Prepaid GSM

Yangon, Golden Rock, Lake Inle, Mandalay, Bagan
Part 1

15.12: KL -> Yangon
16.12: Yangon
17.12: Yangon -> Bago -> Golden Rock
18.12: Golden Rock -> Toungoo
19.12: Toungoo -> Inle Lake
20.12: Inle Lake (boat trip)
21.12: Inle -> Pindaya -> Mandalay
22.12: Mandalay
23.12: Mandalay
24.12: Mandalay -> Mt. Popa -> Bagan
25.12: Bagan
26.12: Bagan
27.12: Bagan -> Pyay
28.12: Pyay - Yangon
29.12: Yangon -> KL

This is a report of our trip to Myanmar (Burma) which we did between December 15th and December 29th, 2002. We flew from KL (Malaysia) to Yangon and then back to KL. In Myanmar we had a car + driver with which we travelled around, totalling 2600 Km in two weeks. 

This is the plan we set up with the driver with the planned and effective driving hours. As you can see we spent a lot of time in the car:

Places/Itinerary Plan Effect.
Yangon -> Bago -> Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo) 5h 5h + 1h
Golden Rock -> Toungoo 7h 7h
Toungoo -> Inle Lake 7-8h 12h
Inle -> Mandalay (stop in Pindaya) 7-8h 8h
Mandalay -> Bagan  (Mt. Popa) 5-6h 6h
Bagan -> Pyay 7-8h 7h
Pyay - Yangon 5h 6h
Total 43-47h 52h

Costs/ local currency
This was almost a "luxury" trip (if compared to the previous trips we did). We flew business class from KL to Yangon and had our own car + driver in Myanmar. We stayed in double rooms with bath and A/C in Myanmar (although we only needed the A/C in Yangon), spending $15-20/night. We spent a total of $111 for entry tickets, around $140 for food and $500 for the (aircon) car and the driver. We spent a total of $1100 in Myanmar in two weeks (two of us). That doesn't include the flight to/from Myanmar.

A meal for two in a good restaurant in Myanmar will set you back by 3000 to 4000 Kyat, bottled water is 100 Kyat for a 1 liter bottle, a pomelo cost 200-300 Kyat, a teak wood carving we bought (good quality, about 1m x 30cm) was 25000 Kyat ($25).
Internal flights are around $100 for the "long legs" from Yangon to either Inle lake (Heho), Bagan or Mandalay. Inle to either Mandalay or Bagan is around half of that. A one day boat trip on lake Inle costs 8000 Kyat and you have your own boat for one full day. Renting a boat on the Ayeyarwaddy river is about 5000 Kyat for a few hours

Money / Exchange rate
The exchange rate of the Kyat was 1000 Kyat/$ when we arrived and 1010 Kyat/$ when we left (we changed money in a hotel). Possibly the exchange rate is even better than that - it's just that we didn't know where to change money.
It was no problem getting rid of the FECs at no loss. Hotels + entry fees totalled $345 and the driver accepted FECs for the payment.
Credit cards: we saw only a handful of shops which accepted international credit cards, although many accepted a Yoma card (kind of a local bank card).
It is possible to get a cash advance at Yangon airport and very likely also in banks in Mandalay.

Cellular service / GSM
There is a GSM network in Myanmar with coverage in Yangon and Mandalay. Unfortunately it is not open to foreigners.

Internet access
We didn't find Internet cafes anywhere. From other people we learned that as of now there is no Internet in Myanmar. There is email (in the major hotels), but the cost is very high ($1 per Kbyte for outgoing mail, $0.5 per KByte for incoming mail).

Sunny and dry all the time. Was hot in Yangon when we arrived (we needed A/C to sleep), became quite fresh afterwards (was cold at night - we didn't use A/C, but needed heavy blankets). The nights on the Inle lake were cold.

Health / Vaccinations
The usual set of tropical vaccinations (tetanus, polio, Hep A, diphteria) - which we didn't refresh for this trip. For typhus we relied on a standby medication (antibiotics). Same for malaria - we didn't use anti-malaria pills, relying instead on mosquito repellent and standby pills (antibiotics) in case we got sick (didn't happen). I might add that we are frequent travellers in SE Asia (we never catch diarrhoea for instance) and are used to the local bacteria.

