One day in my former life in New York City, I was in the locker room of a midtown New York Sports Club after a workout. A woman came out of the shower wrapped in a white towel and stepped on the scale. After some fiddling with the weights, I heard her say, “Not bad…not bad at all…If I do say so myself.” I hear her voice in my mind on occasion, and as I tallied the numbers for my time in Myanmar, I had to say, “Not bad…not bad at all…If I do say so myself.” The grand total of $1,371.80 puts me at an of average of $33.46/day for my 41 days in the country. (When I was there, the exchange rate hovered around $1 U.S.=1,200 Myanmar kyat.) Here is the breakdown of where my money went, along with some suggestions on how you might be able to save even more:
This was my biggest expense in Myanmar, where accommodation was more expensive than I had thought I would find in Southeast Asia. According to at least one person, the higher rates are because of government taxes on hotels. I spent a total of $675.71 for an average rate of $17.78/night (I had two free nights of accommodation at a meditation center, and one night was included in a trekking fee, so I divided the total by 38). I stayed in private rooms in one- or two-star guest houses in each of the places I visited. I always had a private bathroom, and most of the rooms had air conditioning. You could save, of course, by getting a room without air conditioning, by sleeping in dorms or by sharing a room with a friend. I have listed the names of the places I stayed at the end of this post in case you are looking for budget options.
Somehow, someway I averaged only $6.15/day on food in Myanmar ($252.04 for the 41 days). Food is cheap in Myanmar–and I was treated to maybe six or seven meals by generous friends I made there–but I am still not quite sure how I spent so little. I save a certain amount by virtue of my somewhat clean-living habits–I do not eat desserts or drink alcohol, and I rarely snack between meals. I chose to go out for mohinga several mornings–at a cost of less than $1/bowl–but other than that all of my breakfasts were free at the hotels where I stayed, which meant I usually paid only for lunch and dinner.
I found the restaurants in Bagan to be the most expensive, but even there the most I paid for a meal was roughly $8 total for an appetizer and main meal that were among the more expensive choices on the menu. Throughout the country, I ate at a combination of the street-side restaurants with low tables and chairs and food cooked out in the open, as well as other restaurants that seemed to have full kitchens in the back, though never anything fancy. I also ate some street food toward the end of my stay. You may be able to save by eating more street food from the various food-cart vendors.
In addition to tracking food costs, I was curious to see how much I spent on water, so I made a haphazard attempt to separate the water costs from my food expenses. My best estimate is that I spent a total of $7.58, or $.19/day. I suspect in actuality I spent more than that, though not more than $.50/day.
My transportation costs included buses all around the country (from a minibus that took me from Bagan to Mandalay to the VIP bus that took me from Yangon to Kalaw (one of the most comfortable bus rides I have had, with wide seats that reclined significantly, blankets and free bottles of water)); a flight from Mandalay to Yangon (on a promotional fare of $37); and a train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw (this is a scenic route I recommend if you want the experience of taking the train but not necessarily the lengthy ride to get from, say, Mandalay to Yangon or even Mandalay to Hsipaw). I also took taxis to and from the airports, and to various spots in Yangon, as well as motorbike taxis in Mandalay. I spent $185.21 in total on transportation, an average of $4.52/day.
You could save by only taking regular buses rather than any of the VIP buses, as well as by avoiding any air travel. (When I tried to buy a bus ticket to go from Mandalay to Yangon, all of the buses were booked because of the Water Festival. I could not confirm whether I could get a train ticket, so I went with the flight. If you are traveling anywhere close to the dates of the Festival, book your bus travel well in advance. Also, for safety reasons, no buses run during the days of the Festival, so keep that in mind if you will be in Myanmar in mid-April.) It may also be possible to save by taking buses/trucks to get around Yangon and Mandalay. I did it twice just for the experience, though to do it all the time could add a lot of sweat and travel time to your days. Last, I shared some taxis with friends but often took them solo. If you are sharing the taxis, that will of course lower your costs.
I like to get a local number wherever I travel. It helps in booking places to stay and meeting up with people. I also like having the option for Internet access from my phone when I otherwise would not have it. I spent $7.92 ($.19/day) total on the SIM card and “top-ups” when I ran out of minutes/data. You could spend less by using the Internet more sparingly. At times, I was indulging myself when I got bored on the bus.
This category includes a two-day/one-night trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, a one-day trek in Hsipaw, entrance fees to three Buddhist monuments, two boat trips, visiting the botanical gardens near Pyin Oo Lwin, seeing the Moustache Brothers in Mandalay and renting an e-bike for three days in Bagan. I spent a total of $150.46, for an average of $3.67/day. There were many days that I did not do a lot of activities that cost anything, so I am not sure if most people will save significantly over what I spent. Of course, if you are traveling with someone else, you could share the cost of an e-bike.
