I’ve got Myanmar (Burma) listed as a “maybe next time” mention in the latest edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Prior to last year I wouldn’t have recommended that anyone go there as it was impossible to spend money in the country without helping to prop up a brutal regime. The country has opened up substantially though and life is getting better for the people of Burma. Prices for travelers there are a mixed bag, however, so I got an expert to give us the rundown on how much it will cost you to travel around.
Marcus Allender, founder of Go-Myanmar.com, has spent a good deal of time on the ground and has compiled a great online resource for travel in Myanmar. So I’m turning over the floor to him today for this post. Take it away Marcus!
With the political reform process in Myanmar has come a surge in the number of foreign visitors; a country that for decades only had a handful of holidaymakers every year is now dealing with a over a million. With capacity currently restricted, this has led to a corresponding surge in prices. There are good deals to be had in Myanmar, and some things are genuinely cheap, but in general you should not expect prices as low as you would find in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.
US dollars are used in Myanmar for hotels, entrance fees to historical areas, train tickets and some tour bookings, and the local currency, the kyat (pronounced chat) is used for pretty much everything else. Dollar bills must be in absolutely pristine condition – if they are not you will either get a worse rate of exchange or no exchange at all. ATMs that accept Visa and Mastercard are now fairly common in larger towns, although the withdrawal fee is quite high (K5000 – $5).
At the time of writing, the exchange rate is nearing K1000 to one US dollar – but it’s best to check www.xe.com for the latest.
A Fast-changing Destination
Most people arrive in Myanmar at the largest city, and former capital, Yangon. The biggest draws for tourists are the thousands of temples on the plains of Bagan and the serenely beautiful Inle Lake, with its villages built on the water. Together, these places make a triangle that most people visiting for around 10 days work their way around, perhaps adding a visit to one of Myanmar’s beach resorts on the Bay of Bengal. It is in these places that most of the country’s hotels and tourist infrastructure are focused.
However, if you head further off the beaten track, Myanmar has a huge amount more to offer. As the country’s reforms continue, so does the opening up of areas that were previously off limits to foreigners, including the Tenasserim region in the far south, Chin State in the west, and parts of Shan State in the east. However, travel and backpacking in Myanmar requires patience at the best of times, and the further you go into these uncharted areas, the slower your progress will get.
There are, as yet, no hostels in Myanmar, homestays are technically illegal, and not all hotels and guesthouses are licensed for foreigners. However, homestays are usually allowed in more remote areas that don’t have other options, and almost all destinations have some licensed hotels. If not there is always a way – you’ll never be forced to sleep on the street!
The cheapest price you will find anywhere for a foreigner-licensed accommodation is around $10. Don’t expect much for that amount of money; you will be lucky to have functioning air conditioning, and the place probably won’t be the last word in cleanliness. From $20-$30, you can usually find yourself a nicer place with some creature comforts. It is worth bearing in mind that prices tend to be higher in Yangon than in other parts of the country.
So, it isn’t cheap, but if you get off the beaten track, it’s sometimes possible to stay in unlicensed accommodation, which might be very basic indeed, but has a correspondingly low price. I stayed at an unlicensed guesthouse next to Dawei railway station, in the Tenasserim region, in which my “room” was about 2×1 meters in size and had no mattress (just a thin mat), no bedclothes, nor even a ceiling! But it was under $2 per night.
And sometimes, particularly if you are hiking, it is possible to stay in monasteries. Here, you won’t have to pay anything other than a donation of your choosing – and you will usually be provided with food.
Food and Drink
Eating out in Myanmar is a different story. You can get cheap food at teahouses, beer stations and restaurants all around the country. Burmese food isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t always reach the culinary heights that India or Thailand can, but there are a wide variety of dishes reflecting the different nationalities that make up the country. In larger towns and cities, a Chinese, Indian or Thai place is usually around the corner.
A meal at a streetside restaurant will rarely set you back more than K1500-K3000 per head, and one of Myanmar’s traditional dishes, mohinga (rice noodles in fish soup, most commonly eaten at breakfast) can be had for as little as K300. Bottled water costs K300-K400, domestic brand soda around K800, and a bottle of domestic brand beer will usually cost K900-K1600 in shops, beer stations, or cheap restaurants. Prices for food and drink at fancier, western-orientated restaurants, bars, and hotels are significantly higher, of course.
Tipping at restaurants is not customary in Myanmar, although sometimes a local who has helped you might ask for “tea money.” This should not need to be more than K200 to K500, although it depends on how grateful you feel!
Traveling by bus is the cheapest and most popular way to get around Myanmar. Tickets range from around K5000 to K25,000 for a single ticket, depending on the length of your journey. City buses are cheap (K200 or K300), but signage is all in Burmese, so routes are very difficult to ascertain for foreigners – although you can always ask a local.
Foreigners pay for trains in US dollars, and prices are fixed higher than for locals. This makes train travel more expensive than bus travel, despite buses usually being much faster. Ticket prices depend on the distance you are traveling and the class of ticket; you can pay up to $50 for a long-distance sleeper, or as little as $5 for an ordinary class seat like the one pictured below. The domestic air network is pretty comprehensive; one-way tickets usually cost between $50 and $150.
Taxis are ubiquitous in larger cities in Myanmar, and the minimum price for a short journey is usually K1500. The journey from Yangon airport to downtown is K7000. No taxis have meters (even the ones that say “meter taxi” on the side!); prices are agreed at the beginning of the journey and should be negotiated. Cycle rickshaws should in theory provide a cheaper mode of city transportation, but in fact as a foreigner you will often be charged as much as you would in a taxi.
Pick-up trucks are an inexpensive way to get around, both for short journeys and longer distances – but they can get very cramped and uncomfortable, particularly if you are sitting on the roof. Prices range from less than K1000 to K5000 for longer journeys between towns.
Self-drive car hire is not currently possible in Myanmar. Domestic bus, train, air and boat tickets can be booked online at Go-Myanmar.com.
– Entry fees. Many places of interest and “archeological zones” charge entry fees. These can be as little as $2, although the most famous – and most expensive – is Bagan, which now costs $15 to enter. The pass you get for your money will usually be valid for the duration of your stay.
– Internet. speeds in Myanmar are slow, but many restaurants and hotels have free wi-fi. Internet cafes charge around K500 per hour.
– Mobile phones. The telecom industry in Myanmar is only beginning to open up, and at the moment it is difficult and expensive for foreigners to get hold of a SIM card; in fact there are no formal channels at the moment, as only locals are allowed to buy them. You could get one on the black market, but it would likely cost you around $100.
This guest post was written by Marcus Allender, founder of Go-Myanmar.com – the first comprehensive Myanmar travel website, which provides a wealth of continually updated country-wide information, and online booking facilities. If you have any questions, you can get in touch on Facebook or Twitter, or go to Go-Myanmar.com’s Flickr page to see photos from across the country.
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