Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.” He could not have described the country now known as Myanmar more appropriately.
Myanmar is a country that is rich in (an albeit tumultuous) cultural history, whose geography ranges from towering mountains to diving valleys, and from pristine beaches to secluded lakes, and a country that has more monks per capita than any other place in the world. Myanmar has something for everyone.
Traveling around Myanmar can be cheap, extremely expensive, or anywhere in between. The difference between Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries; however, is that here the $30USD per person/day budget that you can easily live off of in Vietnam or Thailand, for example, won’t get you the same amenities or level of comfort in Burma.
Most guesthouses start at a minimum of $10 per night for a no-frills double room, but the average range is more like $15-$20 per night. And due to governmental restraints, your housing options are limited to those guesthouses with approved governmental licenses (and thus higher prices).
We chose the $45USD per person, per day number after personal experience and research. Private rooms are the most common types of housing available to tourists, and this budget will ensure that even single travelers will never forfeit a delicious Burmese meal in order to pay for accommodations. Keep in mind that all people travel differently, and we are well aware that many people can and do travel in Burma for much less, and much more, than this proposed budget.
That being said, Myanmar is a great place to visit with a travel buddy, not only to save on guesthouse prices, (yes, you have to pay for the entire double room whether you are one or two people), but also because most guesthouses don’t have social areas, making it more challenging to meet other travelers. This budget also assumes that public buses and rickshaws (open-back trucks fitted with bench seats) will be your main mode of transportation.
Eating the street food in Myanmar is essential. Not only because it is the cheapest option, (think a full meal for $2-$5), but it is delicious, and it is also the easiest way to experience Myanmar’s vibrant local culture. Something equally important to recognize is that many of the “local restaurants” are actually owned by or linked to Myanmar’s oppressive government, and none of your money benefits the local Burmese community.
When it comes to activities, I didn’t say “No” to anything because of cost – I experienced everything there was to experience. From visiting Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, to taking boat trips in Inle Lake, to exploring Bagan’s thousands of temples, the suggested $45/person/day budget will allow you to do pretty much everything.
Following is a breakdown of how you, too, can travel around Myanmar on $45 per day, and we’ll offer tips, advice, and practical information for those of you who want to do it on less and more than that.
Getting in and around Myanmar can be challenging, but once you arrive, the effort will be well rewarded.
You can enter Myanmar by several different methods:
- Plane: Almost every single international flight arrives at the Yangon (Rangon) airport (RGN). The most common flights are from Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. You can also fly to from Kunming, China, to Mandalay (MDL). **Foreigners must pay a $10 departure tax that is not included in your ticket; Kyat (the local currency) is not accepted for this fee, so make sure to have USD ready when leaving Myanmar**
- Land: Most of Myanmar’s land borders are closed to tourists with the exception of the following three crossings. Car and motorcycles are forbidden to cross the border, nor are there any bus or train connections from Myanmar to other countries – you have to walk across. Keep in mind that land crossings are generally extremely time consuming and often have additional travel limitations once within Myanmar.
- To/From Mae Sia, Thailand: You can cross to Tachileik from the border north of Chang Rai, however you will be issued a 14-day travel permit for B500 that is only allows you to visit Kengtung (even if you have a valid tourist visa).
- To/From Rangong, Thailand: This border is generally closed to tourists except for those going on visa runs. You can pay $10 or B500 for a one-day stay pass and are free to visit Myawadi, the town on Myanmar’s side of the border, as long as you return to Thailand before the border closes at 5:30pm.
- To/From Ruili, China: You can only enter or leave Myanmar from this border crossing as part of a package tour.
- Boat: At the moment there are no available border crossings by boat.
Note: Note that you MUST have a pre-arranged visa and a valid passport with at least 6 months of validity from the time of entry in order to enter Myanmar. If you are in the region before coming to Myanmar, Bangkok is a good place to get your visa, just be aware that you’ll have to part with your passport for a few days
Due to government ordinances, tourists are limited in where they are able to travel once within Myanmar, and budget travelers can expect long, bumpy bus rides, sometimes with less-than-appealing neighbors of the animalia species.
- Bus: In the areas where travelers are allowed to venture, you will find several different bus transportation options. From luxury, air-conditioned express buses to old, local beauties. As a rule of thumb, buses are always the fastest option (other than hiring a private car).
