to gold shops because of poorer rates there.
In Yangon exchange them at the airport (same rates as in the banks) or at the very right side of Scott market (Bogyoke Aung San Market). Walk to the back there and you’ll see two small money exchange shops with air con inside, where you can take your time to count the money etc.
Tip: After hearing stories about the Burmese being very picky about the quality of the dollar bills I bought a school children pencil case in Big C in Bangkok. My bills were well protected inside and I sometimes got a smile from the Burmese, when they saw it. Here are some pics of it:
Outside, when over 30 degree Celsius (over 86 degree Fahrenheit)
This will happen to you in Bagan and Mandalay for sure. Here are a few rules and suggestions:
Apply insect repellent first (dengue fever mosquitoes are active during the day as well!), when dry, apply sunscreen.
Bring enough water with you. Drink 2 litres on top of your normal consumption.
Wear a hat or something similar to cover your head.
Move slowly. Don’t run around and overheat your body.
Check here whether there will be public holidays during your stay. All banks and most markets are closed on public holiday, so you can’t buy souvenirs on those days.
Tour guides in general
It happened to me several times, that a guide, I rented, just dropped me in front of the attraction expecting me to go there alone, while he would wait outside. So actually most Burmese tour guides you rent for a day are kind of a taxi driver that knows a little more about the attraction, but not really a lot. If you don’t like that, tell the guide that you want him to come with you all the time and explain things. But maybe even then he or she still won’t come with you all the time.
I think, that the Burmese not yet fully understand the concept and our expectations of tourism. Just wanted to let you know about this.
Yangon taxi drivers
don’t speak English so well. One out of four can communicate on a sufficient level. While going to main attractions is ok with all taxi drivers I recommend you to take one, that speaks a good English, if you go to the smaller attractions, that not everybody knows.
I recommend Mr. Ko Min Soe (phone: 0973 046 201, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) to you. He was taking me around half a day to the smaller attractions like the white elephants, the marble Buddha, the reclining Buddha and so on for a fair price. Before that I had a taxi driver who got totally lost and drove me to a hotel with a similar name than the marble Buddha.