Myanmar: Sorry we couldn’t stay longer

After our few week visit back home in the U.S., we decided to use the extra time we gained by leaving South America early to pay a visit to Myanmar (Burma). When discussing travel through Southeast Asia we had tossed around the idea of visiting the country but it had been pretty low on the list of countries to see in the area. The low placement wasn’t really based on much, because we honestly knew little about Myanmar. But what we did know wasn’t very good.

Myanmar flag flown in Yangon, the old capital city.

Myanmar, or Burma as it’s officially called by the U.S. government, has a pretty bad rap sheet for human rights violations over the past few decades and has only recently opened up to tourism. Don’t quote me on this, but I think it has the record for the longest consecutive years ruled by a military government, something around 50 years or so. Because of sanctions placed against the country for the government’s human rights violations it has been shut off from the rest of the world in a lot of ways. The guidebook we used (Lonely Planet) described it as not having changed much since its days as a British colony. It gained independence from England in 1947.

So we were pretty curious to see a place that supposedly hadn’t changed much in over 50 years and hasn’t seen tourism on a large scale for some time, if ever. We didn’t know what to expect. We did a little research online about Myanmar’s history and the logistics of entering and traveling the country and then we were off.

Through our research we found out pretty quickly that traveling in Myanmar wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d experienced in Central and South America, or what we knew about other parts of Southeast Asia. For example, there are no ATM’s so you have to carry all cash that you expect to need for your entire trip. The only place to exchange for Myanmar money (Kyat) is in Myanmar. One or two hotels in the major cities give cash advances on a credit card, but with a hefty percentage charged per transaction. No businesses excepts credit cards, save the aforementioned hotels, again, with the hefty fee. All U.S. cash that you bring to Myanmar has to be pristine and no older than 2006, and if it’s not, then you get a lower exchange rate or can’t exchange it at all. The bottom line is that there isn’t much in the way of infrastructure. All of this just added to our curiosity and desire to visit the country.

First things first, we needed a visa to enter the country. During our visit home we applied for and received our India visas in about a weeks time. That’s speedy. Not the case with Myanmar. We read that we should expect a visa for Myanmar to take up to 3 weeks. That’s a long time. So we searched and found a faster route. You can get a visa for Myanmar in as little as 1 day in Bangkok, Thailand. So that’s what we opted for. We flew to Bangkok, arrived at 6 am, applied for our visas at 9 am the same day, and then picked them up the next day. Done.

Cash was the other major challenge. Before leaving the U.S. we had to withdraw all of the cash we thought we’d need for our travels in Myanmar. Our plan was to travel for the entire length of the 28 day tourist visa. We roughly estimated what we’d need and then threw in a little extra for a buffer. Remember, there are no ATM’s. Unfortunately, we made one major mistake. We assumed that all banks carried crisp new bills all of the time. Nope. Wrong. They actually don’t like crisp new bills because they stick together and every once in a while a teller gives away free money. The only chance we had at new bills were the $20 bills in ATM’s.  ATM’s like new bills because they don’t jam the machine. So we spent several hours visiting about 6 banks on our last day in the U.S. trying to get the prettiest bills we could find in $100, $20, $10, $5, and $1 denominations. The only new bills we got were the twenties. Tellers at several of the banks were nice enough to look through there cash and pull out the best bills they could find. In the future it’d be best to inform our bank ahead of time so that they can order new bills. Whoops!

That’s not even close to all of the cash we had to carry.

This is where we stored U.S. dollars that we planned to use during our day trips to keep it flat and in good shape.

The pristine bill thing turned out not to be a huge problem. We only had a bill rejected twice. Other times we slipped in the ugliest bills we had with a shiny, spanking new $20 and had no issues. We figure they’d be distracted by the $20 bill. You may be wondering why we needed smaller denomination bills if we were only exchanging for Myanmar money. Our research told us that some places only take U.S. money or at a minimum prefer it. I think this may be changing. Many places seemed to take U.S. dollars or Kyat. In the end the cash thing wasn’t a big issue. Though, it was a little unsettling carrying that much cash around. We got a taste of what it must have been like to travel in the “old days”.

