Sunday, September 15, 2013

Myanmar Money - Use Kyat or US Dollars?

Image of Myanmr note Courtesy of Wikia images

100-kyat note

When to use kyat and US dollars. Exchanging money, ATMs and credit cards in Myanmar (Burma). US dollars $ and kyat (MMK) are both legal currency but dollars cannot be used as widely as in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. 

Updated 20 July

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Myanmar money for tourists new to the country formerly known as Burma.

Should I exchange money at a bank?

Yes, if a bank is open. Or a legal exchange shop.

Once upon a time, maybe four years ago, I had never exchanged dollars or baht for kyat at a Burmese bank because the official exchange rate was many, many times less than the (easily obtained) street rate. Something momentous happened with little fanfare.

The bank rate now is considered good enough--and certainly better than you will get in your hotel. 

So when do I use dollars?

Hotels and guesthouses everywhere state their room rates in dollars. The more upscale hotels prefer dollars, but just about all now will take kyat (at about 1,370 kyat to the dollar as of 2017) or a combination of dollars and kyat. Staff will calculate the kyt amount based on the day's rate, now easily accessible with the proliferation of the internet and smartphones. If the dollars are less than pristine, Myanmar staff will probably prefer kyat. To pay for a flight in cash at a travel agency or airline office, though, you'll need dollars. 

The recipient will give you change in dollars or part dollars/part kyat. Some museums and temples require foreigners to pay in dollars, so keep singles on hand. Supposedly, some sites state the fee in dollars or euros, but I have only encountered it at one place: entering the Inle Lake area by road, foreigners could pay either $10 or 10 euros. Keep that receipt, which is valid for your entire stay there.

Otherwise, surprisingly, most establishments prefer kyat (pronounced  like "chaat"). As in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos, I thought I was doing the right thing when I paid a trishaw driver a dollar or two, the equivalent of what he had quoted in kyat before commencing the journey. Turns out I was wrong: it's hard for ordinary people to exchange small amounts of dollars. They will worry whether the note is sufficiently clean and unmarred. It might be illegal as well to use dollars to pay for something other than the hotels, travel agencies and other specially designated services.

Restaurants, even restaurants and WiFi'd cafes catering to tourists prefer kyat. If you're in a bind, such establishments will accept dollars for your bill, but the waiter and proprietor, like your local hotel keeper, will forthrightly state that their exchange rate is not as good as a bank's. A really bad rate is  1,000 kyat or less for one dollar.

Taxi drivers that pick you up at Mandalay and Yangon airports may state a fare in dollars, but taxi drivers in general prefer kyat.

What is the kyat-dollar exchange rate?

It changes, of course. But figure around 1,370 kyat to US$1 as of 2017, give or take a few hundred kyat. The kyat has been steadily weakening against the dollar for the past year or so. or Oanda are good websites to check for up-to-date rates. 

Therefore, that 100-kyat note displayed above is worth less than 8 cents. There's a 50 kyat note too. The 10,000-kyat note is the largest, though the red 5,000 note seems much more common. Both are issued by ATM machines. Here's how the rate has been fluctuating for the past 365 days.

You might be able to buy a cigar with 100 kyat note or a piece of fruit. Give your trishaw driver two or three as a tip. 300-500 kyat will get you a bottle of water. The internet is everywhere (variable speeds, but getting better) and since 2014 millions of Burmese have smartphones to readily check rates, so the official exchange rate is never too far off. If you're in some far-flung place on a weekend, the rate may be a day or two old, but nothing major. If you have Thai baht, banks and exchange booths will look up the dollar/baht rate and calculate from there. 

Where should I change money? 

Banks and exchange booths. The exchange rates at the airport booths are fair. Of course, the problem is: What to do when banks and exchange shops are closed? Travel agencies are top options. Next, I recommend asking at gold or gems shops

I came across an exchange shop in Mandalay, a large one at that, that was open late Sunday afternoon, so don't assume you have to settle for a bad rate. On the other hand, when a money changer in a corner of Yangon's Bogyoke Market was closed on a Monday (as usual), immediately in the vicinity vendors offered pretty decent rates--for Thai baht, at that. 

(Yes, you can use your debit or credit card with the Mastercard, Visa, JCB or UnionPay logo to withdraw kyat from an ATM. See below.)

In Yangon, in the vicinity of Sule Pagoda and any area foreigners frequent, there are still a few dodgy men walking around saying, "Change money? Change money?" By "money", they mean "dollars". The Sule Pagoda area used to be the exchange neighborhood. I'll admit that I did change money here before I was aware of the new rules. I wasn't shortchanged. But the buzz around from Burmese and foreigners is that you'll get shortchanged. My transaction took place on a Sunday, though, and if a gold shop had been open, that would have been my first choice. 

