Broke in Burma

Myanmar is a country that has recently opened its borders to the outside world and travelers are now flocking there in droves. Since the global economy has not largely influenced this country, it has some unique rules to follow, especially when it comes to money. 

The ‘rule’ in Myanmar in regards to money is that only pristine, new US dollar bills are accepted. When I looked in my money pouch to see how much ‘pristine money’ I had, there wasn’t much. Months of backpacking didn’t help keep my money in the most attractive condition, so I decided to exchange it at a bank.  Since I was not exchanging money, but rather just asking to exchange wrinkly bills for nice crisp bills, nobody would help me!

Flawed US 20 dollar bill, not acceptable in Myanmar

Can you find the 4 flaws on this bill? They are : the crease in the middle, the small pen mark to the left, the missing small piece at the top, and the ink stain at the top right. If only one of these flaws were present, it would not be accepted for exchange in Myanmar.

 

I had about $850 US dollars in what I would consider pristine condition, so I didn’t worry too much about it and thought that this would get me through my 29-day trip. I had also heard that the ATM machines were up and running in Myanmar, so I decided that if worst came to worst, I could just pull money out.

In Myanmar, the local currency is called “kyat”. With kyat, you can buy small things like food, drinks, souvenirs, local taxis, etc… But for any big purchase, the price is usually quoted in US dollars. Your hotel, multi-city transportation, or really anything at or over $10 US dollars, will be quoted in US dollars. After paying, if your change is small, it will be given to you in the local currency. However, if the amount of change owed is a larger amount, it will be given back to you in US dollars.

For example, if you buy a boat ticket for $40 dollars and you give them $100 dollars, you will get your change back in US dollars.

35 kyat

 35 Burmese kyat

When I arrived at my hotel, I was asked to pay $100 dollars for my reservation, so I handed over five $20-dollar bills. Out of the five bills, three were accepted. The two $20 dollar bills that were not accepted had extremely small creases in them, so I gave the front desk person two of my other undamaged 20s and all was well.

Another traveler I had met while waiting in line for an airport ride was staying at my guesthouse, so we decided to venture out into the city together. When we purchased a battery we both needed, we received our change in US dollars. I didn’t think much about it, but when I tried to use the $5 dollars he gave me as change at a later date, nobody would take it because it was an older $5-dollar bill and not a current, more widely-circulated one. In the end, the sales clerk gave me a useless bill and I didn’t even think twice about it.

Old US 5 dollar bill

Older US 5 dollar bill, which is not accepted in Myanmar.

I didn’t realize how expensive Myanmar was going to be and I knew that down the road, I would run out of cash, especially since I was paying for my Indian visa in Myanmar, which was $100 dollars.

I went to an ATM to pull out money and it didn’t work. Every ATM was either out of order, was not functioning due to electricity outages, or wouldn’t accept my card. As of 2016, they supposedly have more machines that work with debit cards having a Visa or Mastercard logo on them but I would still be prepared and have cash on hand.

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After two weeks, I was running low on cash. Well…running out of “acceptable” new cash. I was really lucky because I met a new friend in Myanmar and he had brought a lot of extra money. He kindly let me exchange my old and ugly dollar bills for new ones. At that point I was beyond relieved because I had $300 of good money.

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You’re not a baller in Myanmar with this old wrinkly stack of 100s.

Almost all companies, even legitimate ones, will try to pass their bad bills on to you thinking you won’t notice. I was buying a boat ticket from Mandalay to Bagan and when they gave me my change, one of the 20’s had a crease in it, so I refused to take it. The lady smiled because she knew exactly what she was doing in trying to pass the bad bill to me. She proceeded to give me another $20 dollar bill. I smiled and left. From that point on, I learned to check my money when I get change as this happened to me a couple times.

It was actually pretty hard to remember not to fold my bills. I wanted to give my guide that I had hired from the street $20 dollars. I had folded it up so that nobody would see me handing it to him. When I put it in his hands, I thought, “Oh shit…I just folded the bill, so now he can’t use it.” I ended up giving him another bill, but this time I couldn’t do it very secretly because I had to hand it to him unfolded.

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At the end of my trip, I headed to the airport. I managed to scrape by with enough money on my trip, but just barely.  By the time I got to the airport, Air Asia had closed down their check-in window. I arrived 55 minutes before my flight and when I asked the attendant why I couldn’t board, she said that I needed to check in at least one hour before my flight and that I would have to buy a new ticket.  I thought to myself, “Well I don’t have enough money for another night at a hotel. I can’t pull money from the ATM. I have to pay whatever cost to fly out today.” I reluctantly bought another ticket with Air Asia as they were the cheapest and it was 7 hours until the next flight to Bangkok. I went across the street to a very large and busy outdoor restaurant. I ordered some food, but I’m not sure why I did this since I only had three 20 dollar bills of which two I knew could not be used. I thought maybe I’d be able to get away with using the other 20 because it had only a small crease.

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I was kind of an idiot and when I changed back my Burmese money to US Dollars I said it was fine for them to give me the crappy bills. I thought since I was leaving the country I would be able to use bills of any condition outside of Myanmar, I was doing them a favor of some sort, but that turned out to be a really bad idea! Well…At the restaurant, I started to get really nervous. “What if they don’t take my $20 dollar bill? I have no other money!” I thought.  I put the $20 dollar bill in between the pages of a book I had trying to flatten it.  And it worked…sort of. The bill was straight, but you could see that it had been creased at some point. I decided that the best way to get rid of this bill would just be to order close to $20 dollars worth of stuff and when my bill came, put the $20 on the table and get the hell out before they could stop me. So I ordered lots of beer, an internet card, food, and when my check came, I took the $20 that was under my book and put it on the table and booked it out of there. I actually had all of my luggage with me, so my exit was not super fast like I had hoped.  I quickly left and ran across the freeway to the airport, I was free! They didn’t say anything and at that point, they couldn’t catch me.

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The lesson of this story is not to underestimate how ‘new’ your money needs to be in Myanmar. Any defect will make that money void and useless. When you go to Myanmar, bring new (2006 or later) US dollar bills in pristine condition. No creases, no marks…nothing. Do not put it in a wallet that folds and be aware that only some ATMs will work (2016 updated).  I actually got a letter from my bank about two months later saying that I had tried to do monetary transactions within a US-sanctioned country and that this was not allowed. I had to sign an agreement and send it back to my bank promising not to do any business transactions with Myanmar, as it is against the law (in 2012). I am not sure if other countries can pull from the ATMs, but in 2012 I was not able to pull money out as an American. I’m not sure if much has changed, but I heard ATM’s are more widely available now in 2016 and the government is pushing people to use the local Kyat.

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    Great post Jodie. I think your solution may be more “Asian” since it avoids confrontation and saves face. I also got three good chuckles out of it. I would say that’s worth at least $10 – so you are now $5 ahead !
    Keep on blogging. -Greg

    If they didn’t accept it, why didn’t you just walk away without paying at all? They can either get a shitty looking bill or no money at all. Why play their game? Seems foolish to me. If they don’t like money, I have no problem not giving it to them. Either take it, or get nothing. What are they going to do? Call the police? and if the police won’t take a bribe with your crappy bills, what are they going to do? Arrest you? and when you call your embassy because you’ve been arrested because THEY wouldn’t take the money you offered, like a good upstanding citizen/traveller, what are they going to do? cause an international incident because of a couple of creases in your money? Idiotic. You are. They must have accepted money with flaws in the first place since they gave you change with that same flawed money. I want my five minutes back for reading this post as it may have taught me something. It taught me you are a pushover. You owe me $5, and I’ll take flawed money and pass it off to the next pushover

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