24 June 2012

Myanmar, (Burma) take clean new banknotes

In Myanmar:
Take cash.
Take US dollar bills.
The dollar bills must be brand new.
This means brand NEW. The tiniest smallest mark and hotels and money changers will NOT accept it.
Why ? Because they will not be able to pass it on. They will be stuck with it and and no other Burmese will accept it from them.

The same applies to strong fold marks, creases or the tiniest of nicks and tears.
I've seen Westerners argue and get upset with locals for not taking their USD $100 just because it has an insignificant, tiny mark or crease or tear.
Don't insist. If the Burmese person takes your money they will have great trouble spending it, likely they have to spend it at a big loss.
It would be like you taking $500 from someone and you know you will only get $300 for it when you spend it, (maybe less).
Westerners can always spend those dollar bills in other countries.
Burmese can't, they take a serious loss.
So at the risk of boring you: The dollar bills must be BRAND NEW.
Money Laundering - the real meaning.

The 20 dollar bill below was given to me in July 2010 as I left the country. Notice the horizontal crease ? - that alone makes this bill useless in Myanmar.  Notice the vertical writing near his right eye ? That by itself makes the bill useless in Myanmar. Together, those two things make the bill totally worthless. I double checked by using this note to pay my airport tax (US$10, cash only, pure new notes only) . As I expected it took a second before this bill was rejected as not acceptable.
I accepted this bill because I was leaving Myanmar and could easily exchange it in Malaysia. The Burmese would have great trouble spending it, and it would be a problem for any other Burmese.
So if you want to do a good deed, just before you leave the country, ask your Burmese friends if they have any unacceptable dollar notes they want to get rid of - and which you can still spend outside Myanmar. That's the literal meaning of money laundering :-)

Oh, and one more thing: Ironed dollar bills are also unacceptable. Sometimes a dollar bill gets so worn and creased people will use a hot iron to flatten it out. For a foreigner that's not a big deal. But ironed notes are also 'not acceptable'. Ironed notes feel brittle, too flat, and may be discoloured. Use your commonsense.
But most of all: don't get too paranoid: remember even unacceptable dollars in Myanmar are fine outside the country. A dollar bill would have to be pretty badly mangled to get rejected outside Mynanmar. When you get Myanmar notes you may get notes that are old, patched, sticky taped, and dirty beyond belief, they only just hang together. That's ok for Myanmar currency. You will be able to spend it.

Friends who visit Myanmar tell me of stories where foreigners are left with no money to spend, because their money is not brand new or they relied on ATM's.
Don't rely on ATM's. The situation is changing but not fast.
Cash is king in Myanmar.

The exception: if you stay in 5 star places and take limousines and pay everything by credit card and don't mind paying commissions and taxes and VAT's and biased hotel exchange rates.

 My guess at why bank notes have to be so clean and perfect - writing my own urban legend and myth.
"Master, how did this ridiculous standard in super perfect bank notes start ?"
Ah, you see grasshopper, The people who change the money for you are not going to use that money. They 'sell' the bank notes on to a higher up middle man, who in turn sells them on to the next bigger "poobah" in the food chain and so on it goes. So the story might go something like this:
In the beginning old and crappy banknotes were accepted.
At some point a standard for how soiled a bank note can be was introduced.
After all: would you accept a note that is almost torn in half and so dirty you are not sure it's real ?
At some point "normal human greed" would have used this standard as an excuse to pay the lower down person less than the full rate.
"This note is very torn, instead of $100 I'll only give you the equivalent of $95 for it.
Make sure the next ones are clean and not torn."
And so on it would go, with an ever increasing standard of perfection spiraling ever higher.
Any imperfection in the bank note would be used by the higher up guys to pay less than the going rate.
And thus, dear Grasshopper, was born the spiral of ever increasing perfection in banknotes. 

In case anyone is going to jump on Myanmar as particularly corrupt because of this: it's just my theory, based on general human nature. Secondly: You can see similar examples in any culture, any country. Any bureaucracy is usually more interested in its survival than the thing it was set up to do. (safety bodies, etc... many degenerate into rubber stamps and making money. Stamp duties were once upon a time service fees for a real service, nowadays they are simple an excuse for another tax) ... there are many such examples if you look around.

Oh, and once you have those brand new, pristine beautiful dollar notes, don't fold them. Don't treat them as you treat bank notes at home. They will get creased, sweaty and dirty and maybe a little bit nicked on the edges. Keep them flat, safe, dry, close to your body in a money belt that is inside your clothes and invisible from the outside.
Foreigners who folded their new bank notes found themselves with lots of money they could not spend.  Can be frustrating. Can lead to painful scenes.  Keep them clean, don't fold 'em.

"Change money?"
Those nice USD bills won't do much until you exchange them.
Myanmar is a safe country for tourists. The police look out for tourists.  People are honest.
In no other country did I leave all my luggage in the rickshaw/taxi while I went into a hotel to check the rooms.
In Myanmar I didn't hesitate, it felt totally ok to do that.

Change money INSIDE the Bogyoke Aung San market   
Not outside, the market. You will get lots of offers outside.
Inside the Bogyoke market it's much safer, the  rate is not as fantastic but you will get a fair deal.
If you go out of Yangon for long, do all your money changing in Yangon, better rates. Don't whinge if you get worse rates in Bagan or out of the way place. Plan ahead, this is not a western country with ATM's at  every corner, (That's why I like going there :-P  ).
Mandalay is generally ok for exchange rates.

When it comes to changing money though, in Yangon around the Sule Pagoda then be careful.
The guys there specialize in slight of hand trickery.  They are the expert magicians.
They will offer you a great rate  to get you interested, then ask you to up some stairs or some place quiet and out of the way with them.
Don't go.
If you decide to exchange money with them:
Don't give them any of your money until you have the Myanmar money. Count EVERY single note you get.
Double check every USD bill YOU give THEM, or they will turn around and claim the US$100 you gave them was mistakenly a USD$10 or $1.
Their hands will never leave the table as they show you the $10 bill you just gave them.
This is the main place to be careful of when changing money.
Read the warning notes frequently left by other travellers in guest houses.
In fact, it's better you don't change money near the Sule Pagoda at all. Your choice of course.
If you want to study masters in high pressure sales and manipulation, this is an excellent place to do it. These guys are superb at it. Every move, every word is carefully crafted.  Consider it a research project if you do go.

Lonely Planet's guidebook has some good advice on this as well. (No I don't get a commission from Lonely Planet, I like their basic and down to earth advice :-)   , hope they stay that way and not go too commercial and high brow)

Update 2012
there is now a bank, that does money exchange, and the rates are a tiny bit better than the Boyoke market. The bank is not far from the Market, in fact just over the street, next to American Otpical shop.

Guys on the street offering higher and better rates are doing that to get tourists to come with them, there is no way they can make money at over the bank rate, unless there is trickery involved.  Read the notices in guesthouses about not changing money in the street, ... often interesting and sad stories of loss.

Aswan, Egypt, Tombs of the Nobles