Before leaving Thailand, we did as much research about Myanmar as possible. We have not heavily researched a country this much in many months, and it was mostly because there is an air of mystery surrounding in-country costs.
Tourism in Myanmar is growing at an exponential rate each year, and prices are increasing with it. Johnny may have visited in November 2012, but by May 2013, hotel prices increased around 50%. That might not be a problem in other countries because credit cards are accepted or ATMs are widely available. But in Myanmar, many expenses can only be paid for in crisp, unmarked U.S. dollars (hotels, flights, entrance fees) that you must bring into the country. You cannot just walk into an American Express Foreign Exchange and withdraw dollars. That kind of convenience does not exist there, yet. Therefore, you must have a budget in mind before entering so you can withdraw clean USD outside of the country.
ATMs in Myanmar are a very recent addition, but they only dispense the local currency, kyat (pronounced “chat”). With kyat, you can pay for things like food, taxis, clothes, toiletries, and local and long-distance buses. Before ATMs were installed, travelers had to exchange USD for kyat on the black market (now there are also exchange bureaus). But that used to be the only way for foreigners to obtain kyat.
We had no idea what to expect. We heard black market exchanges were still going on, ATMs had appeared but still did not accept foreign cards and local businesses were not accepting not-so-perfect USD. What we encountered, as of late April/early May 2013:
•Black market exchanges are still possible (people will just approach you on the street. We were in Yangon.).
•Exchange bureaus and banks will change money for you. The best exchange we received was at a KBZ Bank exchange office in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) on 12 May 2013 for 899 kyat to $1 USD (for $100 bills and $50 bills).
•ATMs were in most cities we visited (we did not see one in Hpa-an and do not recall any in Kinpun or Mawlamyine). They do accept foreign ATM cards (Visa and Mastercard) and a four-digit PIN. However, the exchange rate for ATMs is horrible. It’s in your best interest to exchange USD for kyat. The first time we withdrew money, we received 794 kyat to $1; the second time was 810 kyat to $1 (at the time the official exchange rate was around 886 kyat to the dollar.).
•When we used USD, the bills were not always closely examined. We successfully used a couple sub-par bills, but our last hotel nearly didn’t accept a $5 with a crease down the middle. It is still wise to obtain bills that have no marks, stains, creases or folds. When given change, do not accept any bills that are less than perfect or you may be stuck with them.
Our daily average was $26.50 USD* per person per day, making it one of the most inexpensive countries we have visited in the past 12 months. NOTE: We travel on a backpacker’s budget. Double these estimates for a mid-range budget ($50-$75 per person, per day) and triple or quadruple them for a larger budget (more than $75+ per person per day).
To give you an idea of what you might spend (possibly the lowest you could spend), here is a sample breakdown for Yangon. This meets our daily average for the country and therefore perfectly defines a typical day we experienced in Myanmar.
One Day in Yangon Sample for Two People
•MMK is the abbreviation for kyat
•Conversion used for $1USD is 880MMK (it went up to 899 while we were there, but 880 was the average for most of our stay)
Approximate total in USD: $53, or $26.50 per person
Accommodations: Mother Land Inn 2 in east central Yangon. Basic double room with fan, shared bathroom, European or local breakfast and airport transfer included (upgrade to an ensuite AC room for $5/night more). Mattress is soft but firm (no springs, just foam), pillows are stiff. Comes with two bath towels, two washcloths, two hangers, desk and chair. Internet on shared computers costs 1,000MMK for one hour. Phone at reception can be used for free to make in-country calls (a real bargain since we found calling ahead was always cheaper than the walk-in rates). Staff is friendly, speaks good English and can help book onward travel. Sells water and other beverages (water is 300MMK at guesthouse but 150MMK down the street at the City Market store).
Meals: This is a high estimation, but sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere and are forced to pay a higher price. As an example, we paid 5,600MMK for a subpar lunch at a lame Western restaurant on Kandawgyi Lake (though if we weren’t looking for pescetarian options we could have paid less). It included a pineapple juice, a strawberry shake, two orders of fish and chips, and a compulsory 5% tax and 10% service fee.
For dinner, we ate at Aung Thukha, paid 3,200MMK and got: two rice plates, two veggie soups, two sodas, a raw veggie platter (this is served in all Burmese restaurants), three veggie curries, two types of tea leaf salad and dessert candies (also typical of Burmese restaurants).
Transportation: A taxi in the downtown area will cost 1,500-2,000MMK. Across town will be 3,000MMK. Trips to the airport or bus station hover around 7,000MMK.
Activities: $14 includes two entrance fees of $5 each into Shwedagon Paya (no camera or video camera fees) and two $2 entrance fees to Kandawgyi Lake.
Miscellaneous: 800MMK includes following: four 1L water bottles from the store (150MMK each), two restroom payments of 50MMK each and a 100MMK donation at Shwedagon Paya (more like a tip for the people who hold onto your shoes while you walk around the complex, though this fee isn’t compulsory).
Sample prices to help you budget
1L water: 150MMK
body soap: 300MMK
300ml soya bean milk: 280MMK
Myanmar beer 640ml: 1,300MMK
Dagon beer 640ml: 950MMK
Sweet pre-packaged buns with filling: 200MMK
International postcard stamp: 500MMK
Shwedagon Paya, Yangon: $5 per person
Golden Rock, Mt Kyaiktiyo: $6 per person
Bagan Archeological Zone: $10 per person
Inle Lake Zone Fee: $5 per person
Khaung Daing Hot Springs, Inle Lake: 7,200MMK per person (private pool area)
*Please note that you can definitely spend way more on food, accommodations and transportation if you choose to travel in a more upscale way. Even the highest prices are the lowest we could find to fit our tight backpacker’s budget.
Least spent on accommodations: $12 (double fan room in Hpa-an and Kalaw)
Most spent on accommodations: $30 (double AC room in Nyaung U)
Least spent on dinner: 2,000MMK for two rice plates, two free soups, free fresh veggies, one bean curd with sprouts, one chickpeas with potato curry, 10 free side dishes with toppings, two free teas and three free desert candies
Most spent on dinner: 13,500MMK for two veggie pizzas, two mojitos and one caipirinha
Least expensive overnight bus: 11,000MMK per person from Inle Lake to Mandalay
Most expensive overnight bus: 15,000MMK per person from Yangon to Bagan
Find out here why we choose to use Myanmar instead of Burma.