Hiyah! I apologize for the lack of updates, I know I still have a looot of pending posts but can’t seem to find the time (or motivation) to write them. So for now I am posting this in behalf of my sister, J-anne (my guest blogger; follow her Instagram account) about her (mis)adventures in Bagan, Myanmar.
BAGAN GUIDE FOR FILIPINOS
Part 1: Getting there
I booked my Yangon plane tickets from Bangkok 5 months ahead of my intended dates and reserved a room in the city via Agoda. I wanted to say that I did a lot of research and preparation beyond doing this, but I did not. I realized a week before I was set to go that the picturesque places I want to visit in Myanmar is in Bagan, which is quite a distance from Yangon. So at the last minute, I changed course and made arrangements for Bagan.
I’m a researcher in real life so my lack of research is quite embarrassing to admit, but gone are the days when my travel itineraries are planned to the last detail in Excel. I honestly thought I could just wing it when I get there – although in some ways I think I still did. I’m guest-writing in this blog so (I hope) you won’t repeat the same mistakes I did. 🙂
Flying in and out
Let me back up a bit and start from the beginning.
There are no direct flights from Manila to Myanmar. You can choose to fly to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok first, then book another one to either Yangon or Mandalay.
I decided on Bangkok-Yangon since the original purpose of this trip is to visit my best friend from high school. She’s now based in Bangkok and because I’ve been there several times, I opted to expand my trip and visit neighboring Myanmar.
I flew Cebu Pacific to and from Bangkok (yey for GetGo points!) and AirAsia for the Yangon leg. AirAsia has several seat sales throughout the year – I paid roughly PHP 3,000 for my roundtrip fare around August last year.
Note that Bangkok has 2 airports and from Suvarnabhumi Airport where I landed, I transferred to Don Muang Airport where AirAsia operates. There’s a free shuttle bus between the airports located outside Gates 2 and 3 in Suvarnabhumi. You just have to show your plane ticket or boarding pass. I made sure I had plenty of time in between flights – I arrived at 10am and my other flight was at 4pm BKK time – in consideration of possible flight delays and traffic in Bangkok (going to Don Muang Airport took 1 hr and 15 mins).
At the airport before leaving Bangkok and upon arriving in Yangon, look out for the ASEAN lanes at the Immigration. Myanmar requires VISA for foreigners, but there’s exception for select countries. Filipinos can stay up to 14 days for free.
At the Yangon Airport
Three things on my to-do list as soon as I arrive in Yangon: 1) Withdraw money from the ATM, 2) buy a tourist SIM Card, and 3) look for the taxi stand going to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station. In hindsight, I should have added 2 other things before leaving the airport – eat dinner and freshen up. The food choices at the bus station were limited, and the waiting areas at the station were crammed with passengers and the facilities were not so well-maintained.
Money Matters (Kyat vs. USDs) – Kyat (MMK) is pronounced by locals as “chat”
What I did: I brought US dollars with me and withdrew money (around MMK 60,000 or PHP 2,175) when I got in at Yangon. I asked the taxi service I contacted (more on this later) to convert what I had to pay in Kyat to USD. The overnight bus also quoted the fare to me in dollars. The money I withdrew were for food, water, tips, and trinkets.
What you should do: Bring US dollars, but use only as a backup. When you arrive in Yangon or any airport in Myanmar, withdraw money from the ATM. If you are a BDO user, they will charge around PHP 150 for each transaction, so compute ahead how much you will need in total so that you only need to do it once. If you are with other local banks, inform them beforehand that you will be traveling abroad otherwise they might block this service for you.
The US dollar currency is widely used in Yangon; Kyat is preferred in Bagan. Food prices in Yangon airport establishments are quoted in USD, but you can ask them to convert the cost and pay in Kyat.
MMK 1,000 is closer to SGD 1 than it is to USD 1. A dollar is worth around MMK 1,200, so if you are quoted a direct conversion of MMK 1,000 = USD 1, you are losing money. If this is too much math for you J, download an app that helps with the conversion. I always use the XE Currency app where you can key-in as much as 10 world currencies. If you input an amount in PHP, it will show simultaneously how much it is worth in all the currencies you selected in the app.
Staying connected – Tourist SIM card
I never subscribe to roaming services, because what you pay for one day’s worth of use could already cover your whole trip if you opt to buy a local SIM card with data. I was traveling alone, so it was essential for me to be connected to update my family where I was and get in touch with my taxi service. I posted on SNS too, and read and replied to some work emails (boo!).
Like most international airports, you will find a row of telecoms offering their services when you exit the Arrival Hall of Yangon airport. I cannot comment on all of them, and I’m sure there are reviews in the world wide web if you want to see comparisons. I can only say that for a developing country that only recently opened up broadly to tourists, Myanmar’s wi-fi and data services are quite fast.
I bought my SIM from the Ooredoo booth. The deal I got was for MMK 5,500 (PHP 200). This included the microsim with 1 GB data (MMK 4,500) and 30 mins worth of local calls (MMK 1,000). The service was valid for a week.
Taxi is the most common form of transportation in Yangon. I tried asking if I can take the bus to Aung Mingular Bus Station, but I was advised that there was none.
After exiting the Arrival Hall (still inside the airport), there’s a taxi stall immediately to your left that will give you a fixed price. Going to the bus station set me back by MMK 6,000 for the 30-minute ride. Do not engage with drivers roaming around the arrival area. One such driver quoted USD 8 to me; he was standing by the telecoms booths when I bought my SIM. (Quick comparison: USD 8 = PHP 400, MMK 6,000 = PHP 220).
