Myanmar trip details overview Jan. 2013
I am not going into great detail about the places we visited because there is already so much information on here about places. I will just summarize a few things that may be helpful. This is long but you can scan and skip to the part that interests you. We took a father-son trip and traveled for 9 days. I am in my mid-sixties and he is mid-thirties.
My entry visa took 18 days from the time I sent it in to Washington D.C. until I received it back. I sent it express mail and put in a return express mail envelope. I followed all the instructions explicitly.
I learned from those who went before me to strictly adhere to the newness of the $100 bills. Before I left on my trip, I explained to my bank what I needed and they were great in getting me all bills in new or pristine condition. When we got off the plane in Yangon, I went to the currency window in the airport and immediately exchanged $300 US into Kyat. I had a couple of very slightly used $100 bills with me that I decided to exchange mixed in with a brand new one and they would not take the used bills. Glad all the rest of my currency was brand new bills. I also had this experience when I tried to use a few slightly used U.S. $1 bills and they were rejected even though other travelers said you don’t have so many problems with lower denomination bills. I can only tell you of my personal experience in changing money. I exchanged currency 4 or 5 different times on my trip. Anytime I exchanged less than a $100 bill, the exchange rate was lower. I exchanged in the airport, a bank, and several hotels. Always the same exchange rate. I never bothered with going to places that have been written about as “official change booths”. Everything seemed to be “official” to me. Since all of my rooms and air fare in the country were prepaid through a travel agency, I only spent currency for meals, tips, souvenirs. The largest Kyat bill I ever saw was 5k, so we always had lots of bills which is the same as reported by other travelers.
Probably best to get advice from more expert Myanmar travelers than me, but here is what we did:
When anyone carried our bags to the room, we usually gave them 1,000 Kyat. I was never sure if this was the right thing to do or not, because everything I have read says it is pretty much a non-tipping culture. My suspicions are that will change with all the tourism. We wanted to respect whatever the local culture was. Quite a few meals had a 10% service charge added, so we did not tip on top of that. I usually asked our guides what was the thing to do. The usually told me if there was no service charge it was ok to leave a little change but I shouldn’t feel like I had to. In a couple of local restaurants, they seemed very appreciative that I left even a small amount. We went to a local restaurant in Mandalay and the check was 7900Kyat. The guide said it was ok to leave 8000K which resulted in a 100 Kyat tip. The waiter handed me my change and when I told him it was ok, he seemed to be very appreciative.
Our breakfasts were always included in our hotel. I never left a tip in these situations, and it did not appear that anyone else was doing it either.
For our guides: from what I had gleaned from TA, it seems this is where tipping is more frequent. I tipped our guides $20 per day. If we had a guide for 2 days, I tipped $40. If we had one for ½ day, I tipped $10. The guides and drivers bent over backwards to make sure every situation was to our liking. I also tipped a couple of our drivers $10, even though I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do or not. In one instance I tipped the driver and then when I tipped the guide, I told him I had taken care of the driver and he said that was not necessary that he would take care of the driver. However, I wasn’t sure he and the driver were exactly best buddies so maybe he just didn’t want the driver tipped. I don’t know, but the drivers always opened the doors, helped us with our backpacks, etc. so I felt a little obligated to give them something. We tried not to overdo or underdo anything in regards to tipping.
Lake Inle guide:
We spent almost 2.5 days with this guide and I tipped $50. I tipped our boat driver of 2 days $10. I asked the guide what should I do for the boatman and they said “do what you feel you want to do, but I always feel the boat driver keeps us safe”. So I got the feeling the guide maybe gives the boat driver something extra out of their own money, but I tipped the boat guy anyway.
I never tipped a taxi driver. The fare is the fare. We spent a couple of different nights in Yangon and the hotel always negotiated the fare in advance for us. Several times they negotiated hard. When we used a taxi on the street, we always established the fare in advance. Taxis were cheap.
