World's Coolest Money

"American money," in the words of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, "is the ugliest money in the world." Every note is the same color and size, making for a particularly monotonous currency. Here are some more imaginative notes from around the world.
Australia was the first to make its legal tender out of plastic polymers, which last four times as long as conventional notes and provide much greater security against counterfeiting. Yet they are still recyclable when retired from circulation. A transparent window and a raised printing process called intaglio allow blind people to feel the difference among the denominations.

The U.S. dollar is widely accepted as Cambodia’s currency, but folks use riels for amounts smaller than $1. With its depiction of Angkor Wat on the front and the Kizuna Bridge over the Mekong (signifying friendship with Japan) on the back, the 500-riel note is practically a postcard. And since the exchange rate (5,000 riels to one U.S. dollar) makes this note worth about 10 cents, it’s cheaper than buying one.
Want to know which animals constitute The Big Five? Just check your South African currency, which has likenesses of the rhino, African elephant, lion, Cape buffalo and leopard. Some South Africans even refer to notes by the animal, so “a buffalo” means 100 rand. A rash of counterfeit 200-rand notes (aka leopards) before the World Cup in 2010 caused many merchants to stop accepting them.
Just one look at this bill from French Polynesia in the South Pacific and all your cares seem to melt away. No stuffy pictures of conquering war heroes here. These notes feature pretty women with flowers in their hair, traditional thatched-roof huts perfect for afternoon naps, unspoiled corals, tropical fish in a rainbow of colors and denominations, and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Remember Disney Dollars, those commemorative bills you could purchase with real dollars but then never redeem after leaving the theme park? Salt Spring Island, part of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, took the idea a step further in 2001, issuing these beautiful notes that celebrate the community. Many island merchants, including banks and the post office, offer a discount for using the local currency.
Encouraged by the success of Salt Spring dollars, the tiny Vancouver Island community of Chemainus (population 3,900) started issuing its own currency in 2010. It proved unimaginably popular: Collectors quickly snapped up all the $100 notes, and neighboring towns started accepting the bills. Emily Carr, whose paintings are synonymous with Chemainus’ First Nations communities and their respect for the natural surroundings, graces each bill.
A charity known as Fifth Pillar started printing these bills in 2010 to protest widespread corruption in India. Like all of the country’s legal tender, the zero-rupee bill features a likeness of Mahatma Gandhi. But it also declares “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.” Be careful who you give these to; you might get a fat lip as your change.
Hyperinflation caused Zimbabwe to tack zeroes onto its notes repeatedly, and still people had to carry bushels of bills to complete simple purchases. Hard currencies like the South African rand and the U.S. dollar were legalized for use in Zimbabwe in 2009, rendering Zimbabwean dollars, even trillions of them, worthless. Except, that is, on eBay, where they’re a hot commodity among collectors.
Not only are Swiss francs one of the world’s most stable currencies, they’re also one of the few that are meant to be viewed vertically. And where most currencies would feature a dead president, Switzerland's franc instead celebrates cultural icons, all of whom made their marks in the 20th century, from the architect Le Corbusier to historian Jacob Burckhardt.
Eritrea has only been an independent African nation for two decades, so its currency eschews former heads of state in favor of typical Eritreans of today. And each note features not just one, but three figures from the current era, usually smiling young women festooned with jewels.
Most of Colombia’s currency is unremarkable, but this latest note, first issued in 2000, is an exception, even though it depicts a long-dead white man on its obverse. The likeness of author Jorge Isaacs is rakishly rotated vertically, and a paragraph of his 1867 novel, La Maria, overlays an image of El Paraiso, the hacienda where much of the book takes place.
Sir Edmund Hillary did something even more rare than conquer Mount Everest. In 1992, he became one of the few non-heads of state to appear on a nation’s currency while still alive. (The U.S. has a law forbidding living people from appearing on its bills.) Hillary, who died in 2008, agreed to be depicted only if New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, were the backdrop rather than Everest.

Antarctica isn’t a country, so these notes aren’t legal tender. But they’re accepted like cash at the few places on the continent where money is needed. The funds raised from selling these colorful notes as collectors' items goes to fund research projects like the one featured on the $100 bill: investigating the hole in the ozone layer.