Kyat Chat, or, “Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

As I mentioned earlier, the Myanmar unit of currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). It exchanges at about 1000 kyats to the dollar, and since the most common bill is the 1000-kyat bill (there are rumors a 5,000-kyat bill exists, but I never saw it), when you change money you inevitably end up with a huge wad of bills.

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion — the 1000-kyat bill actually comes in two sizes! (I think the smaller ones are newer vintage — they were trying to save paper…) So when I got a hundred of the larger ones, that was a super-wad in my pocket. Whenever I had to pull it out and peel off some bills to pay for something, I felt like some kind of clumsy Mafioso showing off for his goomah.

The other amusing thing about Myanmar money is that they’re really particular about only accepting pristine U.S. dollar bills for exchange. If it’s creased, wrinkled, or god forbid a little torn, forget it — they won’t take it! But when it comes to their money, especially the small denomination bills like the 50-kyat (worth about 5 cents U.S.), you’d see some of the dirtiest, bedraggled bills you could imagine changing hands.

Later in my trip, when I was visiting the Bagan historical site (more about that later), a salesgirl outside a temple approached me waving three U.S. $1 bills. She wanted to exchange them for kyats. I was confused: why would I want U.S. money back? But our guide explained that individual U.S. dollars were useless for locals, hard to spend and not worth near their value when exchanged in small quantities. So by changing them for her I would be doing a great favor.

Good Samaritan that I am, I agreed to the exchange and was suddenly swarmed by girls with bills. In the end I changed at least $10 worth. The irony of the Jewish guy — outside a temple, no less — changing money for folks was not lost on me. Blake, however, pointed out that I wasn’t a very good money changer since I didn’t charge a fee or interest. I guess usury just ain’t in my blood, even if it is part of my heritage. (That’s a joke, folks!)

Postscript: a few temples later, a new girl approached me with some American bills to exchange. I can only imagine that word was spreading of the pale guy in the orange ball cap who traded U.S. bills for kyats.

Kyat

About joshcomix
Brooklyn-based cartoonist specializing in nonfiction comics about topics like Hurricane Katrina, the media, travel, and finance.

One Response to Kyat Chat, or, “Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There’s really no comparison between what happened (or didn’t happen, rather) in Lebanon and what’s happening in North Africa. Ours is the only democracy in the Arab world and what’s been happening over the past few years is a live demonstration of why democracy is hopelessly flawed and can be turned against itself. Everybody supports what happened in Tunis and Egypt but we are rather worried about what comes next. It’s really naive to believe once a government is elected all will be well. These countries have never even tried democracy. We have and we really wish we had a strong hand at the wheel rather – and in the case of Egypt there is a real risk of the Muslim Brotherhood or the like seizing power, and then the ME will truly begin to shake.
    I don’t believe your man in Algiers’ prediction, though. It’s just empty words. Nobody in the Gulf is going to throw a revolution, they have nothing to gain from a change of regime and they’re too few anyway. Syria doesn’t have what it takes, they’ve been too repressed too long. We had ours before anyone else, Tunis and Egypt are now done, whatever happens next. Iraq’s trashed and Palestine’s under occupation. Who’s left? Mauritania? Maybe Iran’s could have a second wind but I’m not holding my breath.

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