Topics connected with money are always important both for those who want to travel to a new destination and for those who just want to be up to date with the current issues in a destination of their interest. My first time in Myanmar was in April 2012. I knew I should bring brand new USD or EUR notes. I didn’t take it that seriously though. Luckily on the way I met a friend who already had visited Myanmar before and asked her to take a look at my notes. She didn’t “approve” half of them. I bought new ones then and brought all money I planned to spend in Myanmar with me. I had not a single problem there.
Usually I am pretty good at planning but this time I totally didn’t take into account that because of Thingyan (Water Festival, Burmese New Year) I will not be able to exchange money for a week or so. Well, there are always solutions but I wanted to get as many kyats as possible. A friend told me we would try on a black market. Luckily he was there, as I would lose far more than I would have saved due to an attractive exchange rate.
We approached a group of guys who offered exchanging money. They suggested moving to a quieter place but my friend said that we are going to do that in a nearby restaurant. We sat there, they gave me the equivalent of the money I wanted to exchange, I counted it, then my friend did so. All was fine. One of the guys wanted to double check they didn’t make a mistake. He gave me the money back and I was just about to give him my precious dollars but my companion told me not to do that and he wanted to check kyats again. It turned out that some of the notes evaporated. The guys on the black market are just magicians – I stared at their hands but still they somehow were able to remove more than 20% of notes. In the meantime one of the boys – maybe 6, maybe 8 year old – wanted to take my friend’s wallet out of his pocket which pissed my friend off.
I have heard no black market stories that had a happy ending. Well, starting in 2013 the exchange rate offered by banks or licensed money changers is more attractive than the one that black market can guarantee, so it even makes no sense to get into this.
As well, in December 2012 first ATMs that accepted international cards appeared in Myanmar. In the very beginning 36, majority of which were situated in Yangon and Mandalay, but the number and coverage has grown. The topic of money in history is unique as well. So this how the story goes… Once upon a time there was general Ne Win, who ruled Burma. The general had his favourite, trusted fortuneteller. Among many interesting advice (well, the general interpreted many of them in an odd way), the fortuneteller advised him as well on his lucky number. It was 9.
In 1963, Ne Win decided on a monetary reform. Overnight, 50 and 100 kyats notes were made illegal. This wiped out the Burmese savings overnight. Instead, 45 and 90 kyats notes were introduced. Then, in September 1987, following the fortuneteller’s advice, Ne Win announced that only 45 and 90 kyat ones have value (and all that divide by 9). Again, majority of citizens lost all their savings overnight. The result of Ne Win’s reforms was that foreign business and investors were forced to leave. In the same year, Burma was declared by UN “least developed country” and foreign debt rose by 75% of GDP in 1988.