A lot is changing in Myanmar and fast. First I heard, money should only be exchanged on the black market. Official exchange rates of 10 Kyat to a dollar where a joke. Exchanging money on the streets could get someone closer to 1,000 Kyat per USD, so there was little debate as to the best course of action. The black market it was.
But that was then. A few months later, Burma finds itself a few more steps toward democracy and we find ourselves with a less clear cut decision. Exchanging a dollar at your hotel gets you 780 Kyat, but another option, the bank, now offers 810. It’s the safe option and probably the best. But when the bank is inevitably closed for lunch and the guy on the corner is offering you 850 Kyat ($5 savings per $100), we decided that the black market was too tempting (check out my new toy. The Ultimate Currency Converter). Looking back, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but here’s how things proceeded and what you need to look out for if you also decide to test your luck. The exchangers used a number of methods to confuse and one needs to stay on top of things to avoid getting cheated.
After escorting us down toward the riverfront, we sat at a small table and chairs and began counting the stacks of Kyat being passed our way, which were in denominations of 1,000 only. I’m assuming this was in order to make counting long and laborious. Our exchange rate was 850 Kyat/USD, so we needed 85 1,000 notes per $100 USD. They initially handed me stacks of ten notes, nine bills with a tenth bill folded over the others, however they unfolded these immediately after I started counting each note, so I assume they were short. I then counted stacks of 100 notes apiece. All of mine were short and needed a few extra bills. After I was content with my stack of 100 notes, they let me put a rubber band on it and handed me another to begin counting, but then they wanted to recount my previous stack. I stop counting and didn’t let your eyes off it as they’ll slid out a few bills when you’re not looking. Once the money was counted and I was content with my stacks, the next step was to bring forth the USD. They claimed that the $100 notes had “bad city numbers” and urged me to bring out alternate bills to exchange. I’d advise against doing so. Once there were more notes on the table, there were 10 people talking at once, all wanting to point out the “bad” and “good” city numbers, and making little sense. Make sure you know exactly how many notes are on the table, because all of a sudden, one was missing. Luckily, I realized this and after pointing it out, was met with incredulous looks innocence. I grabbed the stack of Kyat, stuffed it in my bag and walked off with my correct money. They didn’t follow.
Looking back, the exchangers were really good at what they did, a business of deceit. While you’re trying to do math in your head, the questions kept coming and hands kept grabbing and moving the money. I was able to avoid getting scammed but the girl I was with did not. If you decide to go this route, know what you’re getting yourself into. I will admit, however, playing with fire gets your adrenaline flowing.
If I did it again:
- I’d be very familiar with how many notes I would need for possible exchange rates. For example, 85-Kyat notes for $100 USD
- I’d have two people counting the same money, one counting notes and one watching the already counted stacks.
- I wouldn’t bring out more USD than I needed.
- I’d only let a few people stay close. Fewer hands to watch and fewer possible ways for money to disappear.
Note: As of 10/26/12, Myanmar banks are apparently now accepting less than perfect USD.