Mandalay To Bagan, Our Cash Problem And Sightseeing Around Bagan – Trip Notes
Before traveling from Mandalay to Bagan, we decided to withdraw some cash from an ATM machine.
We asked our hotel’s front desk to explain in Burmese to our taxi driver that we wanted him to take us to an ATM before leaving town.
We had not brought enough cash to Myanmar, because we had read that nowadays, ATMs are available in every city, and that most hotels and bigger restaurants accept credit cards.
Maybe there are some foreign banks that have working relationships in Myanmar, but currently, most do not. My travel advice is to contact your bank and ask before you fly to Myanmar, or just bring ALL the cash that you think you’ll need, and some more for extras. The medium of exchange here is crisp, brand new $100 bills, each one of which will give you about 109,500 Burmese kyat. Dinner for two here costs between 15,000 and 20,000 kyat.
If you plan to come to Myanmar, DO NOT LISTEN TO ANYONE THAT TELLS YOU THAT YOU CAN USE YOUR ATM CARD TO GET CASH!!!!!
We must have visited two dozen ATM cash machines that morning, and each had a different reason that we could not get any cash.
Some had no cash left, others were out of service, yet more rejected the transaction with no explanation.
We tried to use three different bank cards that we normally bank with, and none worked.
We tried to take large sums, smaller sums, but nothing worked.
We made sure that the ATM machines had global symbols like “Visa” “MasterCard” “Plus” and “Cirrus” on them, but nothing worked.
Later I read that those Visa, MasterCard, Plus and Cirrus stickers are purely decorative here, and that Myanmar is still not really geared towards accepting cards of any kind.
It is an all cash society,
Less than ten percent of the population even use the banking system.
At one ATM, the machine swallowed my card and did not return it.
I called the emergency number on the machine, which started a nearly two hour comedy to get my card back.
First the bank sent a representative to open the machine and retrieve my card, and then I walked to the bank branch with him to sign a release and to verify that it was truly me.
When we entered the bank, I could not believe my eyes.
People were sitting on the floor surrounded by knee high stacks of cash, which they had come to deposit.
One man was sitting on the floor surrounded by a meter wide circle of cash that was stacked nearly a meter high.
If I hadn’t been too upset and wanting to get out of there and drive to Bagan, I might have been able to photograph this amazing scene.
After many phone calls and photocopies of my passport and visa, while a friendly attendant was trying to convince me to drink some sugary soda or tea and coffee, I finally got my card back.
When I looked at it, I realized that it had been my own mistake all along, by putting into the machine an expired card.
But aside from my own mishap, none of our valid bank cards worked in any ATM, and now we had wasted two hours driving around the city with our kind and very patient driver.
We attempted to change the few U.S. Dollars we had left to Myanmar Kyats, but none of the exchange shops wanted our bills.
Some of the bills had a tiny tear, a crease, an ink dot, etc.
At one exchange, I managed to change a single twenty dollar bill, and this would have to do for now.
This comedy made me feel as if I were trying to unload counterfeit money, not just exchange my U.S. dollars to local currency.
They would not even look at the clean and new Japanese Yen that I had in my wallet.
In all of Myanmar, you can only exchange US dollars, Euros, British Pounds and Singapore dollars.
We were not sure what to do and how we would be able to finish our trip in Myanmar, if we were to have no more access to cash…
Eventually we gave up and drove to Bagan.
The drive to Bagan was though an arid landscape.
I saw dates and coconut trees, thorny scrub bush and cactus plants.
At a grimy roadside restaurant, our driver stopped for lunch.
We were happy to stop so he could eat, but we had no intentions of eating there ourselves.
The plates looked dirty and the food greasy, with unidentifiable pieces of meat floating in it.
To be honest, I was also not very hungry.
I have rarely felt hungry since we came to Myanmar.
Maybe it is the summer heat, but I have found it very easy to skip meals all together.
We passed many dusty stalls along the way, and roadside services housed in wooden shacks with thatched or tin roofs.
When we arrived in Bagan, I was pleased to see that our hotel had beautiful grounds, with Frangipani and Tamarind trees, Bougainvillea and Jasmines blooming everywhere, and our lovely villa had good air conditioning and clean, white sheets.
The pool was refreshing and a nice break from the heat.
It seemed that all the guests of the hotel were hanging out by the pool, seeking respite from the heat of the day, which reaches its peak between 3PM-5PM.
After settling in and enjoying a late lunch, we decided to look around and get some prices for hiring electric scooters to see the sights of Bagan.
Right outside our hotel, we negotiated with some stall owners for a good price for E-Bikes, and a good rate for a private taxi to take us from Bagan to Inle Lake in a few days time.
The rate they offered us for a “new,” air conditioned minivan for the eight hour drive was $150, while our hotel offered us a rate of $260 for the same drive to the Lake.
It is always a good idea to ask around.
I was also able to give the stall owner a deposit of $60, using the twenty dollar bills that had been rejected by the exchange shops in Mandalay.
We still did not have nearly enough cash for the trip, and it looked like we were going to have to be smart about spending our remaining cash, and try to charge more on our credit cards, if at all possible.
We knew that there were two vegetarian restaurants close to our hotel, but decided to eat at the hotel, where we could pay with a credit card and not use our little remaining cash.
At the front desk of our hotel, I was also able to change a few more of the twenty dollar bills which were rejected in Mandalay, but they also rejected most of the bills I handed them.
