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8 Myanmar (Burma) Travel Myths: The Guidebooks are Outdated!

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Don’t be scared off by the outdated notion of impossible travel barriers in Myanmar. Myanmar is rolling out the red carpet for businessmen and tourists alike. My guidebook printed in December 2011 is impossibly out of date. The CNN travel documentary that aired in May 2013 is factually incorrect about money changers. Here is a summary of the biggest contradictions.

ATM at Yangon Airport in Myanmar

ATM at Yangon Airport in Myanmar

Myth 1: Visa on arrival is impossible to get for tourism

Visa on Arrival is technically not possible for non-business, or non-Chinese-package tourists. But if you go through a good agent, you can arrange to fly to Myanmar without a visa in hand and the process couldn’t be simpler. Just send a picture of your passport and an itinerary. Mine was processed 3 days in advance. Not a single package tour or government hotel required.
They meet you at the gleaming new airport terminal and escort you up to the visa counters where officials are eager to get your dollars in the country, and whisk you through the process in minutes. Myanmar Visa Website

Myth 2: No ATMs in the entire country

There are tons. Everywhere. 3 in the airport alone. Every shopping mall in Yangon has several. They have them in Bagan. They take MasterCard, Visa, Plus.
The banking sector has exploded with the evaporated embargo. As of July 2013, KBZ bank alone has over 40 shiny new machines in Yangon and another 20 scattered across the country, including Bagan. It’s a good idea to let your bank know that you’ll be in Myanmar so you have no issues.

Myth 3: The airport tricks you into exchanging money at pennies on the dollar

Not true. The currency black market is gone. There is a line of money changers, each offering tighter spreads then I see at US airports. today, they buy at 888, sell at 897. That turns out to be 5% better than you get from ATMs. The rates at airports are slightly better than in the cities, so plan ahead.

Myth 4: Credit cards are not accepted

Top hotels take them, many midrange ones through Paypal or similar. If you have to use Amex, Hotel Travel can book hotels and provide vouchers. I’m blown away by their customer service, and I’m a difficult customer.

Myth 5: You need to bring a stack of brand new US $100 bills or you’re sleeping on the street.

There is still residual desire for crisp, new US bills, since the Chinese bring piles of them, but they take almost anything that’s newer, clean and not ripped. They no longer require huge bills, and take all denominations, although old preferences linger. Currency exchange is not as critical with ATMs on every block now.

Myth 6: prices are ridiculously low

Double the prices and then some. In late 2012, the government mandated the doubling of many travel services to manhandle the fragile free market, and many places are not happy about it. Just double the prices in the Lonely Planet and then add any peak season premiums.

Myth 7: The heat is unbearable March-May

Yeah, it does get up to 40 degrees C (104F) briefly during the day, but it doesn’t feel even close to that hot. The humidity is low in the tourist triangle and it’s comfortable if you’re not exerting yourself. Bring lots of water and you’ll do fine. Coming from Singapore, this feels like paradise.

Myth 8: The highways are new

Yeah, many are newly paved due to aid money, but they seem to be leveled with shovels and hand trowels. Prepare yourself for extremely bumpy rides.

 

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22 Responses to “8 Myanmar (Burma) Travel Myths: The Guidebooks are Outdated!”

  1. Kathie says:

    Brad you did not get a visa on arrival. You got a pre-arranged visa though a travel agent. This option has been available for many years. Visa on arrival means you can fly into a county and walk up to a desk and purchase a visa, no pre-arrangements necessary.

    For very limited numbers of people (those arriving on Myanmar Airway International from Cambodia and China) a visa on arrival is possible.

    • Brad says:

      You are probably correct that “visa on arrival” has a specific legal definition. The agents all call it visa on arrival, probably technically inaccurately. As I look at my documents, they gave me a visa approval letter and processed the visa at the airport on arrival.

      Point being, the process can be very simple if you use the right agent. With as little as a few days notice, you can arrange to show up in Myanmar without a visa in hand. No sending your passport off way beforehand.

      The Burmese embassy only lists a business visa on arrival or the long way. Many travelers will prefer to use this method.

  2. Celine says:

    Hi

    Just tried the “Visa on Arrival” service you provided as I was in a rush too: ordered their urgent express service and just got confirmation the visa will be ready today: 3 days all in all.
    Wonderful and thanks for the tip!

    • Brad says:

      That’s great. I’m glad everything worked out for you in such short order. Hope your trip there is amazing! Such an inspiring travel destination!

