What to buy
A popular purchase in myanmar is lacquerware, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. the traditional centre of lacquerware production though is bagan in central myanmar. beware of fraudulent lacquerware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. as a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality and the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.
Myanmar is a significant miner of jade, rubies and sapphire the granting of a licence to the french over the ruby mines in mogok was one of the causes leading to the third burmese war and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the west. be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amongst the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. bogoyoke aung san market in yangon has many licenced shops and is generally a safe place for the purchase of these stones.
Known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe. there is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in burma. these are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the buddhist scriptures the jatakas or other non-secular objects from burmese buddhism mythical animals, the hintha and the kalong are also popular subjects. the tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in mandalay and yangon. burmese tapestries don't last long, so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. old raj coins are the most popular and have little value except as souvenirs but everything ranging from ming porcelain to portuguese furniture in moulmein can be found. unfortunately, the burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and, increasingly, the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard. it is against the law to export religious antiques manuscripts, buddhas, etc..
Textiles in myanmar are stunning. each region and each ethnic group has its own style. chin fabrics are particularly stunning. they are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. they can be quite pricy, perhaps us$20 for the cloth to make a longyi sarong.
Burma is still predominantly a cash economy, largely due to the lack of ATMs. In a misguided attempt to fight rampant black marketeering, the Myanmar government has an unfortunate habit of declaring notes to be worthless: this happened for the first time on May 15, 1964, when the 50 and 100 kyat notes were withdrawn. On November 3, 1985, the 20, 50 and 100 kyat notes were withdrawn again and replaced with new kyat notes in the unusual denominations of 25, 35 and 75, possibly chosen because of dictator Ne Win's predilection for numerology; the 75-kyat note was introduced on his 75th birthday.
Only two years later, on September 5, 1987, the government once again demonetized the 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes with no prior warning, rendering some 75% of the country's currency worthless. A new series of 15, 45 and 90-kyat notes was issued, incorporating Ne Win's favorite number 9. The resulting economic disturbances led to serious riots and eventually the 1989 coup by General Saw Maung, The post-coup notes come in more normal denominations from 1 to 1000 kyat, and this time the old ones remain legal tender, so far.
Myanmar's currency is the kyat abbreviated K, pronounced "chut/chat". Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreigners are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are required to pay in kyat for most other transactions trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.. According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept or hold dollars without a licence but this law is mostly ignored and dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen and are worth very little.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, though money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US dollars or they will not be accepted by hotels, restaurants and money changers, and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Due to the low dollar September 2010, an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport car/taxi, and tours/activities.
credit cards & atms
Due to EU and US sanctions, credit cards are rarely accepted in Myanmar. There are places where cash can be obtained with a credit card, however the rates are extremely uncompetitive with premiums certainly no lower than around 7%, and with quotes of 30% and more frequently reported. An exceptionally small minority of up-market hotels accept credit card payments and will surcharge accordingly.
Some ATMs can be found in large cities, but these are purely for locals and cannot be used for withdrawing money.
foreign exchange certificates (fecs)
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change US$ 200 into FECs upon arrival, but this was abolished in August 2003. FECs are still valid tender but should be avoided at all costs as they are no longer worth their face value although a one FEC note has good souvenir potential.
Visitors must bring enough cash with them to cover their entire visit, as there is no easy way to get more without leaving the country. There are no functional ATMs. However in an emergency, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. People have reported that hotels charge a commission ranging from 7% up to 30% and may need to sight your passport to process the transaction. For US Citizens, it is also possible to receive funds from friends or relatives in an emergencies through the US Embassy.
The currency of choice in Myanmar is the US$ nationwide, though you can readily also exchange euros in Yangon and Mandalay but perhaps not beyond. Other options are the Chinese Yuan CNY and Thai baht THB. The best rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
Be sure to bring a mix of US$ denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and 20/10/5/1-dollar notes are useful for some entry fees and transportation.