Myanmar is rapidly changing and much of the information I read before coming was either outdated or wrong. I was in Myanmar from Jan 22 – Feb 1 in 2013 and although this article comes way before the rest of my Myanmar articles, time is of the essence for travelers on the road looking for current information.
At the time of my trip, $1=852 Kyat.
Myanmar or Burma?
I don’t know. In some circles, Myanmar is to be avoided as it’s associated with the military regime. Everyone I asked while I was there said they prefer Myanmar as in the local language the country has always been called Myanmar.
In colonial times the country was called Burma because that’s what the British called the country. But domestically, in the local language, even in colonial times the local people called the country Myanmar.
I don’t know what to recommend, but I don’t think it’s a very sensitive issue – at least not on the tourist track you’re likely to be on. I used Myanmar and never upset anyone – even people passionately opposed to the military regime.
That said, I don’t know the adjective for “people from Myanmar” and Burmese continues to be the word for this.
I read that your dollars have to be pristine, brand new, etc. For the most part this is true. I had a hard time finding brand new $50 or $100 bills in the U.S. but was able to get some new $50s before leaving. Still, about half of them had ink stains on the back from the manufacturing process. I assumed these wouldn’t be accepted, so they were the first I tried to exchange.
From what I understand, and from what I observed, the currency exchange booth next to the last belt at baggage claim in the Yangon airport offers the best exchange rates. I exchanged $400 there, which I thought would be enough for the trip. It was. Keep your receipt as I think you need it to convert back to Dollars when you leave.
When I left, the bank in the international departures was closed. I’d recommend either exchanging at the money changer on the check-in side of international departures upon leaving just to be safe. The other option, what I ended up doing, was asking the souvenir shops if they’d exchange my Kyat for Dollars. They obliged, but often at very bad rates (like 900 Kyat for a Dollar). I found one who did it at 865 Kyat, which was completely fine since I only had $46 worth of Kyat.
If your cash situation is tight, be very careful about the USDs you get as change in hotels. At every opportunity they are happy to get rid of their non-pristine cash. Though the crumpled $20 bill would gladly be accepted at any vendor in Miami, no one will accept it in Myanmar.
I didn’t use USD for any small purchases like taxi rides or in restaurants. I generally found using Kyat was cheaper. Often you’d see $10/8000 Kyat. Paying in Kyat saves you 500 Kyat or $0.59. The vendor can’t pay for any of his local expenses in USD so he or she will have to exchange to Kyat. Outside Yangon the rates are worse and it’s only logical they will charge more in USD.
At exchange booth at the airport also accepts Euros and Singapore Dollars. I don’t know if the rate is good or not as I didn’t exchange these. Outside the airport you might struggle finding a place to exchange these currencies. When buying the pass to enter historical sites like Bagan and Inle Lake, you can pay either $10 or 10Eur, though if you pay in Euro it’s obviously a rip off.
There are a few ATMs that will take your foreign card and dispense Kyats. Below is one in Yangon. I think it’s still best and safest to exchange at the airport.
I would say you should expect to pay $20-$30/night for a budget single or double room. It depends and I was able to stay in an $8/night single room in Bagan (with no hot water and no attached bathroom).
The accommodations are very basic and by no means are the prices reflective of the quality. The price is reflective of the surge in tourists and the lack of hotel infrastructure.
A friend of mine went to Myanmar in October and had much less difficulty finding accommodation than I did. The only place I showed up without pre-booked accommodation was Bagan. I arrived at 5am and a kind horse cart driver took me all over looking for a room. I did try calling ahead, but all the hotels said they were full.
I implore you to make reservations ahead of time. You can book something online for Yangon, for example, and do some research ahead of time for hotels to stay at in the places you’ll visit. Some hotels have a list of budget hotels and guest houses and will call on your behalf to reserve rooms for your onward journey. But only one of the four I stayed at had such a list and you shouldn’t count on it.
A guidebook like Lonely Planet will have some hotels, but everyone else with that guidebook will be calling the same places. You can find lists of hotels in certain cities online. In Bagan I went to a hotel I wasn’t staying at and they had a list. I just paid 100Kyat per call, and after three calls I reserved a room in Mandalay. Totally worth it.
