In July 2014 we took off for 2 weeks in Cambodia and Myanmar (formerly Burma). This was our first time in Burma, but not Cambodia. You can see the other trips to Cambodia in 2002, 2007 and 2010 which cover the more standard tourist sights than we did on this trip.
Please note; things are changing very fast in Burma, so make sure you look at the latest info online when planning your trip.
Sometimes planning a trip can evolve in days, sometimes weeks or months, and in this case, it literally took years. For this trip we knew we wanted to go in the summer, and while it’s not “high season” in South East Asia, it is high season for flights originating in North America. Because of that, flights which in winter can be under $1000, are typically $1700 in summer. This meant the most economical way to get there was to use frequent flyer miles to get our tickets which can be hard to find. After waiting too long to find availability in 2012 for summer 2013, I decided to be more proactive. Cue, “the plan”…
Planning a trip to Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma)
The trick is to be ready to book tickets 330 days out from when you want to travel; that’s when airlines typically open up seats for miles. By 2013 we finally had enough miles to be able to book two Business Class tickets using United Miles on their partners, EVA and Asiana. I’d set an alert to remind me to start looking for tickets for July in the previous August. After much looking and debating, we settled on LAX-Taipei-Phnom Penh with EVA in their Royal Laurel Business class. The return was from Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to Seoul in Business and from Seoul to LAX in First Class on Asiana. Yes, that last leg was very, very nice, but more on that later.
From there we still had to get to Siem Reap and from Siem Reap to Burma. This trip was over a year ago, in July 2014, but at the time it was impossible to fly direct from Siem Reap to Yangon and even more impossible to arrive into Yangon with time to catch a connecting flight in country. All flights from Yangon seemed to leave before our 3pm arrival time. In the end, we flew Vietnam airways from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Air Asia from Siem Reap to Bangkok and then Bangkok to Yangon where we spent the night in a hotel close to the airport so we could make a 6 am flight to Bagan.
Within Burma, we flew from Yangon to Bagan, Bagan to Heho (near Inle Lake) and Heho back to Yangon. These tickets were booked through a Yangon travel agency called Santa Maria Travels, but my guess is that by now, tickets can be booked independently online.
In all, we took 10 flights in 15 days which sounds insane, but it worked for us.
Overland travel is possible in Burma, but it’s very slow; think 12 hours to drive a distance that takes 1 hour to fly. There are a few trains too, but from what I’ve read they’re poorly maintained and uncomfortable.
I booked all the hotels myself, directly with the hotels online. Hotels in Burma are way more expensive than you would expect for South East Asia and the value is hard to find for the money. Since we weren’t in Burma in high season, fortunately a lot of them had discounted rates because in some cases, room prices double in December and January. We were able to either pay at the hotel with a credit card or paid in advance online which meant we didn’t have to carry as much cash.
Below are the places we stayed which will be covered in future posts.
Siem Reap was easy, we stayed again at the Seven Candles Guesthouse which feels like home. It’s not fancy, but it has comfortable beds, spacious rooms, good A/C, all for a reasonable price and is filled with friends who have become like family to us. You can read more about it here when we stayed there in 2010.
We did an overnight up north to visit Kor Ker school and stayed in the only guesthouse in the area, outside the town of Srayang, called Mom Morokod Guesthouse. They only have electricity at night, to run the fans and lights in the rooms. No hot water, no A/C, no wifi. But there were mosquito nets, kittens and cold beer so life was good.
On arrival in Yangon we stayed at the hotel closest to the airport I could find called the Myanmar Life Hotel for $70 a night. In Cambodia or Thailand the room would have been half that. The room was fine and included a photo of a durian with a red circle crossed out over it. Yeah, no durian allowed in the rooms. Room service food was tasty though and they got us a taxi back to the airport at 5am with a “breakfast box”. We paid at the hotel with a credit card.
In Bagan, we stayed at the famous Tharabar Gate Hotel which was lovely but had their pool undergoing repair so that was a disappointment. This hotel has a great location and the rooms were very nice with extra cold A/C. Good breakfast buffet. Prepayment required.
In Inle Lake, we stayed at the Inle Resort in an overwater bungalow lake front view Royal Villa. Their website photos do not do the room justice (that sunset view at the top of the post is from the deck of our room). The room was amazing, but the food was a disappointment and like most hotels on the lake, you’re stranded there. Prepayment required.
Back in Yangon we had 36 hours in the city and a midnight departure time so we splashed out at the historic Strand Hotel, stayed in a Deluxe Suite and spent extra for a 6pm checkout. This one I booked through Booking.com (affiliate link) because they had the best rate which would allow us to pay at the hotel with a credit card instead of non-refundable prepayment.
Note: Now more and more, hotels and guest houses in Myanmar can be booked with online sites like Booking.com (affiliate link). I always research this option because it often comes with free cancellation not available on the hotel’s website, and if you are a member, sometimes an additional booking discount (see booking The Strand above).
Money in Cambodia is not a problem. Dollars are accepted everywhere, as is the riel (the local currency). Even the ATMs dispense dollars. The thing about clean, pristine money still holds true here as it does in Burma; absolutely no one will accept dirty, torn or even creased US dollars. In Burma, we brought in US dollars to change over to the Burmese kyat, but saw ATM machines almost everywhere we went (except Inle).
Some things (hotels and flights) were pre-paid with credit cards, lessening our need for cash on the ground.
Burma-We did this ourselves, filling out the forms and sending them and our passports via Fedex with a pre-paid Fedex return, off to Washington DC for the Myanmar Visa. We saved over $200 by doing this ourselves and not going through a visa service. We had the passports and visas back in our hands within 10 days. Since this trip, I’ve heard of people having success with a new online e-Visa process so that’s what I’d probably do now.
* The links above are for reference, but are also linked to my amazon affiliate account. The cost is the same, but I get a few cents every time someone clicks through and makes a purchase, which goes to help support this site.
All the hotels we stayed at in Burma said they had wifi, but it was really hit and miss if it was working or not. Aparently, this is better than it was even 2 years ago when it was practically non-existent.
We have phones with T-Mobile which offers data access in over 100 countries free with our plan. This worked well in Cambodia, and in airport layovers in Taipei, Bangkok and Seoul, but there was no access in Burma.
We always travel light (usually carry-on only), and this trip was no exception...except that we checked two giant bags filled with donations giant bags filled with games which are not available in Cambodia for thePLF.org. These games were earmarked for the new library to be built at Koh Ker school. Once we arrived in Phnom Penh, we were met at the airport by someone who picked up the bags and brought them by bus to the guesthouse in Siem Reap because we could not check them onto the flight we took to Siem Reap. The clothes for this trip were very casual because the trip was active, involving lots of outdoor sightseeing in very hot and humid weather.