Folded Money In Unstable Countries

Folded Money In Unstable Countries

“No, not rich. I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I knew that when I went to Myanmar a few years ago that their bank only accepts foreign currency that is new, crisp, not torn and not folded and preferably in hundred-dollar bill denominations. I knew it and I forgot it. I went to the bank and got the sparkling new hundred-dollar bills. When I was packing, I promptly folded my crisp new hundred-dollar bills in half and put them in my passport case. This resulted in a black market money exchange, up a four flight betel nut stained stairway (which looks like dried blood),  to an apartment of someone who my non-English speaking driver knew.

I was not prepared in that way for Cambodia or new military controlled Thailand.

You can pay everything in dollars in Cambodia. But not if they are a bit torn or folded. Everyone examines your money the way an art dealer looks for a forgery. A barely visible ink dot, a half-millimeter tear, even a crease that has weakened the fibers, is enough to get your bill rejected. Many are rejected. Smaller bills like ones and fives could not be marked but did not have to be wrinkle free. Euros don’t seem to show the wear and tear that dollars do so you might consider using them.

In Thailand, they turned down a one dollar bill that I had just gotten as change in Cambodia. “It is too old, “ they said. Some countries wont accept any money minted before 2006.

The best thing when traveling to third world countries with unstable governments is to go to the bank and get crisp new bills before you go and don’t fold them.

Apparently, the more unstable and corrupt the government, the newer and cleaner, your dollars need to be. You wont have any problem with changing your rumpled money in Europe.

Fly safe,


Things I Have Learned In Myanmar (Burma)

Things I Have Learned In Burma (Myanmar)

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’eastward to the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm trees, an’the temple bells they say: ‘Come you back, you British soldier’; come you back to Mandalay!’ 
 Rudyard Kipling
  ‘Mandalay’. (Bagan)


Things I Have Learned in  Myanmar (Burma)

In 1989 the military government officially changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. It is a contested issue. Many countries and opposition groups in Burma do not recognize the new name. The US, UK and Canada do not recognize it. The United Nations does.


In Burma the greeting is Mingalaba. It means may all auspicious luck fall to you.


Homosexuality is not allowed in Burma.

Air Bagan is the preferred airline of the Military Junta in Burma.

There are no federally regulated airlines in Burma.

Spending money in Burma is not easy. They don’t accept  credit cards and only accept flat crisp money-mostly in one hundred-dollar bills. If you have that kind of money you can go to the official money exchange. If you don’t, you must go to the unofficial one.  This entails going up a betel nut stained staircase to a fifth floor walk up dwelling.  Your friends with the good money wait in the car.  I ask the tour guide if he has been here before and he says no but the driver knows him.

The Military Junta was officially dissolved in 2011 following an election in 2010 and a nominally civilian government installed. They still keep enormous influence.

There is no ATM, 7-11 or cell phone service. ( or at least there wasn’t a year ago)

The economy is one of the least developed in the world, and is suffering the effects of decades of stagnation, mismanagement, and isolation. Key industries have long been controlled by the military, and corruption is rife. The military has also been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter.


The iconic sight of Inle Lake  is the leg rowing Intha fishermen. The traditional fisherman still use this technique. They stand at the stern and wrap one leg round an oar whilst gripping the hull of the boat with the other foot.



Burma is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion.



Hillary Clinton made a landmark visit to Burma in December 2011 – the first by a senior US official in 50 years – during which she met both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. President Obama followed suit in November 2012, signaling Burma’s return to the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the Burmese  opposition politician  and chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma.  She remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from 20 July 1989 until her most recent release on 13 November 2010. She now holds an elected seat in  the Parliament.  She would be unable to be elected president because of a new ruling about foreign-born children. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest and was unable to give her acceptance speech. Here is  the beginning of her speech which was given in 2012. You can view the whole speech on youtube .

Burma  ranks the lowest for health care.


If you are going to Burma, do something to help. There are many orphanages and schools. Teach English for a day or bring things to the orphanages or hospitals or schools. If you do some research, you will find many opportunities –or just wait till you get there and ask.


Burmese traditionally eat with their hands. Chopsticks and knives and forks  are becoming more popular. The meal is served on a low table and the Burmese sit on mats on the floor.

The Burmese are snackers. ( and who isn’t?) There are many stalls selling snacks on the streets.

Burma is known for its legendary golden Buddhist pagodas. The Schwedegon Pagoda in Yangon is the most famous. The stupa sours 100m into the air and  can be seen from far away. The seven tiered crown has 5000 diamonds and 2000 rubies.


In the poorer Shan and Chin states, insect larvae, ants and grasshoppers are added to the traditional rice and curries, cooked vegetables, lentils and spicy salad.


The Burmese women wear thanaka on their faces. It is a yellowish white paste and is used as a skin protection and sun screen and often applied with designs..


Try to stay in privately owned hotels and eat in privately owned restaurants. Do your shopping at personal businesses. This way you are helping the Burmese people and not the military junta.



When I was there, (almost  year ago but I wasn’t a blogger) the Burmese were willing to talk about Aung San Su Kyi and point out the street where she was under house arrest. The consensus was then if she leaves that she wont be allowed back. (this was before she was elected –things have changed.)

Burmese spelling is easier than Thai spelling or even English spelling.

