Interested in the cost of living in Yangon or Bangkok? Bennett Stevens (co-founder of Luminous Journeys Travel & Tours) lives in both cities and shares all the specifics! I’ll let him explain…
It seems like more and more people these days are looking not only to travel to exotic destinations, but to actively road test them as places to make their escape from the habituated drudgery of life in their home countries.
As a documentary photographer, this urge came to me quite naturally 17-years ago, though I only finally “settled” in Thailand in 2009. Since I began a Myanmar travel agency with a Burmese partner in late 2011, I have been spending high season in Yangon (November to March) and low season in Bangkok (April to October). They may only be an hour away by air, they are two very different places to domicile, cost wise and otherwise.
Though I’m very tempted to compare and contrast as I go through the costs of living in these two fascinating cities, I have decided since no one is likely aiming to live in both as I am, that I’ll take them one by one.
My Cost of Living in Bangkok, Thailand
My Bangkok apartment rental: $1000 per month.
Monthly rent in Bangkok ranges from cheap but perfectly livable studio apartments with air con for $130, to large, fully outfitted studios in a luxury building with maid service for about $900.
I live in a one bedroom (700 square ft.) in a nice building in the center of the city near the Siam Skytrain station. It has a swimming pool, gym, 24-hour security and high-speed WiFi. I pay a little over $1,000 in rent. (Studios in the same building run about $600, two bedrooms $1,500).
- Electricity: $40 – $50 with little air-con use. If you run the air-con all the time, you’ll pay $100 or more.
- Water: Runs about $8.00 per month, including ages long girlfriend showers! Internet: Mine is included. But generally it runs about $20 per month for high-speed dsl or cable.
- Phone: Mobile phone use costs me no more than $15 per month with pre-paid time. For international long distance and to talk with the office in Yangon I use Skype.
- Electronics prices are either on par with the US or more expensive for things like Apple products or big screen TV’s. Deals can be had on cheap Thai & Chinese brands, but these products really are cheaply made and sometimes electrically dangerous. Good deals can be had time to time on name brand Chinese and Korean computers. Microwaves can be picked up for about $75; Blue Ray players like Panasonic start under $100.
- Furniture: Runs the price gamut, but quality stuff either Thai made or imported is on par with U.S. prices. Mine and most apartments over $300 come furnished, with TV, fridge, bed, tables, chairs and sofa. Often they include kitchenware as well.
Cost of Food in Bangkok
Food: $300 per month
I cook mostly at home, often for two, just as I would in the United States. Most Thais eat out most of the time, as it’s not only more convenient but less expensive! Grocery store prices in Bangkok are generally a little cheaper than the U.S., and a lot cheaper when it comes to things like boneless chicken breasts, which are less than half of American prices. The same is true for fish and prawns, with Thailand being one of the world’s leading producers of black tiger prawns in the world.
That said, grocery stores get very expensive when it comes imported beef and Western brand name food products, which be up to 300% higher. $10 for a medium size jar of American Dill pickles? Not for me! Though they won’t tell you this, some American brands sold for the Thai market that are packaged exactly the same, (except for using Thai and English labeling), while superior in price are inferior in quality and taste.
Grocery store fruit is expensive, about on par with US prices, if not higher. Up to 50% cheaper if you go to local fruit markets. The same for vegetables. Note that the climate (I presume) prevents the growing of a decent tomato. To get any flavor or decent texture, you have to go with cherry tomatoes. As a homegrown tomato lover don’t get me started! Next trip home I will bring back some seeds and see what happens.
The street food in Bangkok is among the best in the world – if you know where eat. But just about any street food is pretty good. Most Thais eat street food most of the time. Even rich people will have their favorite street stalls. You can eat well and drink the supplied free filtered water for about $1.30 per meal. Though you can buy chicken at the grocery store very cheaply, for some reason the price on the street has soared in recent years, to about $2.00 for a deep fried thigh-leg. (Breasts are harder to find). Usual street food is pork or chicken satay sticks for 30 cents each; sticky rice for .15 cents; a large bowl of soup with fish or chicken and vegetables for a buck thirty; fried rice chicken or seafood, $1.30 – $1.50.
