Myanmar's currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced "chut/chat". Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreign travelers are required to pay in US$ for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel, and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are technically 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 license 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.
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$ cash (if not 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.
Visitors must bring enough cash with them to cover their entire visit, as there's no easy way to get more without leaving the country. However in an emergency, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. People have reported that hotels charge a commission ranging from 7% up to 30% and may need to see your passport to process the transaction.
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 solid options are the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and Thai baht (THB). Your best rates would be 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 deliciously useful for some entry fees and transportation.
Official and Blackmarket Rates
Never exchange money in a bank or at the airport as the rates are excruciatingly uncompetitive: the official rate "floats" around a farcical 6 (yes, six) kyats to the US dollar while the going street rate fluctuates considerably around 960 kyat (960 Kyat to the US$ in September 2010 in Yangon, slightly less in Mandalay, and only 890 in Inle Lake), and dissident newspaper The Irrawaddy is a good source for recent exchange rates. Exchanging money on the black market is only theoretically illegal: ask in any farmers' market, jewelry shop or travel agents.
Check Your Banknotes
You have to bring all the money to be spend in Myanmar, into the country as USD bills.
Only good banknotes are accepted!
This cannot be stressed enough. A good number of travellers find themselves in possession of a small fortune in worthless bills (at least, worthless when dealing with Myanmar moneychangers) due to their condition being less than perfect.
Ensure that your dollars:
- Do not have any 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 bills value and ability to be exchanged.
- Are 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.
- Are undamaged. No tears, missing bits, holes, repairs, or anything of that sort.
- Are, preferably, the new US Dollar designs, with the larger portrait, and the multiple-color prints. Although, old-style US$1 are still commonly traded.
- If carrying US$100 bills, notes with serial numbers starting "CB" may not be accepted. This is because they are associated with a counterfeit "superbill" which was in circulation some time ago.
- $100 bills give you the best exchange rate. Changing $50 or $20 bills gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less)
The bills for 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 bills are slightly better, and when exchanging dollars into kyat, check that the banknotes you receive are in a general good shape.
When Exchanging Money/Making Purchases With US Dollars
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 bills you think you will have trouble using down the track (this is perfectly acceptable behavior for 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 bills. 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 US 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.
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 & ATMs
Due to EU and US sanctions, credit cards are rarely accepted in Myanmar. There are places where cash can be obtained with a credit card, however the rates are extremely uncompetitive (with premiums certainly no lower than around 7%, and with quotes of 30% and more frequently reported). An exceptionally small minority of up-market hotels accept credit card payments (and will surcharge accordingly).
Some ATMs can be found in large cities, but these are purely for locals and cannot be used for withdrawing money.
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 quite possible to be comfortable on less than US$20/day. Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, digital camera, entrance, parking, and zone fees.