The Strand Hotel in Yangon Myanmar, home to Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling when it was Rangoon, Burma,  looks exactly the way you picture it.

There is internet in the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Burma though we were told there wouldn’t be, it works better than the internet  in the Penninsula Bangkok.

There is a half hour time difference from Thailand to Burma.

At some point  in your trip to Burma, you will be followed.

There is no freedom of speech and press for residents and tourists in Burma.


You are not allowed to take any pictures of the military in Burma even if they are just guarding a monument.


Photographing monks  is allowed if you ask first or you happen to be one.


In Burma they say that “anything that walks on the ground can be eaten” such as barbecued pig organs on a stick, fried crickets, ( take off the head peel off the wings and gulp), fried beetle (suck out the stomach and chew the head)  and insect larvae ( best eaten raw because it is good for the stomach). (this would be chicken feet)


In Southeast Asia people  chew   on the betel nut ( still very prevalent in Yangon and sold on the streets)  –mixed with the leaf and lime it acts as  a mild stimulant.  The ancient lacquer boxes show how socially acceptable having black teeth and red gums and stained floors from spitting is. You can see the dark red  stains in stairwells and streets all over  Yangon.

There are rules to wearing longyis ( sarongs worn by both men and women. There are rules for the placement of the knots and folds. They are different for men and for women. Sexual orientation  is also shown by the placement of the knots.

Myanmar ( Burma) has the largest children’s army in the world. No, we didn’t see that. There are black zones that you are not allowed to cross into.



Burma is the second largest country in Southeast Asia.


A Burmese person asked me if I thought  that the Burmese people had done bad things in another life to have such a difficult life now.  I was thinking of my own karma at the time wondering the same about myself, having to leave trip of a lifetime and it brought me back to reality. I thought that individually they were good people but maybe there was a time when things were wrong with the world and it was a collective karma. I know karma is a very strong theme for these very Buddhist people so I felt I had to answer like that.  It is so hard to understand so much cruelty and hardship in such a strong Buddhist culture.  He thanked me for my answer and  I thanked him for his question.


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Fly Safe,


How To Leave Myanmar

“If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all”.
- William F. Buckley, Jr.

How To Leave Myanmar

There are very flew airlines that fly to Myanmar and flights are booked months in advance.

You will be taken to the airport by an English speaking guide and a driver. They will not be allowed into the airport.

Wait on line for two and a half hours.  A line means that any foreign  tour guide carrying fifty passports will be waved in front of you. Airline personnel from any airline can bring random people and  large  familes in front of you at all times.

Just because the concierge at your hotel (right out of a Somerset Maugham novel) tells you that he has gotten you a seat on the morning flight, doesn’t mean that it will be true when you get to the  airport desk.

Talk your way into getting a seat on the evening flight. Make sure to get a confirmation number.  Otherwise this same scenerio will repeat in the evening.

Everyone will be rude to you.

Spend day alone in Yangon, Myanmar without friends or English speaking tour guide.

Driver is waiting to take you back to the hotel. “Schwedegon?” he says.  He has decided to take me to the most important Buddhist Temple in Myanmar. He knows that I did not go the day before with my friends. I decide that he doesn’t look like a terrorist or serial killer and say ok. I walk around with him and  his friend ( who appears at the temple)  for an hour on  the grounds of this exquisite temple. I wondered when I became a person who walked alone in Burma with two young men in longyi (sarongs) who did not speak English.  I rely on my vast knowledge of gestures and hand motions.  I hope I am not doing the Macarena or the Hokey Pokey.

.Everyone at the hotel knows that you didn’t get on the flight.  They have a room waiting for you and your luggage is quickly whisked away. The concierge unasked says he cannot find an English speaking tour guide  . Instead he has found a car and driver who speaks English for twenty dollars for the afternoon. By English, it means he knows a few words.

You decide to go back to Scott Market to shop since you wont be going to the local areas.  It doesnt look as strange today.   You run into the young girl monk who you took pictures of yesterday. She is so happy to see you and brings you to her friend’s shop.  You buy a painting from a kid. Word spreads that someone is buying art. You are surrounded by kids and paintings.  They are not supposed to take folded money in Myanmar but they take it in the market. You run into your English speaking tour guide with a new group .  He has been worrying about you and is happy to see  that you are fine. The driver is more of a body guard/package carrier. He is only a bit happier than my son to be shopping but  has good humor about it. He laughs when I tell him that I will let his wife know what a good shopper he is . He shakes his head.

.You leave the market on a very long narrow street.  The car in front of you is stuck. Three very skinny people get out and push the car very slowly down  the street. Everyone is teasing them. We follow very slowly behind them.

The tour sends another English speaking tour guide and driver to take you to the airport. He turns out to be the person that your travel doctor in LA has told you to contact to find his aids orphanages to help. He knows all the best Buddhist teachers in Burma.

This time , the driver is allowed in to the airport to help you with your luggage. The girl at Security waves hello and says welcome back.

Everyone is nice to you.

The man who this morning was bringing everyone in front of me smiles and says “I remember.”  He takes my luggage. He points to a chair. He puts up ten fingers. In ten minute he comes over to get me. My luggage is already up on the counter. A woman is standing there with fifty passports. He waves me in front of her.  That is Myanmar.

Tar Tar ( from  British rule –  Ta Ta) and Fly Safe,