This article is part of a series on the state of technology in Burma / Myanmar from a traveler’s perspective. Check out more from this fascinating country as it races to catch up to support the techy needs of today’s traveler.
I’ve been traveling in and out of Burma / Myanmar for the past 3 years. Since we’ve last caught you up to the internet situation in Burma / Myanmar 18 months ago, things have changed quite a bit. While you still shouldn’t be expecting the internet speeds of South Korea, or the mobile coverage of… well, frankly anywhere else on earth, things are at least moving in the right direction.
Here’s what to expect on your next trip to Burma / Myanmar.
Availability & Cost
Once limited to only the most posh of hotels for foreigners and the odd internet cafe, access to the internet is spreading within the country, and certainly anywhere in and around the tourist trail.
For the traveler, nearly all guesthouses in the major tourist spots such as Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan offer WiFi. If yours doesn’t, you may be able to find a fancier cafe or restaurant that does — or failing that, use a local internet cafe to stay connected.
While access and speeds are much improved from years past, don’t expect the kind of speeds that would let you watch a Youtube video. Uploading your photos of laphet thoke to Instagram shouldn’t be much of a problem any more, but it’s still best if you stick to the essentials.
WiFi access is now the norm, and you shouldn’t need to plug into Ethernet if you want to use your own computer at an internet cafe. It’s worth keeping in mind that the staff there may or may not be able to help you out with any connection issues or technical snafus. Expect to pay between 200 kyat (~$0.25) and 1000 kyat (~$1.25) per hour at an internet cafe. Some cafes charge a bit more than the local rate for foreigners.
Mobile internet is realistically still a no-go as high SIM card rates, poor coverage, and slow speeds make it a poor option for travelers. We expect some changes in the next 6-12 months on this front, and will update you when they happen.
Like a lot of regimes, the Burma / Myanmar government has tried to work in some censorship when it comes to the internet, albeit quite poorly. It’s best to know that some websites may still be blocked, though it is hardly to the extent of the “Great Firewall of China.”
I’ve heard that the Democratic Voice of Burma has been difficult to access while in the country on occasion, but generally this kind of censorship isn’t terribly common anymore. I would highly recommend that anyone working or reporting in the country use a VPN at all times to encrypt your internet connection. More details below.
Speeds have steadily increased in the past couple of years, but you still shouldn’t expect speeds like you would find in the west, or even neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
Expect to share the connection with a dozen or two users at a guesthouse or an internet cafe. Speeds are best in the morning, and get progressively worse throughout the day. In most places outside major cities, a Skype call (voice only) would still be difficult.
The best connections are to be found in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw and Pyin Oo Lwin, a resort town west of Mandalay with a bit of a tech scene (Myanmar’s future “Silicon Valley”). Next fastest would be major hotels in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan.
The poorest connections are in the rural areas, often still struggling with painfully slow satellite connections. The fastest connection I’ve found myself on was at the JJ Express shop at Yangon’s long-distance bus station in February 2014. This tells me that things are changing quite rapidly these days.
Make the Best of It
So expect problematic access, frustrating load times, and power outages that leave you with no access whatsoever. When you do that, anything will be good. This is a country where managed expectations are important, and internet access is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some tips for the connected traveler.
Turn off Unnecessary Connections
This includes your notebook computer, as well as your smartphone — especially Dropbox’s handy “Camera Upload” feature, and the Apple and Google+ automatic photo backups. Turn them off while you’re in the country.
Use a VPN
We highly recommend using a VPN whenever you travel, but particularly in a country where your access to information may be limited in any way. In Burma / Myanmar, you may run into censorship as well as online banking issues due to ongoing sanctions. This includes logging into Paypal and other financial services.
With a VPN, you can securely connect through another country, giving you safe and secure access to your online banking accounts that would otherwise be blocked or cause your account to be locked out.
In terms of security, using a VPN will also ensure your data can’t be snooped by the others on your shared internet connection, the internet provider, or the government.
Cache Your E-Mail
You can spend all day going through your e-mail on a poor internet connection in the country. Dropped or slow connections can mean errors, timeouts, and lost work, not to mention wasted time.
If you have a smartphone, it will likely cache your e-mail for you automatically. After it is finished, disconnect from the internet, sort and reply to your e-mails offline throughout the day, then come back in the evening to connect again and send off what was sitting in your outbox.
If you are using a notebook with a Gmail account, install and sync with Gmail Offline for Google Chrome (free) before you enter the country. This will give you access to your e-mail (specific labels and timeframes) going back a few weeks or more.
When you connect to the internet, it will automatically sync your messages over the course of a few minutes. Once this sync is complete, you won’t have issues replying, or page timeouts while moving between messages.
Burma / Myanmar still isn’t the kind of place where you’ll want to work as a digital nomad, but at the improvements in the past couple of years do make it easier to travel and stay online. Trust me, you won’t want to wait to share your first sunset in Bagan with the rest of the world.
Have you traveled in Burma / Myanmar? What was your experience with the internet like?