- You will find that, especially for longer trips, most buses travel overnight. Most of these buses are newer, luxury buses. This is a great option for budget travelers because not only can you utilize daylight hours for sightseeing, but you also save on a night’s accommodation. Note: Make sure to pack warm clothes because they crank the air-conditioning and the ride is often similar to riding inside a cooler-box.
- Older, non air-conditioned buses make shorter journeys. These afford you “space” to put your legs but are still quite cramped, and can be very hot during the day.
- 32-seat minivans also cruise shorter distances. They cost around the same price, but come with added bonuses of sitting cross-legged on top of bags of rice and veggies, or share your seat with a wide variety of 4-legged and feathered friends!
Local Tip: The mountain roads of Myanmar are some of the windiest, narrowest, and basically most horrifying roads that we have experienced, and unfortunately, the Burmese people do not have the strongest stomachs. Often you will find people getting sick along the way, which can quickly turn a semi-manageable bus ride into a bus ride from hell. Make like a local and come armed with a bag of pungent mandarins – locals use the peel as a makeshift air freshener to block out the unappealing odors.
- Train: While trains are available in Myanmar, they are rickety, unreliable, packed to the brim, and cost almost 3 times as much as buses. Choose the train as a way to experience local life, but bring along patience and the willingness to get up close and personal with your neighbor. Don’t take the train as a way to save time or money – take it for the experience.
- Air: We don’t recommend domestic flights for budget travelers (or anyone, for that matter) because Burmese airlines are ancient and have a reputation for bad upkeep, not to mention they are super expensive and are linked to the government.
- Motorbike: It is rare to find somewhere that rents motorcycles to foreigners because government officials do not want to deal with the potential of accidents.
- Boat: Traveling by boat is a great option, and there are several different routes available to tourists. Boats range in size from private luxury ferries (you can book these at travel agencies in Yangon), to large government-run ferries, to smaller privately owned boats. The main tourist routes are:
- Mandalay to Bagan
- Mandalay to Myitkyina
- Mawlamyine to Hpa-an
- Sittwe to Mrauk U
Note: While these routes provide beautiful scenic views, if you have limited time this option is not the best, as the ferries move at a turtle’s pace.
When it comes to accommodation in Myanmar, you have less flexibility than you would in other Southeast Asian countries. The super-budget pricing has only recently appeared, so more expensive guesthouses and higher-end hotels are still your most available options.
You can get a basic double room in a guesthouse for as little as $10/night (but we’re talking bare-bones, no window, shared bathroom), while a mid-range hotel costs from $50-$100USD/night, and the most expensive hotels costing upwards of $100USD/night.
When my friend and I were traveling in Myanmar, we averaged about $15USD per room per night (for the two of us). In most situations we had a basic bathroom and a fan, but no air-conditioning. It the few cases where we found places for less than that, we were basically sleeping in an extremely basic, windowless room. I’d recommend “splurging” an extra 2 dollars for some natural light and ventilation. Also in most cases breakfast is included in the room’s price (usually eggs and toast with dark Burmese coffee). The cost of rooms was relatively constant as every guesthouse open to tourists has to be licensed by the government. That being said, Yangon, as with most capital cities, is a bit more expensive. Here’s a price breakdown on what you can expect in Myanmar for accommodations:
- $8-$10: A bed in a dreary dorm or a double bed in a windowless room, sometimes with a fan (if you are lucky). Shared bathrooms. This is the least comfortable option, often noisy, stuffy, and not regularly cleaned.
- $10–$15: Spending just a bit more can often make a big difference. This budget will get you a decent sized room with a fan (which in the summer months is essential), breakfast included, and a simple but private bathroom.
- $20-$50: This is pretty standard for those who don’t want to go bare-bones and will get you a decent room, especially near the $40/night range. For this price you can expect a private room, air-conditioning, breakfast, and clean quarters.
- $50+: When you are willing to spend more than $50, you can expect a huge jump in quality. Air-conditioning and lavish breakfasts are standard, rooms are large and airy with nice views and are often in charming colonial houses. While you might have a television, the government controls what is available, so do not expect any international channels. Internet is still not common in most high-end hotels rooms, although some have internet cafes as a part of the lobby.