We are really glad we used an agency instead of trying to a la carte things ourselves. We only had 9 days in the country and wanted to see a lot. We would have missed tons of stuff just trying to figure things out as we went. Both of us (my son and I) can be very independent travelers, but Myanamar is a country with so much that we both agreed using a travel agency to set the hotels, guides, schedule was the best thing we did. Others will probably disagree. We used Santa Maria travels and they were very responsive.
I loved the food in Myanmar. I ate mainly vegetables, fruits, and chicken and loved every minute of it. There are many street food vendors. While many people may disagree with me, I was told by a couple of guides and some people that live there, not to eat the street food, because of the chance of getting sick. Obviously we only drank bottled water. We ate in several local restaurants, especially on Lake Inle and never had any problems. I bought some oranges in the markets which I peeled and ate those without issues. While some of the restaurants looked a little iffy, I took the cue from our guides and everything was great. In Yangon, while on our own, we picked a couple of restaurants from the Lonely Planet guide book. All of our hotels had sumptuous buffet breakfasts. They were the best part of the trip. Lots of fresh fruit, breads and juices.
I have read where some people say to bypass Mt. Popa. We are really glad we went and climbed the stairs. It was very interesting. We spent one night at the “Popa Mtn. Resort”. It was a beautiful resort.
We stayed at Parkroyal in Yangon, Tharabar Gate in Bagan, Hotel by the Red Canal in Mandalay, Popa Mt. resort in Mt. Popa, Pristine Lotus Spa on Lake Inle and back to Parkroyal in Yangon. Each of them was great. All a little different from each other, but loved them all.
We each went with a carry on suitcase and backpack and washed clothes by hand as we went. Wore primarily quick dri, lightweight travel clothing that dries overnight. I took a few packages of Tide liquid for my laundry soap. One night in Mandalay we sent our clothes out to be laundered and it was expensive-around $18 usd—but it was a treat not to have to wash clothes by hand that night.
Travel between cities:
Flew from Yangon to Bagan. Drove from Bagan to Mt. Popa then drove on to Mandalay. Flew from Mandalay to Lake Inle and back to Yangon. Different guides with a sign with our names were at each airport when we arrived. Santa Maria had taken care of all flight details. We were given our packet of travel documents when we first arrived in Yangon.
If you have time in Yangon, try to walk around Lake Kandawgyi in the morning. It is beautiful.
Internet and phones:
Had no phone service anywhere in the country with my Iphone. Internet is very iffy as other travelers have said. It is very slow. It would be difficult to send photos. We when did connect, it was like we had discovered gold. All hotels generally had a computer or two in the business center, but the internet was not always up. Plus, you have to compete with other travelers. I took an IPhone, Ipad and a netbook-all with internet capability. By far and quite surprising, the Netbook was the most reliable when trying to connect to wifi. I think my Ipad only was able to connect 1x. The Iphone was second only behind the netbook. I could have traveled only with the netbook and done fine. I was really disappointed in the connectivity of the IPad. I would have been better leaving it at home. Since I was making notes as I went, the Netbook proved to be the most valuable and versatile by far. Often times it was the only device that my son could use to connect to his office.
Even though I am an avid photographer, I only used my Iphone and a small pocket digital Canon camera. I was very pleased with the quality of photos. I was surprised at how many big cameras the other tourists were carrying. Myanmar is a photographer’s paradise and I often found myself jealous of the equipment they had, but glad I did not have to carry it. I always asked the guide when it was ok to take photos of people and took our cues from the guides. Took a lot of photos in the markets which we thoroughly enjoyed. The people seemed to enjoy me thinking enough of their wares/produce to take photos of it. No one ever indicated they expected money, nor did I ever see anyone offer it. I did see people asking permission to take some photos of people before taking them which I thought was good.
We both have traveled a lot in the world and we have never felt safer than what we felt in Myanmar.
Sorry, for the long post. I am sure I forgot some things, but if I did, email me or post your question. Thanks for hanging with me on this.