I think the prices may change if there is more than 1 person in the ride, or if there are many stops to the destination. The passengers in front of me in the queue were heading towards the Yangon city center; they met on the plane or right there in line and found out that their hostels were near each other. They were negotiating for several drops (think Uberpool), and every time they add a passenger the lady increased the price.
When you get in the cab, show the driver your reservation or mention the bus name you booked. Aung Mingalar Bus Station is sort of a rectangular plaza where the buses are parked, and the bus companies have their own offices. The driver can drop you off in front of the correct office so that you don’t have to wander around in confusion.
Myanmar does not have Uber or Grab, but it has its own ride-hailing app called Oway Ride. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to use it because I accidentally turned off the ‘location’ function and the app was not picking up where I was when I was there. I did some mock-booking for the same route (airport to bus station) and the fare was MMK 3,200-4,200 (vs. MMK 6,000 fixed price at the taxi stall). If you want to further stretch your kyats, you can use this option.
Interestingly, the country has a unique road-car wheel system — I obviously just made up this term because I don’t really know how to call it :). The car wheel is on the right side of the car (like most Asian countries, e.g. Singapore), but they drive on the right side of the road (like in Manila). Want to add to the confusion? The buses are an exception because the wheels are on the left and they drive on the right (exactly like Manila). LOL.
Bagan is approximately 9 hours away from Yangon by overnight bus and 5 hours from Mandalay. Why Yangon over Mandalay when the latter seems nearer? A friend who has traveled between the 3 cities told me that the roads are better on the Yangon-Bagan trip. You can also go there by train (longer commute though) or plane (soooo expensive).
What I did: Because I only decided on Bagan a week before the trip, I wasn’t able to get a VIP Bus Seat from JJ Express – the most recommended bus for this route – going to Bagan. The other bus company offering VIP seats is called Bagan Min Thar, but there were also no available seats for the date I needed to travel. The cost for VIP seats is USD 18.50-19.00 one-way.
I took an ordinary bus via Mandalar Min Express going to Bagan, and was able to score a ticket from JJ Express on the way back.
What you should do: Go with the VIP Bus options both ways. Not that the ordinary bus was bad, but you will clearly feel the USD 6 difference in terms of service and amenities. Other blogs say you only need to book at least 24 hrs before your travel, but give a wide berth and reserve seats 2 weeks ahead of your trip.
There are time options as buses leave Yangon at 7pm, 7:30pm, 8pm, or 9pm. Remember that Bagan is 9hrs away so plan ahead what time you want to arrive and what you will do next. Consider if your hostel will allow early check-in (if you want to sleep first) or make early arrangements for transportation (if you want to hit the ground running and see the sunrise as soon as you arrive).
How to book: Surprisingly, the answer is Facebook. Search for JJ-Express Highway Bus and send them an inquiry through messenger. If there are available seats for your travel date/s, you will be asked to give your full name and passport number to complete the reservation. In turn, they will send you a summary of your booking and your seat number. You will pay the USD 19 at the bus station before departing. (Note also that you need to be at the bus station 30 minutes before leaving to check-in and pay.)
There’s another booking option online through this site (http://www.myanmarbusticket.com/). When you select your travel date and destination, it will show you time and bus company options, including the VIP buses mentioned above. The catch? There’s a surcharge when you use this website. For the USD 19 ticket, you will be charged around USD 22, though you get to pay via credit card online.
What to expect: The air-condition in the bus will be in full blast, and the cold will really hit you around the 2am mark. There are blankets and pillows in the seats, but you can bring your own. You will also be provided with a bottle of water and a small trash bag.
In the JJ VIP Bus, each seat has its own mini-entertainment system, with a selection of movies and music for you to watch or listen to. (I got really excited about this until I realized all I really wanted to do was sleep. :D) This bus also handed out a box of pastries as soon as when got back to our seats after the first stop. VIP buses have larger leg rooms, and there are 3 seats per row (vs. 4 in the ordinary buses).
There are 3 stops during the journey. The first will be around 10pm or 11pm and will be your longest stop at 30 minutes. This rest stop will be at a restaurant where you can eat dinner and freshen up at the ladies’ room. Your bus attendants will hand out wet towels (and with Mandalar Min, a disposable toothbrush with toothpaste). Everyone in the bus will be asked to step out so remember where you are parked and the plate number, and make sure to be back by the door before the 30 minutes are up.
The other 2 stops will be 10-minute toilet breaks about 3 hours apart. Bring small bills of 100 MMK or 200 MMK as these are paid facilities. You can choose to stay on the bus, so my advice is to start settling in for longer sleep after the first restaurant stop, and take your sleeping aid as needed.
Survival kit (put all in a bag and place it in the seat pocket in front of you): mouthwash, facial wash/soap, wet wipes, mosquito repellant, iPod/music player or ear plug, eye mask, thick socks and/or slippers (if you are comfortable sleeping in your shoes, that’s fine too), and vitamins.
Eat dinner before going to the bus station, or bring dinner with you and eat at the first stop. Bring snacks like biscuits, nuts, or trail food. Take motion sickness medicine (para sa biyahilo) before leaving because the bus ride can be fast and bumpy.
That’s it for the first part. I hope you were all inspired to book that ticket to Myanmar and go there, I know I am!