VISA / Entry requirements
We did our visas at the Myanmar embassy in KL (three days for 80 RM or same day service for 150 RM). Passport and customs check went incredibly smooth and fast at Yangon airport. Our visas were checked in a matter of minutes. We changed only a total of $200 into FEC. 
I declared a notebook computer and a high-end camera. No problem at all getting this equipment into Myanmar. The customs officer noted this down on a piece of paper which he then attached to the passport.

The roads in Myanmar
... are in a terrible state, which slows down travelling across the country. Many roads close during the rainy season, making travelling even more difficult.

15.12.02: KL -> Yangon (Myanmar / Burma)
Guest Care Hotel, $18/night including breakfast, nice room with A/C, TV, fridge, bathroom with hot shower (107A Dhamma Zedi road, Tel. +95-1-283171, Fax +95-1-525272)
Weather: clouded in KL when we leave; sunny and warm in Yangon with some clouds in the sky
GSM coverage in Yangon (CC 414 NC 01 network)

We take a car from the Summit Hotel (KL) and drive to the airport (70 RM, 35 min.). We have a business class ticket and receive a pass for the Golden Lounge of Malaysian Airlines. Our flight with Myanmar airlines leaves on time at 1pm. Together with another passenger we are the only travellers in the business class. Interestingly the economy class is half empty - the lady in the travel agency told us that the economy class was fully booked, which is why we took the business class.

Once we land in Yangon airport we have the privilege of being the first ones who are transported to the arrival hall. There are a total of six counters and our passports are processed quite speedily. Also the economy class passengers don't have to wait so long. By the way, the immigration officers are all women.

Concerning the FEC we are supposed to exchange $400 ($200 for each of us). When I ask if we can change only $200, the officers tells us they can help us and we have only to give $210 (and get 200 FEC). Small present of $10 for the officers who are helping us...

After we walk to the customs control. I declare a high-end camera, a notebook computer, a golden wedding ring and a golden necklace. Shirley declares her jewellery. Everything is noted down on a piece of paper which is then attached to the passport. Everything runs smoothly - no questions asked - and I am allowed to proceed with my equipment.

Outside in the hall there are several counters for taxis and hotels. Since we don't have a hotel booking we head to one of those counters and ask about hotels. The Yoma (recommended in one travelogue published in the Internet) costs $20/night. We end up booking a cheaper place, the Guest Care Hotel for $18/night for a nice room (see above). Then the lady arranges a driver for us. $4 to go into town (of which 500 Kyat for somebody who insists to carry our luggage to the taxi). 

Surprise, surprise, most men in Yangon wear a sarong - only a few wear trousers. Even the women wear a sarong. The overwhelming majority of cars in Yangon including our taxi has no A/C in spite of the heat (in Malaysia all cars have A/C). 

Once in the hotel the taxi driver offers to drive us around Myanmar for two weeks, up to Mandalay, Bagan, Lake Inle etc. and back to Yangon for $550. If you compare this with the $400 which we would spend on internal flights alone (to which we have to add the local taxis), the offer sounds attractive, also considering that we get a driver who brings us everywhere we want. However we would be driving in the car for a total of 40 hours over two weeks, so it might be a bit tiring. 

At almost 5pm we take a taxi to the Shwedagon pagoda and it's almost too late, because when we arrive the sun has almost set. Entry tickets are $5/person, valid also on the following day until 2pm. Lots of locals in the pagoda complex when the sun sets. The pagoda is impressive, but would probably be even more if the sun was shining. After we take a taxi to Chinatown, where we change some money in a hotel (the rate we get is $1 = 1000 Kyat), then have dinner in a Chinese restaurant. 

After we walk around the shops and food stalls and we run into somebody who manages drivers. He says we can get an English-speaking driver with an A/C car for a two weeks trip across Myanmar for $400. Quite a lot less than the $550 the first driver has been asking for.

By the way, most of the local people can't speak English. The only ones who speak English are older people. Luckily there are many people who speak Chinese.

There is a local GSM network in Yangon; code is CC 414 NC 01, but they have no roaming agreement with my provider (the German D1).

Copyright (c) 2003 Alfred Molon