Angkor Wat in Cambodia, beach hopping in Thailand, waterfalls in Laos. I know the Southeast Asia backpacking route is well-trodden for a reason: because it’s (probably) unbeatable.
But sometimes I wonder if some people even know what other countries lie beyond this trail; the places that neighbour those we’ve become so familiar with via snapshots on our Facebook newsfeed and stories shared from bunkbed to bunkbed in the hostels. There’s one in particular, which shares over 2000 kms of border with Thailand, the same curving crests of pristine sands, golden temples and inviting warmth, yet receives less than a tenth of the tourists Thailand does each year.
I’m so frustrated about it, I feel like screaming, guys, seriously just stop. Stop!
Stop what you’re doing, drop everything and go to Myanmar.
Why? Well I know there’s all the clichés about ‘stepping straight into a travel brochure’ or a ‘holiday advert’ we speak about when visiting Southeast Asia and I would wholeheartedly agree they’re true. But for me, travelling to Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, is more like stepping into a fairytale. A different world entirely.
Obviously, Burma’s history is anything but the stuff of fairy tales – inconceivable levels of violence and civil war have played the central themes in the country’s last few decades of history. But at face value, the Burmese culture, the beautiful architecture and the locals’ grace and kindness left me completely enchanted.
When discussing Burma – more recently renamed Myanmar – with most other travellers during my time in SE Asia, I found their main reason for not going, despite wanting to, was because they thought it might be too expensive. But Burma was by far my favourite country in Southeast Asia… so I think it’s important to show everyone that it really is a very cheap country to travel around. Below I’ll detail a breakdown of exactly how much money I spent in the 11 days I was in the country.
The true cost of travel in Burma
Before I launch into a breakdown of my Burmese expenditure, I thought I’d first address a very legitimate reason many conscientious travellers (quite rightly) have for choosing not to spend their money within the borders of the country: the government tax which is placed on anything from domestic airfares to government operated hotels.
Myanmar is scarred by decades of civil war and injustice, and the 53 million inhabitants of the country are still oppressed by the ruling party who control the media, the internet and the economy very heavily. The leader of of the National League for Democracy in Burma, Aung San Suu Kye, at once stage even urged a complete tourism boycott, to stop Western money getting into the pockets of the corrupt militants at the helm of the country and powering their civil rights violations further.
But in recent years, there’s been a shift towards responsible, small-scale travel and tourism which I strongly believe can benefit the small percentage of local businesses and members of the domestic population that we travellers come into direct contact with.
We don’t have to boycott such a beautiful country altogether anymore, especially one which is already so worryingly isolated from the outside world. We simply have to boycott feeding and empowering the bastards who control it. The key is to be sensitive towards the people of Burma we come into contact with, and very importantly, avoid certain practices such as using tour companies run by or affiliated in any way to the government, or further enriching the businesses that look like they already have more than enough money.
- Do your research when it comes to accommodation. Use family operated guest houses and homestays. The level of care and help with planning they offer you trumps bigger hotel establishments anyway.
- You won’t find a single food chain in Burma. Not even in the airports. Go for the smallest, locally owned food carts in order to save yourself money and help those smaller local businesses.
- Aviod domestic air travel. We were in Burma for Songkran and stupidly missed out on bus tickets due to them all being full for days for the holidays – meaning we sadly had to take a half hour plane journey from Inle Lake to Mandalay. It’s the most expensive transport option pretty much anywhere anyway but in Burma, tax on the fare is high and yep, you guessed it, that goes to the government.
- Of course, some taxes are unavoidable when you visit the country, such as entry costs for Bagan and Inle Lake* (read down or click here to find out on how you can try and avoid these!). The most important thing however is to make sure you spend your money in the right places to make up for the negative impact your holiday spending might have had – eat, shop and stay with the locals!
- There has been claims that the main reason Bagan has shockingly been denied UNESCO world heritage status is due to the treatment of locals when the government first decided to push tourism to the area. Families were uprooted from their homes in the area now known as Old Bagan, and forced to relocate to a different area which we now know as New Bagan, so that the government could build their museums and fancy hotel complexes around the temples. The ethical guesthouse options run by the families who have been on the temple turf for centuries are now located in New Bagan – go there.
*We’ve learned that it’s possible to avoid this fee. If you’re not made to pay it by someone who comes on your bus upon arrival into Bagan, then you can just avoid the government built museums and view-towers, as well as the extremely busy Shwesandaw Temple at sunset, which is where we were stopped. There are more magical and much less crowded places to watch the sunset anyway, and they won’t be partolled by wardens. Read more advice and budget travel tips in my Guide to Bagan.
The actual cost
Ethical concerns regarding expenditure aside, let’s get onto the damage a trip to Burma will do to your wallet!
The only factor that I found a tad more expensive than that of it’s more successful Southeast Asian sisters was the accommodation we stayed in. Whereas a room in say, Cambodia or Laos would only set you back a competitive $5-10 (£3-7) a night, in Burma the price was more like $30 per room, which is why we only decided to stay for less than two weeks, on our limited budget.
