December is an expensive month with a lot of partying, giving presents and enjoying good meals. To start the New Year without breaking the bank, some tips to travel through Myanmar on a small purse. How to get the most out of your travel budget without becoming so stingy that you’re actually misusing the generosity of the Myanmar people? And how to support the Myanmar economy as spending your money within the country is more sustainable than another trip to Bangkok.
Top 10 tips:
1. Use public transportation
Use public transport for long distances: the Myanmar busses are luxury, air-conditioned, reliable, and cover the whole country. Sit back, relax, and for less than 15 USD you’re in 10 hours from Yangon in Bagan. It is much cheaper than any flight ticket and you also save the costs for a night in a hotel. Yes, it’s a bit slower so you might actually see something of the country. Take a public train to go from A to B but keep in mind the ride could be a bit bumpy (the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw is an interesting and scenic one though). Websites like www.myanmarbusticket.com, www.flymya.com and www.oway.com.mm or your local travel agency can help you booking tickets.
2. Compare accommodation prices before you book
Find out the best deal for your preferred hotel from different suppliers like online hotel booking websites (www.expedia.com or www.booking.com), local travel agencies, and the hotel itself: sometimes a hotel has a special Myanmar resident’s promotion, sometimes the travel agency has best rates, and sometimes you find good offers online. Don’t stress if you see “only 1 room available” on a website like booking.com as it simply means that this particular company only has 1 room in their portfolio and there might be 30 other rooms available at other sources. As the big stock exchange listed companies are headquartered overseas, they might not have up to date information so better try to book locally to support local companies.
3. Check what is included in your tour package
The difference in price is based on what’s included in your tour package so double check these details: Are entrance fees covered? What meals are included? Are there any additional charges for staying a big longer at a certain temple or taking your time to ask a lot of questions to the guide? Will you be picked-up at your hotel or do you have to find your own way there? All of these adds up so estimate how much you will spend on entrance fees, transport and meals if you don’t book a package tour. Furthermore, keep in mind that the more time you spend on a guided tour; the less likely you spend on other forms of entertainment (shopping, eating, drinking etc)
4. Alternative ways of exploring / getting around
Choose activities that don’t need a private chauffeur car as these are relatively expensive: go for trekking in Hsipaw area or use a bike for sightseeing in Bagan or Inle Lake and start the activity right from your hotel (without having extra costs to drive to the starting point).
5. Use a guide only at places he / she gives added value to learn about a site
Plan carefully when you need a guide and when you don’t. Guides in Myanmar are a great source of information, not only about history but also to find out more about local ways of living in their area, the local economy, culture, and festivals in their area. I definitely recommend to use a local guide for sightseeing; yet, as you live in Myanmar you probably will be able to arrange a local taxi by yourself to get to your hotel from the bus station and you will be able to order a dinner without the help of the guide so book a guide only for the guided excursions and not as your private travel assistant, unless you like the extra pampering.
6. Use “joined-in tours”
Instead of booking a private guided excursions that is tailor-made exactly to your own preferences and time, you can choose a “joined-in tour” or a “group tour”. Going for this option will reduce the cost considerably as the “group costs” like guide and vehicle are born by a group of fellow travellers and not just by your party. Companies like Grasshopper biking tours, Urban adventures, and Viator offer group excursions or the Facebook group “backpackers myanmar” can connect you with other travellers.
7. Too cheap can end up being more expensive (or a waste of time)
Look for “value for money” and be aware of tours that are ‘too cheap to be true”. Just like anywhere in the world, booking the cheapest tour might mean you end up spending a lot of your valuable holiday time sitting in crappy souvenir shops or paying through the roof for your drinks in the tourist restaurant that had a cheap lunch included in the package. I often see tourist complaining that Inle Lake is “so touristy” as they booked the cheapest boat with a driver who only knows the souvenir shops and need the extra commission to actually be able to make a living.
8. Check if you need the extra’s and don’t change your mind
Over the years, all kind of extra services have been added to booking engines and you can choose to pay extra fees to have the possibility to change your booking, add travel insurance (for things your usual insurance might already cover), book priority boarding, pay for extra luggage, pay extra for a guaranteed exchange rate or a price guarantee etc. All smoke and mirrors created to earn extra money so basically it’s always best to simply make up your mind, then book and don’t change anything in your reservation.
9. Slow travel
Stay an extra day in your destination to explore some of the off the beaten track places nearby as usually the rule “the more you move from one location to the other the more it costs” is very true. Don’t try to add too many different states and divisions in Myanmar into one holiday but simply choose 1 destination and stay a bit longer (it’s easy to spend 5-6 days just in Bagan or just in Inle Lake area)
10. Avoid the peak season
Especially accommodation prices can go up during the peak season and travelling during the months November, February and the Christmas & New Year period can raise the cost. The Myanmar green season (May till September) is excellent to travel upcountry (trust me; places like Shan state, Mandalay, Bagan and Kayah state get not even half the amount of rain you’re used to living in Yangon); landscapes are lush and green and many hotels drop their prices often with 50%
Following the above simple tips you can easily enjoy a 5 days holiday to Bagan by luxury A/C bus, stay at a 3 good star hotel with pool, and have 2 guided excursions for less than 300 Usd / person. Last hint to stay within your budget: simply tell the travel agency your maximum budget and ask to make a package within that price range.
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences travelling in Myanmar in a monthly column.