That afternoon, we hired a very persuasive horse and cart driver to take us to the nearby town of Nyaung U, to buy some feminine pads for me at a pharmacy.
Burmese women, like Indian and Bhutanese women, believe tampons to be unhealthy, blocking the natural flow of blood.
Because nobody uses tampons, they are nowhere to be found.
I still enjoyed the horse and cart ride, and luxuriated in the back, laying on the padded cushions.
The next few days, we hopped on our E-Scooters after breakfast and drove around the amazing temples and pagodas of Bagan until close to sunset, notwithstanding temperatures of over 100 degrees.
The landscape is filled with thousands of stunning pagodas and ancient temples with brick or golden spires reaching to the sky, that it looks like a magical land from an Arabian fairytale.
The Buddhist stupas and pagodas, as well as all the temple spires, look much like minarets, the only different being that under each of those pagodas sits a Buddha statue, meditating in a serene position.
When he first tried the electric scooter, Jules took a fall riding through thick sand, but he was unhurt.
He learnt the hard way that he must put both his feet down to balance himself whenever he rides on sandy patches or over deep potholes.
That evening, when the monsoon rain came falling down, we stayed indoors in our comfortable room, and while we listened to the rain pelting down around us with force, we discovered a solution to our cash problem.
But it wasn’t so easy to execute our plan….
When we had first driven into Bagan, I noticed Western Union signs on a few banks.
We decided to try to wire money to ourselves in Myanmar via Western Union.
Sounds like a good plan, except that the internet in Bagan is painfully slow, and we could not log into our Western Union account.
We kept on getting error messages saying that login is not available from our location.
I had to install the Western Union app on our iPhone, and only then was I able to log in and wire the money to ourselves.
This was a miracle in itself, since after that one night, with the monsoon rain all around us, I was no longer able to connect to the Apple App Store from our hotel.
The next day we rode our scooters to the bank and left with a stack of cash! Our cash problem in Myanmar was over!!! Hurray!
Seeing Bagan by electric scooter was a joy.
The scooters are silent, have no gas emissions and are very easy to handle.
We could easily pull over to the side of the road, park under the shade of a tree and visit whatever old pagodas and temples had caught our eyes.
We passed by the long funeral procession of a man who had died from drinking.
The circumstances of his death were written on a hand held fan that they gave us and that everyone was using to fan themselves.
There are many remote villages around Bagan, where the locals live in handmade houses and spend most of the summer’s days sleeping in the shade.
If we were lucky, we could hear some Burmese music coming from the thatched homes.
The music sounded very soulful to me…
Now that we had cash, we tried the “Moon Vegetarian Restaurant” near our hotel, “The Hotel At Tharabar Gate.”
We had a delicious smoothie made form red dragon fruit mixed with lime and mint.
It was so delicious that we ordered two more and I vowed to come every day to enjoy it again.
Another local favorite is “Tamarind Flakes,” which look like thin dark colored wafers of sweet Tamarind, that are made right here in Bagan.
The locals love this candy, and say that it is their version of “Myanmar Chocolate.”
At many of the pagodas and temples, there were vendors selling their crafts.
Many sell sand paintings, which are made here in sandy Bagan by hand, with the fine sand that they collect along the banks of the river.
They also make very good lacquerware here, in which they serve the traditional Burmese meal consisting of two curries, rice, side dishes and spices.
The Arrawady river runs through Bagan, and we visited the port area in old Bagan, where we saw them loading old wooden boats with scooters, building supplies, groceries and much more.
Because we had not seen many trucks on the potholed road from Mandalay, I can only assume that the preferred method of transportation here is via the river.
Bagan is magical… Thousands of Buddhas sit under centuries old Pagodas, which once were decorated with murals inside, and had carved plaster render on the outside.
Some old teak temples still stand, with their beautiful carvings, and some are still used as monks’ housing.
It is amazing that these temples and pagodas still stand tall, with their glorious multilevel structures and the remains of beautiful paintings on their walls.
Many of Bagan’s monuments and pagodas were built in between 1080 AD- 1280 AD during the flowering of the Buddhist religion and before the invasion of the Mongols.
Bagan is a historical and archeological treasure, and I feel so blessed that we got to see it and be here.
It was not easy to sightsee in Bagan, being out all day long with temperatures rising above 100 degrees.
I told Jules that in reality, there was no logical reason that we should be uncomfortable at high temperatures.
Our body’s normal temperature is at 98.6 degrees, and there is no reason that just a few degrees more than that, should make humans uncomfortable.
Jules looked at me with doubts in his eyes, and said that maybe it SHOULD be so, but many, many years of genetic adaptation to living in cold temperatures had left humans uncomfortable in high temperatures, and even dying of heat exhaustion in the tropics.
I have to admit that despite his doubts, both of us are showing great progress.
Our progress can only be measured when we are challenged, not from the comfort of our home, with nice air conditioning and all our preferences and comforts available to us.
Traveling is a good opportunity to see how far we’ve come and how much more we have to progress.
It is easy to lose hope or patience, or feel fatigue and lack of energy when you roam and travel every day in extreme heat.
We have done well, staying strong and energetic, friendly, smiling and having fun, despite the long hours in the heat.
Over all, I am proud of us and can see real progress in our newly acquired adaptability and stamina.