Yangon’s Black Market Money Changers

When I went to Myanmar in 2011, the official government exchange rate was around 7 kyats per US dollar. A bottle of water went for 200 to 300 kyats and a cheap restaurant meal was around 1000 to 2000. That would make this the most expensive country on earth.

Fruit Street Vendor Myanmar

Rambutan? That’ll be $75 US.

Luckily, I read up on Myanmar before going and knew not to exchange my money at banks or at the airport (avoiding the money changers at the airport is a good idea in just about every country). Instead, I took my dollars to the black market, where the rates were determined by actual market forces and not the Burmese government’s ridiculous overvaluation of its currency and its own importance.

I also knew I would have to bring enough money into the country to last me my whole trip, as there are no ATMs and really no way to get money once you’re in Myanmar. And the money I brought in would have to be perfect; only US dollars in mint condition with no creases, tears or any signs of use whatsoever are good enough for the people of Burma. Meanwhile, their own money looks like this.

Old Kyat Bill in Plastic Myanmar

Yes, that bill is so ratty and torn that someone has actually sealed it in a little plastic baggie.

Since all of my dollar bills looked like I’d been using them as napkins for the past ten years, I ended up spending a considerable amount of time in preparation of my trip, trying to find a bank in Bangkok that wouldn’t mind taking my disgusting old bills and giving me brand new ones in return. I’m shocked I eventually found a teller nice enough to make that trade.

I should mention that things have changed considerably in the short time since my trip to Myanmar and continue to change as you read this. Not only has the government adopted a more realistic exchange rate, but it seems they’ve slightly relaxed the requirements for pristine bills as well. Apparently, you can even find a few ATMs in the country and I’m sure their number will multiply very quickly. Whether they actually work is another matter; considering the near constant power outages while I was there, I wouldn’t count on it.

Myanmar Money Kyat

A bunch of 1000 kyat notes. Photo from onourownpath.com.

Either way, when I went, I had no choice but to bring a big stash of newly minted dollars. I would be spending a month in the country, so I brought $600 just to be safe. Since Yangon is by far the best place to exchange money and since I decided on the way downtown from the airport that I would be heading to the far north of the country in a day or two on an ill-advised journey to Indawgyi Lake with the girl I had met at the airport and was splitting a cab with, I ended up changing most of that money the next morning.

We were approached constantly by shady people offering great exchange rates, but we ignored them and headed to Bogyoke Aung San Market, which is where you’ll find the most honest (definitely a relative term) money changers. It took us a while, but we eventually located a row of guys on stools next to extremely large piles of money.

These guys were tucked away in between the gold shops in a dark corner of the market and seemed to be doing their utmost to look as shady as one would expect, given their occupation. I wish I had a picture of them and their giant stacks of cash surrounded by what looked like blood spatter (but was actually betel nut spit), but they didn’t seem like the type of people who would enjoy posing for tourist photos.

Bricks of Burmese Bills

A pile of Burmese notes. Each money changer had a stash at least this large. Photo by AX.

The largest bills they had were 1000 kyat notes and with us changing several hundred dollars each and the exchange rate being around 870 kyat per dollar, you can imagine how many bills we ended up with, arranged in bricks of five bundles of ten smaller bundles of ten bills each, with one note folded around the other nine.

And unfortunately, we had to count every single one of them; and we had to do so with the money changers constantly chattering at us, asking questions and generally being as annoying as possible in an attempt to either distract us or get us to give up counting altogether.

They definitely ratcheted up the pressure, but we simply stared at them until they quieted down then began counting again from the beginning. After we had started over a good ten times each, they finally caught on and left us alone. We had all the time in the world, after all, while they were missing out on other customers as long as we were sitting there.

Bricks of Burmese kyat

You can imagine how enjoyable it was to count several of these bricks while being constantly harassed. Photo by onourownpath.com.

Even when they finally let us count in peace, we had to stop constantly to point out that a stack of ten bills only contained nine. Every time, they were naturally shocked and dismayed that another bill had ‘simply turned to dust’ (you can watch all the soap operas and Keanu Reeves movies you want, but you haven’t seen REALLY bad acting until you’ve tried changing money in Burma), but they always replaced the magically disappearing bills.

Once we had finally finished counting a week or two later, they offered to put rubber bands around each stack of bills. More than offered really; they practically insisted. Naturally we declined their kind offer and quickly stuffed the money into our backpacks. We knew more bills would ‘turn to dust’ every time one of them laid a hand on our bundles and we were not in the mood to recount the whole stash.

Once the money bricks were safely out if sight, we got out our dollars. They were in perfect condition, so they couldn’t object on those grounds, but they did find a problem with the serial numbers. I can’t remember what exactly they were going on about, but really, who cares?

The girl I was traveling with had been to Myanmar twice before, so we knew what they were up to and were able to call their bluff, giving them several hundred each and telling them to take it or leave it—basically, they just want you to get out more bills. They will then examine those new bills and reexamine the original ones and call over other changers to get second,third and fourth opinions on all the bills and in the confusion of several guys looking at several bills and pointing out several problems all at the same time in loud, hurried and aggressive voices, a hundred dollar bill will vanish.

Once they saw we weren’t going to give them their usual “bonus”, the serial numbers that were absolutely out of the question ten seconds earlier suddenly became acceptable and we suddenly became unwelcome. They hurried us out of their little ‘office’ to make room for a more lucrative walking ATM machine. If I could offer some advice, I suggest they look for fanny-packs and ‘I heart Bangkok’ t-shirts.

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4 thoughts on “Yangon’s Black Market Money Changers

  1. Vera

    Like your writing:)! …It’s also what is left when you can’t take pictures, like in the situation with the money exchangers. It makes me sad. There you are, having one of these movie moments (as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, basically), and get out of it without any proof of having been in there apart from sweaty T-shirt arm-pits:( And the exchanged money, of course. Well done. I’m rubbish in situations like this, even with knowing that it’s best not to take pictures – but I enjoy reading about it, so thanks:)!
    Vera recently contributed to world literature by posting..The White Temple of Chiang RaiMy Profile

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  2. Mona perdue

    I changed money at the hotel where I’d stayed the year before only now there were two competing exchange “offices” directly across the small hall from each other. When it came my turn I handed over 5 pristine bills. The woman checked by holding each side up to a light and then she sniffed both sides. I asked why, but she didn’t understand my question and likewise, I wouldn’t have understood her answer. So wish I’d gotten out my phone camera. Upon entering the arrival hall at the airport my friends and I changed money. Their packs of 1000s were short one or two bills. Some way to make money. So this isn’t that much different from black market scams.

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    1. Daniel McBane Post author

      That’s why I ended up going to the black market changers: I heard the airport was basically the same thing, except they give you a much worse rate. At least that’s no longer the case, but I guess the shadiness hasn’t changed, as your friends found out.

      I can’t imagine why they’ve started sniffing the bills….
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Fake Cop “Helps” With ATM in JaipurMy Profile

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