Breakdown of costs
Visa: £14 ($20 US) – the cheapest in Asia and available either online or at the embassy in Bangkok.
Yes, it’s more expensive. But the standards are higher and the levels of hospitality are too.
Private double room in Agga Youth Hotel, which I highly recommend due to the amazing staff and air conditioned rooms: £16 per night (so £8 each/ $11 US); research tells me that other sleeping options across the city can be found for as little as £4 ($6) a night.
Bed in an ensuite dorm in Bagan: £10 ($17 US)
Twin or double ensuite room in May Guesthouse, Inle Lake, inclusive of a breakfast to die for in the prettiest outdoor seating area: around £17 a night, or $25 US. (Thanks, Goats on the Road for your blog post recommendation!)
A night in a mid-range hotel in Mandalay, since it was Songkran and we were unorganised in booking a cheaper hostel: £20 ($29 US)
= total cost (per person: there was two of us sharing these rooms) for eleven days of accomodation: £90.50
Delicious noodle soups from local stalls = 80p (less than $2)
Meat/rice/noodle dish from a nicer sit-down restaurant = £2 ($3 US)
Sushi platter (!!!) or one slice of pizza in Yangon = £1 ($1.50 US)
Unbeliavable plate of fresh pasta from Golden Kite on Inle Lake: £5 per dish. I cannot wax lyrical enough about this place, nor express my suprise at finding such good Italian fare in the middle of Myanmar. The bloke uses a pasta machine gifted to him by an Italian traveller, proper cheese (!!!), and sweet bazil grown on the lake.
Can of beer = 20p
500ml bottle of Grand Royal whiskey = £1 (once and never again)
Total food expenditure: as little as £5 a day per person.
However, I live for food, so over-indulgence in The Golden Kite, my near constant cravings for biscuits and the ever-present eagerness to try as many different street-foods as possible pushed this up to around £8 a day.
Eight hour bus journey, for example from Yangon to Bagan = £10 or under ($14.90 US)
Electric bike hire per day in Bagan: £5 ($7.40 US)
Push bike hire per day in Bagan: £1-2; good luck finding one with brakes, and with trying to ride it through five inches of sand on the pathways.
Taxis = a little less than those in Thailand. Think anywhere between £3-6 ($4.50-8 US) for a journey from the airport into central Yangon, or from the Bagan bus station to your hotel in New Bagan.
More ‘local’ rides, for example from one temple to the next within a city if you get lost or fed up of walking = £1-2 (me? Lost? Tired?! Never!)
A domestic flight between Inle Lake and Mandalay, plus taxi to airport: £70 ($104 US). All the coaches were fully booked due to Songkran. Oops.
Add ons and activities
50 km return taxi from Bagan to Mt Popa, with waiting time = £20 (it’s possible to use much cheaper bus services).
Boat hire for a day on Inle lake, including sunrise (and the boatman of course): £15/$22
Inle/Shan state trek: as little as £10 per day ($15)
Shwedagon Paya entrance ticket: £3 ($4.50 US)
Bagan ‘Archeological Zone’ ticket (tax all foreigners are sadly made to pay): varies greatly depending on the mood of the warden who catches you out; we were charged $15 (£10) per person, but there are ways to avoid having to pay it at all!!*
Inle Lake ‘Tourist Zone’ ticket upon arrival: another unavoidable £2.
Terrifying thrilling up-hill sardine can from Kinpun to the Golden Rock: £1.60.
A literal trunk-load of irresistable longyis: £25. Longyis are the long sarong-like wrap both men and women in Burma all wear around their waists. Any girl who has an appreciation for textiles, be warned, you’ll go crazier shopping for them here than in (probably) any other Asian destination. I honestly couldn’t believe the amount of beautiful, unique prints I saw on women of all ages.
Total cost for eleven days of travel through Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay and to the Golden Rock (not including flights, which were pre-paid): £370 (about $550 US).
This total includes my accidental flight, the taxi to the airport I had to take to get it, my spending spree, and another accidental night spent in the Kinpun roadhouse while we still had a room to pay for back in the capital… so it’s safe to say you could definately knock at least £100-150 off this total if you were cleverer than I was! (not hard).
So to conclude?
It’s probably the same cost to travel in Burma than in most other SE Asian countries on the backpacking trail, especially considering you won’t be partying half as much. Sure, Cambodia’s accomodation is cheaper. But most travellers still double their budget on alcohol and you’re more likely to be scammed.
The main reason for the slightly costlier room rates is because travel in itself hasn’t taken off in Burma yet. This means that the infrastructure barely cater to tourists expectations, let alone their skint little sisters, the budget backpackers just yet.
Room rates aside, Burma’s seclusion from the outside world means that the economy is sadly one of the lowest. And this means you can eat for less than £1 and get around the country on public transport for next to nothing too – swings and roundabouts, right?
Of course, tourism is growing rapidly for the Golden Land now meaning prices will too. Within five years, this country could change dramatically!
Let me know if you manage it cheaper than me and share your money saving tips!