Myanmar travel guide for Filipinos 1: Pre-departure and general concerns

I decided to leapfrog over a year’s worth of pending drafts and backlog to create this Myanmar travel guide primarily for 2 reasons: (1) I want to do this while all details of the trip are still fresh in my mind.  A few months from now, I would have already forgotten half of them and more so if I let a year pass without writing down anything.  And (2) I want to come up with a guide that is still relevant.  As I mentioned before, a lot of changes are happening in Myanmar, and at a fast pace at that.  It would be pretty much a waste of time to make a travel guide no one can use.

PRE-DEPARTURE MATTERS

I found that Myanmar is a type of country where the act of preparing to visit it is much, much harder than when one is already there.  The two main difficulties that one would encounter are (1) securing a Myanmar tourist visa (no exemption for passport holders of ASEAN countries); and (2) getting “acceptable” U.S. dollars.  These, as well as some other concerns, are discussed below:

Visa

(IMPORTANT UPDATE:  As of December 5, 2013, the Philippines and Myanmar signed an agreement granting Filipino visitors to Myanmar visa-free entry for up to 14 days.  This means that you can disregard this entire section on securing a Myanmar visa if your visit does not exceed that specific duration.)

On paper, Myanmar’s tourist visa requirements are pretty simple and straightforward.  Most people I’ve come across who have applied for it have been approved without any adverse incident and have gotten them after 3 business days, as promised.  However, some individuals in my group encountered difficulties that I must share, just so you could set your expectations.  But first, here are the requirements:

1. A passport valid for at least 6 months from the intended date of arrival in Myanmar, as well as a photocopy of the information page.
2. 2 Passport-sized photos with white background, along with a CD containing a soft copy of the picture.*
3. A valid ID and a photocopy of it.  (Only the photocopy will be collected.)
4. Visa fee of either PHP 1,100 or USD 25.**
5. Copy of flight itinerary and information on hotel/lodging reservations.
6. A filled out visa application form***. (To be provided by the embassy)
7. A signed waiver stating that you will not write or say anything negative against the government of Myanmar.  (Same document as #6)

*#2 is particularly irksome because the embassy has a very specific requirement for the dimensions AND file size of the soft copy.  In our case, our soft copy was rejected because the file size was too big, (…even if the dimensions were correct.  Apparently, nobody in the embassy knows how to resize photographs.)  So we had to spend more cash having the Kodak branch in Makati Cinema Square resize our photographs and burn it on a new CD.  By the way, when applying as a group, all members of the group can store their photo files in just one CD.  The file name should be one’s full name.  Anyhow, if unsure about the size of the soft copy, it would be best to spare oneself the trouble and just have a photo taken at Kodak in Makati Cinema Square.

**#4 is rather confusing.  When I was doing my research, most online sources had conflicting information on whether one needs to pay in PHP or USD.  Eventually, it turns out that it depends on the temperament of the embassy staff who accepts the application on a particular day.  Supposedly, all payments should be in USD ($20) and that it should be directly deposited to some Chinabank account number that they will provide.  However, I suspect the embassy staff began to accept PHPs as a way to make money, while providing visa applicants the convenience of no longer leaving the embassy to go to a faraway location just to pay.  TIP: Bring both denominations when applying.

***The only thing of concern about #6 is the item which asks for one’s occupation.  Blogs are pretty unanimous in warning that a visa application might possibly be rejected if the listed occupation has anything to do with the media.  But since the embassy does not ask for any proof of employment, it’s perhaps better to just give a different occupation  (i.e., lie about it.)  Just make sure to select an occupation that’s realistic and unassuming.  The point is to not make the embassy too curious about one’s application.  Although I’ve heard recently that journalists are no longer prohibited from entering Myanmar (they supposedly have their own visa category), it’s still best not to be a target of suspicion by the government.

Now, if everything goes well, the visa will be released after just 3 working days.  However, personal experience in our case was quite different.  For one thing, 3 out of 7 in our group had errors in their visas.  And 2 out of those had errors in their listed gender.  This was the cause of so much stress before our trip that one of us even contemplated not pushing through with the whole thing.  Fortunately, it got resolved in a satisfactory manner, and in hindsight, the whole episode was hilarious.  Two of my companions blogged about it.  Click here and here.

The Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is located at the following address:

8th floor, Gervasia Corporate Center,
Amorsolo Street, Makati City
+632 893-1944; +632 812-3644
(right across the Makati Cinema Square)

Money

The general travel warning that Myanmar banks and money changers only accept flawless US dollar notes is still mostly true.  By flawless, I mean no folds, no creases, no wrinkles, no discoloration nor damage of any kind – no matter how slight.  They should be as crisp as the day they were printed.  On top of that, they generally only accept notes that were printed 2006 onwards.  Notes that fulfill all of these requirements are surprisingly difficult to find because most money changers in the Philippines mark the bills they have for security purposes, thereby making them no longer flawless.