Good strong flavored coffees can be had via street cart for a tiny fraction of the Starbucks on the corner.
Restaurants run the price gamut, of course. Average meal at a chain restaurant in a mall ranges from about $2.50 – $8.50 for an entre. For fast food, KFC is very popular, with a spicy breast sandwich for less than $2.00; and breasts, thighs, legs for $1.30, cheaper than on the street! A McDonald’s combo meal is about $3.50.
Common Grocery Items in Bangkok:
- Eggs: $2.50 a dozen
- Milk: $1.50 a liter
- Bread: $1.25
- Lunchmeat: $2.00 for 6 slices
- Cheese: $10 a pound
- American Brand Mayonnaise: $2.75 for 15 oz. jar
- Rice: $4 – $8 for 5 kilos
- Boneless Chicken Breast: $1.50 1/2 kilo
- Ground Beef: $5.00 1/2 kilo
- Thai Beefsteak (universally tough) $6 – $17 a pound
- Imported Beef Steak: $15 – $30 a pound
- Crocodile Filet: $5.00 1/2 kilo
- Thai Jumbo Prawns: $7 per kilo
- Thai Beer: $1.40 (half liter bottle)
- Imported Beer: $2.50 (half liter bottle)
- Imported Wine: $12 a bottle is about the cheapest, on up to the stratosphere
- Imported Box Wine: 5 liters starts at $28! This is nearly triple the price than in California
- Hard Liquor: Taxes make most imported alcohol in Thailand quite expensive. Johnny Walker is a notable exception.
- Local Whiskey or Rum: $6 – $7.50, 70 cl.
- Johnny Walker Red: $24. 70 cl.
- Chivas Regal (12 year): $44 liter
- Jose Cuero Tequila: $28, 70 cl.
- Quality Imported Vodkas, Rums, Gins and Liqueurs all come at a healthy premium
Health Costs in Bangkok
- Doctor’s appointments at top private hospitals are only $35. This is up 25% in two years.
- Due to medical tourism, prices for most surgical procedures have risen sharply over the last decade and are now approaching 50% of U.S. prices in many areas. One area of exception is some plastic surgeries, like sex change or breast implants, where quality is on par or better with the US & EU can be had for as little as 10 to 20 cents on the dollar. Just be careful that you get the very best surgeons.
- A dental cleaning at a quality facility is about $25, and other major dental services run 50% or less than in the West.
- Massage: Full body, $7 – $10. Foot, $6. One hour.
Bangkok Entertainment Costs
- Movies: Great value @ $3 to $5 in beautiful, state of the art theaters, with first run movies often released at the same time or even before, wide release in the US. The $5 seats are huge, comfy love seats, and individual seats in the back rows, sometimes with wait service!
- DVD’s: About $7 to $10 for legit, $2.50 to $3.00 for quality bootlegs.
- Cable TV: Comes free for basic in most apartment or condo buildings, though some will charge $10 to $15. For True Vision satellite, you can get a million movies channels but very limited American Sports. You can get the NFL in sports bars, however. Euro sports, mostly soccer and snooker, are plentiful. You pay one time for the Dish which you then own, and could receive basic cable forever for free if you wanted to.
- Clubs: Expensive these days. Most of the good ones have $10 or $15 covers and $6 to $12 cocktails. Some push bottles of booze for your table instead of a cover charge, starting at $100. Two for one Happy Hours on rooftop bars are a reasonable deal. Regular bars and sports bars are quite reasonable, cheaper than the West. Happy Hour draft beers can be had for about $1.25.
