Myanmar And The Ugliest $1 Bill I Ever Spent

Myanmar and the Ugliest Dollar Bill I Ever Spent 2A while back I read a cool guest post by Money Graffiti on Budgets Are Sexy about the legality of writing on dollar bills. You can read it here. It reminded me of a story from my 14-month backpacking trip about a special and very ugly dollar bill.

A consistent necessity throughout my trip was exchanging money. When traveling for long periods of time and crossing borders frequently, it’s important to carefully track and monitor spending so that you don’t end up crossing a border with too much of a local currency. If you do, you’ll likely pay a hefty fee to exchange it in the next country.

Crossing borders has costs as it is. Costs include a taxi or minibus to get there, the visa at the border, or some other miscellaneous ‘fee’ that the guard probably ends up pocketing (not uncommon at low volume crossings).

Most people would consider that a bribe, but around the world, a little extra cash in an official’s pocket is commonplace. Myanmar was one such place that a bribe was useful.

Background on the Currency of Myanmar

Prior to March 2013, the Union of Myanmar (aka Burma) was notorious for a certain currency exchange annoyance. The official currency of Myanmar is the kyat (pronounced “chat”).  When I was there in 2001, the government was run by a military junta and politically isolated from the rest of the world. The kyat was traded internationally at a rate of about 6 kyats per one dollar (see this strange 10-year chart). However, there was a significant black market for US dollars since they were officially banned and scarce. One dollar would fetch closer to 700 kyats in a local market.

The government issued a second currency called a FEC or Foreign Exchange Certificate. FECs were pegged to the US dollar one-for-one. Upon arrival, foreigners were required by customs to exchange $200 US dollars for 200 FECs. That way, the government would get the hard currency, and tourists would use the FECs to pay for things. The kyat was used by the Burmese citizens. FECs were always excepted at hotels and restaurants, but less desirable in markets and on the street where most of the commerce took place. Outside of Myanmar, FECs were completely worthless.

5 FEC - Click to Enlarge

5 FEC – Click to Enlarge
10 Kyat - Click to Enlarge 10 Kyat – Click to Enlarge

I say the exchange was a requirement, but the Lonely Planet guidebook suggested that travelers didn’t have to exchange all of the $200. For a $5 bribe, the official collecting the cash would lower the required amount to $100. A $10 bribe would lower it to $50. Since the government was generally frowned upon at the time for numerous human rights violations, travelers would execute the bribe to lower the amount given directly to the government, making themselves feel somewhat better about visiting the oppressive country. The dollar was also more desirable when bargaining for goods so it was better to keep them. I opted for the $10 bribe.

A Black Market Exchange

A week or so into the country I was in Mandalay and needed to exchange some US dollars for kyat. I was planning to rent a bike that day from a vendor a few doors down from my hotel. A sign reading Bikes For Hire stood outside of a singular dark red door. I rang the bell and a man came running from another nearby storefront to greet me. He opened the red door leading to his bike storage, which was more of a shed with all kinds of tools and junk. He owned two or three functional bicycles.

In exchange for a bike for the day, I paid him 300 kyats or about 40 cents US. I casually asked him if he knew a place where I could exchange my crisp $20 dollar bill. His eyes lit up. He said he could do it for me at the nearby market. He quoted me what seemed to be the going rate, then ran off with my $20 dollar bill.

I waited…

He was gone for about ten minutes as I stood there with the rented bike. $20 was two days worth of travel money so I was a little nervous. But the time passed and my broker came running back to hand over about 14,000 kyats.

The man was curious about the United States and rarely met someone like me. He had a plan to leave Myanmar one day to live in the US. The elaborate plan included somehow getting to Thailand and saving quite a lot of money to pay a handler to get him to San Francisco. He figured he could make it happen in five to ten years. It seemed like a long-shot, but I answered his questions about how to get from San Francisco to New York where his friend lived. He borrowed my pocket atlas for the day.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

The Sacred Book

The day biking solo around Mandalay was a memorable one. Riding past the local University, a group of four law students approached and offered to buy me a drink (a Star Cola). We talked about the US and why I was visiting Mandalay. I didn’t have a good answer, but I remember pointing to a beautiful giant banyan tree nearby and saying we don’t have those where I’m from. The leader of the bunch and I have stayed in touch to this day.