- A Hsipaw Trekking Note: I did a day hike through the Mr. Charles trekking agency with a guide named Axsai. He was an excellent guide–friendly, professional and highly knowledgable. I also have some hip injuries and mentioned to him in the morning that I was concerned about returning to town on a motorbike down a steep and very rocky road. He remembered it at the end of a long day and made sure the driver did his best to avoid a rough ride. I highly recommend Axsai if you want to do any trekking in Hsipaw. His contact information: Email: [email protected]; Tel: 09265213244 or 09973706945 or 095278134; Facebook: axsaimym.
This category includes things like postcards and stamps, a gift, laundry, the best foot massage I have ever received (who knew how revitalizing it could be!), a 25,000 kyat visitors fee (roughly $20-$21) in Bagan (though I heard some travelers say there are ways to dodge the fee, I did not have any way around it). I also overstayed my 28-day visa by 13 days, so I had to pay $39 before I left the country (as a side note, I did not have any problems as a result of the overstay; I simply paid the fine at the airport). Grand total: $92.88 or $2.27/day.
As promised, here is a list of the places I stayed. I have listed my food recommendations in a separate post. I have put question marks by some prices where I could not remember the exact room rate.
Yangon: The mattresses at Mother Land Inn 2 were slightly soft for my taste, and the pillows were so high and hard that I slept instead on a folded towel. Still, Mother Land got return visits from me because of its very helpful and friendly staff. As I was traveling in another part of the country, they even helped me book that cheap flight from Mandalay to Yangon after I discovered all of the buses were sold out. My single room with air conditioning and private bathroom was $30/night.
Kalaw: My room on my first night at the Eastern Paradise Hotel ($20/night?) was exposed to lots of noise from neighbors, had only cold water in the shower (this matters more in Kalaw, where it is much cooler than other parts of the country) and seemed generally old and worn. On the second night, I moved to a different room that was less noisy and had warmer water. Breakfast was decent, the location is good, and it was fine for a brief stay. If I was returning to Kalaw, though, I might look for other options before booking there again.
Inle Lake (Nyaung Shwe): You will need to have considerate neighbors at the May Guest House ($20/night?), since its walls are quite thin. Other than that, though, the place is clean, has hot water, comfortable beds, helpful staff and a very sweet dog who likes to snooze outside the entrance.
Bagan: I stayed at Shwe Nadi the first four nights of my time in Bagan ($25/night for a single room with air conditioning and then $15 when I had to move to a room that was much noisier, had less space and a consistently wet bathroom floor from a leaky sink or toilet). I moved down the road to Wu Mon Thit when I decided to extend my stay in Bagan, and Shwe Nadi’s only option was to continue to sleep in the less appealing room with the leaky bathroom. I was initially quoted $25/night for a single room at Wu Mon Thit, though in the end I think I paid a few dollars less per day since I paid in kyat.
Shwe Nadi was a bit noisy at times, though the fan and air conditioner helped to block out the sound. The staff was very helpful with giving information and booking onward bus tickets. I also was able to rent an e-bike from them to get around town. At Wu Mon Thit, only one person spoke some limited English, so it was more difficult to communicate with people there. The hotel is much newer, though, and had cleaner bathrooms and rooms than Shwe Nadi.
Mandalay: For my first visit to Mandalay, I stayed at the Rich Queen Guest House, paying $20/night for a single room with air conditioning and a private bathroom. I asked for a room in the front of the guest house after reading that the back rooms were not good. I was happy with my space and with the location–right near the Zegyo market and within walking distance to my favorite Indian food place, Karaweik. The staff was helpful at times and at other times not particularly helpful, but I think that was mostly because of communication difficulties.
When I returned to Mandalay 10 days later, I tried the Hotel A1 on the recommendation of some fellow travelers. It was a newer and more comfortable hotel, with a good breakfast and a friendly staff. I preferred the location of the Rich Queen, where it just felt like a more local experience, but the A1 is definitely a nicer space. The staff at A1 told me to book on Agoda for the cheapest rates. I paid roughly $22/night for my single room with private bathroom and air conditioning.
Pyin Oo Lwin: I got in after dark and chose the Grace 1 Hotel somewhat randomly. It was a bit rundown and had moldy walls, but it was late, and I figured I would move the next day. Instead, I woke up in the middle of the night with food poisoning, so I spent the next several days in the room. I did not have air conditioning in this room, but Pyin Oo Lwin is cool enough that you do not need it. In the end, it was a fine budget option at $15/night, though you can find cleaner places at the same price.
Hsipaw: The Red Dragon is one of the newer hotels in Hsipaw. The rooms are clean and cheap (I paid $10/night for a single room with air conditioning and a private bathroom), and they offer a free transfer from the train station. The breakfast also was good for someplace so inexpensive. The Red Dragon can help you with arranging trekking in the area, but I booked my trekking through the Mr. Charles trekking office since they had more options of groups to join. Mr. Charles is a five-minute walk from the Red Dragon.