Living and working in Yangon
This post is the first in a series focusing on Yangon, Myanmar. It is predominantly meant to provide an additional perspective on the logistics of living and working in Yangon. Recognizing that my knowledge and perspective on the city will change I’ll be updating it over time.
2016 Update: So it has been a little over two years since I wrote this post and it has turned out to be surprisingly popular post resulting in me often meeting people who are like ‘hey I read your blog’. But it’s not just my new found fame which has changed since writing this, so has Yangon. So to account for this I’ve gone back to my original post and made some additions/changes where necessary.
For anyone who has skimmed my blog you’ll know that not unlike Leonardo da Vinci I’m a man of many passions, including (but not limited to) economics and travel. Fortunately, I’ve recently been able to combine both these passions in my new role as an economist in Yangon, Myanmar.
Of course given the logistical challenge of moving countries, few people take the decision lightly. For me, this was made all the more difficult as I tend to only make hard choices after doing hard research, a task made particularly difficult given the dearth of information on living in Yangon. So here I am, writing a post covering Yangon 101, so if this doesn’t sound like something you’re not interested in you should probably stop reading somewhere around here.
At the outset, I probably don’t need to tell you where Myanmar is. But to be safe, it’s a country in South Asia bordered by India, China and Thailand (among others).
Being much closer to the equator and at an altitude somewhere near sea-level Yangon can be hot. Of course this is not universally true with some areas in the north of Myanmar even experiencing snow, but in any case you probably aren’t going to need warm clothes.
2016 Update: It’s worth mentioning the heat is really a big deal over here. Obviously this is going to subjective as I notice locals in arctic gear when I’m almost fainting from heat exhaustion, but be warned it can get very hot and uncomfortable. Power outages also seem to occur more frequently (or perhaps just more painfully) during the hottest part of the year, which means air conditioners and fans can stop operating when you least expect it.
Although you might be able to avoid this by finding an apartment with a generator, I personally still don’t think the extra cost of renting such a place is justified, but that will depend on you.
Traffic in Yangon is bad, but not much worse than many other populated cities in Asia. For me it seems somewhere close to the traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On a practical level what this might mean is a 5 km trip takes 30-40 minutes instead of 10 minutes during heavy traffic.
Yangon is not the ‘wild west’: there are enough shops/restaurants and cinemas to make your stay more than comfortable. Although you shouldn’t expect wine, caviar and toast points, there are enough shops, restaurants and cinemas to make an unadventurous expat happy.
2016 Update: Actually, now you probably can find caviar and toast points (not that I’ve looked). But overall the food scene has improved a lot in two years, there are now relatively decent Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants there (you can see a good sample via Yangon Door 2 Door). There are also more and more decent coffee shops emerging, particularly around the expat-rich Yawmingyi area.
A Note on Food
Although this has been the death of my diet, there is actually a food delivery service in Yangon called ‘Yangon Door2Door’. Although I haven’t tested out much on their menu, they have a pretty decent range of food they’ll deliver to your door (including pizza, etc).
Internet in Yangon
The internet in Yangon is slow. Although I’ve heard this complaint a lot since being here, I personally think it’s perfectly manageable provided you’re not expecting to watch cat videos on your phone. I use it mainly for reading the news, calling friends via Skype and Viber and checking my email. It’s also not too hard to find cafes with free WiFi.
2016 Update: Internet in Yangon can still be expensive, but it has come leaps and bounds with a number of providers providing internet more cheaply than when I arrived. I probably spend around $30 USD a month on mobile internet for around 8gb. Not great, but definitely an improvement. More and more cafes have wifi connections too if you really want to save money.
Although you can generally get around okay with English, I’d recommend you try and learn some Burmese to make life a bit easier and to show respect. You’ll likely be laughed at countless times for your miss-pronunciation (I certainly have been), but making mistakes is all part of the learning process. I’ve also found that most of the locals appreciate you making the effort and will be happy to help you learn.
Accommodation in Yangon
For those of you looking to move to Yangon for the long-haul, there are cheap accommodation options available, although less and less so as foreign aid and investment flows in. In the limited time I’ve been here, I’ve inspected around ten different places and done a fair chunk of research, but like everything here take it with a grain of salt.
Firstly, rental fees seem to operate like a Dutch auction in that the owners seem to start at the top and you have to bargain them down. Often I get the feeling that landlords will ask for more rent than they think a place is worth and hope that you won’t bargain. This is of course anecdotal, but the amount of rent a landlord asks in my (limited) experience can have little to do with the quality of the place, so shop around. This is probably why they say that ‘everything is negotiable’ when it comes to real-estate in Yangon.
Rent is also generally paid upfront and involves one month’s rent as commission. So if you were to rent a place for $500 a month, you’d need to pay $6500 upfront. I’d also strongly, recommend not pre-arranging long-term accommodation before arriving as it’s a sure fire way to pay too much.
