A Keyhole into Burma – Burmese currency (I don’t give a FEC)

After weeks of sweating the complexities of money in Burma, it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Formerly, travelers had to juggle three currencies to get by.

To start, one needed kyat (pronounced ‘chat’), Burma’s everyday currency, to buy food, pay for some, but not all, transportation and to purchase souvenirs. One must be judicious when acquiring kyat. With Myanmar’s position as a naughty sanctioned nation, the rest of the world does not recognize this currency, so if you don’t spend it, it becomes a worthless souvenir as soon as you leave the country.

One also needed a stack of US dollars which served as a general fall-back currency, used to pay for hotel rooms, domestic plane tickets and industrious tourist touts.

Finally, there were FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), a kind of pretend currency invented by the government for the sole purpose of padding their pockets with tourist cash without actually having to do anything.

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Independent tourists were required to purchase US$200 worth of FECs upon arrival in Burma, which they in turn could only spend at a precious few government-approved hotels, tour companies and transportation conglomerates. No sane person in Myanmar would exchange FECs back to dollars for you, so if you didn’t give these government-backed businesses your patronage you’d end up going home with a pile of useless currency. Although it goes directly against the spirit of the junta to make life less complicated for anyone, they generously dropped the US$200 mandatory purchase rule in 2003. FECs have since quietly dropped off the radar.

As for exchanging US dollars into kyat in Yangon, I soon learned that in order to get the best exchange rate, I needed to walk into the center of town and accost one of the jewelry merchants in the dubiously named Black Market. I was assured that this was just a name and that nothing truly unlawful was going down.

At the market, sure enough, I found many takers for a US dollar cash exchange. I ambitiously changed a hundred dollar bill and was presented with a rubber banded stack of 92 crisp, new, 1,000 kyat notes as thick as my thumb. It turns out that the 1,000 kyat note (about US$1.10 in 2005) is the largest denomination.

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Have you ever tried to shove 92 bills into your wallet? Give it a try. Yes, right now. How’d it go? It was like trying to fold a Reader’s Digest in there, wasn’t it?

I stood there for a moment staring at this gangsta wad of money. Finally, I peeled 10 notes off the top, put them in my wallet and shoved the rest into my day bag, which I held onto with a death-grip for the rest of the afternoon.

[Thanks to Mike and Laura Gaffney for the kyat picture (that I stole).]

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.