For our group, we had an advantage in the person of my girlfriend, Ann, who works in a bank.  In addition to being able to request for flawless notes, she also was able to secure a favorable peso-dollar exchange rate.  So yes, having a friend who works in a bank really does help and it might be a good idea to take advantage of this connection.  Just be mindful that this might inconvenience your friend so it’s better to ask nicely.  It is imperative that these flawless notes are in one’s possession as much as 1-2 months before the intended travel date.  And once one has them, put them in a case where they’ll remain flat and crisp throughout the trip.

The ideal mix is to have a few $100 notes and lots of smaller denominations.  $100 notes is for exchanging to the local currency, kyat (pronounced “chat”, abbreviated as MMK.)  As for the smaller bills, they are needed for certain transactions that accept USDs as payment, such as the entrance fees of some tourist spots and most hotels and lodging houses in Myanmar.

(As for changing money in Myanmar, this is discussed in one of the succeeding sections below.)

Making an itinerary/budget

Making an itinerary takes months of researching, planning, inquiring and consulting.  With all the details that come into play in planning for a trip to Myanmar, it would help if one has a pre-made working itinerary (or a template, so to speak) to give one an idea of how to go about things.  For my own template, I found Ferdz Decena’s own itinerary as an excellent starting point.  From there, I just updated, customized and changed details as befits my own schedule and preferences, based on more updated information I found in blogs and other online sources.

Because Ferdz’ itinerary has been a great help to me, I’m paying it forward by publishing my own itinerary and budget for the use of everyone.  It can be found here.  It’s still pretty relevant as our trip was just last September 2013, but it’s always wise to cross-check information just to be sure.

Making hotel/guesthouse reservations

Photo courtesy of Jyse Salubre.

Lodging rates in Myanmar are generally expensive.  Even their off-peak rates for “budget” guesthouses/inns would put a dent on a budget traveler’s finances.  Making things worse is the fact that while service is generally good, the condition of the rooms themselves can range from unremarkable at best, and deplorable in the worst case scenario.  If a person opts for the cheapest rooms available, then he/she must be prepared to stray a bit further from their comfort zone.

Where to start?  Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet are good starting points.  The way I did it is that I consulted these 2 sites on which budget lodging houses have generally good reviews.  Then I Googled their names to see if they had a website with contact information.  Once I got those, I emailed each one to inquire as to the rates and room availability for the dates of trip.  Although calling up their number is also an available option, e-mail is cheaper and I would be able to be as detailed as possible with my inquiry that way.

Credit cards are still largely not in general use in Myanmar so reservation vie e-mail and/or phone call is still the preferred method.  At least one inn that we stayed at allowed reservations via Facebook private messaging.  However, a number of hotels and lodging houses can already accept reservations through Agoda.  As I’ve never used Agoda myself, I can’t really expound on this option.

For now, Myanmar lodging houses do not require any deposit at all in reserving rooms for clients.  Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen.  But I speculate that as Myanmar’s tourism industry develops, it would retain this system for the lower-cost lodging houses, just like in the more developed tourism destinations of Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap.

Some things to consider in selecting a lodging house:

  • Are the rates for aircon or non-aircon?
  • Does it offer free airport pickup or drop-off?  (In the case of Yangon)
  • Does it have in-house tour services?
  • Does it offer free breakfast?
  • Does it have Wi-Fi?

(The names of the specific lodging houses that we stayed at in Myanmar and their contact information will be provided in part 2 of this travel guide.)

Solo or group travel?

Photo courtesy of Jyse Salubre

This is perhaps the most important singular piece of advice to enable one to cut down on costs while in Myanmar – Go as a group!  It’s pretty much common sense everywhere, but it’s especially true in Myanmar where lodgings, transportation and food all conspire to make things more expensive for the solo traveler.  Traveling as a group will enable one to reduce lodging expenses in Myanmar to as low as 1/3, and transportation expenses to as low as 1/5 the amount that you would expect to spend if traveling solo.

So go look for friends and family who might want to join you.  If none of them are interested, then take a risk and travel with strangers.  It’s a great way to meet new friends.  Online forums are a good place to start if you want to look for travel buddies.