In Inle Lake I arrived at 3am. I thought I was going to be arriving at 6am. It’s quite cold there in the evening, below 10C/50F, and all the hotels were full. I stayed at a Buddhist Monastery that charged 6000 Kyat per night with very rustic conditions. It was worth it to stay warm and get a few hours of good sleep. But I met other travelers who arrived at Inle thinking they could find a room somewhere, but ended up leaving when they realized literally every hotel in town was booked solid for the next few days.
I was able to find wifi in each place I went (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake). It was fastest and most stable in Yangon, and barely working anywhere I tried in Bagan. I would plan on the internet not working while you’re there, and if it does it can be a nice surprise.
Myanmar is an expensive place. You might have to go all the way to Singapore or Hong Kong to find a place more expensive as it is more expensive than all of its neighbors, many more times so in fact.
I didn’t keep a detailed breakdown of my expenses, but below are the major ones to give you an idea of the prices. Prices keep increasing so if you are on a budget then maybe increase everything by a percentage you are comfortable with to keep a buffer.
Yangon hotel room: $30/night
Taxi from Yangon airport to the city: 8000 Kyat
Taxi from city to Yangon airport: 5000 Kyat
Taxi from city to Yangon bus station: 7000 Kyat
Hotel in Bagan: $8 (after much searching and effort at 5am)
Tour of Mount Popa in Bagan: 10,000 Kyat
Horsecart for Bagan Sunrise: 10,000 Kyat
Visit to the doctor and medicine in Bagan: 8000 Kyat
Hotel in Mandalay: $25/night
Fully day motorcycle tour of surrounding villages: 12,000 Kyat + 6000 Kyat for a horse cart in one village
Inle Lake hotel: $20
Day long boat tour of Inle Lake: 18,000 Kyat
Bus tickets cost between 8000 and 15,000 Kyat
Meals: Between $1 (street food) and $5 (decent restaurant)
In total, over 11 days I spent $563. For me, this was very expensive and way more than my normal life on the road, but it was well worth it.
I can honestly say that Myanmar has a conscious. Only once was I cheated while I was there and it was by Indian businessmen. Otherwise, every taxi, every horse cart, every restaurant, every street vendor, everyone charged me a fair, local price. I can’t say that about anywhere else I’ve been. Karma is always watching, and the Burmese are conscious of that.
I took night buses between Yangon and Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, and Inle Lake and Yangon. I took a day bus from Bagan to Mandalay.
Night buses are perfect if you are on a budget, but road conditions and relatively small buses (there are no arm rests between the seats, for example) may inhibit your ability to sleep.
Buses made frequent stops for food and bathroom breaks. They do play loud Burmese music and TV/movies, so consider bringing your own music or ear plugs if that will bother you.
Domestic flights are also an option. It depends on your budget.
The hotel you stay at will often have an agreement with a bus operator that includes a pickup from the hotel. This is convenient as the bus stations in Yangon and Mandalay are very far outside the city, and in Inle it’s also quite a hike. The only disadvantage with this is the bus itself might not be all that great.
My bus from Mandalay to Inle Lake was horrible. The floor vibrated so much I worried putting my backpack on the floor would break my computer. My legs went numb after a while. It is possible to find brand new, comfortable Scania or Volvo buses. Your hotel will have an arrangement with local bus companies, but it’s not necessarily with one of the nice bus companies.
If you want to take a comfortable bus I recommend booking your travel through a travel agent instead of your hotel. Similarly, you could ask your hotel which company they use and then check with a travel agent whether it’s a good one. If not, just book with the travel agent. This might sound like a lot of work, but it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and you’ll thank yourself all 12 hours from Inle Lake to Yangon for getting a ticket on a comfortable bus.
One needs to exercise the typical precautions here as in any place. But Myanmar is, by far, one of the safest places I’ve gone as a traveler.
Off Limit Areas
I didn’t travel to any off limit areas. I stuck to the tourist trail and I don’t know how it works, if there are checkpoints set up or something like that.
I didn’t have any language trouble while I was there. The people in the tourism industry all spoke English well and so did the taxi and horse cart drivers.
I heard guides speaking German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.
Many temples and pagodas won’t have signs or information in English.
I can’t think of anything else. If you have a question, leave it in the comments and I’ll try to help.