Money and Myanmar

Pictures of Myanmar Kyat notes

Note added after travel at the end of the post

In less than 24 hours we will be in Myanmar. We heard many stories about how difficult it is to change money, and how we’ll have to carry large amounts of cash with us once we leave Mandalay and Yangon. Money changers and ATMs are said to be hard to find outside these cities. I hope that the advise I read here is correct: “Unlike many other countries in the third world, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists. You needn’t worry about carrying large quantities of cash on you, but still take the usual precautions.” Since we have little choice about carrying cash, this is reassuring. The other problem with having to carry large amounts of cash is that it is hard to make a good estimate of exactly how much you need. As a result, it is likely that we’ll have quite a few kyats left over when our trip is over. So it was good to find that one can change Kyats back into dollars before leaving.

We found that most travel web sites (this, for example) say that for about two years now, ATMs have been available. This website tells us of a 5000 Kyat charge on a withdrawal of 300,000 Kyat (a charge of only 1.6%). Others talk of difficulty in using ATMs. I’m sure internet and power outages are also issues.

Recent information is that credit cards are accepted by airlines and top hotel chains, but there is a 5% charge on their use. Our airline tickets are paid up, and we are not going to be staying at the top hotels, so our credit card will not be of much use in Myanmar.

A travel agent repeated the advise from Tripadvisor: “It is essential that bills are in first class, pristine condition, with no folds, rips or writing. New is best and keep them flat, maybe between two pieces of card. 100’s and 50’s will get the best exchange rate so use lower denominations for paying hotels and restaurants- again condition is important.” This seems to be so important that there is even an illustrated article which shows how to keep dollar bills in good condition!

About Kyats, I was surprised to read that there are no coins in Myanmar. This is surprising but rational, since minting costs more than the face value of small coins over most of the world. What is decidedly odd however, is that the smallest bill is the 100 Kyat denomination, equivalent to about 10 US cents.

To understand why this is odd, consider the following facts. In the US average salaries are around 4,000 dollars and the smallest coin is one cent; the ratio is 1 in 400,000. The smallest useful unit money in the US is a dollar, which is about 1 in 4,000 of the average salary. In India the average monthly salary is about 20,000 rupees, and the smallest coin in general circulation is 1 rupee; the ratio is 1 in 20,000. The 5 rupee coin is an useful unit, and that is 1 part in 4,000 of the average salary. In comparison, the average monthly salary in Myanmar in about 65,000 Kyat. So the smallest currency is 1 in 650 of the average salary!

The smallest transaction that make do will take away about 0.2% of your salary. Maybe this is designed to discourage spending. Any Burmese people we meet at a restaurant will probably have a salary far above average. Just this currency question makes me feel that Myanmar will be totally different from India. I’m looking forward to it.

Note added

Currency exchange is not a problem in Myanmar. The insistence on crisp dollar notes remains, but there are many legal shops for money exchange in Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. The rates are pretty uniform. Rates inside airports vary little, but it is worth your while to check the rates at all booths. Large notes get the best rate of exchange. I saw lots of working ATMs, although I did not use them. I saw currency notes denominated in 10000, 5000, 1000, 500, 200, 100 and 50 Kyat. We had a little bit of currency left over at the end of the visit. It was easy to change it back to dollars at Yangon airport.

Money money money

It is an interesting fact that the oldest of Chinese religions have a different concept of the universe and our place in it. This confused all early visitors from other cultures. Marco Polo was completely at sea when he wrote: “these people are Idolaters, and as regards their gods, each has a tablet fixed high up on the wall of his chamber, on which is inscribed a name which represents the Most High and Heavenly God; and before this they pay daily worship, offering incense from a thurible, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth three times, praying him to grant them health of mind and body; but of him they ask nought else.”

With no gods to grant daily gifts, how does one deal with the randomness of real life? The Chinese dealt with it by accepting luck as major force in living, and developing techniques to deal with luck. The practice of Fengshui is one such. The other is the offering of money which is everywhere in China. Anything which could bring you luck is worth bribing with a little money.

moneyball

The offering of money becomes a game. The photo above is taken in Shanghai’s Jing’an Su where you have to throw your money into a high pot to get luck. If your money is rejected, then you don’t get lucky. It is interesting that this happens in a Buddhist temple: this Indian export comes with a baroque set of gods who can also be prayed to in the way that other cultures are familiar with. Nevertheless, this is China, and people are not going to tempt luck by not making offerings of money. If you fall off a cliff tomorrow you are surely going to regret not changing your luck by donating a little money.

In the Confucius Temple of Beijing, every statue is awash in money. I do not understand the ritual meaning of these goats and pigs, or roosters and ducks which are scattered around the temple. Since they are animals which are eaten, could they be offerings? In any case, they are drowning in the money which people leave. There is also the money-eating dragon, Pisou, whose mouth is stuffed with coins and notes. I suppose these temples have earnings similar to those which some Indian temples have from offerings.

moneykingYou don’t need to be in a temple to see this aspect of the culture. In the tombs of the Ming emperors there is a recent statue of Yongle, the third emperor, and the one who brought the capital back to Beijing. The emperor can also bring you luck, it seems, because there is money thrown in front of him. I saw a goldfish bowl in front of a restaurant which was full of coins, and goldfish are not even divine animals. Perhaps the fact that they were imperial favourites is enough to make them channels of luck.

Perhaps one should not be surprised. In India people donate money to temples. In the West people throw coins into the Trevi fountain, and put locks on bridges.