Which currencies can be legally exchanged?

Although dollars are the most widely accepted foreign currency, the banks and exchange booths accept quite a variety: euros, pounds, Hong Kong dollars, and Singapore dollars, for sure. Chinese renminbi is becoming accepted at more exchange centers.

When I arrived at Mandalay airport with Thai baht in cash, I was a little concerned to find that three out of four exchange booths didn't list baht on their boards. I subsequently found that even when it wasn't listed on the boards, baht was well known. I might have had to rely on the previous day's exchange rate sometimes, but the dollar/baht rate is not particularly volatile.

Burmese are very fussy about the condition of dollar bills, correct?

Dollars should be new and pristine. Not only clean but free of wrinkles and small tears. If you're preparing for your trip in Bangkok, Thai bank and booth staff are familiar with the problem and will supply fresh, clean notes. They are new notes too; Burmese prefer notes issued since 2006. (Specifically, I refer to the Thai staff at the banks' head office buildings. Don't wait until the last minute and assume that you can get dollars at any old booth or bank in Thailand. Go down to the banks on Silom Road.)

Keeping the dollars clean is one thing, but how to avoid the fold? Some Burmese establishments will accept US bills with a trace of a mid-way fold; some won't. On one trip, I kept the dollars in an old plastic traveler's checks wallet; they are bent during the day but I flattened out the wallet at night. Another time, I kept the dollars in a standard envelope and just tried to keep in flat in my knapsack. 

Once a hotel (in Kalaw?) wouldn't take a bill with a slight ink stain; a bank, a very small one at that, eventually took it after some hesitation. Supposedly, Burmese hotel and bank staff sometimes check the serial numbers, though I have never heard of anyone getting their bills rejected for this reason.

Get an assortment of fresh dollar bills. If you're traveling for a week or so, you might want to start by changing a $100 dollar bill for general walking-around kyat.  If you're only paying $30 or less for a hotel or guesthouse in the off-season, you'll want $20 and $50 bills and perhaps $20 in singles and $5 bills.

Traveling around with so much cash on your person sounds like cause for chronic anxiety. But Myanmar is extremely safe, perhaps because the penalties for petty theft are very stiff. The environment doesn't remotely resemble, say,  the era of Vietnam's opening when pickpocket gangs roamed Saigon with the connivance of the police.

Does Myanmar have ATMs?

Yes. ATMs are popping up all over place--well, wherever there are banks and international airports. Yangon and Mandalay have plenty of ATMs and Inle and Pagan have a few now as well. In Yangon, there are ATMs in malls and at  cinema halls. All seem to accept VisaMastercard and JCB credit cards and debit cards and any card with the Cirrus logo.  China's UnionPay debit card is acceptable in many ATMs as well. 

The ATMs enable you to withdraw kyat  There's a 5,000 kyat charge for every withdrawal, so it pays to withdraw a lot in one go, as in Thailand. The largest amount one can withdraw 200,000 kyat--a bit over $200. I've seen 300,000 kyat listed as a choice, but when I've tried to withdraw that amount, I get a notice that it's too much.

Are credit cards accepted for payments?

ATMS aside, don't count on using credit cards. The priciest hotels take Visa and some also accept Mastercard and UnionPay. More and more of the smallish hotels do too. But many will tell you that they have applied for Visa and Mastercard and hope for approval soon but there are no guarantees.

If you book a hotel online via Agoda or a travel agency in your home country (or Thailand), you can use a credit card. ut that's because you're booking through a third party. If you walked into one of these hotels and expected to pay there with a credit card, you would have problems. Check with the hotel before you leave home.

You can now make online bookings though, Expedia, AsiaTravel, and sometimes HostelWorld, but those sites don't seem to process credit cards yet. Not to worry: you can pay on arrival. If it's the high season and you're worried about that booking, email or call up the hotel and verify that your room is booked. B

Can I exchange kyat back to dollars or another currency?

Yes. The airport exchange booths will change kyat back to dollars, euros, baht and a few other common currencies. The exchange rate isn't great but you're not going to be able exchange kyat in many places outside the country, aside from border towns in China and Thailand.  If you exit at Mae Sot in northern Thailand, many of the shops in the market will exchange baht for kyat. I found the exchange rate in Mae Sot was OK. 

While I don't have personal experience in Ranong in southern Thailand, it's also a huge entry and exit point for Burmese workers, so you can probably buy or sell kyat easily there as well. Ask in the market. If you're stuck with a pile of baht back in Bangkok, try some of those travel agencies along Pan Road, the street that the Myanmar Embassy is on.

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