(Update December 11, 2013) Philippines and Myanmar recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) allowing VISA-free entry for Filipinos for up to 14 days. Executive order 408 also allows Myanmar nationals to enter the Philippines without VISA for 30 days.
(Updated September 7, 2012) Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been on my eyes for several years now as I’ve heard a lot of good things about the country. The numerous temples as far as the eyes can see on the horizon in Bagan, the tranquil scenes of Inle Lake and the Grandeur of Shwedagon Pagoda has much been written in books. But even as a member of the ASEAN group of countries, Myanmar isn’t as easy to visit like its neighbours due to its political isolation. A visit to Myanmar requires careful planning, some legal requirements and more importantly, some moral decisions. Sharing here some tips on my preparation. But one thing I can certainly say is that Myanmar is changing in a rapid pace and some information I researched beforehand were already outdated even if they were only a year or a few months ago so the info here may also change in a few months.
Should you go?
Some facts: Myanmar has the longest running Military Junta rule in the globe. There are lot of tourism facilities and infrastructure made from force labor. Thousands of families were forcefully relocated to make way for tourism. And tourism money would fuel the junta. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourist not to come. Several countries have sanctions and boycotts against Myanmar.
Rapid Changes: Recently, Myanmar has been surprising the world with its political moves. Last year, they released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and she herself then asked the people that tourists are welcome because the people need them. Aside from that, the junta released some dissidents and passed a law that allows people to do an organized protest. And the most recent development is Clinton’s visit to Myanmar which is a first US Official visit after 50 years. Now whatever these moves are leading up to we can never know for sure.
Why did I go? Aside from seeing the breathtaking places in the country, I came there for the people and help them on what little I can directly through tourism. That is availing services and patronizing people’s products directly. A lot of the people in Myanmar are still disconnected from the outside world and they really appreciate stories on what’s happening beyond their borders.
Myanmar VISA Application for Filipinos
Myanmar requires VISA to enter the country even for us in the Philippines who’s a member of the ASEAN. Currently there is no VISA On Arrival available, but luckily for us, it’s not that hard to get a VISA from the Myanmar Embassy (8th Floor, Gervasia Corporation Centre, 152 Amorsolo Street, Legaspi Village, Makati City. Tel. Nos.: +632 893-1944 or +632 812-3644) unlike other countries. You just need the following documents before heading to the embassy:
- Valid Passport
- Photocopy of the Passport
- 2 Passport Sized photos
- Digital copy of the passport photos in CD (best have your photo taken at Kodak in Makati Cinema Square, tell them it’s for Myanmar Visa)
- A signed waiver promising not to interfere with anything political or with government affairs when in the country and not to publish anything against the government. (Form to be provided by the embassy)
The government is wary of people from the media (journalist, photographers, etc) so if you’re company has a name “media” or you work as one, there may be chances you may get denied.
There’s a US$25 fee (P1100) for the VISA and the processing takes 3-5 days. The VISA is valid for 3 months of use from issue and one is allowed 28 days upon entry. VISA can be extended within the country.
Update (May 23, 2012): Myanmar now have a VISA on Arrival for those traveling on a business, check www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm
Probably the most common problem a tourist would encounter is not having enough cash at their disposal. Myanmar has no ATM support for international banks and there are only very few hotels that accept international credit cards and usually these are the hi-end hotels with 10% commission on the cost. So the only ideal way is to bring enough cash for the whole trip with contingency. Myanmar commonly accepts US Dollars, Euros and Singapore Dollars to change to their local Kyat (pronounced as chat) currency. These notes should look new, crisp (without folds) and no glaring markings.
Years ago, people would recommend going to Bogyoke Aung San Market to change money at the numerous Black Markets there but the Black Market has no major advantage now in terms of exchange rates as the banks are now in par with their rates. Even a Burmese Seaman I met at the Bangkok airport recommended going to Thain Phyu Money Changer (Thien Byu Road near Monsoon Restaurant) which has a network of banks/money changers in one place. They have the best rates and for sure each Kyat is in very good condition unlike the ones in the Black Market where some money changers would slip in old and worn out notes in between. Go in the morning as I realize they have a quota on how much dollars they can change. Usually by mid-afternoon they would no longer change money. Hotels change money as well but on lower rates.
Exchange rates could drastically change, two years ago, people could change US$1 = 1000kyat. Now the rates have dropped to 700-800 kyat. When I arrived the highest I got was US$1 = 783 kyat and almost two weeks after when I exchanged a $100 bill, the rates have lowered to US1 = 740 kyat. This sudden drop of US$ value certainly messed up my supposed budget making me spend my contingency money during the trip so bring enough to probably last more than your intended stay.
Some hotels only accept dollars and some services and transport also accept dollars. And a word of warning DON’T ENTERTAIN MONEY CHANGERS ON THE STREETS, especially at the area near the Sule Paya. I met a few backpackers who got duped by them.
(Update September 2012) Money can now be exchanged at the banks in the Airport after arrival with competitive exchange rates.
For the latest exchange rates, check Irrawady.org.
Electronics and Communication
Even up to now, people would ask me if they would need to leave their mobile phones and laptops at the airport upon entering. There’s no need as you can bring them in but you can’t use the mobile phones there. There are no roaming support for networks and they don’t sell sim cards there for temporary use.
Communication isn’t totally shut out these days unlike a couple of years ago. There’s a good number of internet stations now and at decent speeds as well. Usually the rates are 500-1000 kyat per hour which isn’t bad. Though there are still some blocked sites like flickr and even lonely planet. Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook are accessible or some cafes had a way to access them. Some mid-range to high end hotels offer free wifi.
While there are a good number of Burmese who can speak and understand Basic English, a majority of them still can’t so it can still be challenging for some places as well. What I did just to ease up on conversations, especially when going from one place to another is to print out character sheets of the places on their Burmese writing so I could show it to people. It makes it easier for them to understand where I want to go.
There are very few literature or travel guides for Myanmar. Though there are ones from Insight Guides or Lonely Planet, they are usually outdated already as soon as they are published. Yes, even the latest 2010 edition from Lonely Planet already have some outdated content. But still I found that the LP Myanmar is one of the best guides for Maps and logistics. I bought a digital copy since I can’t find a hard copy of the book in the Philippines.
Get in and Out
The only entry and exit point to Myanmar is via Yangon by plane. There are several places and airlines flying there from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and some parts of China. And some books say there’s a US$10 exit fee from the country which they no longer have.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.