Rounding off Myanmar in Bagan

Our day bus to Bagan was no JJ Express. Part of me was just so content that my emergency antibiotics wiped away all that was ailing me the day before, but this was no walk in the park. Prime example of what you can subject yourself to when backpacking.

1) No AC, windows down=dust and suffocating heat.

2) We paid for tickets and fortunately got seats. Not sure what the locals sitting on plastic stools in the aisle were paying. I’ve never been in a vehicle so over capacity, and that says a lot considering I’ve played the clown car challenge with a golf cart many times in my youth. I was certain we were going to topple off a cliff.

3) Aside from Heather and Jessie, I was sitting next to the only other English speaker on the bus. I thought this was a positive until she kept trying to convince me that I had malaria. “My sister had it, just was for the next wave of it. You should really get that checked out.” Just lovely.

4) There was a mother and child sitting in the aisle next to Jessie. At first, Jessie was entertaining the little girl. Mother and daughter got way to comfortable, made themselves at home with Jessie’s neck pillow and before you know it, there are three people sleeping on Jessie’s legs. Throw in the mother’s puke sesh and things start to get real. Poor Jessie… and Heather too who, although in the window seat, had a bout of waterworks in the midst of another minor panic attack.

So it could have been worse! We can laugh about it now…

Arrival in Bagan:

The hard ground under our feet was a much welcomed feeling in Bagan and we were ready to get to our guesthouse. We ignored the taxi driver lineup and b-lined it to the ticket office to preemptively book our night bus back to Yangon. We were greeted by a very goofy Burmam who had self-taught himself English well enough to be able to joke around with us. He and his friend offered to drive us to our accommodation as well and soon enough we were in his van headed towards Bagan. Until we took a hard left onto a dirt road…

Of course I immediately looked at Heather to gauge her reaction. Always entertaining and she was clearly in no mood. Turns out our jokester guide, So Soe, had brought us to his home village of Krinstaar for some Real World: Myanmar edition. Things escalated very quickly, Jessie and I looked at each other, thought “why not” and hopped out of the van while Heather reluctantly joined a couple minutes later. With the setting sun at our backs and So Soe in the lead, we walked right into the opening parade of a monk initiation ceremony known as Shinbyu. Accompanied by some stares, we wound our way through the village paths with the line of Burmese women and girls, made up and dressed in fancy and traditional garments, carrying gifts and flowers into the tent. We stopped just before the entrance to watch the young monks approach on horseback, dressed very ornately with crowns and make up and clearly the center of attention. This was there day, their rite of passage into the spiritual world of Buddhism. Soon enough, post-ceremony, they would be taken to the monastery, be dressed in saffron robes and have their heads shaved.

monkparade

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stick around for the ceremony(too white and Christian-looking I suppose) but we were invited to join in on the village feast. We sat down with So Soe and were showered with delicious food that I still can’t identify, our bowls being refiled after each bite by two very attentive Burmen. Everyone was extremely welcoming and the festive vibes were contagious. We were officially So Soe’s posse and villager friends were coming up to Burmese fist pound him. Coolest 30 or so minutes of my life. Thanks for letting us intrude Krinstaar village.

sosoe

The rest of Myanmar was a wonderful whirlwind of heat, red ‘desert’ sand, sunrise views, good food and pagoda after pagoda after pagoda. Renting e-bikes the last day was a good move considering uncomfortable bike seats in sweltering heat while wearing conservative/respectful clothing didn’t prove to be the most enjoyable means of exploring. Not playing around about the sunrises though, there’s nothing more peaceful and picturesque than finding an antiquated pagoda to post up on to watch the sun rise over the hundreds of others dotting the old city of Bagan. Maybe only a little jealous of those non-budget travelers who were going up in the hot air balloons, but hey, maybe I’ll be back one day. I just feel extremely lucky that I got to experience the culture and see Myanmar before tourism really changes things. Special shoutout to So Soe and OT.

meonpagoda

ebike

Side note* I started writing this post during Songkran in Chiang Mai and meant to post it while in my favorite cafe in Pai until and insane storm swept through the hills and the power/wifi went out(so I read by candlelight until it was safe to leave). This published post is coming to you from Senggigi in Lombok, Indonesia, as an afternoon rainstorm has chased us off the beach. Sorry for the delay mom, I’m still alive.

