We awoke very early the following morning in order to make it to the airport in time for the flight to Bagan.
There are multiple ways to get around in Myanmar:
1) Bus – very common. They go everywhere and are cheap. I was warned though that they were uncomfortable, extremely packed, the roads are often really bumpy and the buses are slow. Buses are ideal for backpackers who only have to worry about themselves, but, while we are a family well used to travel on buses (as in Turkey and Mexico), we decided against it this time.
2) Train – Myanmar Railways don’t have a great reputation. The tracks are reported to be extremely bumpy and the trains take a long time. We decided against this option.
3) Private car: This is an excellent choice for families. You can arrange to rent a van and driver, and travel as slowly or as quickly as you like. Normally, I would have been in favor of this, so long as our itinerary allowed us to keep the car and driver with us at all times. However, since I really wanted to visit Eastern Shan state, where foreigners are only allowed to fly into, this didn’t work for us.
4) Boat: Myanmar has huge navigable rivers including the mighty Irrawaddy (Ayeryawaddy) and the Chindwin. In fact, it was due to these rivers that the British were so easily able to conquer the country, by sailing up the rivers and destroying cities as they went along. Getting around by boat is a very viable option in Northern Myanmar, but it’s simply too slow to go all the way from Yangon.
5) Horse cart, bullock cart, bicycle and motor bike – all very much in use in both urban and rural areas, but not serious contenders for long distance family travel!
4) Flights. There are currently 4 airlines flying domestically in Myanmar and the situation seems to change from one year to the next. The domestic government airline is Myanma Airways – it has a terrible record and it’s planes are ancient. You also have three private airlines – Air Bagan, Mandalay Airlines and Air KBZ. We used an agent who booked us on Air Bagan – I can’t comment on the other two private airlines. Air Bagan is rumoured to have links with the government and I am sure this must be true, as I don’t see how any airline in Myanmar could operate without having some kind of links to the government. Nevertheless, this made the most sense for us. Rather than a 8-12 hour bus, train or car ride, the flight would take us one hour. By bullock cart it would have taken months!
The domestic terminal at Yangon is very basic – it is one big room filled with chairs and with some coffee and snacks for sale. The latte was actually excellent though pricey. Something very quirky about flying in Myanmar is that each passenger must wear a sticker issued by the respective airline on which he or she is flying. So everyone in the room is wearing a sticker of some or other color. This is just plain unusual – forget about your ticket – it’s the sticker that seems to count!
While airline staff may struggle with languages, they can figure out immediately whether you are supposed to be on the flight or not by the sticker! Each airline has its own staff working the waiting room, and when a flight is called (in Burmese) they find you quickly by looking for your sticker. It does work. Another strange fact about flying domestic in Myanmar is that the private airlines only have 2-3 aircraft each, which mainly tend to fly around the country in one big circle. This means that depending on where you are going, you may be lucky in that you fly directly to your destination, or alternatively, you may have to fly via a few other places, landing and taking off again each time, before you get to your destination.
The airport seemed to have no luggage conveyor belts, though there was an x-ray machine for both luggage and hand luggage. Once screened, the suitcases are packed onto large hand carts that are then lugged out to the plane waiting on the tarmac.
Our flight was called eventually. Air Bagan operates three different kinds of aircraft – two variants of the European built ATR turboprop and a Dutch built Fokker jet. We also noticed a 737 in Air Bagan colors but it does not seem to be flying just yet. The flight to Bagan was on an ATR – a solid workhorse found all over the world serving small airlines and/or destinations. The hostesses were professional and well dressed and we were impressed that they gave a small meal for the short flight to Bagan. Eitan, our 6 year old, was especially impressed by the fact that they handed out candies before landing. The flight was smooth and take off and landing were both excellent.
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. Click here for more details).