When I first got off the plane at Yangon airport, jetlagged and exhausted from the 42 hour journey, what shocked me most was being handed a stack of 1,000 kyat ($1CAD) bills at the currency exchange - around 500 bills to be exact. Unable to stuff this into my wallet or fanny pack, I asked the currency exchange clerk if they had larger bills, to which she replied “We ran out.”
The currency exchange counter at Yangon International Airport This was my first glimpse into the nearly non-existent banking services of Myanmar. They say that frontier economies develop in the following order; telecommunications, banking, power & hydro, and finally, consumer goods. While the internet connection is slowly starting to improve here and power cuts have dropped from an average of three times a day to just three times a week, the banking sector is still lagging behind. Decades of hyperinflation and mismanagement have made everyday citizens weary of using existing banks and financial institutions.
To the middle and upper class, the low utilization of banks presents certain problems. For example, large payments must be made in cash since checks cannot be processed without a checking account. An expatriate once recounted to me the story of the first time he prepaid rent – he loaded an entire taxi with cash, went to the landlord’s house, and waited for her to hand count all of it three times in the span of four hours. Getting all this cash isn’t easy, either. Another expatriate had to visit a local illegitimate businessman with a basement stuffed with cash and jewels in order to obtain enough cash to pay the lease on her newly purchased hotel.