Myanmar is officially the fastest-growing tourism segment in the world. Just consider these numbers: In 2007, Myanmar had 300,000 tourists. This year, the country is preparing to accommodate more than 5 million. That’s a remarkable jump in such a short amount of time -- and one that's already changing the way the country presents itself to the world. Southeast Asia is a traditionally very affordable destination across the board, and Myanmar still falls under the budget category compared to many other destinations. But on a recent trip, I discovered some surprises between what's cheap and what's not for the region in the country. Here’s a look at what you can expect:
Food: The best bargain in all of Myanmar probably takes the form of its eats. As long as you go to local restaurants -- the ones you actually see locals eating at -- you can expect to pay just $1-$2 for a filling, quality rice or noodle dish. Traditional Burmese restaurants serving a lunch of fish, chicken, and meat will run $3-$4 per plate. This is pretty standard, even in towns that draw tourists, like Yangon, Inle Lake, and Mandalay. What you want to avoid are restaurants that have become “famous” among tourists thanks to mentions in guidebooks, which drives the cost up at least an extra dollar or two per dish. (Good thing is that you’ll instantly be able to tell before sitting down by taking a quick glance at the menu prices and the clientele!)
Drink: Here's more good news for fans of food and drink. Alcohol is also very wallet-friendly here. All draft pours of local beer cost about 60 cents throughout the country. Bottled local beer will be about $1, possibly less depending on where you are. Bottles of local whiskey can be bought for $5-$10 at bars --or you can get them at $5 or less on the shelves of a store.
Ground Transportation: Buses are by far the least expensive way to get around the country, although the most time consuming. You can get a one-way ticket for the eight- to 10-hour overnight ride between Yangon and Inle Lake for $20-$30.
Air Travel: Don’t expect to find regional budget carrier AirAsia-type value when flying within Myanmar, especially within the tourist circuit of Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan. On the country’s cheapest airline, Golden Myanmar, a domestic flight of two hours and 15 minutes from Heho (Inle Lake) to Yangon can be $86 one-way. For a funny comparison, an international flight that's about a half hour longer from Yangon to Bangkok is $42.
Entrance Fees: Myanmar is no dummy when it comes to distinguishing which places tourists want to see, specifically the Buddhist shrines. In Yangon, for example, entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda costs $8, while fees to Bagan is now $15 (up from $10 back in 2013). In addition, tourists pay a higher price than locals for the same experiences. To be fair, that's true in many other parts of Southeast Asia -- and we still think that the attractions and their beauty are worth seeing. We're just letting you in on the fact that, yes, entry fees are equivalent to five to ten meals, but they won't cost you an arm and a leg.
Lodging: Similarly, budget travelers will be surprised to find that hostels and hotels in Myanmar aren’t really all that cheap compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Mid-range hotels in the center of Yangon will approach if not exceed $100 per night, and private rooms in hostels or guesthouses are closer to $40 if you're looking for amenities like air conditioning. That's just about double compared some other tourist-heavy destinations in the region like Hanoi. But, again, we'll say that $40-$100 per night for accommodations is perfectly manageable for most travelers -- and most visitors agree that the lush landscapes, delicious eats, and seeing a country in transition makes for a great experience.