 

More of Myanmar: Yangon and Inle Lake(for a hot sec)

Within the first 10 minutes of my cab ride from Yangon airport, I decided I liked Myanmar. There was something about the hazy orange hue cast over everything by the afternoon sun, all of the “skirt” clad Burmese men and women going about their day and the very welcoming convo with my cab driver, Mr. OT. I was picking up some pretty good vibes. Mr. OT insisted that my six day trip in Myanmar was not long enough. I assured him I would be back.

Arrival: I met up with my travel buddies, Heather and Jessie, at Sleep In Hostel in Yangon. First order of business was food(as it always is with me) and we happened upon a Burmese tea house at the end of the street from our hostel. We ate our vegetables and rice and quickly realized that these tea houses are more of a community social hangout than a place to eat. This certain tea house happened to be a little less social seeing as everyone there was seated in their plastic chairs, eyes transfixed by the more recent version of Alice and Wonderland playing on the hanging TV screen. Anne Hathaway and Burma, nice. We wrapped up the evening with a taste of Myanmar lager(thumbs up) and called it a night.

Day 1: Early the next day, I called up Mr. OT from the hostel office. An hour later he greeted us outside, smile from ear to ear and waving us down with both hands. He quickly became our favorite person. Myanmar is HOT and it’s summer, so I have to say that it was quite nice seeing Yangon from the inside of an air conditioned car with a native at the helm. I felt bad for the few tourists I saw trying to navigate the traffic and lack of sidewalks by bike. MR. OT dropped us off at 3 Pagodas: Sule right in the city center, Botataung with the sacred hair of the Buddha, and finally the massive and iconic Shwedagon pagoda. Our prayers for tasting actual Burmese food were answered when we were whisked off to a busy and seemingly very popular lunch spot. At a traditional Burmese table, people choose a curry or some dish for themselves to accompany the wide range of side dishes to share. We pointed to a few dishes: something pumpkin, a tasty shrimp curry, and a couple dishes of stir fried vegetables. To our delight, a server loaded on the side plates: a plate of rice each(obviously, because Asia) a plate of assorted steamed vegetables with some spicy chili dip, and fish broth stew. Being a group of vegetable lovers, Jessie, Heather and I were huge fans. Burmese food is not as spicy as Thai food and heavy on the vegetables. We rounded off the tour with a walk along the lake and said our goodbyes to Mr. OT. By that point, we were calling him “Dad” based on his tendency of dropping us off at a pagoda and leaving us to linger around at pickup time calling out “DAD”. He would always pop out of nowhere smiling with both hands frantically waving. Burmese people are genuinely extremely nice and have yet to be hardened by tourism. By late afternoon, we were loaded onto JJ Express luxury night bus headed towards Inle Lake. Read previous article for stories on that particular journey.

food

Day 2: At 7am, we’re awoken from a drowsy daze and ushered off the bus. A small group of men are immediately in our faces asking where we are going and demanding some sort of entrance fee. We ignore them and follow the woman opening the bus office so we can proactively book our tickets for the night bus to Bagan. I can tell we’ve been a nuisance to her and I get it, she looks just as tired as we do. She flat out tells us that all the buses to Bagan are fully booked because of the approaching water festival. Mini panic attacks ensue as we weigh our options. We almost decide to jump in an expensive taxi and make our way to Bagan, considering the destination is top on our agenda. As we are arguing with the $10 entrance fee guys explaining that we may be leaving right then, the bus booking lady pulls through and gets off the phone to say that she has secured a day bus for the following morning and she will personally take us to a place we can stay for the night. Perfect. Here’s where things get fun. Homegirl offers to carry Heather’s backpack for her and we are very surprised by her sudden generosity. She says she will jump on her motorbike to go ahead to the motel and we will follow on foot. Heather has her unlocked money belt in the backpack, so naturally, as homegirl is motoring off ahead of us, Heather’s world is ending. Her face screams panic and you can see the cogs turning and the various scenarios playing out in her mind. With her huge travel backpack, she starts yelling and speed walking ahead of us. This quickly escalates to a full on run and Jessie and I have no doubt that she has tears running down her face. We continue to walk as Heather sprints down the busy street, passing horse drawn carts and groups of locals carrying their wares in baskets on their heads who are all staring at her. All you can see is her pink neck pillow bouncing up and down and she finally disappears down a side street. Jessie: “This is why I bring my journal.” Homegirl is smiling as she pulls up on her motorbike and tells me to hop on. Heather, reunited with her backpack which she is now clutching, is sitting in the lobby of Inle Star Motel with the biggest grin on her face. I walk in and can’t help but die laughing at the fiasco. Heather: “She thinks I’m crazy.”

