‘Everything is so expensive’

In post-coup Myanmar, a driver's family struggles with towering costs.

An illustration of a woman and a man standing on top of an ironing board that's on top of a bucket of brushes and brooms that's on top of a car. With two pill containers popping out of either side of the car and a long receipt surrounding the image.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Lu Zaw

Age: 54

Occupation: Taxi and tour group driver

Lives with: Wife Han Su (44), son Lin (21), daughter Su Su (14) and dog, Bo Phyu. At the family’s request, nicknames have been used.

Lives in: Thanlyin, Myanmar. A leafy suburban city located across the river from the country’s business and cultural capital, Yangon. The family’s narrow, one-storey home has cubicle-like partitions for the two bedrooms, a small kitchen and an adjoining toilet area at the back of the property.

Monthly household income: The family’s combined monthly income for December was 360,000 kyat ($170). Lu Zaw managed to make 200,000 kyat ($94) from fares and secured two security camera installation jobs with his son that paid 20,000 kyat ($9.40) each. Han Su has recently picked up a job as a cleaner which brings in 120,000 kyat ($57) per month.

Total family expenses for the month: 300,000 kyat ($141)

A photo of a family having a meal.
Lu Zaw's family eat lunch together at home [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]
Lu Zaw's family eat lunch together at home [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]

As he drives down the tree-lined avenues of downtown Thanlyin, Lu Zaw laments the state of present-day Myanmar. “The situation in our country is very bad for everyone. Before, we had jobs, everything was very cheap, and we could make money,” he says. “Now, there are no jobs, no money, and everything is so expensive.”

Lu Zaw’s many friends in Thanlyin call him Ko Zaw Gyi (big brother Zaw). The name belies his stocky 1.6-metre (5-foot-3-inch) frame but attests to his stoic, outsized presence within this close-knit community on Yangon’s periphery.

Born in the northern city of Pakokku, a 45-minute drive from the ancient temple city and UNESCO World Heritage Site Bagan, Lu Zaw was posted 640km (400 miles) south to Thanlyin in 1992 to work at a state-owned oil refinery as a forklift driver and security guard. The government provided him with staff accommodation at a dilapidated colonial-era clubhouse and paid him a monthly salary of 180,000 kyat ($85). In 2018, a time of relative prosperity, he decided to strike out on his own as a driver and was soon bringing home more than twice his previous earnings.

But the good times were not to last. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the 2021 military coup dealt a lethal blow to Myanmar’s already fragile economy, leading to a drop in incomes nationwide and runaway inflation. Over the past three years, the number of Myanmar citizens living below the poverty line has doubled to about 40 percent.

A photo of a betel vendor.
A betel vendor in downtown Yangon [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]

Previously, Lu Zaw could count on approximately 450,000 kyat ($212) per month from cab fares and long-haul minibus rides. Now, it is a good month if he clears 250,000 kyat ($117). “Why would someone pay me to drive them when they don’t have enough to feed themselves?” he asks.

Working alongside his son Lin, he was able to supplement his income installing security cameras, which would typically bring in an additional 150,000 kyat ($83). But, since 2021, the cost of consumer goods and services has risen across the board - hitting this business hard too. “The cost to install CCTV has gone from 200,000 kyat ($94) to 600,000 kyat ($283). So, of course, we don’t have as many customers, one or two a month at most,” he explains.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar shorter than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

In desperation, after his wife had already pawned her jewellery to cover the family’s expenses, he decided to sell his car in 2021 and buy a cheaper, unlicensed cab, which he ran during the early hours of the morning and late at night to avoid run-ins with the authorities who would have likely insisted on a hefty bribe or worse, impounded his car.

“I’ve been making so little money from driving and my wife has health issues, so, I did what I had to do to meet my family’s needs.”

Han Su’s medical expenses are a primary concern for Lu Zaw.

Four years ago, Han Su often found herself short of breath after exerting herself, and was later diagnosed with a mild cardiovascular condition. “The doctors said there’s nothing to worry about as long as she takes the right medication,” he says.

In recent months, Han Su has felt fit enough to take on a new job as a cleaner which has brought in some much-needed financial stability. But it is still barely enough to cover the costs of day-to-day living, which have risen sharply since 2021, and the family has been forced to forego almost all non-essential items. Eating out, family trips to the cinema – even enjoying a cup of laphet yay (a traditional milky-sweet tea) at Lu Zaw’s local tea shop between fares, have become a thing of the past.