When I returned to the bike rental shop, the man who rented the bike asked me to wait again and hurriedly ran off. Confused, I waited as I had nowhere to be.  He returned with a friend who wanted to speak to me.

The companion looked serious. He carried in two hands a dark, hard covered and sacred looking book. Glancing between me and his book, he slowly opened it to reveal a severely damaged US $1 bill. The bill was heavily faded and in the early stages of disintegration. I saw the George side first. An inch of the top left corner had been completely ripped off, but loosely reattached using two blue staples. Three or four small notches adorned the right side similar to the ear of an alley cat. Small gray blotches, smudges, and black ink marks sporadically marked up the front side.

Bagan

Bagan, Myanmar

His English was poor but he tried to speak some anyway. The bike peddler helped translate.

“My friend want make trade, with you my friend.” “My friend…he want to give… you”. Again I was confused. “You give dollar.”  After a long pause, I realized the proposition.

The man’s dollar was worthless in Myanmar. Nobody wants an ugly tattered dollar bill.  Everyone wants a crisp new bill to hide under the mattress. He simply wanted to exchange his ugly dollar bill for a better one. If I took the dollar home, he thought I could probably get away with spending it.

Once I figured this out, I reached for my money and realized I only had $1 FEC bills. He gladly accepted.

He carefully removed the $1 bill from the book and handed it over. In the palm of my hand, it had the rigidity of a silk scarf. On the flip side, a bright red ink was scattered about as if painted on by a toddler with a paperclip. Another one-inch tear on the left side became evident in my hand when I flipped it over. This thing might need more blue staples, I said to myself. It was far and away, the ugliest and most fragile $1 bill I had ever seen.

I pulled a bank envelope out from my money belt and placed it securely between two crisp US $20 dollar bills and didn’t touch it again for a few weeks.

The Value of a Dollar

In the US, a dollar doesn’t buy you much. Inflation makes it worth less every year. But in other parts of the world, many people still live on just one dollar a day. When I was traveling, each dollar was important because the more I kept the longer I could continue my lifestyle. By accounting for each dollar spent, I knew how much longer I could travel for and when I could spend a little extra on tours or flights.

Landing in the US after a long flight home, suddenly one dollar was worth much less than it was in Myanmar. Sometimes I think about the value of a dollar from the viewpoint of that Burmese guy instead of as an American. It reminds me of the importance of saving money and that I’m lucky to live where I live.

What Happened to the Dollar Bill?

Admittedly, I wish I still had that $1 bill. It was so ugly you would laugh at it. I bargained aggressively for a very nice oil painting in Yangon before I left which is now my signature Burmese souvenir. Framed on my wall, the $1 bill would have been one of the proudest mementos of all my traveling. But I spent it.

Why did I spend it?  Well, I returned home from Asia and left for South America three weeks later to continue traveling. Each and every dollar to my name meant that I could keep on going. One dollar was ½ the cost of a nights’ sleep in some towns, a couple of beers in a hostel, or a day’s worth of street-side noodle dishes in China. One dollar meant a lot to me. When that Burmese man asked me to swap him for it, it was worth a lot more than a dollar to him too.

It wasn’t meant to be framed and hung on a wall or stashed in a memory box. That bill was destined to be spent in America, deposited at a bank, and eventually shredded like all the other $1 bills. If only I could find a place that would accept such a bill.

Much of Asia lacks decent cheese. Another thing Asia lacks is nachos. During the trip, my friend and I were always craving good pizza and nachos. Pizza with bad cheese was occasionally available, but authentic stadium style nacho cheese was impossible to find. It was the one thing I craved every day for 4 ½ months.

