Budgeting and Domestic Travel Tips for your visit to Myanmar
Traveling in Myanmar can be done many different ways to fit any and all budgets. Backpackers and wealthy travelers have options at almost every destination, however on average the Golden Land is more expensive to travel in than its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Budgeting backpackers can still find their hostels for around $10 USD a night (a bit more expensive in Yangon) while serious travelers can lap it up in luxury in a 5-star hotel.
Arrival by plane is highly recommended for ease of travel and safety but cheaper options do exist by bus, such as crossing the Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge from Thailand. For those who opt to arrive by air, flights from Bangkok on Nok Air usually don’t cost more than $90 USD.
Pro-Tip: Recent changes in the United States Federal Reserve have left the US Dollar incredibly strong against the Myanmar Kyat (exchange around $1-1,300 Ks). Play the exchange rate with your cell phone calculator for better prices as most merchants in Myanmar will accept US Dollars – Crisp, flat and unmarked US Dollars.
For domestic travel, traversing a country that measures 676,000 km², ranks second in size to Indonesia in Southeast Asia and has an underdeveloped transportation network with shoddy roads that can be flooded and impassable during the monsoon (rainy) season, can be tricky to say the least (especially on a budget)! Websites such as Flymya.com can make traveling the Republic of the Union of Myanmar easier.
Standard and luxury travelers are recommended to fly from destination to destination and renting private cars, minibuses and coaches (for larger groups) so as to maximize your time in each of Myanmar’s incredible destinations. Pro-Tip: Fluctuating demand and an increasing number of domestic flights mean that it is realistic your flight may be cancelled or pushed back to a later time slot. Always confirm 24-36 hours in advance with your airline to make sure your flight is still on schedule.
A few things to note when flying domestically in Myanmar: The charming country is still a ways behind its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Having been closed off to the world for almost 60 years, standards of travel aren’t at an international level yet but safety shouldn’t be a primary concern for any would-be traveler. There are eight ‘major’ domestic carriers in Myanmar and some serve only a few destinations. Luggage allowance is generally around 20 kg but isn’t strictly enforced. Security checks usually consist of a single line as most airports are small structures located near a runway or two. When arriving in the Bagan Tourist Area, for example, you will check in at a small desk where they will write down in a notebook the name of your party. Upon exiting the zone, a guard will quickly look your name up and cross you out of the notebook. How they do this with such quickness and accuracy is remarkable.
As for private cars, the vast and broad expanse of Bagan, as an example, can be done in 2-3 days with the hire of an air-conditioned minibus and a tour guide. This should cost around 60,000 kyat at the high-end (~$46 USD) however, Pro-Tip: All private transportation and guides in Myanmar can be bargained with. The conservative and polite culture of the country mean you will have more success with a smile and negotiating point and most locals will meet you in the middle, if not agree outright if you know the right price.
Private cars from destination to destination are also recommended for more affluent visitors as bus schedules and times can be erratic and unreliable. Though they are more expensive than the standard local buses, travelers will enjoy air-conditioning, comfortable seats and the maximization of time. You also have the freedom of stopping off whenever you’d like to use the loo, visit interesting ‘off-the-grid’ locales such as the pagodas and monasteries that dot the land and to take in the breath-taking scenery, especially up north.
For those on a budget, bussing to and from each destination is an acceptable mode of transport and will stretch your money much further. The buses range from luxurious to very basic, meaning from leather seats and air-conditioning to more rugged cloth, standing-room only and packed conditions and subject to the oppressing heat of the powerful Southeast Asian sun. Smaller routes carry locals and sometimes their grain and feed, goods and even animals!
Popular long-distance routes include Yangon-Bagan, Yangon-Mandalay, and to Inle Lake buses typically have nicer accommodations and will cost anywhere from 10,000-30,000 Ks. Due to Myanmar’s lacking infrastructure, it’s actually faster to catch a bus vs. taking a train. Not to discourage any adventurous backpackers out there, but the land routes in Myanmar are oftentimes unreliable and slow. Many roads are one lane and were built during the British Colonial Period, so you can image their current state and the traffic that needs to pull off and let oncoming traffic pass. For the thrill-seekers on a budget, tickets can be purchased at bus stations or online. Time of year affects price as does the length of the route. Tickets can run from 50,000 Ks to 180,000 Ks (~$40 USD to $160 USD). Pro-Tip: Some long-distance buses leave early in the morning (around 4-5am) and will arrive to their destination equally as early in the morning or even late at night. Some other tips include bringing a sweater for powerful A/C (a sarong from Thailand has been known to save a backpacker or two) and earplugs or headphones to make dozing off simpler. There are no toilets on Myanmar coaches and stops are infrequent so make sure you take care of your needs before boarding.
