With so much bad press it may look that traveling in Myanmar would be a harassing experience. As a matter of fact the contrary is the case. The people are extremely nice and will go out of their way to help even if no reward is perceived in sight. The government is trying to mind his own business in relation to foreigners being under strong pressure to behave. The pressure comes in general from countries in the EU, USA in particular but mainly by the other Asian neighboring countries for whom Myanmar’s abusive rule is an embarrassment. Their biggest friend is China, oblivious as usual to human rights violation, a practice applied “successfully” in Tibet and Xijiang. Myanmar is one of the few countries, in the present international context, where USA is perceived like a champion of justice and you’ll hear “America good” or even ” Bush good” (!), because of the strong stance he took against the Myanmar abusive government. Because of this situation, the government is trying to keep a low profile vis-a-vis the foreigners and is a very small chance that they may interfere in your travel.
To obtain the visa, that normally can take between 1-4 days in BKK, you have to declare your occupation and the place of work. Nobody will check, but do not specify anything related to journalism, documentary, video or human rights inspector……because they may reject the application.
Besides the 3-4 documents you have to fill up when you enter the country, the hotel check-in procedure is the same like in any other country. At the border, one of the documents they ask you to fill up is a list of valuable you have with you that may contain camera, video cameras, cell phones, watches, jewelry, etc. and the main reason they ask for it, as they say, is to let you get out of the country with those goods. I spoke with many people knowledgeable about the country and I understood that nobody was ever bothered with this list. My list contained 2 video cameras and a digital camera and they did not even look at it. It is just another “list” of a dictatorial regime.
The FECs are gone so everything is on cash, preferably US$. Travelers checks have a 10% commission and credit cards are just a piece of plastic if you don’t spend the night at “The Strand” in Yangon. So have cash with you! The present exchange rate is 1US$=900K on the black/gray market and 1US$=450K at the bank. Almost any hotel would exchange money at the black market rate. The present market economy brought a lot of competition so the goverment hotels and transportations are competed by private ones so is very easy to avoid feeding the pockets of the goverment. Just check before you book if the business is privately owned.
No matter what you may hear in Bangkok, you can enter the country with any video camera. I brought in the country an HD camera, pretty large even for the Western eye, but I was able to shoot everywhere, the only inconvenient being that everybody wanted to look at it. You have to pay very small camera fees (10-30c) to use a camera inside the temples, but you can take any pictures you want. The government is pretty sensitive about some “strategic” locations that are not necessarily touristic, like bridges, railway stations, police stations, etc. If you want to take a picture ask the police around and you’ll get a straight answer if you can or not. And if you took too many pictures, the good news is that everywhere in Myanmar you have services for “Digital Film to CD” !
GSM cell phones work in Myanmar no matter that everybody including my cell phone provider in the US said that will not work. However, the price of any international call, cell phone or land line, can be very expensive, around $6/min for the US and EU.
You can find email services in every city, but I cannot say that they abound. On some location Hotmail and Yahoo are blocked, but everything else is allowed, so plan for a different provider when you are traveling there. The prices vary widely but this is caused by their special understanding of the market economy. In general surfing goes for about $2-3/hour but it can go all the way up to $6/hour.
There are many people that can offer guide services at a very reasonable rate, and many times you may need them to arrange a car for distant destinations. I would recommend two of them that I found to be very reliable and full of interesting stories:
Mr. Han at Myananda Hotel in Bago will arrange you very convenient transportation to Kyaiktiyo and to Yangon. I used his services for Golden Rock and it was very convenient, friendly and extremely reliable. He may be able to help you in various other places in Myanmar. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and write his name in the Subject line. Phone 052-22275
Oo Oo Myat Khaing is quite a character. With his shan bag and his umbrella, he is a treasure trove of stories that will tell you during the tour of Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, but he also does tours all over the country for a reasonable fee. Email him at email@example.com . Phone 709115 or ask for him at Shwedagon Paya.