Buy in Myanmar
Myanmar’s currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced “chut/chat”. Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreigners are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept (or hold) dollars without a licence but this law is mostly ignored and dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen and are worth very little.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, though money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US dollars (or they will not be accepted by hotels, restaurants and money changers), and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Due to the low dollar (September 2010), an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport (car/taxi), and tours/activities.
As of writing (January 2013), Visa and Mastercard are now accepted at ATM’s throughout the country, especially in all the major tourist areas. As a result, you may now need only bring sufficient USD to pay for major expenses that the government may have a hand in (hotels, planes, tourist tickets, boats, etc.) Note: Myanmar is still classified as a high-risk country by many banks, so bring extra cash just in case.
The currency of choice in Myanmar is the US$ nationwide, though you can readily also exchange euros in Yangon and Mandalay but perhaps not beyond. Other options are the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and Thai baht (THB). The best rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
Be sure to bring a mix of US$ denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and 20/10/5/1-dollar notes are useful for some entry fees and transportation.
Official and black market rates
Currency controls have been relaxed in recent times, and banks no longer exchange foreign currencies at the ridiculous rate they used to. These days, exchange rates at the banks do not differ from the black market rates by much. Most banks accept US dollars, Euros and Chinese yuan. Singapore dollars can also be changed at some of the larger banks.
Ensure that your dollars are the follwing:
* No marks, stamps, anti-counterfeit pen, ink or any other mark on them at all. Pencil can be removed with a good eraser, but any permanent marks will greatly decrease a bill’s value and ability to be exchanged.
* Fresh, crisp and as close to brand new as possible. Moneychangers have been known to reject notes just for being creased and/or lightly worn.
* Undamaged. No tears, missing bits, holes, repairs, or anything of that sort.
* Preferably, the new designs, with the larger portrait, and the multiple-colour prints. Although, old-style US$1 are still commonly traded.
* For $100 bills, have no serial numbers starting “CB”. This is because they are associated with a counterfeit “superbill” which was in circulation some time ago.
o Note: as of Feb2013, moneychangers are much more lax than in the past. With the opening of Myanmar’s economy and easing of sanctions, bills in non-perfect condition are acceptable as long as in reasonably good shape (e.g. folds ok, tears not)
US$100 bills give you the best exchange rate. Changing US$50 or US$20 bills gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less)
Rate as of August 12 2012 at bank money changers at Bogyoke Market and at the Airport were 866kyat to a USD to buy kyats and 873kyat to a USD to sell back dollars. These were the rates for changing a USD100 / USD50 bill. Rates for USD20 and lower ranged between 820 – 840. Summit Hotel in Yangon offers better rates than the bank exchange counters for changing lower denomination bills if they are in mint condition. They will also change non-mint bills for a much lower rate.
Warning: Do not trust citizens on the street who ask to change money with you. As of Feb2013, there is no restriction at any bank or official moneychanger to transfer kyat-dollars in either direction, and the rates good. Anyone you meet who asks you to change with him individually on the streets is likely attempting to scam you.
The notes of 50,100, 200 and 500 kyat are most of the time in a horrible condition but are generally accepted when making small purchases. The 1000 kyat notes are slightly better, and when exchanging dollars into kyat, check that the banknotes you receive are in a general good condition.
There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US Dollars. Sometimes, guesthouses or traders will try and pass you damaged or nonexchangeable bills in change. Always inspect all notes when making a purchase and request that the vendor swap any notes you think you will have trouble using down the track (this is perfectly acceptable behaviour for both vendors and customers, so don’t be shy).
Some moneychangers will also attempt sleight of hand tricks to either swap your good banknotes for damaged, or lower denomination notes. Other reports suggest that the kyats may be counted and then somehow, some disappear from the table during the transaction. For example, after going through an elaborate counting process for piles of ten 1000 kyat notes, some money changers will pull some notes out as they count the piles of ten.
When changing money, be sure that, after any money is counted, it is not touched by anyone until the deal is sealed. Also do not allow your dollars to be removed from your sight until all is agreed; in fact, it is not even necessary to pull out your US dollars until your are paying for the kyats you received. It sounds extreme, but ending up in a country where you cannot access whatever savings you have, and having a good portion of your budget rendered useless (until you get to more relaxed changers in Bangkok) can really put a dampener on your plans.
Is it safe?
So, you’re travelling around carrying hundreds, if not thousands, of US dollars stuffed into your pockets in a country where most people subsist on a few dollars a day. Everyone around you knows that if they could get their hands on the money in your pockets, they will be rich for life. What, you may ask, are the odds that someone will try to relieve you of your money? The answer: almost nil. There have been very few instances of a tourist being mugged and only the rare pilferage. Myanmar is an extremely safe country for travellers. Some say it is because of the nature of the people. Others say it is because the punishment for robbing from a foreigner is draconian. It is more, however, because of their Buddhism, which bans people from taking what is not given.
Outside of Myanmar, your kyat is almost worthless but do make nice souvenirs. Make sure to exchange your kyat back to U.S. Dollars before you leave the country
Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs)
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change US$ 200 into FECs upon arrival, but this was abolished in August 2003. FECs are still valid tender but should be avoided at all costs as they are no longer worth their face value (although a one FEC note has good souvenir potential).
Credit cards and ATMs
After lifted EU and US sanctions, some hotel and restaurant start accepted credit cards since February 2013. Visa card is more common to use than master card. You can also take out cash from ATMs. For Visa card, you can take out from KBZ bank and for master card from CB bank.
Travellers cheques are not accepted in Myanmar. The only exception might be some especially shady money changer, but be prepared to pay an astronomical commission (30% is not uncommon).
It’s not possible to be comfortable on less than US$20/day. Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, camera, entrance, parking, and zone fees. Most managed tourist sites will charge you for carrying cameras of any sort into the area.
What to buy
* Lacquerware A popular purchase in Myanmar is lacquerware, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. The traditional centre of Lacquerware production though is Bagan in central Myanmar. Beware of fraudulent lacquerware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. (As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality and the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.)
* Precious stones Myanmar is a significant miner of jade, rubies and sapphire (the granting of a licence to the French over the ruby mines in Mogok was one of the causes leading to the Third Burmese War) and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the West. Be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amongst the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. Bogoyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has many licenced shops and is generally a safe place for the purchase of these stones.
* Tapestries, known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe. There is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in Burma. These are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the Buddhist scriptures (the jatakas) or other non-secular objects from Burmese Buddhism (mythical animals, the hintha and the kalong are also popular subjects). The tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in Mandalay and Yangon. Burmese tapestries don’t last long, so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
* Antiques Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. Old Raj coins are the most popular (and have little value except as souvenirs) but everything ranging from Ming porcelain to Portuguese furniture (in Moulmein) can be found. Unfortunately, the Burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and, increasingly, the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard. It is against the law to export religious antiques (manuscripts, Buddhas, etc.).
* Textiles Textiles in Myanmar are stunning. Each region and each ethnic group has its own style. Chin fabrics are particularly stunning. They are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. They can be quite pricy, perhaps US$20 for the cloth to make a longyi (sarong).
There is also a wide variety of beautiful silverware and jewellery as well as textiles, including gorgeous silks and handcrafts such as wooden carvings, silk paintings and stonework.
Some items may require customs permits.