Banking in Burma

I went to the bank last week.  Not something to write home about, you might think, we all go to the bank now and again (or do we?  Surely it’s all cybervirtual banking these days?).  In any case, this was an eye opener.

Contrary to popular belief there are banks here, and even ATM’s these days. Not for us foreigners of course, just for rich folk.  But I had occasion to go to one and pick up some wages for a job I did with the UN back in March. (Yes, they did take that long to pay me.)

The bank was downtown and about the size of 3 gym halls, the first being old colonial style and the last being a horrible old 60’s monstrosity, joined in the middle by a building site.  I’m not joking, one side was entirely open to the street with piles of sand and bamboo scaffolding and such.  There was security at the entrance, well I had to put my handbag through a scanner anyway, but once you got inside you were left to your own devices. 

My days!  To my left a chest-high counter running the length of the room with old fashioned iron grilles and space for 20 cashiers.  Behind them, at tables of up to 8 people, sat an army of workers diligently writing in ledgers, a mountain of which were piled on every surface.  Ledgers!  It was like Gringotts without the trolls and Harry Potter.  I saw one computer screen in the whole place.  Bonkers!

Thankfully Amber had come with me to help and we were duly shepherded to a counter. I produced my 3 slips of paper plus passport and then we had to run and get photocopies of everything before lots of things were written on more bits of paper and I had to sign a (small) ledger.  “Come back in 45 minutes” the lady beamed at me.  Eh? What? Sorry?  Yes, come back in 45 minutes for the cash. OK, well can I get a slip of paper or something?  Oh yes, you get a green slip.  Right.  When you come back.  OK, er, wait, hang on.  So I leave now, with no bits of paper, and come back in 45 minutes to pick up a bit of green paper?  Exactly!  Said with a smile, God bless her.

So I did.  I went to pick up the bit of green paper and sign another book.  By this time (about 11am) the place was absolutely heaving. I have no idea who all these people were but it was like a train station with everyone rushing somewhere.  How they knew where they were going is anyone’s guess because there were hardly any signs anywhere.  The benefit of being a foreigner of course, and a very blonde one at that, is that all I had to do was wave my bit of green paper and look baffled (not difficult) and be kindly shepherded to what turned out to be the very furthest away counter possible from where I started, in the far building but close to the exit (you go in one building and out another, very strict on that they are).  This was the counter for dollars, cash out (as opposed to the other 60+ counters for goodness knows what).  Miraculously, and I was quite impressed at this point, my papers had made it there before me.  Well, they had had 45 minutes I suppose.  In any case, the new beaming lady took one look at me, got the right papers out (perhaps they had ‘small blonde’ written on in secret code or perhaps I was the only one fetching dollars that morning) barely glanced at the green slip and counted out the cash.  I then signed 3 bits of paper and escaped with my booty.  The whole procedure taking something like two hours and several trees’ worth of paper.  It must be like banking in the 1950’s.

I’m quite proud of my adventure. There are hardly any foreigners here who have ever had cause to go into a bank so haven’t seen the inner workings, so to speak. Mind you, how they are going to cope when credit cards are introduced, is anyone’s guess.  I hope they don’t destroy all those ledgers!



3 thoughts on “Banking in Burma

  1. Thanks for sharing! I can honestly say I am a bit envious. I’ve had similar experiences spending an in ornate amount of time in Bangladshi Post Offices…3 hours to ship a package! It had to be sewn shut with a canvas cover and then sealed with melted wax and emblazoned with seals. Crazy stuff.


  2. really nice story, I have had similar experience in Chad, admiring the Chadian bank employees and their crowds of clientele waving papers and forms in front of their tellers – how they figured out what and when and how to do something and with whom. But miracles happen and if you are patient enough and a good believer (or just without any other choice), it does work out and you get somehow an end result – e.g. MONEY. Thanks for sharing 🙂 we’ll be coming to Yangon in August and it is nice to read your blog to get some ideas of what is waiting for us.


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