- Billiards: Anyplace with a table is either free or less than a dollar a rack. Winner stays on free until he loses. Nicer billiard rooms with lovely attendants usually have great happy hour prices and even free pool at some. Peak hours run about $7 an hour.
Transportation Costs in Bangkok
- Taxis: To be avoided when possible, not because of cost but traffic. Cost is quite cheap at about $1.00 for the first kilometer. Always ask to use the meter. Most do, but some will refuse and give you a quote. Unless this is long distance, they are trying to rip you off, so get out. The next one is already behind you. On the whole taxi drivers in Bangkok are honest, if underpaid. From the airport to the city center (about 30 minutes using toll-ways) will cost you less than $10, or $300 baht.
- BTS Skytrain and MRT Subway: The best way to get around most parts of town. You can get a day pass for about $5. There is no such thing as un unlimited monthly pass, but you can get up to 50 one way trips of any distance for $30.
The MRT does have an unlimited monthly pass for $42.
- Buses: Local, forget about it. Crowded and dirty and take forever. Long distance, great value for lux buses – less than $15 overnight to Chaing Mai or Phuket.
- In Country Flights: Great value if you shop around, $50 to $60 RT to Chiang Mai or Phuket.
- Gasoline prices are about on par with the US, a little over $1 per liter, which is a LOT cheaper than EU.
In general, the biggest cost savings are to be found in housing, which is normally a person’s number one expense. Bangkok is wonderfully cheap compared to most major cities in the West, Japan & China. Not to mention, Yangon!
My Cost of Living in Yangon, Myanmar
My Yangon apartment rental: $1200 per month
Since the country opened up in 2011, rents have skyrocketed. Monthly rent for a 900 square foot two bedroom two bath in a chic area, or in a new or renovated building, ranges from about $1500 to $7,000.
In an older building like I share downtown, we pay $1200 rent. This is with limited amenities and came partially furnished. (In 2010, it was $400.) The catch in Myanmar is that they demand 1 year’s rent in ADVANCE! Ouch.
On the plus side, electricity is dirt cheap, and we don’t pay anything for water.
- Electricity: $30 – $40 with a lot of air-con use.
- Internet: Semi high speed runs us about $150 a month after a $500 install charge. This is a bargain compared to a few years ago if you could even get it. Prices will continue to come down as speeds increase. When they get reasonable, I will sign up. For now, I access at work. G-Mail loads so slowly it’s not worth bothering with most of the time. Early morning is best.
- Phone: Mobile phone use costs me no more than $20 per month with pre-paid time.
- Furniture: Runs the price gamut, but quality stuff is on par with U.S. prices.
- Sat TV: With international channels and movies is about $20 per month after a $100 install.
Food: $400 per month
Yangon doesn’t have much as yet by way of the modern big size Supermarket. What they do have in western food products are quite expensive. Overall prices average about the same as the US. For dining at home, your best deals are to be had in chicken, rice & potatoes! The chicken is not as cheap as Bangkok, but still a lot cheaper than the US.
Street food and cheap restaurant food is generally inferior to Bangkok and a little more expensive. A great value compared to the US and EU is to be had in quality local restaurants, all the way up to fine dining. Excellent Burmese lunch entree’s in nicer restaurants range from $2.00 to $5.00. Dinner entrees are slightly more.
When it comes to For Fine Dining, a $250 dinner for two with dessert (sans wine) in the US, will cost you less than $150 in Yangon, and the quality is world class. At Le Planteur, owned & operated by a Michelin Star chef, dinner includes a free limousine pick-up!
Common Grocery Items in Yangon
- Eggs: $2.50 a dozen
- Milk: $1.75 a liter
- Bread: $1 – $5
- Lunchmeat: $6 – $7 for 10 slices
- Cheese: $15 a pound
- American Mayonnaise: $5 – $10 per jar, 16 – 32 oz.