      • Dan says:

        Can you share who you both used to get this 3-day service ?

        • Brad says:

          Hi Dan,

          I used this visa online service (same as link above). I don’t think they guarantee it in 3 days but mine was approved that fast. I would say make sure you get them a picture of your passport and your planned daily itinerary as soon as you can. I’ve heard really good feedback from other travelers on this agency too.

          Myanmar Online Visa Service

          • Dan says:

            Thanks Brad. Regards to the second link you posted…. my research this morning has turned up a bad review of them for every good one so that one seems 50/50 :)

          • Brad says:

            Hi Dan, I haven’t heard a bad thing from anyone I’ve talked to, but this is Southeast Asia and I wouldn’t expect any agency to be Six Sigma quality level.

            I did talk to a dozen or so other travelers out there who used different services, and many said their agents “forced” them into buying expensive hotel package deals to get their visa (some saying only government hotels were allowed), so I wanted to let everyone know that this one seems to be very reputable.

            If you find anything different, I’d be interested in knowing. I’m not biased, I just hate to see travelers get scammed.

  3. Karisa says:

    Hi Brad! Excellent article. Thank you again for sharing it with me over at my blog. I feel a lot less stressed out about money than I did before. I was worrying about not finding ATMs and having to carry around hundreds of dollars to trade in on the street. Unfortunately I was already expecting huge prices hikes from the LP listings. But overall I’m so excited for this trip! Thanks for straitening out some of my misconceptions. :) Thanks again!!!

  4. Susan says:

    Interesting list. It’s amazing how fast things are changing there! In summer 2012, there were no ATMs that would accept foreign cards. Now, you have access to plenty! It will continue to change at breakneck speed, I suppose. Any word on the price of SIM cards? Have they come down in price at all?

    • brad340 says:

      There have been rumors of cheap SIM cards all year, but I haven’t ever spoken with someone who has actually purchased one. Stories of delays and lack of supply abound. As far as I can tell, it’s a day-to-day thing. I hope they get it sorted soon!

  5. Jane says:

    Thank you Brad, this is very helpful. I am planning to travel to Myanmar from Chiang Mai, by bus – can you help with any tips? I am planning on making my application for a tourist visa to the Myanmar London Embassy prior leaving the UK. Do you think I will encounter any issues crossing the borders and getting to the Bagan area? Jane.

    • brad340 says:

      Wow, I don’t have any experience entering Burma by bus. Almost everyone flies into Yangon. Sounds like an awesome trip. I know the government restrict tourism to many areas outside of the “tourist triangle” of Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan, so I would look into that.

  6. Aren’t we all ready for vacation?

  7. Nancy says:

    Thank you Brad for the information! I used the site you recommended for my visa, and purchased their ‘Normal’ service which is 10 business days (I fly Dec 6th).

    It did not indicate that someone would meet me, however it did direct me to the visa offices upon arrival, so fingers crossed!

  8. Albert says:

    Hi: Great article. Using the visa service, was there an issue boarding your flight without a visa stamped onto it? How was it explained to the airline?

    Thanks!
    Albert

  9. Albert says:

    Thank you for your response. I did receive a scanned letter emailed to me in Burmese. Nothing I can even decipher. Why I ask if it was an issue boarding the flight. Wondering if the airline representative questioned it and needed to explain. Myanmarvisa.com gives me the impression its a letter ALL incoming airline to Myanmar will accept. Appreciate any thoughts.

    • brad340 says:

      That sounds right, any airline that flies into Burma should be familiar with the immigration procedures. (Otherwise, how would they “verify” your documents?)
      The reason airlines check documentation is because if you get deported (which I have a few times), it’s usually the airline’s responsibility to cover the return flight, sometimes at the expense of a paid, ticketed passenger. That’s not easy to explain to a paying passenger.

    • brad340 says:

      How’d it go?

  10. Charles Rahm says:

    Compared to just one year ago the change is amazing. I still had to rely on the new USD bills to pay most in 2012 (small bills were accepted if also new). There were ATMs, but not compatible with most cards.So now you can withdraw money with Plus, which is the Visa debit system. How about Cirrus/Maestro from Mastercard?Getting a visa in Bangkok is also quick in case you\’re there before you go to Yangon. Can be done express on just one day, if you pay the higher fee. Just now it is a bit unfortunate with the demonstrations.I wrote an article about it here: dontworryjusttravel dot com/asiapacific/burmamyanmar/burma-myanmar-visa-bangkok
    Thank you for this update of Burma!
    Charles

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