Pro-Tip: When traveling the vast expanse of Myanmar, always make sure you carry a copy of your passport, spare passport photos and copies of your tourist visa. Officials have been known to check out tourists to make sure everything is in order. Also be sure to properly research the remote parts of the country before you visit them. Security situations near the border areas in the past have been a real concern but most areas have improved greatly and are some of the most beautiful sites in the world.
Entry Fees for Tourist Sites
Entry fees are only required at several major pagodas around the country, however most do humbly request a donation in the form of donation boxes spread throughout the sites. Fees range from $2 USD to about $10 USD. The Bagan Tourist Zone requires a $20-$25 fee to enter the area, however with so much to see and do, it makes for a good value on a several-days long trip.
Motorbikes: Motorbikes are prohibited in Yangon (local legend tells many tales of why this is) but are numerous in Mandalay, Shan State and the rest of the country. They offer the freedom of the road but as with most Asian countries, the roads can be a bit dangerous and drivers are more aggressive than they are in the West.
Boats: Luxury cruises are available in the south and are a great way to travel around the Myeik Archipelago. For budget travelers, grabbing smaller boats are easy affairs and relatively safe. Day trips to the islands are perfect getaways and harken back to a time when nature was virtually untouched by man. As for small boats on rivers in the north of the country, the voyage from Sittwe to the ancient capital of Mrauk-U in Rakhine State is a must and very safe. Slow boats are a cheaper alternative at about 10,000 Ks (~$8 USD) while the fast boats run about 70,000 Ks (~$65 USD). Pro-Tip: Take the slow boat and bring a sweater and something warm to sleep on. The incredible history, serenity of the water and ancient villages lining the waterways are a joy to take in. Another popular jaunt on the water is the Mandalay-Bagan route which takes you all the way down the Irrawaddy River. The scenic journey is a popular alternative to arduous bus rides but takes some time. Pro-Tip: River travel time depends on the season no matter what anyone says online or pitches you in person. During the rainy season, water flows much faster than the dry season so keep that in mind when you make travel plans. Boats stranded on riverbanks aren’t rare so be prepared for an interesting trip.
Myanmar doesn’t have a tipping culture, so there is no need to tip a taxi driver, hotel bellhop, guide or waiter/waitress. A 10% service charge is usually added to most bills which is helpful in taking the ambiguity out of this custom. Locals do appreciate ‘tea money’ if they guide you around a pagoda, help hail a cab, translate for you in a store or directions to a location or even explain the history of a certain location to you. As the standard of living is quite low, a generous tip is anything above 500 Ks (less than $0.50).
Internet and Cell Phones
In 2012, sim cards for cell phones ran a staggering $2,500! Nowadays, sim cards cost a fraction of the price at about $2.50 and you can purchase minutes at a local store and top up from 1,000 Ks to 10,000 Ks (~$1 USD to $10 USD). Three major telephone companies service most of the country, including Ooredoo, Telenor and MPT. Local shopkeepers will help you set up your mobile internet free of charge. Most bars and restaurants have free WiFi as an alternative. Another alternative is internet cafes, although they are few and far between and charge nominal fees. Your best bet for a computer is located in the lobby of your hotel or hostel.
A pre-election curfew of 11:00pm has been lifted for most of the country’s night spots. This stretches a cover fee further into the night, however most places don’t charge to enter and drinks are modestly priced at around $3 USD. Beer stations service locals and are a charming place to grab a pint or five. Pro-Tip: Myanmar culture is a conservative one and it’s a major custom for local women to steer clear of beer stations. If you are a female foreigner at a beer station, you will draw many looks so it’s better to just hit a club or bar which caters to foreigners.
Food and Drink
As always, street food in Asia is a must however as a foreigner you should exercise caution in Myanmar. International standards for keeping food aren’t known in Myanmar so if you hit up a kebab street shop there is a good chance the meat has been sitting out all day. Simple teahouses and local restaurants charge only a few thousand Kyat for a meal however more expensive alternatives exist in the form of foreign-catering restaurants and high-end establishments. Don’t drink the tap water in Myanmar and don’t fret having to purchase a bottle of water – the average bottle costs around $0.50 USD. Try the delicious Myanmar Beer, it’s cheaper than imports, costs less than $1.50 USD for a big bottle and is quite good.