Don’t be scared off by the outdated notion of impossible travel barriers in Myanmar.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 My guidebook printed in December 2011 is impossibly out of date.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.
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.
For my full travel pictorial on the secret temples of Bagan, please click here: Secret Places in Bagan