Saturday, March 02, 2013

Booking Burma

Back when I went to Burma, I said I had a hard time booking a room. But I didn't tell you how I got a room, or how I think those of you going now should get rooms.

The problem was that I was going at what is high season in that part of the world. It's dry season and it's over Christmas and New Year's, when people get a bit of time off for a break from school or work. And of course, that's summer vacation for Australians, who are a lot closer to SE Asia than we are.

But that's just a normal, everyday problem at that time of year. The bigger problem was that Burma is perceived to have just opened. So we all want to get there before it transforms and adapts to the larger world. Like going to Cuba (which I recommend getting a move-on if you've been considering it). And the tourism infrastructure is small, so there simply aren't yet enough rooms at the top destinations for the number of people wishing to visit.

I only had ten days because of my teaching schedule. Of course, I wanted to see the tourist highlights, same as everyone else.

I quickly realized that I would have to fly between destinations inside Burma if I didn't want to waste entire days on buses and trains. This is good for timing, but bad for ethics. The tax on each ticket goes straight to the Burmese government, and some of the airlines appear to be involved in cronyism. So that was the first spot where I felt a bit dirty. The good news, however, is that there are several small airlines. I was annoyed because the only one that would email me back was Air Mandalay. The others all ignored my bookings and my emails.

So that's why I flew with Air Mandalay. But also: There were plenty of seats on all the planes. I could have waited and booked on arrival.

The next problem was lodging. I was surprised at how many hotels had websites and email addresses.

I was also surprised how many were already booked. Any notion I had of traveling cheaply went out the window when I realized I'd be lucky to get any room, regardless of amenities or price.

I tried calling places on Skype, with mixed results. Some said I was calling too soon. Others said they were all booked up. I got on a lot of waiting lists that did not materialize into anything.

Yangon and Mandalay are large cities with lots of hotels. I found hotels pretty quickly in those spots using email: Clover City Center in Yangon and Silver Swan in Mandalay.

Bagan was harder but I found a room on Agoda. There are lots of rooms in New Bagan and Nyuang U. You'd be okay just showing up, I think, or calling around a few days ahead of time.

Inle Lake was another story. 

I must've contacted everyone in town before getting one night (New Year's Eve) at Amazing Hotel. And then I had a day of going to every hotel in town, looking for a room. I found one, but the smarter thing to do here would be to rent a mobile phone at the airport and then call every hotel in town a few days before, rather than trudging from hotel to hotel all day. Many of the phone numbers are here,  and I found this site helpful. The map of the hotels is below (click to get a good look at it).

Good luck if you're heading to Burma. Book way ahead of time, or if you aren't that picky, try getting a phone at the airport and calling ahead a few days.

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