In my experience, I originally intended to travel to Myanmar alone.  But I was fortunate enough to have 2 colleagues at work who were also interested in joining.  I also left an open invitation in an online forum which resulted to another 3 people (whom I previously have not met yet) joining our group.  Finally, at some point during the preparations, I gained a girlfriend, who, it turns out, was also very eager to join us.  We found that 7 people in a group is a good number because we fit perfectly in a rental aircon van, which was a very convenient way to travel long distances within a city, and cost much less per person than if traveling alone while being driven around in a taxi or motorcycle.

GETTING THERE

Photo courtesy of Jyse Salubre

There are no direct flights from the Philippines to Myanmar.  The most conventional route for Filipino budget travelers to get to Myanmar is to fly to either Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok (via Cebu Pacific) and then take another flight going to Yangon (via AirAsia).  Lately, another entry point into Myanmar opened up for budget travelers when AirAsia introduced the Bangkok-Mandalay route.

Given that 2 flight legs are involved, air expenses going to Myanmar are not cheap, so it is important that one takes advantage of seat sales when they occur.  Seat sales can dramatically reduce air fares to just a fraction of their full rate.  The best way to be updated on the latest seat sales is by subscribing to the low-cost carriers’ accounts in the social media – especially Facebook and Twitter.  It would also be a great help if one has a smartphone with both FB and Twitter apps in order to be updated at the soonest possible time and to spread the word to one’s travel buddies.

In this age of seat sales, literally every second counts and a moment of hesitation will almost certainly mean somebody else being able to get that discounted seat that one is trying to book.

GENERAL TIPS

So you’ve made it to Myanmar and have breezed through immigrations and customs.  Now what?  The good news is, everything’s easier from that point onwards.  But it’s still important to keep in mind the following:

Changing money in Myanmar

The old advice of exchanging just a minimal amount in the Yangon Airport upon arrival and exchanging the rest of one’s money in the black market in Bogyoke Aung San Market is no longer good advice. In recent years, the government has loosened its grip on the “official” exchange rate, making it a lot closer to the actual rate in the market. As a result, the black market has been rendered obsolete and the money changers in the Yangon Airport have consequently become the best places to exchange Benjamins for kyats. (A dramatic reversal of roles, as airport money changers rates were once viewed as almost extortionate.)

At the time of our visit (September 22, 2013), we were able to exchange money at the previously unheard-of rate of MMK 970 per USD 1. (We planned our budget using an MMK 887 conversion in mind, so we unexpectedly were given a lot of kyats.) Ann and I got so much small MMK notes in exchange that the money changer stall actually closed after their transaction with us. Fortunately for those behind us in the line, there were 4 other stalls to exchange money from at basically the same rate.

There are of course other money changers in the cities, mostly banks, and their rates are close to what can be found at the Yangon airport. Even hotels can offer to exchange USD, but at markedly less-favorable rates. So it’s a good idea to be conscious of one’s overall budget and to do all the needed money changing at the Yangon Airport.

Note: Don’t get too emotionally attached to your crisp Benjamins as you will most likely get bundles of old crumbling kyat notes in exchange. That’s just the way it is. Not too much of a concern because even old crubling kyats are accepted for commerce.

Question: Do they exchange MMKs directly with PHPs? Answer: No. The only other currencies that can be exchanged are euros and, to a much lesser extent, Singaporean dollars. That’s it. And same as in other countries, notes of higher denomination get more favorable exchange rates than lower ones.

Some blogs advise travelers to hold on to their money exchange receipts in order to be able to change back into dollars some leftover kyats at the end of one’s trip. In our experience, we were able to exchange back to dollars at the Yangon Airport even without this receipt, but it’s probably a good idea to hold on to it just in case.

TIP: If you have the option of paying in USDs, then pay in USDs because you end up paying less in the process. For example, the entrance fee at the Shwedagon Pagoda is listed at “USD 5 or MMK 5,000″. If we use the “MMK 970 = USD 1” rate, it’s clear that paying in kyat would cost you MMK 150 more than if you paid in dollars.

Clothing

Photo courtesy of Ann Umaña

A visitor to Myanmar will be walking around a lot, and as such, outfits that balance freedom of movement with comfort and ventilation is ideal.  This is especially true in Bagan and Mandalay where the weather is much drier than in Yangon.  Wearing upper garments made up of dry fit material is always a good idea.

In addition, with Myanmar being a devoutly Buddhist society, clothes should typically comply with the general sense of Buddhist decency.  This means upper garments should not expose the shoulders and shorts should generally be cut below the knee.  This is true for both men and women.  During our visit, black leggings on women was permitted in the temples.

