In our previous post we discussed some of the more confusing aspects of traveling in Burma. Another confusing mishmash in Burma is the currency situation. In theory the official currency of the country is the Kyat. But most major purchases (hotels, plane tickets, etc.) must be made in US dollars. In fact, admission to major tourist sites (museums, temples, etc), many of which are controlled by the government, must be paid in dollars. We’ve seen this a few other places (mainly in the form of visa fees and airport departure taxes), but it is never a good sign about the economic stability of a country when the government doesn’t accept its own currency.
Add to this currency duality, the fact that there are no ATMs in the country and no one accepts credit cards and you’ve got a real currenccy mess. So not only must you have US dollars and Myanmaran Kyat in your wallet at all times, but the only way to get Kyat is by exchanging US cash (welcome back to the 1960’s ATMs didn’t exist and you had to travel with a wad of cash).
Now that you’ve go this down, all you need is the exchange rate and your ready to go, right? Well yes, but the exchange also isn’t so easy. For example, as we often do before we arrive in a country we went to our favorite internet e-currency exchange sites (XE or Coinmill). But they were flummoxed by our query (Coinmill literally just turned up a blank when asked we tried to convent dollars to Kyat). Well the situation on the ground is equally confusing. The official government exchange rate is around 4 Kyat to the dollar. Banks offer purportedly offer an exchange rate of about 400 Kyat to the dollar. And the best rates on the street in Yangon are about 1000 Kyat to the dollar. So even if there were an ATM, you wouldn’t get too far taking out money at the official or bank exchange rate (since you’d be overpaying by 250 times the rate on the street). The best exchange rate we found of course was at the airport upon departure where you could pay the US $10 departure tax in kyat at a rate of 1300 kyat to the dollar (guess who gets the money?!)
The money changers are also very fickle about which bills they will exchange. $100 bills get the best exchange rate, but they must be after 2006, can’t have a serial number prefix of HB, and must not be creased, bent, ripped, or stained. In fact, the ticket office at the National Museum nearly refused to accept a $20 from Meg because it had been folded in half in her wallet. The irony in this is that Kyat bills are the most soiled, ripped, and crumpled bills one could ever see. A 50 Kyat bill is little more than a greasy ball of scrap paper (which Meg pointed out to the National Museum ticket office when they were giving her trouble about her folded $20 bill—they responded that with the explanation that it was okay for their money to look like that, but not ours).
Again, which of these bills would you accept?
Finally, when one finally has all this figured out and actually succeeds in getting some Kyat into their wallet (so, for example, you can buy a bottle of water since it is 112 degrees outside), you can’t close your wallet. The highest denomination Kyat bill is 1000 (which is worth about $1), which means even the most modest of currency exchanges fills the average wallet beyond capacity (for point of reference imagine putting 100 $1 bills in your wallet). On the bright side of this, you always have change to make a small purchase (at least in Kyat that is, getting change for large denomination dollar bills is a whole other story….).