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Getting around Burma Myanmar

Trains and planes

Domestic air travel in Burma

Burma’s a large country with a bad road infrastructure, so though we generally prefer to stick to road, river or rail while travelling, a domestic flight in Burma (Myanmar) may on occasions be a necessary, or at least convenient, evil — unless you have unlimited time and superior posterior suspension. Flights within Burma can be a bit confusing — even downright frustrating — so here’s a brief rundown on how it works.

Much of Burmese air travel is short hops at low altitudes so try and get a window seat.

Much of Burmese air travel is short hops at low altitudes, so try and get a window seat.

To throw you in the bewildering deep end, currently no fewer than seven Burmese airlines operate, with another four carriers scheduled to begin operations later in 2013. We’re not sure how long some of these will last, but they’re certainly not all fly-by-night operations and generally speaking the ones we have used have all been fine — and also quite affordable, though prices are going up as tourism booms here.

Myanmar Airways International is the country’s flagship carrier, while Golden Myanmar currently run international flights to Singapore and Bangkok and plan to add domestic connections later this year. They also have useful shuttle bus services from downtown to the airport.

Air Bagan has a somewhat dubious reputation as it’s owned by a Burmese general, but it’s one of the most established Myanmar carriers and operates to 19 regional destinations, as well as several Asian ones, and has a large, generally modern fleet. Air Mandalay has new planes too, though without the international or military connections. Asian Wings is another company you’ll come across frequently; it has decent new planes, covers all the popular destinations and has just sold a stake to Japan’s ANA, which should only improve services and maintenance. KBZ is a recent addition, with at present only three planes, all brand new ATRs. They’re well financed by one of the country’s largest banks and we were impressed by their service, so expect to see some expansion here. We haven’t tried Yangon Airways yet, but they do fly to some out of the way spots, such as Myitkyina and Putao. The new airlines are Yadanabon, Saga, Apex and FMI.

Coming into Mandalay Airport with flooded Irrawaddy and Sagaing in background

Coming into Mandalay Airport with flooded Irrawaddy and Sagaing in background.

Problems with aviation in Burma don’t lie with safety, service or even punctuality. We’ve always found that if a plane is scheduled for 16:00, it does leave pretty close to that time — if it leaves at all, we mean.

Since most of these companies are small, financial considerations are important, and they will wait until the last minute to see how many travellers book. If it’s not enough they will cancel — even at very short notice. (It’s not as bad as 1990s Lao Aviation, where planes used to sit on the runway until enough people turned up.)

At busy destinations they’ll simply regroup passengers from different flights onto one flight, so Air Bagan, Asian Wings and Air Mandalay for example will use just one plane — so even if you book with Bagan you may go on a KMZ flight.

Alternatively, if there are not enough passengers on a Rangoon-Mandalay flight, for example, they will combine it with a Yangon-Bagan flight, so you will suddenly find yourself stopping at Bagan too. Booking a Heho (Lake Inle) to Rangoon direct flight with Asian Wings may actually see you travel via Mandalay, Bagan and Nyapidaw on an Air Bagan plane. This is all decided at the last minute — sometimes literally.

The Shan Plateau from above

The Shan Plateau from above.

Smaller airports without multiple arrivals on a given day may simply see a flight cancelled due to lack of interest. This is a problem at smaller airports such as Kawthaung, Tachilek, Kengtung and Putao. Also, provincial airports do not always have top-notch radar systems, so weather can cause cancellations. Be warned that this is a problem with higher altitude airports such as Shan Plateau ones, including Heho, especially during heavy fog in winter months or low cloud during rainy season.

You therefore need to be very careful when booking connecting flights. Basically, with the exception of Mandalay, do not book domestic flights with an international connection in Rangoon. It is much safer to allow 24 hours between connections and add on a night in Rangoon.

Finally, a few words on flight practicalities. Check in is old school, with paper tickets only. If you lose the ticket, they won’t start checking through computer records — you will have to pay for a new one. Continuing the retro theme, flights should be reconfirmed 24 hours in advance. Pay close attention to boarding, since as we mentioned above you may well be getting on an Air Mandalay plane with your Air Bagan ticket. Seating is not allocated. Arrival and departure procedures vary from airport to airport, with some requiring passports at check-in and others not. Some have X-ray scanners, others don’t. Luggage allowance is usually 20 kilograms. So be prepared for anything — and bon voyage!

Myanmar Airways International

Golden Myanmar

Air Bagan

Air Mandalay

Asian Wings


Yangon Air

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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