Adventures in Currency

Living in the US your whole life and always using the oh-so-mighty dollar, one gets used to a few things that you never realize might be different until you start traveling. For instance, it’s so easy to just google the exchange rate for dong or tugrik or kip that it’s easy not to realize that there are a lot of currencies that you can’t buy or sell freely.

How to Exchange Dong

Want some Mongolian tugrik? Well you’ll have some trouble finding it outside Mongolia. Want to sell some? Well no one is going to want that worthless paper outside Mongolia either. Want some kip? Well it’s not supposed to be taken out of Laos. This idea of imperfect exchange became salient to us when we arrived in Bangkok with a pocketful of Vietnamese Dong burning a whole in our pockets only to find that none of the exchange counters in the airport were willing to trade for the currency of their (semi) neighbor. A quick internet search led to a bunch of online forum assholes making of fun of anyone stupid enough to take dong out of a country that (as far as I could tell) doesn’t have any exchange counters in the airport. A slightly more in-depth search led me to a single company in Bangkok called Super Rich Money Exchange that will take hold of your dong with a smile. This is not to be confused with massage companies in the Patpong area. The one catch is that of their many locations, only a few handle the more esoteric currencies and only one will actually give you a decent dong rate. Luckily, that one location is in a pretty central part of Bangkok near the Siam shopping malls and we exchanged our money there easily with a good rate.

How to Keep Your Money Non-Worthless

The next luxury that US-centric readers might be accustomed to is money that doesn’t lose value no matter how gross, or bent, or damp, or ripped, or written on it is. As long as more than 50% of your bill survives, you can always exchange it for a crisp one. This is not the case elsewhere. The larger the bill, the closer it gets scrutinized. I had a taxi driver in Vietnam reject a five dollar bill for being a bit worn. When you’re dealing with fifties or hundreds, many places will reject your money for the smallest rip or bend. Many money changers even have posters with detailed pictures of the many defects that will cause them to reject a bill. As far as I could tell these included rips, missing pieces, holes, water damage, burns, and countless others that I couldn’t even identify. So how can you safeguard your value? First, start off with your large bills in very good condition. Most ATMs or banks will dispense them this way. Next, store them somewhere safe. Most places will accept a high value bill with one fold in it as long as it is otherwise in good condition. If you don’t have a good place to keep your bills flat, a folding wallet probably won’t ruin them. Consider checking any large bills you get in change. In China there are a fair number of counterfeits floating around and it’s not considered impolite to scrutinize a bill and ask for a different one if it looks or feels odd.

How All-mighty is the Dollar?

Now for a piece of good news: Many of the places with the most marginal currencies use one or more internationally respected de facto currencies. For example, despite the existence of the riel, transactions in Cambodia are primarily conducted in US dollars. ATMs even dispense them. There are no coins in circulation in Cambodia and riel bills are mostly relegated to the role of small change. This means that, oddly, it is common to pay or receive change in multiple types of currency in one purchase. In Vietnam, most guesthouses accepted dollars and we used dollars to hire a taxi when we got stuck at a train station without an ATM or exchange counter. In Laos, many places accept kip, Thai baht, and US dollars interchangeably and you might get any currency as change. In each of these places there is a generally recognized exchange rate that you quickly pick up on and most places seem to honor. Watch out though, the more dominant the native currency is, the more likely it is that you will be overcharged for using any other type or you won’t be able to use it at all.

So what does this all mean for you? Have a small stash of dollars with you wherever you go. Whatever you think about the US economy, the dollar is still the worlds primary reserve currency. If you’re in a tight spot, people are more likely to recognize and accept it than anything else and exchange counters everywhere accept it. Even if you have dollars though, it’s still a good idea to have some native currency when you cross the border. We’ve been surprised at how many international disembarkation points have no currency exchange facilities. Finally, change your money before leaving a country, in case you can’t change it elsewhere.

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