Changing Money in Myanmar
How “perfect” do your bucks in Burma have to be?
By Dave Fox
Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)
I got sick of the warnings. I’d heard them too many times: If you travel to Burma, make sure your dollars are in new, pristine condition.
I had no idea how extreme things were, however, and by the end of my trip, I was getting nervous. I wasn’t running out of money, but I was running out of crisp, clean, utterly flawless (translation: acceptable in Myanmar) money.
As of right now (November, 2012), no Myanmar ATMs accept foreign cards. With the exception of a few mega-swank hotels in Yangon, paying for anything with a credit card is impossible. Among the handful of places that do accept them, many require 24 hours’ advance notice, and they tack on ten-percent service fees. In a big emergency, these hotels will also give you a cash advance at the same lousy rate, but it’s a headache. Outside of Yangon – even in other big cities like Mandalay – such cash advances are impossible, according to the Lonely Planet Burma guide.
So what do you need? How perfect must your money really be? How do you travel safely with a big wad of cash? What denominations work best? And why do people who have already been to Burma get so hyper when the subject comes up? Let’s break this all down.
My first piece of advice: Figure out your budget and then, if you can, get double that amount in US dollars. If you travel on the splurgy side, don’t assume those 200-dollar-a-night resorts will take credit cards.
Carrying this much money might feel disconcerting, but running out of funds in a place where you can’t get more is going to feel worse. To keep things safe, spread things around. If you’re traveling in a group of two or more, don’t have one person carry all the money.
I kept most of my large bills in a moneybelt, a stack of ones and fives in a hidden zipper pocket in my backpack, two emergency hundreds in one buttoned pocket, and my day’s money in another. I stored the bills in my moneybelt inside a plastic envelope to keep them from getting damaged.
I felt safe. Crime against foreigners is relatively low, but to quote a Singaporean cliché, “Low crime doesn’t mean no crime.”
My large stack of small bills – ones and fives – turned out to be a mistake. While small denominations of US dollars are in handy in some other Southeast Asian nations, that wasn’t the case in Burma. Except for large transactions such as hotel bills or plane tickets, you usually won’t pay in dollars. You’ll be changing your cash into Burmese kyat. Changing a couple of hundreds is a lot less hassle than counting out a stack of ones, and you will often get a better exchange rate with bigger denominations.
There are three basic places to change money: banks, shops / hotels, and people on the street. Banks offer a slightly better rate than shops and hotels. Some hotels offer reasonable rates whereas others are ridiculous. On the streets of Yangon, some people offered me better rates than the bank. I didn’t take them up on this because I don’t feel comfortable changing money on street corners, though some travelers say this works well. (Lonely Planet Burma warns that banks give a ridiculously low rate compared to private exchanges. I suspect this was the case when the book went to press, but things are changing rapidly. When I was there, I got around 845 kyat to the US dollar in banks, 830 in shops. One guy on a street corner offered me 900. One hotel offered 780. I‘ll let you do the math, but the trick is, when you arrive, ask around at a few places and find out what the current going rates are.)
Now – about these rumors of money needing to look freshly printed: For anything larger than a five-dollar bill, that’s utterly true. A barely visible ink dot, a half-millimeter tear, even a crease that has weakened the fibers, is enough to get your bill rejected. We had a couple of hundreds turned down for marks we hadn’t even noticed.
All bills must be dated 2006 or later. And check the serial numbers before leaving home. A few years back, somebody counterfeited a hundred-dollar bill with a serial number starting with the letters “CD.” Now, nobody in Burma will accept bills with those letters.
With fives and ones, we found a sliver of flexibility. Ink marks and micro-tears were still not acceptable; however, these bills did not have to be wrinkle-free. If one person rejects a bill and it seems borderline, try it elsewhere. Some people are pickier than others. With smaller denominations, if people say their bank won’t accept flawed bills, point out they can still be given as change to other tourists. (On the flip side, if anyone tries to give you a ragged larger bill as change, be aware you won’t be able to use it elsewhere in the country. If you’re heading home soon, that’s not an issue – and you’ll be doing the merchant a favor by taking it off their hands. On the same token, if you’ve got leftover “clean” cash at the end of your journey, you might offer to trade it for older bills with newly arrived tourists who came unprepared.)
If you’re running low, and getting nervous, here’s a trick that worked for me and Kattina: We wanted to change 300 dollars at a travel agency. The agent said he could not accept two of the three bills Kattina handed him. These had also been turned down at one other spot. Before I could fish for a couple of others in my moneybelt, Kattina told him if he wanted to change money with us, these were the only bills we had. He went for it.
I’m hearing rumors foreign credit cards might soon be easier to use. Check before you go. In the meantime, yes, this is a headache that leaves many tourists flabbergasted. That is part of traveling in Burma at the moment; some things just don’t make sense to the Western mindset. If you find yourself getting frustrated, remind yourself: You ‘re traveling in a fresh frontier, a country with very little tourism relative to its neighbors. There are big advantages to beating the crowds (which are coming soon if the current political situation stays its course). So look at this hassle as part of a bigger adventure. Go in prepared – and savor that adventure.