Well, it’s actually rather nice. In fact, to those of us recently arrived from North Korea and the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, Myanmar looks like a paragon of personal freedom and cheerfulness. There is a much longer post expanding on this somewhere in my somewhat lackluster literary lobes, but I may leave that for another time. What I want to talk about here is money.
Given we are traveling for such a long time, we have a few failsafes money-wise. Travelers cheques, a few snippets of the major reserve currencies here and there, debit cards on a number of different networks from a number of different banks in a number of different countries and the occasional credit card that we try not to use. All of these are, of course, useless in Myanmar. What you need in Myanmar is cash.
And not just any cash. Specifically (in case you are wondering) what you need in Myanmar is high value US dollar bills, printed after 2006 (big heads, not small heads, and with color on the notes) and excluding certain reputedly-commonly-counterfeited serial numbers. These bills also need to be utterly clean – as good as new, no tears, no folds, no marks of any kind. And it really matters.
Here’s a test for you: open your wallet, get out all the notes in it and take a really, really hard look at them. You would be surprised at the proportion of bills that have some kind of mark and are therefore considered useless for these purposes. By the way, if you actually carry properly pristine dollar bills around in your wallet, they will be too creased and folded to be usable in next to no time. I have good friends who have been reduced to ironing money to get the creases out on trips to Myanmar (we tried it, and it didn’t work so well – possibly because we didn’t use a steam iron).
All sorts of people deface money in tiny ways for some reason or other. People write notes on them. Banks put counting marks on them. They get stained in people’s pockets. There is a drop zone I know of in the States that was bored of the locals complaining that skydivers were a bunch of good-for-nothing layabouts, went to the bank with a big empty box and started offering visiting jumpers change for their $23 jump tickets in $2 bills. They also stamped these incredibly-rare-but-yes-actually-legal $2 bills with a small aeroplane to show where they come from. The logic being that every time one turned up in a local’s cash register it would be clear that the money had been brought into the local economy by the drop zone (which is all the bloody time – a busy DZ rakes in cash like nobody’s business). It’s slightly surreal, this little island of lightly defaced $2 bills down in Florida, but it’s a nice (and true) story. Just don’t bring the bloody things to Myanmar.
So, we spent a good few days banging around Bangkok trying to get enough clean dollars for a three week trip to Myanmar. No problem, thought we: we bank with Citibank, and there are real life Citibank branches in Bangkok. Let’s just say that Citi continued their gleaming run of international customer service excellence (couriering a replacement bank card to Lucy care of a branch in Hong Kong, only for the local Citibank branch manager to refuse to accept the envelope because Lucy wasn’t there in person; taking quarter of an hour to pre-authorize a bank advance with me on the phone from Uzbekistan at $2 a minute, and then cutting my card off anyway “as a security precaution”). Citi, we hate you.
It took us a few days and naturally ended up a race against time. We got some dollars in Cambodia; we cashed our travelers cheques; we withdrew Thai Baht on all of our cards and converted it back to dollars; we begged and pleaded for the local bank to swap some of our very lightly marked US dollars for pristine ones; we used the US dollar ATMs that are only allowed airside in major Thai international airports (seriously, wtf?). We budgeted, we counted, we safety margined and we packed all the notes secure in card or plastic and put them safely away in our luggage. And we breathed a huge sigh of relief…
…So picture our surprise and joy when we bumped into a working ATM in Yangon, very happily connected to the international ATM network, that took our cards, thought about it, cheerfully pumped out a chunk of local currency and looked at us as if to say “what?”.
Information, for anyone who stumbles across this blog looking for actual Myanmar travel advice rather than vague distracting amusement:
- The ATM in question belongs to CB Bank. CB has accepted Mastercard since November 2012, so the branch staff told us. The one we used was on the Eastern side of Bogyoke Aung San Market, CB Bank’s ATM locator is here http://www.cbbankmm.com/atmlocator.php.
- You will hear a lot of people telling you to get your US$ for Myanmar in Bangkok. Thailand actually has pretty strict currency controls – you are only allowed to withdraw Thai Baht on your international debit / credit cards, you then have to convert this to US$, suffering FX margins (twice) on the whole amount. You also have to do this on a weekday, and before 3:30pm, when the foreign exchange desks are all forced to close. There are US$ ATMs in the Suvarnabhumi international airport (BKK), but we passed through a few times before we noticed that these are only airside. If you come off your plane, stroll unawares through immigration and try to get US$ from an ATM while waiting for your luggage you are stuffed. Also, be aware that Air Asia flights to Myanmar (the cheapest and most regular, when we looked) do not go from Suvarnabhumi Airport, but from Don Muang International Airport (DMK).
- If we were having our time again we would have got US$ in Cambodia (where there are US$ ATMs seemingly everywhere in tourist areas). If we were on holiday to Myanmar rather than on a bloody long trip our advice to ourselves would be to GET YOUR DOLLARS AT HOME! Seriously, be old fashioned about it, go to an actual branch of your own bank, tell them what you are up to, even preorder the notes if you have to. It’s a whole lot easier than getting the things on the road.
- The purpose of all these dollars is to convert them into Myanmar Kyat (although many tourist hotels take or prefer dollars). There is a whole bunch of advice in guide books and on the internet about how you need to convert dollars with illegal money changers in the market as they give you the best rate etc. This is true in Uzbekistan, but not so in Myanmar – there seems to have been some kind of civilizing currency / banking reform whereby the banks actually offer the best rates, rather than the worst. Lonely Planet – keep up!
- Not so much information as such, but for those of you who want to visualize our currency fun in more detail, reread the second paragraph of this information section, and imagine finding out every single fact in that paragraph, by trial and error, one at a time, in 35 degree heat and 100% humidity. Joy.