First order of business in Myanmar – money!
Unlike most of Southeast Asia where you can just walk up to an ATM, insert your card, and withdraw what you need, Myanmar recalls a bygone age of complication and confusion that once plagued the continent.
To begin with, visitors to Myanmar cannot exchange travelers checks or use ATM cards – you must bring all the money you need in American dollars. That’s right, CASH! As if that weren’t awkward (and risky) enough, all the dollars must be in pristine condition – no rips, no marks, no creases, no folds – it’s insane!
But the nuttiness doesn’t stop there. The official exchange rate is 6.3 Kyat to the dollar. The black market rate is around 1000 Kyat to the dollar. 1000!!! Needless to say, few travelers see the inside of a Burmese bank. Instead, you’re left on your own to navigate the rough waters of black market exchange. Luckily, there are plenty of fellow travelers to give you the scoop on the best current location. We were advised to head straight to Scott Market, although I’ll keep the exact location to myself, so I don’t get the place raided.
Inside our carefully chosen den, we handed over $400 dollars in crisp, new hundred dollar bills and, in exchange, received four obscenely large piles of ragged, withering Kyat. Thomas, an ex-banker, quickly started shooting through the piles removing unacceptably damaged bills and handing them back to the store owner demanding replacements.
As the largest bill in common circulation is the equivalent of one dollar, our modest exchange produced one serious chunk of change. Unable to fit the Kyat into our money belts, we stuffed the piles of cash into plastic bags and loaded them into our day packs. In the background, the store owner dropped huge boxes of cash on to the counter for a sudden wave of foreigners and locals who had entered.
Don’t think we are going to spend a month in Myanmar for only $400. All hotels, many transportation costs, and monument entry fees are usually paid in US dollars. The Kyat are used for smaller purchases, such as meals, souvenirs, and local transportation. Perhaps the bizarre dual currency system is a blessing in disguise. If we had had to exchange all our money into Kyat, our daypacks would be full of cash.
If you’re headed to Myanmar, the whole process might sound rather intimidating. No worries, locals and travelers in the know offer helpful advice on where and where not to make your exchanges. Listen to the grapevine, exchange locations change regularly as do the scams. Just in the last day or two, several travelers, who ignored local advice in the hope of scoring higher exchange rates, have returned to our hotel with sad stories of being ripped off by exchange con-artists. They certainly can’t claim they weren’t warned.
So is it all worth it? Uh, yeah, unless you want to pay $300 dollars for that souvenir T-shirt. And as for the exchange intrigue, it’s all part of the bizarre thrill of visiting Myanmar. In 2009, such fiercely stupid currency systems are a seriously endangered if somewhat amusing species. And if you don’t fall victim to the con-artists, you’ll have some great stories to share back home.