Gone Living

A Beginner's Guide to Living Abroad in Yangon, Myanmar

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Claudia Crismaru
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Are you planning to move to Yangon, Myanmar, but you don’t know where to start preparing for your big move? Or are you perhaps considering accepting a job offer in Yangon but don’t know if this city is actually for you? I hear you, girl!

Here’s a comprehensive article about life in Yangon, which I wish I had available when I decided to move to Yangon.

Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is the biggest and most important city in Myanmar. Even though it is not the capital of Myanmar anymore (that’s a discussion for another time), Yangon continues to be the hub of the country, and the place you’ll wish to be if you want to move to Myanmar.

With a population of just over 7 million people, Yangon is divided in 33 districts – most commonly known as townships. Most often, you will probably be around the Yankin, Dagon, Pazundaung, or Sanchaung areas – the latter is the expat hub of Yangon, so don’t be surprised if your job, house, or both will be in this area.

Living Abroad in Yangon

If you are being hired from overseas, especially as a teacher, it is very likely that your school (or job in general), will provide you with some sort of accommodation, or with a living allowance which you can use to pay your rent.

Whilst the amount provided will be entirely dependent on your job, it is possible to find a decent place to live for relatively less – this will be most influenced by the township that you want to live in.

Sanchaung, for example, will be far more expensive than, say, Botahtaung or Dawbon – but you might also be a lot closer to western restaurants, supermarkets or sources of entertainment if you choose to live there.

the red and yellow secretariat building in yangon, myanmar
Secretariat Building in Yangon

Moreover, whilst I have decided to live in the accommodation provided by my employer, it is perfectly doable to find good accommodation, quickly.

In fact, I recommend you not to try to find yourself a place to live prior to your arrival in Yangon – in my experience, everything happens very fast – a few days will be enough to secure yourself an apartment.

Upon arrival, it is common to rent a hotel room – then, most people will join Facebook groups where they can get in contact with agents and other people looking for tenants. Please note that usually, agents have a lot more properties than advertised, so if you simply tell them what you’re looking for, and in which area, they will be able to take you around the city, and show you all sorts of flats and apartments – one of them will surely be to your liking.

You should also note that if you choose to find your own accommodation, most agencies and landlords want their rent in advance. If you’re going to make a 6-month contract, they might ask for 3-months’ rent in advance; if you make a 1-year contract, they might ask for 6 months in advance, or even the full rent, for the whole year.

Therefore, unless you’re one of those people who’s very persuasive and very good at negotiating, you might have to break the piggy bank.

Money talk will probably happen in lakh – this is actually a unit in the Indian numbering system but is often used in Myanmar when dealing with larger numbers.

Myanmar’s currency, the kyat (pronounced “chat”), has suffered massive inflation over the years, which means that when you’re looking to rent houses, prices will be in the thousands of kyat. Therefore, 1 lakh = 100 000 kyat.

It is possible to find houses in Yangon, for 3-5 lakh if you’re happy with a questionable accommodation. Otherwise, most expats pay anywhere between 6-8 lakh for decent apartments (read, not luxurious but clean, large and well maintained).

Also, for the record, 1 kyat = 0.0007 USD, so your monthly rent could vary between $200 - $600/month, for a flat. You might also find rooms to share in some of these flats, which will obviously decrease your monthly spending – rooms are often rented for about $200 - $300/month, in nice and clean accommodation.

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Visas and documents

If you’re coming to Yangon from overseas, it is very likely that your job will arrange your visa and your residency documents for you. Don't have a job yet? Find out here how you can teach English abroad in Myanmar!

Please note that as a tourist, on a tourist visa, you are not allowed to rent flats – you should stay at a hotel – which should register your stay with the government (failure to do so could get everyone in big trouble).

However, if your job is offering you a job in Myanmar, you will be given a business visa.

Before I begin talking about visas, there’s one thing that you should know: Myanmar bureaucracy is incredibly complicated, all laws and rules can, and will change overnight. So, just follow whatever you’re told from your employer – they will have their connections and ways of doing things.