As I mentioned, we planned to travel the entire length of the 28 day tourist visa. I mean, it’s a once in a lifetime experience to travel in a place like Myanmar at a time when it’s just opening up. While that’s true, we ran into a reoccurring issue that led us to decide to leave the country earlier than planned. One thing we didn’t expect, and hadn’t come across in our research, at least not until the last minute, was the trouble we’d have finding accommodations. While in Bangkok we decided to read some online reviews about hotels listed in our guidebook. In some of the recent Trip Advisor postings reviewers mentioned the trouble they had finding a hotel. Many of the hotels were either all booked up or charging an exorbitant amount of money for very basic accommodations. So we scrambled in our last day and a half in Bangkok to email several hotels to try to reserve a room before our arrival. Luckily, we found a place. They were charging $22 a night—the cheapest we could find and much more that we wanted to pay—for a room with a window and a fan. This price was about double of what was shown in the guidebook.

We stayed a couple of nights at the “White House” hotel in Yangon. Pretty pricey at $22/night for a hot box room on the 8th floor with a sliver of a window and small fan. They had an amazing breakfast though.

We found out right away that this was the case for much of Myanmar. Unlike with our travels in Central and South America, we had to book our rooms in advance. This was a challenge because nearly all of the hotels throughout Myanmar were fully booked. We spent hours making dozens of phone calls in every city we stayed in prior to moving on to the next city to try to reserve a room. To do this we had to use local pay phones (costly) with some dropped calls and some people simply hanging up on us because we couldn’t understand one another. When we couldn’t find a room we spent even more time changing our itinerary in a way that we thought might give us time to reserve a room in the next town. We heard of other travelers arriving in a town expecting to find a room, finding nothing, and having to sleep at a bus station.

The local phone booth. The people who run them are very helpful and patient. They dial the number for you and make sure it connects. It cost anywhere from 50 to 100 Kyat per minute. That’s about $.06 to $.12 per minute.

At one point we stumbled upon the “free” services offered by the Myanmar Travel and Tourism association. They called dozens of hotels for us in the next town and found us a room. We found out later that they tacked a $7 commission onto the cost of the room without telling us. Which led to us having to convince the owner to give us a room at the $25 value that we had paid. Needless to say, we found ourselves wasting a lot of time trying to find a place to sleep instead of experiencing all that Myanmar had to offer. In addition to time, we spent way more money for the rooms than we allotted in our budget. In the end we saw about a quarter of what we wanted to see and spent only 9 days in Myanmar.

The staff and Myanmar Travel and Tour association are very helpful but forget to mention that there service comes at a charge, sometimes. They helped us and many others for free, leading us to believe they were a service set up by the government to help deal with the trouble people had finding rooms.

We visited the old capital city of Yangon; the two small towns of Pyay and Magwe; the Buddhist temple strewn city of Bagan; and finally, Mandalay. We were also lucky enough to be at the airport on our way to Bangkok when President Obama visited Myanmar. In the short time that we were there we saw so much. Looking back through the photos to prepare this post I felt sad that we decided to leave. I don’t regret our decision, I just wish the circumstances were different. Myanmar is an amazing place. I feel blessed to have seen it before it has changed too much. I would love to return, but by the time I do I think it will be a totally different place. You can already see the change. The hotels are scrambling to try to keep up with the demand. As tourists flock to visit the country it will change to accommodate them. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, there are likely plenty of folks looking forward to the economic boost that comes with tourism.

My advice to anyone wanting to visit the country in the near future is to go in the off-season, i.e. not between November and February (check guidebooks to see what they describe as the busy season.) or book your hotels in advance. My guess is that finding accommodations in the off-season will not be as difficult and you might even have room to bargain. Also, do a bit of research to see what hotels are charging. There’s a good bit of price gouging happening right now, so the guidebook price estimates are way off. Don’t expect to get what you pay for either. Many of the budget hotels are in a sad state. That said, I’d recommend a visit. The people of Myanmar are fantastic and the country is beautiful.

This post is already too long so I won’t display the images one at a time. Below is a gallery containing all of the images. Our WordPress them doesn’t seem to allow us to create separate Galleries, so everything is together. Sorry for the mess. Hope you enjoy.


Categories: Architecture, Cities, Ruins, South East Asia, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Myanmar: Sorry we couldn’t stay longer

  1. Amanda

    WOW, that was fascinating! LOVED the pictures, but sorry it was so tough to find a place to stay! It’d be really interesting to go back in a few years to see how it’s changed.

    So what are you doing now? Traveling around Thailand early or going somewhere else?

    • We’re in Thailand now and will be here until we fly to Calcutta, India on December 8th. We spent a few days in Bangkok and are now in Railay in the south.

  2. Pingback: Railay, Thailand « Peach and Bones

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