Air Adventures in Burma

Cheap and quirky flights can save you hours of jostling on rocky roads

By Dave Fox
En Route: Yangon to Heho, Burma (Myanmar)

Feeble fluorescent bulbs illuminate the Yangon airport domestic terminal. We’re in line for an early flight to Heho, the closest airport to Inle Lake.

The lady behind the desk peeks at the hand-written tickets we’ve purchased from a travel agent. She hands us boarding passes, and stickers we’re supposed to wear to make sure we get on the correct airplane. Then she tells us to flop our bags onto a handcart across the room. The man with the cart will wheel our stuff out to the runway.

Air Bagan boarding pass

We exchange our hand-written tickets for boarding passes without names on them.

Everything’s so casual, and I’m so groggy, it doesn’t register that we drift into a security line. My face flushes as the alarm goes off. I’m being one of those travelers – the kind who air-headedly trudge through metal detectors with keys, a watch, a belt buckle, and a phone. I’m slowing up the line.

Gary looks suave and sophisticated as he models his Air Bagan sticker.

Gary looks suave and sophisticated as he models his Air Bagan sticker.

The security agent smiles as he hovers a metal-detecting wand up and down my body. BEEP BEEP BEEP the wand announces as it passes over my pocket. I reach for my phone to show the officer it’s not a grenade, but before I can get it out, he waves his hand in a “Don’t worry” gesture. As long as he has determined where the potential weapon is located, he’s cool with it.

My carry-on bag, meanwhile, has just gone through the X-ray scanner. It too has a problem. I forgot to dump my water bottle.

“I’m sorry,” I say, offering the agent my clandestine elixir.

He looks at me quizzically. “It’s okay,” he says. “We are not so strict here.”

Not so strict here? In a nation infamous for its vicious controls, I have more freedom than I do at a United States airport? Not to trivialize Burma’s history of human rights violations, but it’s nice to be in a land where carrying water through security is not considered subversive.

In the crowded terminal, we sack out on chairs made of imitation Naugahyde. Hundreds of other passengers are waiting for flights to points around Burma.

There are no loudspeakers. Instead, men with sign are walking around, yelling. “Yangon Airways to Mandalay!” they shout. Or, “Mandalay Air to Bagan!” We are waiting for Air Bagan to Heho, via Mandalay. It’s all a little confusing.

Our tickets have cost around 80 US dollars each. On our travel agent’s advice, we’ve splurged. We could have flown Yangon Airways for ten bucks less, but when we asked what the advantage was of the more expensive flight, our agent told us Air Bagan did not share Yangon Airways’ reputation for crashing.

What happens next is one of those things that besieges all travelers from time to time in countries where sanitation standards are different from home. It’s an awkward topic for me to write about. Please try not to giggle.

My stomach is suddenly not a happy stomach. I pop a couple of Imodiums.

Kattina, and our friends, Rena and Gary, are chattering away about something, which is probably extremely important, but my mind is not focusing on the conversation. I excuse myself to go investigate the men’s room.

“The water is not working,” an attendant tells me. “Do not use.”

“Will it be fixed soon?” I ask.

“Maybe later today.”

Baggage handlers at Heho International Airport.

Baggage handlers at Heho International Airport.

I shuffle back to my pleather perch. A card game is underway now among my traveling crew but I don’t participate. I squirm and munch a third Imodium.

Twenty minutes pass.

I try the men’s room again. The attendant smiles. The water is fixed, but now, there’s a line.

“Wait outside,” he says. “I find you.”

This is embarrassing.

I do not go back to my seat. I’ve kept Kattina and Rena and Gary oblivious to my plight. We don’t need to make this our topic of conversation. So I stand outside the bathroom, and do a little dance, as discreetly as possible.

(Okay, you are giggling now, which I asked you not to do, so let’s move on.) Ten minutes later, all is well. My needs have been met. A yelling man is parading a new sign around the airport. It’s time for those with mustard-colored Air Bagan stickers to board.

Our flight takes us over patchwork farmlands of green rice chutes, yellow mustard, and brown dirt. In the distance, the earth crumples upward into low mountain ripples. We spot hilltop stupas and rural soccer fields.  We bounce down at Mandalay to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. One more 20-minute skip takes us to Heho.

As we disembark, a fuel truck screeches in to juice up our plane. We hang out on the runway for a few minutes. We snap pics of the cute control tower while we wait for our bags to be carted across the tarmac. Once we have them, we negotiate a one-hour minivan ride to Nyaung Shwe, the largest town on Inle Lake.  

Tips for Flying in Myanmar

Driving and train times between Burma’s most popular tourist stops are longer than you might expect. Roads and rails are in rough shape, so what might look like a short journey on a map can take triple the hours you’re planning – with constant jostling along the way. The good news is flights are cheap – and flying is remarkably easy.

Heho Airport's diminutive control tower.

Heho Airport’s diminutive control tower.

One thing the Burmese have gotten right: Airfares are not a mystery. If seats are available, you can book a day, or even a few hours, in advance without having to sell a kidney for that last seat on the aircraft. This allows for more flexibility in your travel plans. Flights do sell out, but between the four big tourist airports – Yangon, Heho, Bagan, and Mandalay – there are numerous flights each day so if you’re flexible, you’ll usually find something. You can book at any travel agent in the country. Plan to pay cash.

Multiple travel agents warned me against flying on Air Yangon and Air KBZ, due to the airlines’ safety records. Kattina took one KBZ flight and confirms it was scary. I flew twice on Air Bagan and both flights were delightful. Something you don’t see much these days: Even on these short, budget flights, they served light meals – for free!

I did also travel on one long-haul car journey and one public bus ride. Roads were made of dirt in some places, random-sized rocks in others, and among those that were paved, some were badly potholed. So flying is cheap and comfortable, though driving can be a fun adventure. My driving stories are coming soon.

Published on Thursday, November 29, 2012

One Response to “Air Adventures in Burma”

  1. C. Sandecki
    December 1, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    Hi Dave,

    I’m enjoying your Globejotting entries. I’m not a traveler, so this works fine for me.
    But two things: imitation Naugahyde — Naugahyde is a brand of vinyl just as Ford or Chrysler is a brand of car. The only way to identify Naugahyde without a visible manufacturer’s label is to see the underside or reverse of the fabric which carries a repeat of a wild face resembling Where the Wild Things Are.
    I was an upholsterer for 32 years.
    And I expect you trusted your spellcheck when you wrote about flying over green rice chutes. Did you mean shoots, beginning plants? Or are rice chutes something indigenous to Burma?

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