2015 marked the beginning of a new year, as well as a new country – Myanmar! While we technically spent the first few days of the new year in Thailand, we did so while preparing for our stay in Myanmar. Bangkok was by far the best place to do so, as it was a convenient place to obtain both visas and cheap flights into Myanmar. First, we both needed visas.
Getting a Myanmar Visa in Bangkok
Recently, e-visas became available to citizen of many countries, so trips to the embassy were no longer mandatory. However, the e-visa costs USD $50 per person and still takes three days to process. So since we were already in Bangkok where there is a convenient Myanmar embassy, we opted to apply the old-fashioned way. For USD $25 per person and two-day processing, it was faster and much cheaper. Same day and one-day services were also available for those in a rush, and both were still cheaper than the e-visa. So I guess the e-visa is good for those who don’t live near a Myanmar embassy.
The process was pretty easy, considering we managed it in a rush. Collection time for visa applications ended at noon each day, and we literally did everything in the last 10 minutes or so. Two forms (don’t know why they asked for complexion), passport-sized photos (that we brought from home), passport photocopies (thanks to an opportunistic van outside the embassy), passports and payment were all we needed. The only complaint that most people have about the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok has been that it consistently has long lines, all day, as fast as the embassy employees work. So it may have been in our favour to come at the end of collection time. We barely waited in any lines.
Two days later, we came to pick up our passports. Each had a stamped visa with handwritten details (no fancy, colourful, computer-generated visa for Myanmar yet). It was valid for one entry for the next three months; upon entry, we could stay up to 28 days.
Flight from Bangkok to Yangon
Myanmar has had landlocked borders for many years. Only a few months ago, a few border crossings with Thailand opened up, and Myanmar could be entered via land for the first time. However, as of January 2015, it was still a hassle. Things on the Thai side are fine, but once you get to the Burmese side, things get more complicated. For example, at the border crossing closest to Bangkok, buses on the Burmese side into Myanmar only leave every other day. So if you don’t time your border crossing day properly, you would be stuck at the border town for a solid day. Plus all the different buses and tuk-tuks needed for the trip added up to more than flying. Thus we were going to fly for the first time since Taiwan to Vietnam!
We booked roundtrip flights from Bangkok to Yangon with AirAsia (the cheapest way into Myanmar by far). We were not scared of flying with AirAsia after the recent accident because it was only a short one-hour flight, all completely over land and monitored airspace. It was our first time booking with AirAsia, and I definitely had much to learn regarding how to avoid extra fees from preferred seats to luggage (lots of good articles out there!). It turned out to be cheaper to pay in Thai baht at a local 7-Eleven than it was to pay in USD by credit card and get charged a hefty processing fee. Despite two extended visits to Thailand, we are still learning new things that can be done at 7-Elevens. Their breadth of business in Thailand is astounding!
On the day of our flight, we made our way to Don Muang Airport where AirAsia is based. While SkyTrain connects downtown Bangkok with Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) that’s way outside of the city, there was no rapid transit connecting downtown Bangkok to Don Muang Airport (DMK) which is only slightly north of downtown Bangkok. Instead of taking a taxi, we opted for the cheapest option of taking a train from Hua Lamphong train station. It took 45 minutes, but we were not in a rush. For 20 baht (USD 0.67) each, any train heading north out of Bangkok worked.
Our flight wasn’t until 8pm at night, so we had the intention of spending most of the day at the airport catching up on work. However, we couldn’t check-in until three hours before our flight and we needed to drop off a bag, so we had no choice but to wait in the outside terminal until 5pm. The food choices, like all airports, were less than desired. All of this made us wish we had come to the airport just at 5pm for check-in so we could go directly through security… or if we didn’t need to ship any luggage at all.
I tried to check-in online to speed up the process, but AirAsia separated Carlos and I in seating, even though we booked together – I was in row 7 while he was in row 25! Ridiculous. That’s low, even for AirAsia, to separate couples in order to get people to pay more for preferred seats. We decided to just not bother and do it all at the counter. Luckily the lady at the counter put us on seats beside each other when we asked nicely.
The flight itself was really quick, about an hour. The view of Bangkok from above was bright. We hadn’t flown in so long that I had forgotten how good the city lights look from up in the air. In no time, we landed in Yangon. Hello Myanmar!
Yangon was a much bigger and more developed city than we thought. The airport was very modern and new. On the ride into town, the roads were nice and smooth. We passed by many modern neighborhoods. While we weren’t sure what to expect from Yangon, it wasn’t exactly this.
Men in Myanmar wore longyis, or a fabric wrapped around and tied at the waist like a long skirt. I remember coming out of the airport and seeing everybody in longyis. It was weird at first; after a few days, it was weird to see men wear pants. Women in Myanmar (as well as young boys and some men) wore noticeable creams on faces known as thanaka. We learned that it was both a kind of sunscreen and for cosmetics.
We commonly saw red stains on the ground while walking around the streets. We also noticed people with very red teeth, mouth, and lips (a bit scary to see at first when people smiled). It turns out these were related. Many locals chew a betel nut mix, which has a very dark red colour. They then spit this onto the ground. Thus the dark red stains, both on the ground and in their mouths. Considering we’ve been taught our whole lives to not spit in public and to keep our teeth as white as possible, this was certainly different. At least it wasn’t blood stains…
Most, if not all, online information regarding Myanmar is outdated (of what little there is). Usually we read online guides for travel information, but for Myanmar, any existing info are often contradicted in a later paragraph. Things have been changing so quickly in the country that no one has the latest information. Even locals are sometimes not sure about what’s going on.
This meant that we found ourselves in new territory. We usually arm ourselves with as much information as we can, but here we will really have to go with the flow. This also makes advanced planning complicated, as we don’t have enough information to be able to anticipate the future. The upside was that this was real traveling. We had to go by our instincts, respond and adapt as we go, instead of depending on technology.
We can already tell that the next three weeks will be eye-opening and surprising in the best way.