Footwear

Flip-flops are all the footwear that a tourist will ever need in Myanmar. Here’s why:

The country is famous for its temples and a visitor will unavoidably be visiting a few of them during his/her stay. And in all temples, no matter how grand or small, no matter how clean or filthy, any kind of footwear must be taken off when entering them. No exceptions. As such, flip-flops are perfect because one can just slip them on and off very easily. If concerned about one’s footwear being stolen, then simply just bring a plastic bag where it can be stowed. (But really, theft of footwear is such an embarrassingly petty crime for the Burmese that no one even thinks about doing it.)

One can opt for more fashionable footwear, of course, just as long as they have the same convenience as wearing flip-flops. Occasionally, in temples, one will encounter “shoe deposit donation” boxes, wherein for an unspecified minimal donation, one can leave one’s footwear for safekeeping. Although it’s not required (nor necessary), the donation amount can be so minimal that one can afford to be generous. (Otherwise, just bring a bag.)

Wet tissues and alcohol are essential supplements to foot care if one is particularly concerned about hygiene. During our trip to Mt. Popa, we went up a mountain barefoot while basically stepping on monkey piss and shit the entire time.  Cleaning our feet was something we all did before leaving the place.

Food

Photo courtesy of Ann Umaña.

For me, there are only 2 types of food in Myanmar: not spicy and very spicy.  Many say that Myanmar cuisine has been influenced by Thai and Indian cuisine, but since I’ve hardly tasted the latter two, I have no way of knowing if it’s indeed the case.

A meal in Myanmar costs as low as MMK 2,000 or as high as MMK 7,000, depending on the type of restaurant.  During our stay, we were well within our estimate of spending MMK 5,000 per meal on average.  Generally, Myanmar restaurants want to pamper their customers.  When one orders a meal, it comes free with a few side dishes, a vegetable bowl (with a spicy dip) and even dessert.  Unlimited rice refills are also common.  Bottled water sells for MMK 300 per liter and restaurants don’t mind if a customer brings his/her own water bottle.

It has been said that Myanmar food has too many vegetables but too little meat.  This is not true.  Throughout our stay, I was able to eat dishes with ample amounts of chicken, fish, pork, beef and even venison (deer).

I haven’t encountered a restaurant in Myanmar that had a particularly good presentation of food… but all of them made up for it in terms of value for money, service, and food quality.  Each restaurant also has a markedly unique “personality” that sets it apart from the rest.  It’s a good idea to not dine at the same restaurant twice.

WARNING: While Myanmar food is mostly great-tasting, they also are quite far removed from Philippine food so it’s possible that one’s tummy might not agree with it at the start (like what happened to some in our group.)  One’s body will adjust after 1 or 2 meals, but it’s a good idea to have some Imodium in one’s medicine pack.

Water

Photo courtesy of Ann Umaña.

Since you will be doing a lot of walking in Myanmar, it is important for you to keep yourself hydrated, especially in the drier areas of central Myanmar, where Bagan and Mandalay are.  Locals also see the value in this and they have a system of placing free drinking water in clay pots located in places where crowds converge or pass by often.

Unless you’re parched to the point of dying and there’s absolutely no other cleaner water source around, I would strongly advise you against drinking water from these “water stations” because (1) the clay pots themselves don’t look clean; and (2) each station has only 1 or 2 drinking cups for the use of everyone.  Bottled water just costs MMK300 per 1 liter and is widely available, so it’s a much safer option.

No Tipping

Unbelievably, Burmese culture views giving tips in a bad light.  We never asked why.  We were just happy to not spend more than we needed.  Hopefully, this aspect of their culture never goes away.

Photography

It’s pointless to go to Myanmar without bringing a camera.  There’s simply a lot to take pictures of.  So bring extra memory cards and an extra battery for your camera, if possible.  Since there would only be a limited number of outlets in one’s room, it might be a good idea to bring an extension cord with multiple sockets so that a number of gadgets can all be charged at the same time.

The Burmese people generally don’t mind if foreigners take their pictures.  But just as a courtesy, ask for their permission anyway if you can’t take pictures discreetly.

Photo courtesy of Ann Umaña.

Note: Burmese Buddhist monks, in their stunning maroon robes, are very nice to take photos of.  However, they tend to shy away from people taking pictures of them and consciously look away from the camera.  If they do this, let them be.  Don’t pester them for a shot, and DO NOT TOUCH THEM under any circumstances.

Next: Area-specific travel tips for Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay

6 thoughts on “Myanmar travel guide for Filipinos 1: Pre-departure and general concerns

    • I’d say they’re friendly enough. 🙂 Although some solo female travelers I’ve come across mentioned that they always get “interviewed”, ….like why are they alone, why aren’t they married yet, etc. 😉

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