- Rice: $4 – $8, 5 kilos
- Boneless Chicken Breast: $2.50, 1/2 kilo
- Ground Beef: $4 – $5, 1/2 kilo
- Beef Steak: $7.50 – $10, 1/2 kilo
- Mutton: $6 – $8, 1/2 kilo
- Myanmar Beer: $1.00 (half liter bottle) $1.50 – $5 at restaurants
- Imported Beer: $2.00 (half liter bottle)
- Imported Wine: $7 a bottle is about the cheapest, on up to the stratosphere
- Imported Box Wine: 5 liters $15
- Hard Liquor: Seemingly tax-free!
- Local Scotch Whiskey or Rum: $3 – $5 75 cl.
- Johnny Walker Red: $15 liter
- Chivas Regal (12 year): $30 liter
- Jose Cuero Tequila: $16, 75 cl.
- Quality Imported Vodkas, Rums, Gins and Liqueurs all come at better than Western prices
Health Care in Yangon
Not available! OK, there is one international standard hospital (ostensibly) in the entire country, and that’s in Yangon. If you have fragile health or serious issues develop, your best bet is a 1 hour flight to Bangkok. Medicines are very cheap, most often generic and made in India. But be sure to go to a quality pharmacy. Some Western brands are available.
Massage: Full body, $6. Foot/Leg, $3.
Entertainment Costs in Yangon
- Movies: There are now 4 or 5 theaters around town than play first run Hollywood movies. Ticket prices are $3 – $4.
- DVD’s: Bootlegs of old English movies and classics are dirt cheap at under a dollar, and the quality is good. New movies are just as cheap, but the copies are unwatchable.
- Cable TV: $100 install and $20 a month, includes English language movie channels.
- Clubs: With a freer country comes a more lively nightlife. No, Yangon isn’t Bangkok and hopefully never will be, but the scene is definitely up and coming and more sophisticated these days. The most popular places have a $5 – $10 cover that usually includes a well cocktail or beer.
Transportation Costs in Yangon
- Taxis: Dirt cheap, about $6 for an hour ride to the airport from downtown. Vehicles are mostly new these days, avoid the old rattle traps held together with hope and bailing wire. And be 100% sure your driver knows where he’s going. When in any doubt whatsoever, get another cab!
- Skytrain or Subway: None.
- Buses: Local, forget about it. Crowded and dirty and take forever. Long distance, great value for lux buses but don’t expect to sleep, as videos play at full blast all night long. Expect rough roads.
- In Country Flights: Average cost for any main destination is about $110 one way, give or take. Schedules are limited and can change on a whim.
- Trains: Cheap, if you like long distance roller coasters.
Cost of Living Comparison: Yangon vs Bangkok
In summary, both of these cities are overall, a lot of fun to live in. They do have their challenges of course, but that’s part of what keeps expats interested, even as they complain. Ask them if they’d rather go back to their home countries, and most will give you a resounding “no” and a knowing smile.
Yangon is much more expensive, with upfront costs for an apartment prohibitively expensive for many.
Internet is a big problem but becoming less so as time goes on.
Health care is a serious concern for those who need to be concerned. Traffic has also become a problem with the influx of so many new vehicles and no good public transport. Most street food is inferior to other Asian cities, with some exceptions, but great food is available at a good price if you know where to look.
Despite its drawbacks, this is a very exciting time to be living in what is one of the most exotic cities in the world, which also happens to be one of the friendliest!
Bangkok is not as friendly as Yangon, (though much friendlier than its Western counterparts), but is probably the least expensive (especially in housing and health care) and accessible big city in Asia to live in. It has all the modern conveniences and in many ways ranks as a first world city, with a nightlife that is second only to Tokyo.
Bio: Bennett Stevens is co-founder of Luminous Journeys Travel & Tours based in Yangon, Myanmar.
He has worked as a documentary photographer and photography guide throughout south and southeast Asia since 1998. Luminous Journeys photo tours division has recently been spun off to LuminousJourneysPhotoTours.com and is expanding to Indonesia.
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