Towards the end of December 2022, with pressure mounting to pay for his son’s school fees and his wife’s medical bills, he sold his cab once again - essentially placing his career as a driver on hold.

Despite everything, Lu Zaw considers himself fortunate when he compares his plight with that of others in Myanmar. “There are people in our country right now, who don’t just skip one meal a day, but two. We don’t need to do that and I am grateful for this.”

Over the course of a month, from November 28 to December 28, as part of a collaborative project, Lu Zaw tracked his family's monthly expenses with reporter Jacob Payne.

Here are the expenses that tested his family's finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

Family in Myanmar
From left: Su Su, Lu Zaw, Han Su and Lin [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]
From left: Su Su, Lu Zaw, Han Su and Lin [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]


Perhaps nothing has hit Lu Zaw’s family harder than the soaring cost of petrol. Previously, every day he would start work at 7am, patrolling the streets of Yangon for fares – of which there were many – and could rely on plenty of one-off gigs shuttling groups of tourists or pilgriming Buddhist monks around the country. But the exorbitant price of fuel – which has more than doubled since 2021 – has seen Lu Zaw’s business drain away.

In December, he managed to scrape some fares in and around Yangon but more lucrative trips across Myanmar have all but vanished. “I’ve almost given up trying to make money this way,” he says with resignation.

The price of fuel has affected not only the family’s finances but their ability to move freely around the country.

A photo of Lu Zaw filling a car with petrol.
The soaring cost of fuel has had a severe impact on Lu Zaw's ability to make money [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]

Lu Zaw has relatives in Kyangin, a small town 219km (136 miles) north of Yangon on the banks of the Irrawaddy, where the family regularly vacationed at their relatives’ rice farm. With the cost of a round trip ballooning from 60,000 kyat ($28) to nearly 150,000 kyat ($71), family holidays are out of the question. “We haven’t seen our relatives for 18 months. With things the way they are, it’s just not possible.” Nowadays, they keep in touch over video calls and an extended family group chat on Facebook Messenger.

December 2021: 1,000 kyat ($0.47) per litre of petrol*
November 2022: 2,100 kyat ($.98) per litre

A photo of a person grocery shopping.
Han Su grocery shops at Thanlyin market [Lu Zaw/Al Jazeera]


At Thanlyin’s bustling central market, Lu Zaw stops from time to time to pick up an item from his shopping list and tuts, “so expensive”. Inflation has hit the poorest in Myanmar the hardest, as the cost of basic goods such as rice and cooking oil has steadily climbed.

He examines a large carp at the seafood stall. “We used to enjoy this kind of thing, but now we cannot – it’s much too pricey.” This extends to basic ingredients used by Lu Zaw’s wife to produce homemade dishes. Chilli, onions, potatoes – all culinary Myanmar staples – have rocketed in price and the family have had to cut back on a number of items. “We always chose peanut oil for cooking because it tastes good and it’s healthier, but we’ve switched to palm oil as it’s cheaper. Beef is also out of our budget, we stick to chicken and pork now.”

2021: 4,000 kyat ($1.90) for a litre of oil; 7,000 kyat ($3.3) for 1 pound (454 grams) of onion, sugar and potatoes; and 48,000 kyat ($23) for a 50kg bag of rice*
2022: 6,000 kyat ($2.82) for oil; 16,500 kyat ($7.80) for cooking ingredients; and 68,000 kyat ($32) for rice

A photo of people shopping for second hand clothes at a market.
Shopping for second-hand clothes at the market [Lu Zaw/Al Jazeera]


Before the pandemic and the military takeover plunged the country into its current cost-of-living crisis, the family bought clothes from the local mall, and if they did shop from the market, they stuck to trusted vendors. “We were always careful when we bought new clothes,” he says. “Me and my son do a lot of manual work, so they had to be strong, good quality.”

This year, instead of buying new T-shirts or longyis (the traditional sarong-like item of clothing ubiquitous in Myanmar), Han Su has been busier than ever patching up the family’s wardrobe on her sewing machine and when they do have to buy clothes, these are ragged items from the secondhand stalls – many of which find themselves under Han Su’s thumbs before too long.

