I received my once-every-so-often email newsletter from Lonely Planet today, with a link to an article called “The essential guide to travelling to Myanmar/Burma“.
Now, I love Lonely Planet. I use their guidebooks when I travel and plan my travels, I use them as a reference guide, for their maps and their handy language books. However, in the article I noticed some information that I found to be false when we travelled to Myanmar in April. The information regarding safety and hotel availability is correct. You are safe – very safe! – and hotels do fill up quickly. It is highly recommended to book early, or risk being stressed out on your trip (do not want). Cash availability and domestic flights however is a bit different. I would like to offer our experiences in Myanmar as a bit of compare and contrast.
Budget and money
The Lonely Planet article, published on April 4, states that “in January 2013, KBZ and CB banks opened international ATMs throughout Burma. These accept both Visa and Mastercard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat”. KBZ and CB banks have indeed opened more ATMs through Myanmar, but very few were Visa or Mastercard compatible. We tried a few (for testing purposes) and had no luck. It didn’t recognise our cards and gave them straight back. Other travellers we encountered had experienced the same. Do not rely on ATMs in Myanmar. This is correct as at April 2013.
Cash is definitely the way to go until ATMs are a bit more common and reliable. Myanmar is such a safe place that I had no concerns about carrying our cash with me during our trip. We took new, clean flat US dollars (stored in my oversized travel wallet to keep them flat. John stored his in a book) printed post 2006. We did a budget, and allowed extra – in case of emergency. Better to be looking at it, than looking for it. Upon arrival in Yangon from Singapore, we exchanged the USD for local kyat at the exchange counter inside the terminal. On 31 March 2013, we received an exchange rate of 876 kyat to the US dollar. There were no problems with exchange; it was a painless exercise, even if a little slow. Everyone works on Myanmar time there.
It is possible to change your kyat back to US dollars too. We also changed our kyat back to US dollars when leaving Myanmar, which was not as fruitless as first thought. Leaving Mandalay International Airport, we received an exchange rate of about 835 kyat to the US dollar (once in Thailand, we exchanged the USD for Thai baht to top up our wallets).
Euro was also featured on the exchange boards, however, I cannot confirm whether it is widely accepted. Err on the side of caution and take US dollars.
Domestic flights within Myanmar
The Lonely Planet article also states that “it is cheaper and easier to book domestic flights once you are in Burma”. Not so. We booked/reserved our domestic flight tickets months before we left Australia. I posted earlier explaining the complicated booking process. When we went to pick up our tickets from the Air Mandalay office, three other foreigners were in there trying to arrange flights from Yangon to Bagan. They obviously had not booked and there was nothing available for at least another fortnight. Domestic flights are run on small planes and there are few flights each day. These fill up quickly. Save yourself the hassle and arrange tickets before you go. Do not leave it until the last minute.
Apart from those few errors, the article is correct. The roads are rough, but if you’ve driven on the Bruce Highway it won’t be anything new. There were state areas closed off to tourists, such as Kachin state and parts of Rakhine and Shan states. Information about closed areas is far easier to come across once you are on the ground in Myanmar. Credit cards are still a foreign concept to most places except some hotels. Female travellers are very safe. And the locals will fall over themselves to be welcoming and friendly.
Get there and see it now, before mass tourism changes it all. After all, not being able to rely on a credit card or a 7/11 is all part of the adventure!