- $100+: At this price point, you will be guaranteed a comfortable bed, and a quiet, spacious and clean room, delicious breakfast, and all of the amenities described in the $50+ range.
While Southeast Asian food is most famous because of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, Myanmar also has some deliciously unique dishes. Although it has a reputation for being quite oily, there are plenty of Burmese dishes that are light and full of flavor, and let’s be honest, after a night of drinking Shwe Leinmaw (the local brandy) and coke, who doesn’t appreciate a big bowl of thick curry?
Rice is the core of any Burmese meal, but the real joy comes from the multitude of dishes that accompany it. After choosing your main course – such as a rich meaty curry or fried dish – a plethora of side dishes will follow. These side dishes include soups, par-boiled vegetables, and an assortment of dips, finally completed with a dessert of jaggery (palm sugar) and unlimited green tea. Personally, mealtime in Myanmar was always my favorite part of the day. I would find a local street restaurant, plop myself down at a shared table complete with plastic chairs meant for children, point to whatever looked most interesting from the many pots on the stove, and enjoy.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can easily eat in Myanmar for $2-$5USD per day by going the street-food only route. There are millions of street kiosks selling donuts, savory rotis, fish cakes, and basically every fried thing you could possibly imagine, and all for pennies. While cleanliness is questionable, you won’t find a better place to people watch and interact with the local population than in the street restaurants.
If you are concerned about germs, Myanmar has many quality restaurants ranging in price from $7 to upwards of $20 dollars per person per meal. (Just be aware of which ones are privately operated and which are government owned). If you go the street food route, just use common sense – only eat at places with lots of people already eating or waiting. If there are a lot of locals eating there, chances are it’s really good and most likely safe to eat.
The “drinking culture” in Myanmar is more about tea than alcohol. A strong black or chai tea will warm you from the inside, and paired with thick donuts, is a great (and cheap) snack at any time of the day. That being said, more and more places are appearing where you can relax with a draught beer. Myanmar Beer, Mandalay Beer, and Mandalay Export are the most popular local brews (Mandalay Export is the most tasty), and will put you back less than a dollar for a draught, or $2.50 a bottle. The cocktail culture has yet to really infiltrate Myanmar, so if beer is not your thing, your best bet is the local brandy called Shwe Leinmaw, which is commonly mixed with coke-like products.
- Bagan- Known as the “land of a thousand temples,” Bagan is the site of the first Burmese kingdom. In the mere 40 square mile area you will find over 3000 different temples, some towering and sparkling gold, and others hidden behind centuries of foliage. Rent a bicycle and explore on your own, but make sure not to miss the sunset-viewing spots, which are worth a visit despite the many tourists.
- Inle Lake- Floating gardens, local markets, and water temples are only some of the sights that you will experience when visiting Myanmar’s Inle Lake. Take a boat tour, watch the sun rise over the water, escape the heat, and float through the magical mist in this relaxed picturesque environment.
- Shwedagon Paya- As virtually every tourist passes through Yangon at one point or another, the Shwedagon Paya should not be missed. It’s golden steeples are a sight unmatched in Southeast Asia; visit here and you will probably have the opportunity to converse with one of Myanmar’s many monks, quietly contemplate life mysteries, or experience one of the temples interesting ceremonies.
- Mandalay: While Mandalay itself is not the most beautiful city that Myanmar has to offer, its surroundings are what make it a worthwhile stop. Rent bicycles and ride to the Amarapura to visit its famed teak bridge, visit the golden Buddha of Mahamuni Paya, and wake up at dawn to experience the monks receiving their morning breakfast from Mandalay residents.
Off the Beaten Path
Myanmar isn’t crowded like Thailand and Vietnam, but it’s well on its way. There are still some places to get away from the crowds.
- Take the river ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. While it takes considerably longer than the bus, the views are beautiful, and it affords you a different perspective of Myanmar’s residential river life.
- Journey to the gravity-defying golden rock of Kyaiktiyo. This is Myanmar’s second most important pilgrimage site next to Shwedagon Paya, and besides the oddity of a large gilded rock precariously perched on the side of a mountain, your climb will also be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding mountains.