A business visa can be obtained from any Myanmar Embassy, either in your country or residence or the one in cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, etc.

In theory, you could also get a business e-visa or a business visa on arrival, but these might not be options that your employee is willing to give you.

Ideally, regardless of which visa you go for, you should build it up throughout your stay – this means that initially you will be given a 3-month single entry, which will then become a 3-month multiple entry, then a 6-month multiple entry and finally a 1-year multiple entry, which would continue to be renewed yearly. So make sure you have plenty of pages in your passport. The documents which you will be given when you renew your visas will be the same documents that your landlord will want to see if you choose to rent privately.

the yangon river at sunset with small fisher boats and bigger barges
The Yangon River at sunset

Fun things to do

Many people like to compare Yangon to Bangkok. What many people will not tell you, is that Yangon is about 30 years behind Bangkok, in terms of things to do, or activities for expats.

Whilst Yangon has the beautiful Shwe Dagon, Sule and Botahtaung pagodas, you will soon see them all and tick it off your list. Many tourists choose to ride the circle train, which goes through all the smaller (and poorer) townships in the North of Yangon. This is a very eye-opening experience, but the circle train has been closed for some time for rehabilitation purposes and it is very unclear when it will be reopened.

Other people choose to ride the ferry across the other side of the river, to visit the Dala Village – this will also provide you with a glimpse into the life of rural Myanmar. Alternatively, you can visit the People’s Park, near Shwe Dagon Pagoda, or you can explore the National Museum of Myanmar and the Drug Elimination Museum.

There’s a few other museums and recreation parks at the outskirts of the city, as well as a few war cemeteries.

However, you will soon notice that Yangon, as a city, doesn’t exactly have a wide selection of entertainment options for expats. What it does have, is a growing night scene, and enough bars, restaurants and rooftop terraces to satisfy everyone.

Therefore, once you live here, you will have a few options when it comes to going out, socialising and making new friends over the weekend. Most expats choose to go away on the longer weekends or holidays, and you will soon find yourself doing the same thing once you’re here.

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Transport

Yangon’s constant growth has meant that over the years, the public bus system has improved, and overall it is becoming easier and easier to reach places and see things.

With a new airport and lots of flying routes, it is very easy to be almost anywhere else in South East Asia in a matter of hours. Moreover, more and more companies are now offering VIP bus tickets, overnight, for travellers wishing to cover longer distances by bus.

The busses are usually great, cheap and will get you to lots of places for a quarter of the price that you would spend if you were to fly.

In the city, I would suggest downloading the “Grab” app. Commonly used in most cities in South East Asia, Grab works great in Yangon and in the other bigger cities of Myanmar.

Personally, the most expensive Grab ride that I have taken, costed me 13000 kyat ($9) for one hour and a half in the car during rush hour. Therefore, most transport in the city will cost you a lot less and it will be easy and convenient.

Of course, you can get a local taxi, or a rickshaw, which will cost you even less, but you might not feel as safe.

view of a pagoda in Yagon with an elephant fountain and wide sidewalk to stroll
The Shwe Dagon Pagado

Life as an expat

If you’ve been to other places in South East Asia and you are now wondering if you’re ready to live in one of them, let me tell you how Yangon is similar and how it is different to other places, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia or Malaysia.

Due to the fact that the country was under military occupation until relatively recently, not many westerners travel to Myanmar. Therefore, people in Yangon have a very different attitude towards foreigners. They will stare, and maybe even ask for photographs if they are bold, but they will not harass you, chase you down the street to sell you things, and most certainly will not try to rob you.

In fact, living in Yangon makes me feel safer than when I used to live in London.

Most people are kind, helpful and friendly. Be expected to pay a foreigner price everywhere – however rest assured, in most cases people will not try to rob you blind or be unreasonable – and they won’t usually bargain.

Most things are relatively cheap – if you choose to eat out, you can choose between the “plastic chairs” (like me and my partner call them), or normal restaurants.

