I carry US dollars cash, American Express US dollar travellers cheques and a visa card. This combination covers ATMs and cash withdrawals on a visa card, the security and ease of TC's, and emergency situations when only greenbacks will do. Below is a general breakdown of money juggling I've experienced; of course, it applies only to the areas I travelled, and in many countries procedures are changing as tourism becomes more established:
Australia: being the debut of my trip, I carried Aussie dollar traveller's cheques and a visa card for the many ATMs.
Indonesia: changed US dollars Amex traveller cheques, easy on the more touristy islands - rate worsens away from Denpasar, Bali, but living costs also plummet.
Singapore: 'ATM world.' Almost every other building seems to be a bank.
Malaysia: ATMs, such as Citibank in Kuala Lumpur, and easy changing of US currency.
Thailand: Larger towns and cities have ATMs, money changers everywhere cater for the mass of tourists with every denomination to burn.
Laos: Banks in Savannaket change US dollars cash and Thai bart. The difference between the black market and the official rate was negligible; a few months earlier there was a 50 per cent discrepancy. In the south, it's possible to carry a few different currencies - Laotian 'Kip', Vietnamese 'Dong' and US dollars. It's all a bit grey, but in theory different currencies apply to different amounts tendered. This avoids the need to carry a wad of almost worthless cash around. 'Kip' for small stuff, dollars for bigger transactions; 'dong' floats uneasily in between. The Vietnamese border has bad exchange rates. There's an ATM in Mukdahen, on the Thai side. Kip is useless out of Laos, but looks nice.
Vietnam: easy to change US dollars in the tourist centres, both cash and traveller's cheques. Sometimes Visa traveller's cheques incur an extra fee over Amex. Best cash rates in Hanoi with the gold jewellery sellers, but make sure the notes are in good condition - bigger denominations get a better rate. At Grindlay's bank it's possible to withdraw US cash from the ATM, the only time I've come across to do this, and buy US travellers cheques on a card. The state banks charge less commission, but the queues can be maddening.
China: Bank of China changes US cash and traveller's cheques - surprisingly, better rate for TC's. Often there is little difference between street black market and official rate, as Yuan is stable. However Kunming, close to the borders with SE Asia, had considerably better street rates - watch out for fake 100 Yuan notes and deft Chinese sleight of hand!
There are ATMs around with the Visa symbol, but none seemed to be working! Visa cash withdrawals from the Bank of China incur a hefty 4 percent charge, but can be done almost anywhere - local currency only. It's possible to open an account and have money transferred from home - this takes a few days to a week to process. Keep receipts in order to change 'yuan' back to US dollars.
Tibet: The Bank of China in Lhasa works like any of its branches nationwide; the currency is also the Chinese 'Yuan'.
Nepal: In Kathmandu, changing any currency is even easier than spending it. Grindlay's offer cash advances on a visa card for no charge. Amex TC's can also be bought there. Indian rupees are often interchangeable near the borders of India and Nepal - watch for fake 100 notes. The standard exchange rate was 1 Indian rupee to 1.6 Nepalese rupees.
India: Delhi has the best rates, centred around the knot of hotels in Paharganj - you won't be able to walk without being hounded by moneychangers. No commission charged. Many ATMs in Connaught Place, eg Citibank and HSBC. Visa cash advances possible in the omnipresent Bank of Baroda for a fee of 100 rupees (2.5 dollars) plus 1 per cent of amount advanced, A few banks need 24 hours notice, such as in Dharmsala.
Pakistan: Lahore has several money changing agencies around Charing Cross which offer improved rates over banks. Dollars cash gains a few rupees on travellers cheques. Several banks offer Visa withdrawals in local currency, at the lesser official bank rate, including Citibank. Charges for using an ATM unknown. American Express can neither issue dollar travellers cheques nor exchange their own cheques for cash, services that are available outside Pakistan. They can only issue cheques to Pakistani residents. The only way to get your hands on dollars cash is to change rupees. We found that by cashing a travellers cheque, then changing to dollars, a 3 to 4 percent loss was incurred.
Rawalpindi has a similar stock of international banks, including Citibank and ANZ. Using a cash advance on a visa card costs 300 rupees ($6 US) at ANZ. Again, plenty of money changers offering 3 or 4 rupees more for dollars cash than the banks.