One afternoon while staying with my parents during my three-week travel break, I went to the nearest 7-11 to buy some nachos. They were out. So I went to the only other 7-11 I knew of, another 10-minute drive away. I bought an order of nachos with jalapenos and ate them on the curb outside of the entrance. They cost me $2.12 with tax. I paid with cash.

I snapped this shot while riding in a similar bicycle taxi.

I snapped this shot while riding in a similar bicycle taxi.

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13 Responses to Myanmar And The Ugliest $1 Bill I Ever Spent

  1. J. Money May 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Dangggg I really want to see that thing! I know Miel from DinksFinance.com had some older crap-looking bills herself from travels and those are the best kinds. Just imagine all the hands its changed through and the stories it could tell if possible… Oh well, at least you have the memory – and now a blog post on it 🙂

    • Retire Before Dad May 7, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

      J$,
      Yeah I wish I still had it. It was so fragile it may not have made it. I think it spent a long time in water because it was so faded and soft.

  2. JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit May 7, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    It’s always interesting to hear people complaining about how they never have money but they have the newest iPhone or a shiny new car and how they think they are poor. These people have a roof over their heads, cars, job, AIR CONDITIONING! and live in a country where you can do anything you want. A lot of people around the world don’t have anywhere near those luxuries or freedom to improve their lot in life.

    I wish you still had that dollar. The stories it could tell.

    • Retire Before Dad May 8, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      We are lucky to live in this country. I’m also lucky to have had solid parents who gave me additional opportunities aside from just living in a country that provides a good amount of freedom and a strong currency. I didn’t even think of keeping that dollar when I had it. I really wanted to spend it to honor my deal with that guy. It wasn’t until a few years later when I told the story to a friend and thought how cool it would be to have. But that wasn’t my mindset at the time.
      -RBD

  3. The way people think and dream of America and all things America from New York to the dollar I always find interesting. I think they’d be sorely disappointed by the reality :/

    • Retire Before Dad May 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

      Yeah, to think if he worked that hard for so many years to get to New York. Then when he’d arrive, he’d learn how hard it is to make a living there. I didn’t think of it that way before.

  4. DivHut May 9, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    You only get these kind of stories and experiences by travel. That’s why I will always love to travel and though I know many people in the dividend income blogging community think every penny saved should go towrds a dividend stock I am here to say that I like to do both. Invest and enjoy life too.

  5. Brent @ All About Interest May 13, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    I enjoyed the story. Seeing other countries and the value of money in these places really opens your eyes. I also enjoy learning about other cultures. A lot of these experiences can make us appreciate what we have a lot more.

  6. Tom June 8, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    what an interesting story! sounds like you had a fantastic trip. This story will absolutely help me remember the true value of a dollar bill.

  7. Tauri June 24, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    RBD, thanks for a good reading!

    I’ve always wondered how it is living in the US. Of course I must add that I’m not fascinated by the idea of living better off, but the idea of getting know better some other cultural space (and because of I disgust the ‘my friend’ line which a lot ‘cheaper’ cultures tend to use when speaking with tourists, I definitely would choose to live in US instead Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand or whatsoever such country).

    • Retire Before Dad June 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

      Tauri,
      I appreciate your insight from across the Atlantic. Many who travel to and live in the US learn that many of the stereotypes are different than first perceived. I’m sure you would enjoy an visit or long stay, as I would in your country. Thanks for stopping by!
      -RBD

  8. Stockbeard August 12, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    Another well told story, I enjoyed the reading. I don’t like to travel on my own (that’s way too far out of my comfort zone – but I have lived on 3 continents so far), but loved reading about the experience!

    • Retire Before Dad August 14, 2015 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks a lot Stockbeard. It’s fun to tell these old stories from my “glory days” on the travel circuit. With young kids now, new stories will have to wait about a decade.
      -RBD

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