Money matters

You can be a MILLIONAIRE in SE Asia! It’s easy. It’s fun. Here’s how.

  • Thailand: You can have a million Baht just by converting $32,000 USD
  • Myanmar: You can have a million Chats just by converting $1200 USD
  • Cambodia: You can have a million Riel just by converting $250 USD.
  • Laos: You can have a million Kip just by converting $125 USD.
  • Vietnam: You can’t afford not to have a million Dong; all you need is $50 USD. Then, what you do with a million dong is your own business.

Now, to avoid losing out on the exchange, here’s the best way to convert your money.

ATMs
They are everywhere in these five countries, except for Myanmar, though ATMs are likely to be available there in the next few years. Using ATMs, you typically get the best exchange rate possible, and avoid extra fees, as long as you don’t mind carrying a lot of cash around. In Thailand, however, banks impose a $5 USD fee per ATM  transaction so you want to limit transactions there or use a bank account like Schwab that reimburses you for ATM fees. In Laos and Vietnam (mostly), the ATM fee is zero; in Cambodia, it’s about $1 per transaction (and the Cambodian ATMs spit out US dollars too).

Credit/debit cards
The best alternative to an ATM can be a credit card but, outside major hotels and expensive shops, these are not widely accepted in SE Asia or often are accepted only with a 3% surcharge. Make sure, if you’re planning a lot of credit card use, that you have a card that does NOT impose a foreign transaction fee, which is usually hefty.

Exchanging currency
Typically the best rates are at banks, the worst at hotels. For high amounts, don’t exchange currency but use ATMs. For low amounts, airport exchanges or bank exchanges on the street will do. The best rates are for big bills ($100 and up), lower rates for $5 to $20. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, you can use dollars freely for purchases anywhere, and get immediate change in local currency at a decent rate you can agree on. No need for calculators here, as six year olds can divide and multiply and convert faster than you could punch it in. You can also use Baht in Laos if you’re moving over from Thailand.

Myanmar now offers official currency exchange services at airports, but they are often closed for their own obscure reasons so you can’t count on them yet. Some bank-run exchanges can be found in cities, but semi-official exchangers are common in local travel agencies. For most countries, you should bring nice, crisp bills if you can, particularly in Myanmar where you pretty much have to print your own brand new ones to pass scrutiny with them. We scoured local U.S. banks for uncreased $20 bills and most of those were hard to convert.
 
As always, notify the source of your debit or credit card about your travel plans, so you don’t find they cut you off in mid-adventure. And, with good internet access almost anywhere, you can move money electronically to the right accounts.

In short, use ATMs mostly but, for back up, bring credit/debit card and a stash of US cash.

So that’s how you can switch to local currency and be a millionaire in SE Asia…without losing your shirt.

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