The Yangon train station at night. Also? The scene of the robbery.
Myanmar is supposed to be incredibly safe. The guidebooks, seasoned travelers, and the internet are all the same in their reassurances of Yangon’s safety and urging to talk and connect with locals eager to chat with someone from the outside world. People who steal from or otherwise harm tourists are very harshly punished if caught, and allegedly locals have a strong fear of karmic consequences.
Overall, the voices behind travel in Myanmar felt right on the money with their safety assessment. I felt very safe walking around the city at all hours of the day, with or without company and I cherish warm memories of conversations with Myanmarians of different walks of life.
We got robbed because we got cocky, not because Myanmar (or Yangon, specifically) isn’t safe.
Part of traveling through Southeast Asia is identifying scams, bad deals, and folks generally trying to milk the tourist trade for all its worth with little regard for the tourists themselves. I’ve gotten really good at identifying scams before the spiel is pitched, and exiting the situation gracefully once it has. I actually think it’s kind of fun to find the line where an honest transaction becomes a flat-out scam.
This, my friends, is incredibly stupid.
It’s also how we ended up following a man to his “friends” to change our USD to Myanmar kyat on our first day in Yangon. I wanted to “see where it would go.”
Before you accuse me of being incredibly inept, I have to tell you that the standard advice for travelers to Myanmar is to change USD to kyat on the black market to avoid the Myanmar government’s incredibly overvalued rate for its own currency. One dollar goes for about 870 kyat in practice, but government exchange booths will give you 8. As such, it is 100 times better to buy your kyat from non-government sources. So when a local said his friends near the train station could help us, we followed, guard up in the event of a scam, but open to possible legitimacy.
Here is a panda eating a popsicle at the Chiang Mai Zoo to distract you from my idiocy. I named him Distraction Panda.
We opted to change $200 at the great rate of 890 kyat/dollar. After a small kerfuffle involving a red-flag scummy behavior involving the unsuitability of our bills’ serial number daring to start with a “KB” instead of a “CB,” we handed over an extra $2 after the guys had taken out several $100 bills from Andy’s wallet to compare. We rounded up the comparison bills carefully, again with an eye for any foul play, and accepted an enormous stack of 176,000 kyat in increments of 1000.
The money changers handed Andy the stack and told him to count in a high-pressure situation, and this part is where we now KNOW we messed up. He counted 25 of the bills and weighed the girth of that stack against the rest and estimated the change was correct. We should have counted all 176 bills one-by-one, but we wanted to exit the situation fast.
[Shut up. I know it was stupid.]
When we left, the guy who brought us there asked us for “something from our country,” so we gave him $1, just to put an end to things and get on with our day. Though Andy was a bit upset with himself about putting us in an uncomfortable situation, we had a huge stack of cash and soon forgot about the experience as we drowned ourselves in delicious bowls of Shan-style noodle soups.
We figured out we were short on cash on the third morning. After carefully calculating every cent we spent, found that we were missing about 80,000 kyat and one $100 bill. Then, after analyzing every single place we had gone, person we had talked to, and the exact position of our bags relative to our bodies at every moment spent in Yangon, it was clear the money changers were the culprit.
We’re smiling at Shwedagon Paya because we didn’t know we had been robbed.
Yangon is a huge city, but it seems small. I saw members of the money changer team daily, and all of them scurried off or hid behind an umbrella when they caught my gaze; this behavior cements their guilt, in my mind.
I’m relieved my first big, bad Scam Experience wasn’t scary; a mugging would have been completely unbearable. I’m also grateful that I had two days of blissful ignorance to enjoy all of Yangon’s offerings with an open mind.
Now, on to the practical part…
How to Change Money in Yangon Without Getting Scammed
1. Go to Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon between 9:30 and 4:00 pm, ignoring anyone who asks you along the way if you need to change money. You are on a mission.
2. Find one of the two money changers with an actual store front with counters and a published exchange rate on an LED board. They’re right near the front near the Bogyoke Aung San Street. Do not ask anyone for directions if you cannot find it. Just wander, wander, wander until you see the legitimate-looking “black market” money exchange stores.
3. Give them your perfect dollar bills–not euros, not pounds, not baht, but dollars. We got ours out of the SCB Foreign Currency ATM in the international terminal of the Bangkok airport with the unpronounceable name. You’ll also be asked for your passport.
4. Watch the clerk count your money in the electronic bill counter.
5. Receive your money and a receipt. KEEP THE RECEIPT. You will need it if you want to change kyat back to dollars.
6. Count the money again yourself, just to be sure, and put it away safely. Be sure to keep track of your spending as you go.
A Note About Airport Money Exchanges
I heard before leaving for Myanmar that the Yangon airport’s money exchange stalls are government-run and thus offer the entirely crappy exchange rate mentioned above. I do not think this is true anymore, as I exchanged kyat for dollars when we departed for the same rate offered by the storefronts in Bogyoke Aung San Market. I did have to show my receipt, however.
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