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Burma – communications or lack of…..

Whilst we’re obviously delighted with the overwhelmingly positive nature of feedback for our new Burma tours so far, we have had a few comments expressing surprise at the problems with telephone and internet communications in the country. Initially surprised us that visitors hadn’t anticipated such issues but maybe we were just taking that for granted and fair enough….for tourists used to travelling in say Thailand and Malaysia or even Cambodia and Laos where both mobile phone and internet coverage are now generally very good, they may not have realised that Burma is not the same!

Bac Ha, 'Nokia Hmong'
Bac Ha, ‘Nokia Hmong’

Regarding mobile phones one does get somewhat spoiled by the generally excellent network coverage, even in some quite remote areas, of Southeast Asia and indeed many visitors have pointed out that coverage is often better than it is at home. (Possibly due to the fact that, unlike in Europe, companies can stick up antennae pretty much where they want, when they want, without anyone complaining about radio waves or eyesores!)

Bac Ha market, phone shop
Bac Ha market, phone shop

Visitors also can’t help but notice that walk around any Vietnamese or Thai market or shopping mall and at least 30% of all outlets are selling phones, even in small towns, but Burma is just not the same. Burma is still largely a Buddhist country and the new Southeast Asian cults of ‘Nokia-ism’ and ‘Samsung-ism’ are yet to take a hold in the poor and technologically challenged country. Things are starting to change; up until recently cellphones were still very much a luxury item in Burma, Sim cards were very expensive even if Chinese pirate phones weren’t, and Burma used a CDMA system instead of the GSM commonly found throughout Southeast Asia. (CDMA we understand is common in parts of the US and India though not many other places.) Most locals simply couldn’t afford phones. Note GSM Sim cards, compatible with most phones, are now available for $20 each – if you can find a phone shop – though both local and international calls are erratic to say the least and the latter are very expensive. International texting is still impossible! (CDMA Sims can only be used in the right CDMA telephone.)

Iced cappuccino and free Wi-Fi - In Bagan - you must be joking!
Iced cappuccino and free Wi-Fi – In Bagan – you must be joking!

Same goes for the internet and whilst ‘Free Wi-Fi’ signs are a familiar sight right across the region in Burma they are not. The few internet cafes you will come across generally have antiquated machines with very slow connections and except in a few specific spots you can forget your smartphone connections! Yes many hotels do offer free or cheap internet connections but take a good book or a crossword if you want to check your mails. Contrary to Vietnam Facebook is not banned and contrary to rumours Hotmail is not blocked either – just seems like it is because it’s so slow. G mail seems to work better and most locals we know use G mail accounts.

As a rough guide for one of our Burma tours you can expect the following internet-wise. (Though this leads us on to another problem in Burma which is hotel availability, so we can not guarantee any of the hotels noted below or noted as samples on our site page. The tourism industry in Burma was not ready for the sudden influx seen since late 2011 and there are simply not enough rooms to go around in the popular destinations. Many places are fully booked up to 1 year ahead, prices are consequentially high and standards are not always up to those of other Southeast Asian destinations with more experience of Western tourists either. We do our best!)

The charming Dream Villa in Kalaw but try getting 6 rooms during high season!!!
The charming Dream Villa in Kalaw but try getting 6 rooms during high season!!!

Rangoon: Panorama and Asian Plaza Hotels have free Wi-Fi in their lobbies with erratic connectivity.
Mandalay: Mandalay City Hotel has an ok connection and Ayarawaddy Riverview a surprisingly good one available in the lobby, bar and rooms.
Bagan: Very limited, Kumudura internet is not really worth wasting time on. Very few internet cafes.
Kalaw: no connections in hotel but the small town does have 1 decent internet cafe – ask your guide for info.
Nyaungshwe/Inle: Paradise has a ropy connection, Hupin Hotel none at all though there are several, slow, internet cafes in town.

Your local guide and tour-leader should know the best options around but basically get your important mails done in Rangoon or Mandalay and….please, don’t blame us! (Things will improve.) Cheers!