Tips for cycling/traveling in Myanmar

Dec 14, 2012

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Myanmar is in the news. It is ranked as one of the top five travel destinations by several major publications. President Obama became the first US president to visit while in office. Makes you want to take a bike trip there, doesn't it?

We did. We toured Myanmar (Burma) from October 21 - November 21. We brought our own bikes … and lots of cash. We enjoyed. A lot. The people of Myanmar are the most genuinely friendly people on the planet. How do we know? We brought our friendly meter, and it maxed out beyond “uber-friendly”.

Below are some random tips from our personal experience in Myanmar. WARNING! Things are changing at such a fast pace, this information might already be out of date. If you are planning a trip to Myanmar, look on the Thorn Tree forum for comments from recent visitors. Or go to and read journals from cyclists who have recently pedaled in Burma.

Getting You (and your bicycle) there.

Bangkok is where you find some of the cheapest airfares to Myanmar. Air Asia has daily flights from Bangkok to Yangon, and in October began flights to and from Mandalay. This airport can be more convenient, depending on the route you choose to cycle.

Air Asia wants your bike in a box. Especially when flying from Bangkok. But we managed to convince them to take ours as is (no box, no plastic bag—just our bikes with handlebars turned and pedals removed). We also took off the derailleurs and secured them to the frames. Now I will say that the airline desk clerk almost fainted when he saw our bikes, sans boxes. We just kept smiling, and it all worked out.

We flew into Mandalay and out of Yangon. At the airport in Yangon, the airline counter folks welcomed our unboxed bikes. No questions or fainting involved.

To save money (with Air Asia), you'll want to pay for your luggage (and bike) online ahead of time. They don't charge by the item, but by weight. Your baggage is one fee. Your bikes, now under the “sports equipment labe,l” are another. Paying in advance can save you 30-40%. Make sure you overestimate on your luggage weight. Excess is charged at a pretty high rate.

Note: If trying to get away with not boxing your bike, please be kind … and smile. It goes a long way.

What kind of bike should I use?

Every bike touring company operating in Myanmar is using mountain bikes. And you probably should too. Or at least a rugged touring bike. Myanmar's roads go from bad to worse. If you arrive in the country with skinny 700cc wheels, you are not going to be a happy camper (oh, by the way, you can't camp) … so I guess I should say you're not going to be a happy 'traveler' instead. I don't ride with shocks (neither does Kat), but there are times we wished we had them.

Lodging

As a foreign tourist, you are required to stay in a registered guest house or hotel. That means if there are five hotels in a town, and only one is registered to have foreign guests, that's where you will be staying. As far as I know, Myanmar is not limiting the number of travel visas being issued. Because everyone and their friends, and cousins, and long-lost uncles have read that Myanmar is the new “hot” destination in travel, more people are arriving in the country than there are hotel beds to put them in. And there are all those business people who are looking to cash in on Myanmar opening up to the world. I'm not a fan of pre-booking a place to stay … but in Myanmar, it just might be the only way you will get a room.

Can you camp?

The answer to that one is “officially” no. You, as a foreign tourist, are not allowed to pitch a tent. You might be able to get away with it, if you are really discreet. But we have heard reports of travelers having their tents confiscated by police. If you are going to risk camping, please wild camp. Don't ask some villager to allow you to pitch your tent outside their home. If the police get involved, it is the villager who is going to pay the higher price. I hope Myanmar progresses to the point where travelers are allowed to camp, but don't hold your breath.

Money

This one is a bit tricky. You may have heard that you need US dollars. And not just any US dollars, but the kind of crisp, perfectly clean, unwrinkled dollars your grandparents gave to you in your birthday card when you were a kid. Well. It's true. We met a man from the U.S. who arrived with plenty of cash to travel in Myanmar for a month. Every single bill was rejected at banks and hotels alike. Now, it's not like his money was ripped and patched together with tape. It looked just fine to us. That's how picky they are about your dollars. He was having to leave the country early, because, although he had a thousand dollars, he couldn't spend any of it. I went to eight different banks in Seattle to get the clean cash I needed for our trip. One hundred dollar bills get the best rate, but it is best to carry some bills of all denominations for everyday transactions when you aren't paying in kyat.

That said, everything is changing fast in Myanmar. Reports are that the Central Bank is now accepting bent and wrinkled US dollars. Great. As long as you are dealing directly with the Central Bank. But you won't be. You'll be dealing with hotel clerks and shopkeepers. Until the message gets out to everyone (and that's going to be awhile), don't enter Myanmar without really, really clean cash.

Budget

This is a situation where the law of supply and demand has rapidly increased the cost of traveling in Myanmar. Hotels and Guest Lodges that went for $10 a night or less three years ago, are now $25-$45. And we are talking basic rooms here. No frills. Considering that you can get a similar room in Thailand for $7-$10 … you might be in for a budget shocker.

When we left Inley Lake (in mid-November), there were several tourists who couldn't find a single room available, and had spent the night sitting under a tree. We aren't ones to plan ahead, but if you are planning on traveling to Bagan or Inley Lake, make sure you call ahead to make a reservation at a hotel. Cyclists often arrive late in the afternoon. By then, scores of backpackers and tourists will have scooped up every bed available.

Internet

Internet access has opened up in Myanmar. You'll find free WiFi offered at many hotels and guest houses. You presently cannot buy a data package for your cell phone. You can buy a sim card, but only for making calls. This can be really helpful to make hotel reservations in advance.

Routes

Just wandering around Myanmar is difficult, due to the need to stay at a registered guest house. It is possible to get around this. But it is a bit of a crap shoot. We went to a monastery and were told we could stay. The monks were making up our room. Then the head master showed up and said it was not possible for us to stay. We had to leave. He helped us flag down a truck (the sun was setting) and we got a ride to the next town (city) that had a hotel open to foreigners. On another occasion, we pulled into a police station of a small town, and after calls and paperwork, we were hosted at the barracks. One of the policeman even bought us breakfast the next day.

Many cyclists (including us) chose a route that included Mandalay, Bagan and Inley Lake. There are some back roads from Inley Lake to Mandalay that are really rough, but worth the effort.

Go now, or later?

Personally, I'd avoid Myanmar during the holiday season (mid-December till after the New Year). It is going to be crazy. If you don't already have a room at the major destinations … good luck. Traveling in February or March of 2012 will see fewer tourists, and a lot more heat. A hard choice for a cyclist.

Hopefully Myanmar will issue more guest house permits -- open more areas of the country to travel -- allow folks to pitch a tent now and then. Will Myanmar see tourism skyrocket even further? If the room rates continue to rise, I doubt it.

Was it worth it?

A resounding yes from both of us. No matter what the hassles, or the inflated prices and difficulty to get lodging, spending a month with the people of Myanmar was worth it … and then some.

Photo: By Willie Weir

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SIGHTS AND SOUNDS is posted every other Friday. Willie Weir is a columnist for Adventure Cyclist magazine. His latest book Travels with Willie: Adventure Cyclist will inspire you to hit the road and just might change the way you approach bicycle travel. To see more photos from Myanmar visit Willie and Kat's blog Yellow Tent Adventures.

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