Plastic chairs” are the places where locals eat. They might not be incredibly clean, you will be sat on plastic chairs and you might not know what’s in your food half the time, but you will be able to get a good meal and a drink for around 3000 kyat ($2).

Before you say to yourself “Nah, I ain’t going there”, let me tell you that I have eaten at enough “plastic chairs” in my life and I’ve never been sick. They might not be ideal, but they will give you a taste for the local cuisine, for cheap – it doesn’t get any more authentic than this.

You can also choose to eat at nicer restaurants, which will be a little bit more expensive – how expensive, that’s up to you. You can eat out for 6000 – 10000 kyat (so $4 - $8), or you could eat out for 20000 – 50000 ($14 - $35).

Regardless of what you choose, it will probably be cheaper than what you’d pay in your hometown for a meal out.

Alcohol is indeed a bit more expensive, but not always. If you drink the local beer, creatively named “Myanmar Beer”, you won’t have to splurge out that much. Yet if you fancy cocktails or other types of alcoholic beverages, you are probably looking at around 15000 – 20000 kyat for drinks for a night out.

Downtown Yangon at sunset with some cars and pedestrians crossing the street
A typical view of Yangon at sunset

8 Things that I wish I knew – and was prepared for before moving to Myanmar

  1. 90% of the population wears a skirt (longyis)– yes, men included. This shocked me for some reason when I arrived at the airport and walked through the gates of the arrivals terminal. You get used to it quickly.
  2. People love to chew betel nuts – you will see people selling them in these leafy rolls, covered in a white paste normally used to make cement. From what I am told, the betel nut has a slightly hallucinogenic effect – because of it, it has been banned in most countries, but not in Myanmar. EVERYONE chews it, and then spits it on the ground. However, the betel nut stains your teeth and lips, so if you see people with red all over their mouth, or if you see lots of red spots on the floor, it is not blood – it’s betel nut. Personally, I hate it and find it discussing but hey ho Myanmar is supposedly a democratic country. ;)
  3. The local money, kyat, are normally very dirty. Don’t wonder where they’ve been – just wash your hands whenever you can.
  4. Speaking of money – you cannot get kyat anywhere else but in Myanmar – they accept most big currencies, such as dollars, euros and pounds, but you are better off trying to keep you money in dollars. However, when you change your dollars for kyat, if the notes are not new, or have the slightest crease, hole, different colour, anything – your money will not be accepted, or you will be given a much lower conversion rate for your “dirty” dollars. This is another one of the rules that you can’t do anything about, so just roll with it. If you have dollars which are not pristine, keep them and use them abroad.
  5. Get yourself a big wide wallet for your money – you will probably have to handle large stashes of kyat at some point, and you will have to carry your dollars in such a ways as to not bend them.
     
  6. Also, get used to doing most things in cash – bank transactions are not widely used – and whilst you can get a local bank account (I have one with CB Bank), you cannot make international transactions through your bank. There are some ways around this rule, but they are costly, and time consuming. So if you’re planning to wire your salary monthly to your home country, note that this might not be possible or you might have to pay really high fees for your salary to be transferred through “n” banks and countries before it reaches your own account back home.
  7. This is something that I was told before, but I didn’t take it seriously – same as with the skirts. Myanmar time is different to the rest of the world’s time. Things here take time, even if you think it should be a 5-minute process. Due to the web of bureaucratic loopholes and regulations, most things will take time, require 100 signatures and approvals and will probably last a few days. They have a word in Myanmar for it – “kanale” it means slow down, calm down. This will be frustrating at times, but since there’s nothing else you can do, the best you can do is “kanale”…
  8. Some things, you simply won’t find in Yangon – so make sure that you bring them from home. This can include food products, pills, clothes or shoes. I can never find underwear that I like in Yangon, and shoes are always a struggle because I have large feet. My partner loves “Heinz” beans but can almost never find them in shops…. So bring with you anything that you think might help you settle down and make your life easier.

xx,
Claudia

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