CHIANG RAI, 15 May 2017: Myanmar’s e-Visa is changing the country’s travel landscape and opening alternative tourist routes linked to Thailand’s far north.
The e-Visa is convenient, easy on the wallet and once you are online applying for it you will probably stay online to research and book a travel itinerary that will be a perfect fit.
According to 2016 data, around 270,000 tourist e-Visas and 20,000 business e-Visas were issued in 2016.
Underlining the e-Visa’s popularity with high-spend visitors, the top 10 nationalities in 2016 were: Americans; French; British; Japanese; Germans; Australians; Spanish; Dutch; Italians and Canadians.
“I liked the fact I could get a visa without fuss and I enjoyed the freedom of planning my Myanmar trip… that was as much fun as the travel itself,” British advertising executive, Jon Adams, told me as we waited for our bags at Tachileik airport, 7 km from the border with Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
“It started with applying for my e-Visa online”, he explained, “but my entire trip, domestic airline tickets and most of the accommodation was booked online. It gave me a sense of achievement.”
It hints at how far Myanmar’s travel experience has evolved from one that was once dictated by few travel agencies and the whims of a military junta, to one that is often created and fine-tuned on the go by the traveller.
Singapore-based, Adams obtained his USD50 Myanmar e-Visa online with confirmation and approval taking less than six hours.
“Then I was browsing the internet to check the fares to Yangon and planning my trip from Yangon to Tachileik with stops along the way.”
He took a train from Yangon to Bagan and hopped on domestic flights to Mandalay and then to Heho, the nearest airport to Inle Lake.
But it was the e-Visa that gave him the freedom to choose Tachileik as the point of departure rather than backtracking to Yangon.
The 28-day visa offers visitors the option to enter or exit at three land borders; Tachileik- Mae Sai (far north Thailand); Myawaddy-Mae-Sot (central west Thailand) and Kawthaung-Ranong (South Thailand). Add to those land checkpoints three cities that have international airports (Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw) and you have the flexibility to follow less travelled routes that take in the best of both Myanmar and Thailand.
Adams and I had travelled on the same flight, from Inle Lake to Tachileik, the only two westerners on an ATR 72-600 aircraft packed with domestic travellers. Once I crossed the border to Mae Sai in Chiang Rai province, it was the end of my roundtrip to Inle Lake (Heho). I had discovered the ease of reaching a popular tourist destination in Myanmar with a single one-hour flight.
Adams continued on his circular tour spending a couple of days exploring Chiang Rai before boarding the bus to Chiang Mai to catch a direct flight to Singapore to complete his extraordinary itinerary.
“You know I feel I have made something special out of my annual vacation…it might have been easier to let a travel agency work it all out, but not half the fun…that I think is the appeal of doing it online, the trip starts right away as you plan and book.”
I noticed as we passed through the immigration checkpoint at Tachileik there were more westerners queuing to present their e-Visa printouts. Estimates at land checkpoints show around 400 travellers crossed the border at Tachilek using tourist e-Visas in 2016.
At the Mae Sot- Myawadi land border e-Visa travel was higher at 1200 tourists and the Ranong-Kawtung border counted just over 300.
The popularity of the e-Visa is borne out by a leading tour operator Khiri Travel’s managing director Myanmar, Edwin Breils, who estimates 80% of all his clients travel use an e-Visa to join his land tours.
“We hardly ever have clients telling us they are going to visit a Myanmar embassy to apply for a visa.”
At the country’s three international gateway airports, slightly more than 200,000 travellers entered the country through Yangon on tourist e-Visas, 36,000 through Mandalay and 1,200 through Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s capital.
Business e-Visa travellers were estimated at 18,000 at Yangon, 500 at Mandalay and 180 at Nay Pyi Taw
Chiang Rai’s claim to fame is its unrivalled Golden Triangle status. It’s the only Thai provinces where you can head across two international borders to explore Laos or Myanmar.
It wasn’t always so. Tachileik’s gate was notorious for closing without prior notice and you needed to disentangle red tape and endure long queues at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok to secure the right visa.
Then for your trouble you were rewarded with the right to travel to just Keng Tung, 160 km north of the border. That’s as far as the tourist trail goes until the road to the border with China reopens.
But Tachileik’s rustic airport, just 7 km from the Thai border, is now an emerging tourism gateway where travellers to North Thailand can easily connect with flights east to Bagan, Mandalay and Heho (Inle Lake) to explore Myanmar’s heritage destinations.
Here are the facts to help you connect.
