Getting Around in Myanmar
Although traveling around Burma was challenging in the past, in recent years, the Burmese government has implemented many actions to develop the country’s infrastructure. Many roads are becoming quite modern, and several highways (mostly toll) and bridges have been built, making more destinations accessible. However, be aware that there are certain prohibited regions where the government conflicts with ethnic minority groups. Check the list of the areas to avoid on the Ministry of Tourism website at www.myanmartourism.org.
Burmese roads have improved, but it still takes a long time to travel, and the railways are in very bad shape. This makes flying by far the most comfortable option for traveling long distances. Please note that many airlines engage in the unfortunate practice of dual pricing, with foreigners paying significantly more than Burmese nationals do.
State-owned and appallingly run Myanmar National Airlines “UB” (not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International “MAI”) is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible. However, UB has a number of convenient flights, such as late evening flights from Bagan to Mandalay, and is known to fly even when there are only a few passengers. There are also private-owned airlines serving main domestic routes in Myanmar such as Air Bagan “W9”, Asian Wings and Air Mandalay “6T”.
Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, noisy, often delayed, have frequent electrical blackouts, and toilets are in an abysmal sanitary condition; many are simply holes in the floor that empty out directly onto the ground beneath the train. Fewer still have toilet seats. Never assume that air-conditioners, fans, or the electrical supply itself will be operational, even if the train authorities promise so.
Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin, bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the greatest railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Myanmar (Yangon – Pathein and Yangon – Mawlymaing) are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although, in the high season, you may want to reserve a few days in advance.
Buses of all types, from small to big, atrocious to luxurious, run the roads of Myanmar. Since the ban on importing vehicles was lifted in 2012, the quality of coach transport has improved drastically. High-quality Swedish Scania coaches regularly run the Mandalay-Yangon route while less impressive vehicles corner the other routes. Burmese movies and music are usually played all night throughout the journey, so bring earplugs if you want to sleep. Economy seats in Scania coaches are adequately comfortable, but upgrading to the upper class is recommended.
Old Toyota pickup trucks run everywhere in Myanmar, inexpensively transporting the Burmese population from one place to another. The rear of the truck is converted into a canvas-covered sitting area with three benches, one on each side and one running along the center of the truck (some smaller trucks have only two rows), and the running board is lowered and fixed into place, providing room for six or more people to stand on (standing occupants will have to hold on to the truck frame). Pickups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every town has a hub. Tourists who go off the beaten track will find them indispensable because they are often the only alternative to an expensive taxi or private car.
Car / Taxi
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licensed guides at Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a driver with a car meet you at your hotel. All taxis (and by extension, all vehicles for the transport of people and goods) have red/white license plates, while private vehicles have a black/white one. Tourist agency owned cars have a blue/white license plate.
Motorbike and Bicycle
In Yangon, riding motorcycles and bicycles is illegal. Mandalay’s streets, on the other hand, are filled with both.
Myanmar has a large river ferry network, both largely run by the government, although there are now some private ferry services. The trip from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a day and several days from Bagan to Yangon. Ferry services from Mandalay to Bagan are shut down, except for the slow ferry (available only on certain days in the week), during the months of April, May, and June when the water level in the river is too low.