Money & costs
Tipping, Donations & Bribes
Myanmar, once the cheapest country in Southeast Asia, has recently been subject to some hefty price hikes due to a boom in travel to the region. At a pinch, shoestring travellers can get by on a budget of approximately US$60 a day for a cheap guesthouse (no aircon and dubious hygiene), travel on local buses and meals at local street food stalls and teahouses. Travellers wanting access to air conditioned hotel rooms, meals at western-style restaurants and taxi rides should budget closer to $150 per day. Luxury hotels in Yangon and Bagan can be as expensive as anywhere in the western world.
Tipping as known in the West is not customary in Myanmar, though little extra ‘presents’ are sometimes expected (even if they’re not asked for) in exchange for a service (such as unlocking a locked temple at Bagan, helping move a bag at the airport or showing you around the ‘sights’ of a village).
It’s a good idea to keep some small notes (K50, K100, K200) when visiting a religious temple or monastery, as donations may be asked for. Also, you may wish to leave a donation.
In the past, many travellers have offered a little ‘tea money’ to officials in order to help expedite bureaucratic services such as visa extensions or getting a seat on a ‘sold out’ flight. You shouldn’t have to do this. If you overstay your visa, you’ll often pay a $3 ‘fee’ for the paperwork, in addition to the $3 per day penalty.
Myanmar’s national currency, the kyat (pronounced chat, and abbreviated K) is divided into the following banknotes: K1, K5, K10, K20, K50, K100, K200, K500 and K1000. Travellers should ensure they arrive in Myanmar with their entire travel budget in US dollars, as ATMs are still very hard to come by (although this may change). The bills should be unmarked and in excellent condition, as money changers are reluctant to deal with damaged notes.
US dollars can be changed at Yangon airport, banks (which give the best exchange rates) and some hotels (which charge more but can be handy at a pinch). Black market money changers are prolific on the streets of major tourist hubs, but generally give a much worse price for Kyat.
Myanmar is only just starting to introduce ATMs, and even then only in Yangon and major tourist hubs. Currently these should not be relied upon, and travellers should bring enough US dollars to cover their entire trip when they enter Myanmar.
Many guesthouses and hotels quote prices in US dollars. These places usually accept kyat, but at a slightly disadvantageous rate (perhaps a difference of K50 or K100 to the dollar). Some hotels, shops and government ferry clerks give change in kyat or with torn US bills that you can’t use elsewhere in Myanmar. If you’re counting pennies, bring lots of small dollar bills – ones, fives and 10s – and use them to pay for your hotel.
Government-run services (such as archaeological sites, museums and ferries) and flights are paid for in US dollars or FEC notes, not euros.
Items such as meals, bus tickets, trishaw or taxi rides, bottles of water or beer and market items are usually quoted in kyat.
Any amounts over $2000 per person are supposed to be declared upon arrival.
Don’t expect to change any rumpled, torn US dollar bills. Moneychangers accept only crisp, clean (and mostly uncreased) bills, and tend to only take the ‘new’ US dollar bills (with the larger full-frame heads).
Credit cards & travellers cheques
Need a credit card bailout? Fly to Bangkok! Credit cards and travellers cheques are essentially useless in Myanmar. Surprised tourists in Yangon found themselves helpless when trying to use them. However, a couple of high-end hotels in Yangon and Mandalay are able to accept credit cards, and sometimes give cash back. This is done via a processing system linked outside the country, usually in Singapore, and is at the mercy of internet connections.
Update: After many years of being ignored in favour of black market money changers, the advent of competitive official exchange rates mean banks and hotels now offer a simpler route to changing your money.
The $100 bill gets a slightly better exchange rate than a $50 or $20, and so on. And supposedly the exchange rate is marginally better early in the week (Monday or Tuesday). We’ve also been told that exchange rates sometimes fluctuate with poppy season too!
It’s safest to change money at banks, hotels and shops, rather than on the street. The moneychangers standing around just east of the Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon have a reputation for short-changing new arrivals for several thousand kyat.
Never hand over your money until you’ve received the kyat and counted them. Honest moneychangers will expect you do this. Moneychangers give ready-made, rubber-banded stacks of a hundred K1000 bills. It’s a good idea to check each note individually. Often you’ll find one or two (or more) with a cut corner or taped together, neither of which anyone will accept. We heard from some travellers that Yangon moneychangers have asked for a ‘commission’.
Many travellers do the bulk of their exchanging in Yangon, where you can get about K100 more per dollar than elsewhere, then carry the stacks of kyat for a couple of weeks around the country. Considering the relative safety from theft, it’s not a bad idea, but you can exchange money elsewhere.
Also, when paying for rooms and services in US dollars, check your change carefully. Locals like to unload slightly torn $5 bills that work fine in New York, but will be meaningless for the rest of your trip.