Transfer to Mae Sai
Mae Sai the border town facing Tachilek is a one-hour to 90-minute bus ride from Chiang Rai town.
The starting point is a make-shift bus station in the centre of town where you choose either the Green Bus commuter vans that leave every 20 minutes, or the local bus that departs 30 minutes passed the hour. The one-way fare on the air-conditioned Green Bus is THB46 and THB39 on the local non-air-conditioned bus (painted bottle green) that takes 90 minutes due to frequent stops and two police checkpoints.
They both pull in at the Mae Sai bus station around 5 km short of the border where you board a ‘Song Taew” covered pick-up truck that transfers you to the checkpoint. Fare THB15.
To catch the early afternoon flights from Tachileik, it is advisable to leave Chiang Rai by 1015. You will be through the two immigration checkpoints and on the main street of Tachileik by 1215, Thai time.
At the roundabout in the centre of the small trading town there are taxis that take you to the airport for THB400 (charter the taxi) or THB100 per person if you share with three other passengers. The transfer takes less than 30 minutes.
You may feel out of your comfort zone in this low-tech airport, the kind that belongs to the 1960s. Your bags are weighed on old-fashioned scales. The check-in is manual and there are no TV screens informing you of the gate and time of boarding. This is a rural airport that serves domestic travellers mainly traders and travellers visiting relatives. You will probably be the only foreigner on board the ATR 72, but if you are alert you will work it out that when 70 people dash to the single door leading to the runway, they are calling your flight. There is no designated seating.
Boarding is a casual procedure. Passengers take selfies in front of the plane. No one seems in a hurry except for the captain.
He signalled chocks off to the ground crew and we were rolling down the runway 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 1430.
Heho to Inle Lake
You will exit the low-tech Heho airport at 1530 to connect with a taxi or car pre-booked through a travel company. Our car was booked by Adventure Holidays Myanmar. The fixed taxi fare from the airport is MMK25,000.
The 46 km transfer from Heho airport to Nyaung Shwe, located close to the northern shore of Inle Lake takes one hour along a narrow bumpy road. Just before town your car will stop at a toll station where an official saunters over and asks for USD10 (MMK13,500). The compulsory fee allows foreigners to visit the Inle Lake reserve area for a period of five days. The funds are used to clear up tourism related pollution and occasionally dredge a channel through silted canals.
Total travel time from Chiang Rai town to Nyaung Shwe near Inle Lake is around six hours. We are in town at 1630, well before sunset for a refreshing cold Myanmar beer served at the rooftop bar of the Best Western Hotel, a vantage point where you can enjoy stunning views of the valley and the 7 km canal that leads to the lake.
If we had taken the traditional route to Heho and Inle Lake it would have required three flights. The Chiang Rai- Bangkok flight connecting with an international flight to Yangon would cost THB20,900 roundtrip and five hours and 20 minutes to complete the journey. Then there is the drama of connecting with a one-hour domestic flight to Heho (roundtrip fare THB8,544*) followed by the one hour road trip to Nyaung Shwe (Taxi fare MMK25,000). The return trip would probably require an overnight stay in Yangon.
*(Myanmar’s airlines maintain dual fares on domestic routes that cut travel costs in half for nationals.)
In contrast, after crossing the border at Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, the flight from Tachileik to Heho takes one hour.
The best roundtrip fare sourced on Wego.com is THB7,485 on Golden Myanmar Airlines. Payment and ticket issue is processed through Ctrip using Mastercard, or Visa credit cards. The short cut route saves you around THB20,000 in fares (Chiang Rai-Bangkok-Yangon on Bangkok Airways).
Return to Tachileik
The return trip to Tachileik on the 1500 flight from Heho is cutting it close if the flight is delayed. You arrive at 1600 (which is 1630 in Thailand). The 30-minute taxi ride gets you to the checkpoints at 1700 and you will be at the Mae Sai bus station at 1745, just in time to catch the last bus (1800), that will get you safely to Chiang Rai town by 1930.
Whether you are exploring Bagan, Mandalay or Inle Lake catch the morning or early afternoon flights (1400) to Tachileik to get you over the Myanmar-Thai border in time to connect with the Green Bus commuter vans that wind up their daily service at 1700.
If you miss the last local bus (1800) it’s not the end of the world; there are taxis, near the checkpoint gate waiting to take you to Chiang Rai town for a THB800 fare.
(Adventure Holidays Myanmar sponsored the media trip, organised by PATA Chiang Rai Chapter chairman, Jaffee Yee, to promote the concept of ‘two countries, one destination’ by highlighting travel links between North Thailand and Myanmar’s Shan state.)