Using Clean, Brand New US Bills in Myanmar

A damaged dollar bill in Myanmar

It’s true what they say about the pickiness of money changers in Myanmar. It can be so crazy as to be comical. When I went into a travel agent’s office in Yangon to purchase a flight to Bagan, I paid in cash. As we were settling the bill, the manager came back over to me and said, “I am sorry, sir, but we cannot accept this.”

He handed back my $20 though it looked to be starched and pressed at the dry cleaner’s.

“Well, why not?!” I demanded.

“It is torn.”

“What?? Where?” He patiently held it up close to my face where I could see, making my eyes go a little wonky and reminding me that perhaps reading glasses were in my near future. While I wouldn’t call it a tear, exactly, there was a one millimeter exposure of fibers as if a tear were about to begin. It was the idea of a tear. A suggestion. A ground breaking ceremony. It took a second to refocus my eyes on him and I shook away the first hint of a headache. “That’s absurd.”

“I am sorry, sir, we cannot accept this. Please, sir, do you have another?”

I only had one alternative $20 bill left, but I handed it to him. After careful review – I wondered why he didn’t use a jeweler’s loupe – this bill made the grade and he went to retrieve my change. He brought back a kyat bill that looked like it was a century old. And had survived a fire. In the house of a tuberculosis sufferer who had been using it as a tissue for 3 months before expiring on top of it. But it was OK, because Scotch tape was invented a few years later (1930) and they were able to salvage it.

I held it between thumb and forefinger like a dead cockroach and wondered why I hadn’t brought hand sanitizer. I scowled at him, copped an attitude, and said: “I’m sorry, but I cannot accept this!”

I looked around defiantly at the other three people working there, and they were all smiling and broke into gentle laughter forcing me to see myself standing there with the limp bill dangling and my hand on my hip. OK, this is absurd — and funny. My testiness vanished and I had to chuckle a bit. The manager did retrieve a slightly better bill (less tape), and we all moved on. This is one of the great things I’ve experienced with the Burmese: very polite and non-aggressive, light-hearted and pleasant attitudes. It diffused one of those travel situations – in the heat, thirsty, hungry or tired, frustrated or impatient – where travelers might give in to behaving badly. I looked at the humor of it all because they had seen it immediately.

Learn more about Money Changing in Burma.

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