2021: 4,500 kyat ($2.12) for a new longyi*
2022: 10,000 kyat ($4.70)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Eating out

In the family’s cramped stonewall kitchen, Han Su and her daughter Su Su prepare dinner. Han Su busies herself chopping tomatoes for her homemade laphet thoke (fermented tea-leaf salad) while Su Su stirs a crackling wok of crispy fried chicken.

The family used to visit their favourite Shan noodle (a sticky noodle dish typically served as a salad or in a broth) restaurant regularly, up to twice a week. But now, dining out is a luxury the family cannot afford. “My wife especially loves Shan noodles but it’s hard enough to buy groceries as it is.”

The family congregates on the living room floor around a large wooden folding table and gets stuck into the meal. “Luckily, my wife is a very good cook, so we don’t miss eating out too much,” Law Zaw says between mouthfuls.

2021: 700 kyat ($0.33) for a bowl of Shan noodles*
2022: 2,500 kyat ($1.18)

A photo of Lu Zaw driving his cab while holding a cigarette.
Lu Zaw drives his cab through downtown Thanlyin [Jacob Payne/Al Jazeera]

Betelnut and tobacco

Lu Zaw has had to cut back on simple pleasures as well. Betelnut (leaf-wrapped areca seeds coated in slaked lime), a chewable blood-red stimulant, is an affordable pick-me-up across Myanmar. “Sometimes I drive for a very long time and chewing betel keeps me awake,” he explains.

But even this dirt-cheap treat has had to go as the family has tightened its belt. “To be honest, it’s still not expensive, but as I’m driving less and we have to watch our budget, I thought it was a good time to quit – and it’s better for my teeth,” he cackles. He has also switched permanently from cigarettes to the more cost-effective Myanmar cheroots which go for 1,500 kyat ($0.71) for a pack of 50.

2021: 400 kyat ($0.19) for a dozen wraps of betel and 1,400 kyat ($0.66) for a pack of 20 cigarettes*
2022: 600 kyat ($0.23) for nine wraps of betel and 3,700 kyat ($1.74) for a pack of cigarettes

A photo of pills and a prescription.
Medicine is far more expensive than it was a year ago but Lu Zaw refuses to cut corners when it comes to his family's health [Lu Zaw/Al Jazeera]

Medical treatment

Han Su and Lu Zaw’s last visit to the local hospital in December racked up an eye-watering bill of 150,000 kyat ($71) but Lu Zaw refuses to complain. “I’m not going to cut corners when it comes to my wife,” he says.

Now that Han Su is the family’s co-breadwinner, working a job that involves manual labour, Lu Zaw has never been more concerned for her health, and attending to her condition is his first financial priority – that, and his son’s education. He puts it in simple terms: “Nothing is more important than my family’s wellbeing.”

2021: Doctor’s bills and heart medication 50,000 kyat ($24)*
2022: 150,000 kyat ($71)

Six quick questions for Lu Zaw:

1. What is one thing you had to forego this month? At this time of year, when the weather is so nice, we try to go somewhere like Mandalay to visit the pagoda and pray. We can’t even think about that this year.

2. What is the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? To sell my car. This was not an easy decision because I’m a driver, and without a car, I have no way to make money. But I decided it was best to take the 5 million kyat ($2,356) and use it to support my family. My wife requires medical treatment and I have to pay for my son’s education. The rest, I’ll save, and if the situation improves, maybe I can buy another car.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? The 600,000 kyat ($283) which I used from the sale of my car to pay for my son’s nursing school fees. This year I want him to go to Singapore so he can earn money for himself and our family there.

4. When finances get tough - what advice do you have and what gets you through the difficult times? If you don’t have much money I advise you to reduce your spending habits and to not buy unnecessary things – you have to make sacrifices. I find that meditation helps a lot. Every single night, from 8-9pm, my whole family offers prayers to Buddha at our shrine and meditates. This gives us all some peace of mind.

5. What is your biggest money worry? Personally, I try not to worry. These days things are very bad so I just live from one day to the next. Today, I have work, I can provide for my family but for tomorrow I never know. I’ve learned to live without expectations.

6. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Getting around on foot. When we had money, we took motorbike taxis and trishaws everywhere but now we walk or cycle whenever possible. It saves money and it’s good exercise.

*Last year's prices were sourced from Lu Zaw and his family

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera