A few months ago we decided to forego celebrating Songkran in Bangkok and instead opt for a trip to Myanmar. Still being relatively new expats in SE Asia we didn’t realize that Myanmar would be celebrating Thingyan, which is similar to Songkran and this basically meant it would be a pain in the a** to plan anything from a transportation perspective. Here is how it all broke down…
I thought I would be especially clever and book the airline tickets ASAP because I thought if I booked the tickets – the rest (hotel, transportation, etc.) should be easy. Round-trip airline tickets from Bangkok to Yangon, departing on 8 April and returning on 17 April – check! Our plan was to go to Yangon for two days. then take the train to Bagan and stay there for three days. We would then travel from Bagan to Inle Lake during the day and then spend the remainder of our holiday there, taking a flight from Heho back to Yangon on the 17th. Pretty straightforward right? Well yes, on paper. Now don’t get me wrong, we weren’t going into this completely blind. We did talk to other expats about traveling there so we had a good idea about what we wanted to do. Unfortunately, none of them had been to Myanmar during Thingyan and when we spoke to our Burmese friends we were laughed at. Damn! Of course we spoke to our Burmese friends AFTER booking the airline tickets which were non-refundable!! So much for being clever.
Being one to make lemonade, I set forth to the task of organizing this trip. If you are considering going to Yangon during Thingyan (13 April – 16 April*), bear these things in mind:
- It will be difficult to book transportation as all the Burmese are traveling home to spend the holiday with their family so the budget minded methods such as buses will be tough to get tickets for and trains may or may not be running (we never got a clear answer on that). You can book flights which are a bit pricier or hire a private driver which is also pricier.
- It will be HOT! So if you are one of those people who goes to tropical climates for a holiday and always complains about “how hot it is” you can either A) not go to Myanmar during Thingyan or B) SUCK IT UP and book hotels with swimming pools, opting to do your sightseeing in the early morning, taking a break during high noon, and then sightseeing in the early evening when the sun is lower. I recommend the latter.
- If you take the bus from Yangon, it will be complete and utter madness! It will be helpful to have someone on hand who knows where to go. Our driver actually walked us to the station where our bus would be leaving to show us where it was. Since we were there almost two hours before departure, he walked us to a cafe, sat us down and told us to order and pay while he was there so that the owner would not over charge us. Thanks to him we were set. All of this happening with droves of people swarming about buses driving around and reps from different companies yelling out directions. It was a bit of a rush to be in the middle of it.
- A lot of businesses will be closed, this includes restaurants – yes, even in the touristy areas so you’d better have a plan B and/or be willing to be flexible.
I was able to book the hotels with very little issue. I did my research on Tripadvisor and we decided on the following:
For transportation we did things a bit backa**wards. We booked our return trip to Bangkok from Heho (Inle Lake) to Yangon through Myanmar National Airlines. The website was very easy to navigate and make the purchase. It was about $100 USD per adult and $68 USD per child. For Bagan to Inle Lake, we went through a friend who booked a private driver through some relatives of hers, which I regret as I think somewhere a long the way we were overcharged. We were charged 350,000 Kyat (almost $300 USD) and later found out our hotel could have arranged the service for half the price. Then finally, our trip from Yangon to Bagan. My husband was really keen on the train experience, and despite the warnings of the old trains with questionable sanitation, I was keen too. Finding tickets turned out to be a nightmare. Another friend tried to help us sort it out with her family there, but that didn’t work. We tried contacting several agents, but they either didn’t respond or said they couldn’t do it; however, we found Myanmar Tour East Travel & Tours Co., Ltd. on the Seat61 website (which is an AWESOME site for those who enjoy train travel) and received a response saying YES! They could do it, they would just need copies of our passports and we would need to wire them the cash via Western Union. We were unsure of this, but given Seat61 has never steered us wrong and friends of ours who have traveled extensively in Myanmar said this is often how business is done, we took a chance. The train tickets would be $30 USD per person so with the four of us it would be $120 USD.
NiNi from Myanmar Tour East Travel & Tours Co., Ltd. was highly professional, as he was very timely in his responses and transparent about the whole process. As the train tickets go on sale only a few days before the day of departure, someone literally has to be there with money and passport copies in hand to make the purchase. We thought, “yeah, this has got to be in the bag – right?” WRONG! On 5 April NiNi contacted us to apologize as they were unable to secure train tickets! I was really in panic mode now because I knew that getting bus tickets would be next to impossible as most of them had sold out! The idea of shelling out for a private driver was looming before me which would eat into our food budget (no pun intended).
Thankfully, NiNi was determined and managed to secure four VIP bus tickets instead which were $25 USD each. He said that he would arrange to have the tickets and our refund waiting in an envelope for us at our hotel in Yangon.
Those of you who may be saying, “well that was bad customer service, why couldn’t they secure those train tickets?” Dude – once again, this was going to be close to the Thingyan holiday so tickets are hard to come by. Also, I’ve read and been told that when these tickets go on sale during holidays like this the touts snaffle them up so they can later sell them at a premium price. Apparently it’s a melee when tickets go on sale and at the end of it all, they got us reasonably priced transportation from Yangon to Bagan. It’s like we tell my seven year-old, you get what you get and you just flow with that sh*t. I’m kidding, but you get the picture.
*The dates seem to vary on different websites and with different people, I don’t know why and I have stopped asking why.