I’ve always had an abiding distrust of money changers. Their business model is based on ripping people off; taking their money and giving back less.
Sure, that money can be spent in a different country, which is useful, but in every transaction the customer loses. And the more desperate you are the more you lose.
The street money changers are the worst. They’re always in big groups around dodgy border areas. They sidle up and spruik their services in muttered voices, like drug dealers, pimps or suit sellers. All of them just stink of scam.
Throughout my travels I’ve generally managed to avoid them. The only times I’ve had to use money changers has been when I’ve had extra cash while leaving a country.
Most places these days have ATMs where you can withdraw cash in local currency; still getting ripped off but at least at a fixed rate.
Don’t bank on ATMs
For a long time Myanmar was different. Thanks to international sanctions, none of the local banks would accept international cards. Tourists had to bring in crisp, clean US bills and change them here for shitty kyat notes at hotels or black-market money changers.
In November, the country got its first ATMs connected to the international Mastercard network. There are now a handful of ATMs from which foreigners can withdraw kyats. Apparently Visa will soon to hook up its money pipes locally too.
Unfortunately, Myanmar is still on a my card company GE Money’s blacklist – which also includes Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Pakistan – and won’t send money there. I found this out through trial and error and a couple of expensive phone calls to a call centre in India.
That meant I had to go and change my US dollars the old fashioned way.
The black market money changers in Myanmar are notorious bastards. At best they’re known to reject currency with the slightest flaws, like creases or marks. Tales also abound of swift-handed short-changing and some unsuspecting tourists have even been accused of trying to pass off counterfeit bills after having their notes swapped for fakes.
I didn’t like the sound of this so I determined to change my money at a bank. There was one near the area where I was going to buy a bus ticket, so that would be convenient.
It was a lovely sunny day when I set off on foot from my friend Fuschia’s house – where I had been staying in Yangon. As I walked, I carefully negotiated the city’s crumbling and buckled footpaths and returned the local’s stares with smiles.
As I was reaching the edge of the downtown area I was approached by a friendly looking woman who asked me if I needed to change some money.
She was offering a good rate, 865 kyat to the US dollar if I changed $US100 and 880 kyat to the US dollar if I changed $US200. Much better than the 847 kyat to the dollar the banks offer. She even did the numbers for me on a calculator.
I don’t know where my caution went, but I decided to go for it. I guess she seemed nice. While I like to attempt a facade of cynical scepticism, I’m actually one of the most naive and trusting souls in the world. The very definition of a rube.
The woman led me over to the side of the road next to a high stone retaining wall, apparently in an attempt to be discrete, and when I turned around three other guys had joined her.
They were crowding around me, screening me from the road. All my instincts were telling me that this was a bad scene. I should have bailed on the deal right then, but I didn’t.
One of men pulled out a several ludicrously large stacks of notes; each one as tall as a small child. Hundreds and hundreds of bills. The kind of stacks you only see in heist films and on poker tables. He handed me one and the woman said I should count out the money.
I thought this was a bit strange, but I did as asked. I carefully peeled off 17 thousand kyat notes. They didn’t have any smaller denominations, which confused me for a second, instead they just gave me one more thousand kyat note for a total of 18,000 kyat.
Still sure they were going to pull some sort of scam, I kept my eye on my dollars, as if they were magicians trying to pull some sort of elaborate sleight of hand card trick.
When the guy grabbed the rest my US cash muttering something about serial numbers I thought: “This is it!”
“What the fuck?!?” I muttered and grabbed it back.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle but the woman quashed it, saying something in Myanmar language.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” she said in English.
Then they just walked off, seeming happy, and jumped into a cab.
I knew right away I’d been ripped off, I just didn’t know how.
I checked I still had all my US currency, and none looked like they had been swapped for fakes. I had a look at the kyat notes, counted them up again, and they all seemed real too.
But I still had this sick feeling in my stomach. I’d been ripped off. I knew it.
I walked off in the direction of the bus ticket sellers, and started running the whole encounter through my head.
Worked out what went wrong yet? I hadn’t.
It took me another five minutes. That’s how good I am at maths.
Slowly the cogs in my head turned as I did the calculations I should have at the start. At 880 kyat per dollar, for $US200 I should have 180 thousand kyat notes.
How many notes did actually I have? Eighteen. I had spectacularly miscalculated how much money I should have received by a factor of 10.
I’d swapped $US200 for $US20 in kyats.
The money changers hadn’t ripped me off. I’d avoided that by ripping myself off before they even had a chance.
Suffice to say, I felt a bit of a dill.
Before losing the money I was already going to run short of cash. I’d only brought $US1000 with me, and was only likely to scrape through a month in Myanmar if I travelled on the ultra cheap.
After losing nearly $US200 I had no chance of lasting that long. I was going to have to leave the country because I can’t do maths. Because of a stupid little zero.
But that’s not even the worst thing.
A crushing realisation
The true horror was being confronted with incontrovertible proof that I’m an utterly incompetent nincompoop. That I shouldn’t be let out of the house without wearing a crash helmet. That I shouldn’t be let out of the house without a carer at all.
After realising what had happened I wandered around the Yangon’s city centre for a couple of hours dumbstruck. My face was a picture of misery.
I no longer returned the locals stares with smiles.
All the barefoot beggars unable to feel themselves or their seven children were probably thinking: “What happened to that guy?”
Then I went to the central market, found a black-market changer and exchanged $100 for 84,000 kyat. No trickery. No fuss.
I’m feeling really stupid right now. Please feel free to share your own stories of idiocy. It might help to make my own seem less horrific in comparison.