(PICTURE: Which of these bills do you think is too old to be accepted in Myanmar?)
A day before leaving for Myanmar I learned that one had to arrive with American dollars in hand. ATM cards and credit cards don't work in Myanmar. You need cold hard American dollars. Huyen and I went to my bank in Hanoi and exchanged Dong for dollars. In order to get non black market dollars in Vietnam you need to:
a) Be a member of the bank you want dollars from.
b) Show an outgoing flight ticket from Vietnam.
Huyen and I got exactly $500 from ANZ in Hanoi. It turns out that you're only allowed to bring in a max of $2,000 into Myanmar. I found this sort of strange since visas are good for a month. You would think the government would set the dollar amount higher so people would spend more money.
In my last minute research I read that one should exchance money on the black market. Hotels will exchange money but to get the highest rate you need to do it with shady strangers who approach you. This made me nervous to say the least. But something else made me even more nervous -- people/hotels/etc. would only take PERFECT American dollars. All the stuff I read about money in Myanmar failed to mention this. The first time I tried to exchange dollars I handed the hotel worker a crisp, new bill. The bill though had a little smudge on the top of it. The worker handed back the bill and said, "I'm sorry, this is no good." I looked at him and said, "Really? It's brand new." He pointed at the smudge and said, "It's dirty. The bank won't take it." This made me really nervous because only about half my money didn't have wrinkles, smudges, creases, etc. This meant that half my money was basically no good in the country.
What made this extra frustrating is that Myanmar Kyat are pieces of crap. Okay, they're not actually crap but they are in pieces. Finding an unmarked, non scratched, non folded, non torn Myanmar Kyat is next to impossible. Literally I was handed kyat wripped in half and put back together sloppily with tape. I kid you not, I even once saw a person going through a pile of garbage who pulled out a Myanmar Kyat that was almost completely shredded. I have no doubt the Kyat would have been accepted somewhere.
In a slight state of panic that I would run out of money, I went to a hotel that Lonely Planet assured had a good exchange policy and gave them my "marked" Ben Franklin. The hotel worker there shook her head and asked if I had any other bills. I lied and said no. She looked disappointed and told me I would have to pay a $2 fee. I paid it. In the end it didn't matter. In nine days Huyen and I only spent $250.