Cash & Cards in Myanmar

Myanmar | Fri, 15 Apr 2011 | 3883 views | No Comments

Under usual circumstances problems with currency and exchange wouldn’t be a travel safety issue, but Myanmar’s not a ‘usual’ destination. Run out of cash in Myanmar and you’re in serious trouble, and don’t count on ‘plastic’ getting you out of it!

This is, after all, a military dictatorship. The economy has stagnated and inflation would be rampant if it were not for the authoritarian control of the junta. Ostensibly the local currency the Kyat is a healthy beast – but everyone knows it used up its nine lives long ago.

There are plenty of ATMs around, but ones that accept foreign cards are few and far between. The large western capital merchants (Visa, Mastercard etc) have been allowed or wanted to operate in the country - thanks Generals. But that is starting to change with democratisation.

(You'll need deep - and wide - pockets)

Cash Up

Visitors must bring enough cash with them to cover their entire visit, as there's no easy way to get more without leaving the country.

The local currency of Myanmar is the Kyat, however the US dollar is also widely accepted.  Use Kyat for small purchases such as food, drink, taxis and entertainment, but larger bills such as accommodation, overnight buses and tours will have to be paid in US Dollars. The greenback is hard to come by once you're in the country, so you won't want to run out of them just when their needed.

Bring a mix of US denominations because money changers are reluctant to hand over the smaller US bills they hold, so you'll end up with a barrow-load of Kyat for your large denomination bill.

If you can source them, take the new US Dollar designs, with the larger portrait, and the multiple-colour prints. Although, old-style bills are still commonly traded.

Excruciating Exchange Rates

In an emergency, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card, but the commission charges will make your eyes water! Some people report hotels charging from 7% up to 30% and insist on checking your passport to process the transaction (keep the passport in sight at all times).

For the same reason, never exchange money in a bank or at the airport as the rates are excruciatingly uncompetitive: the official rate "floats" around a farcical 6 Kyats to the US dollar while the going street rate fluctuates around 900 Kyats to the dollar!. 

Exchanging money on the black market is only theoretically illegal, ask in any farmers' market, shop or travel agents.

(Use local currency to buy yourself one of these delicious-looking hand made cigarettes. The flavour really satisfies.)

Filthy Lucre

Most importantly - check the condition of your dollars - they must be as near to perfect as possible, otherwise the money changers will not accept them.  Ensure they do not have any marks, stamps, anti-counterfeit pen, ink, or any other mark. Moneychangers have been known to reject notes just for being creased or lightly worn. Plus, don’t accept poor condition notes passed-off to you.

If you’re carrying $US100 bills with serial numbers starting "CB" they may not be accepted because they are associated with a counterfeit "superbill" which was in circulation some time ago. Many money exchangers won't accept US bills made prior to 2006.

The good news about the $US100 bills is they get you the best exchange rate. Changing US$50 or US$20 bills gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less). Some exchangers are reluctant to do a deal on anything under a $50 bill.

Stash the Cash

You're now carrying around a wad of Kyat that makes you look like you've robbed a bank, but is really just enough to get you through a couple of days. This makes cash security a problem - where do you stash all that cash!

Fortunately crime is pretty low in Myanmar, its the Buddhist religion where bad deeds do not go unpunished in the next life, so you're unlikely to be on the wrong end of a transaction with a heavily-armed thug. Still, try to keep it out of sight, but don't just stuff it in the backpack.

Adding to the problem, much of the tourist accommodation is basic and there aren't those handy mini-safes in your room. Try splitting the cash into smaller bundles and distributing it around your luggage so you don't lose the lot to one light-fingered opportunist.

Related Articles

Travel tips for Myanmar

Being aware to terror threats in Myanmar

Politics in Myanmar


Tags: asia, burma, money, myanmar, travel-crime, travel-safety

Cash is king here.

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