If you’re looking to save money consider going with an unfurnished place. The real-estate market is somewhat segmented, with furnished accommodation tending to be significantly more expensive, given it is targeted towards the expatriate community.
For instance, a two bedroom unfurnished place can be found for around $200-$500 US per month, while a similarly sized furnished place might go for closer to $800-$1,000 US and above per month. It also goes without saying that you can spend more if you want, with plenty of condominiums willing to charge you closer to the $2,000 to 4,000 US per month mark.
Given furnishing a place is likely to cost somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000, going for a furnished place is probably reasonably value as long as you’re not paying more than $80 to $160 extra per month in rent.
Although I don’t recommend searching for accommodation online, a friend of mine has had a surprisingly large amount of success using the website below to find places.
There is also an excellent blog post from a bunch of Yangon Expats here:
Don’t Judge an Apartment by its Cover
Another key point to remember is that what an apartment block looks like on the outside has little to do with how it is inside. When looking at places there have been times when I feel like I’ve past through the door to Narnia as a seemingly dilapidated stairwell has led to an incredibly modern apartment.
2016 Update: I’d say much of what I said before still applies in Yangon except there is more competition and more options available now. Often when people talk about how real estate is becoming more affordable they’ll reference back to how expensive it was in 2014 (when I first wrote this blog).
I’d also note that because the exchange rate has changed so much the figures I’ve given aren’t necessarily accurate. Also, Frontier magazine came up with this more up to date and comprehensive guide to Yangon’s rental market here.
Some additional advice I’d give to people looking into local accommodation is is:
–Look around your local area. Monasteries, Mosques, tea shops, restaurants and sometimes night schools can be noisy so if you want a nice quiet area it can be best to avoid these.
–Be careful to look for buildings with speakers pointing out of their windows. These are relatively common in Yangon and can potentially play music and speeches from very early in the morning to late at night. This can become more intense and likely during the rainy season (May to October), when the amount of time you spend indoors is likely to be much greater, so be warned.
–Noisy neighbors and thin walls can make a big difference – Unfortunately this is hard to protect against without knowing somebody who already lives in the area, but when you look at places it’s a good idea to ask about the neighbors to understand the likelihood they’ll be noisy. I had a family people move upstairs from me who made noise at 11pm and 3am. While this deprived me of sleep for a long time, this wasn’t because they were obnoxious, but just because I lived in an old building and they had members of the family who worked or went to school in the very early hours of the morning.
Ground floor apartments generally aren’t recommended. They’re sometimes more expensive (for a number of reasons), they can be more likely to flood and subject to more noise from the beloved yangon street dogs and street traffic. I’m sorry to say that in some apartments I’ve lived in, people also throw trash out the window so ground floor apartments have the potential to be closer to this.
–Rooftop apartments can be a problem during the rainy season. This is both if the rain hitting the roof is noisy and if the roof isn’t sealed properly. I’ve had friends who have experienced both issues. Still, I also have friends who have sweeping views of Yangon.
Cost of Living
When it comes to other expenses such as food, taxis and entertainment I’ve generally found that you can spend anywhere between $10 to $20 USD per day, with eating out costing around $5 to $10 and taxis between $2 to $3 (depending on how far you’re travelling). As you might expect where your costs end up will depend on where you choose to eat and whether you’re able to bargain, with there being plenty of upmarket places around to blow your budget.
Some Cultural Tips
This pretty much goes without saying, but coming in to Myanmar with some level of humility and self-awareness is likely to go a long way. Although people are pretty forgiving (thankfully), it’s best not to test people’s patience. It is also pretty easy to avoid offending people, provided you tread lightly and be aware of some of the basics:
EDIT: A Note on Furniture
When it comes to finding stuff in Yangon, often all you need to know is the right street to wander down.
For hand made furniture and an opportunity to have something custom made there is a street in Tamway you can go to.
Although my strategy for getting there involved me saying ‘Tamway Furniture’ to a taxi driver, from memory it’s around Tha Mein Ba Yan Road
For ready made furniture not made of teak (and pretty much everything else) you can got to Yuzana Plaza, also in Tamwe. This is a lot less rustic than the Tha Mein Ba Yan Road, but there are some things you can get at Yuzana you can’t get from the street of carpenters (bed frames, mattresses, sofas, desks etc).
If you’re looking for something a bit easier to get up the stairs, you can also check out the Rattan Store in Dagon which has basic stuff like chairs, shelves and lamps. They can also custom make furniture if you so desire. To find it, you take a trip east along Bagaya Street (away from the Dagon Centre). The store itself is just past the Myay Ni Gone Mosque and south down Thawtar Street. Actually, I’m not 100% sure if that’s the right street, but if you get to the Mosque you’ll be close!
EDIT: A Note on Nightlife
Although there is an increasing amount of activities and night life in Yangon, it can still be a challenge on occasions to find activities that don’t involve beer and regret. Luckily, some one has come up with a great solution called ‘Myanmore’ a website and mailing list which summarizes what’s happening in Yangon.