Shortly afterwards, I begin to feel very sick. We all lay down to briefly nap. When Heather and Jessie leave to go on a boat tour of the lake, I stay behind. Of course my first sick day in Asia happens in Myanmar of all places and I start to wonder what they pass as hospitals. Our room becomes my sick ward and I’m just happy that I’m not about to get on a night bus to Bagan. Heather and Jessie said I could take their Inle Lake photos and claim I was there for the tour but I’m a terrible liar. Guess I’ll have to make it back in the future. You win, Mr. OT.

ot

Myanmar Juxtaposed

Before I got to Thailand, I had never heard of Myanmar. A country sharing Thailand’s boarder to the West, It just recently opened its boarders to international travelers in 2012. I was intrigued. My summer break began in Bangkok with a 2 week US History teaching gig that inevitably segued into Myanmar.I can’t say that I’ve been to very many developing countries, but I’ve found reason to believe Myanmar to be my first. Parts of it seem to be developing so quickly it can’t keep up with itself at times, the evidence being the crazy juxtapositions experienced over the past few days. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss to my kids in the past couple weeks of school and realized that he would have felt very at home in Myanmar. Allow me to explain…

Yangon has insane traffic, an equally insane mix in variety of cars and an obvious lack of law enforcement. Our tour driver, Mr. OT,  only got in one minor accident, bumping rear-view mirrors in a round about where cars were going every which way imaginable. It’s complete chaos. More visual to keep in mind: many vehicles are pre-war era vans, cars and trucks. The number of little European cars and early Jeeps and humvees zipping around make you feel like you’re watching footage from the History Channel. At this point, these cars are quite decrepit with rusted metal bodies, although they magically still run(their mechanics must be very skilled). Throw into this mix some brand new Hondas and Mercedes Benz, shiny new SUVs(Nissan and Toyota) and luxury buses and things get pretty interesting. There was an influx in the past few years when cars became affordable for the average Burmese and motorbikes were outlawed in Yangon. You can’t talk about Yangon without talking about the traffic.

Picture this: young Monks with shaved heads and dressed in their traditional robes, yet wearing backwards hats, converses in hand and talking on their cell phones. This I witnessed at Shwedagon Pagoda of all places, the over 2,000 year old pagoda that towers over Yangon. Everyone who comes to Yangon ends up there at some point or another. The young Burmese guys also seem to go to great lengths to have punk style haircuts. In Bagan, a village boy trying to sell me postcards had a mohawk with blonde frosted tips. Did I mention the trucks pilled high with equipment and HUGE speakers driving around and blasting music as people are hanging off of it. I will never understand how these things occur.

Most everyone still wears the traditional “long skirts”. It basically looks like patterned fabric tied tightly around the waist. For men, it’s called a longyi which tends to have a small plaid pattern, and for women, a htamein which has flowery or colorful pattern. Most notably, I got a kick out of seeing Burmese businessmen briskly walking to or from work in their nice button downs and still rocking their longyi with a certain swag. Business on top, party on bottom.

Rows and rows of haphazardly placed dilapidated buildings, some colonial era/style, with the occasional luxury hotel thrown into the mix. As we were approaching the looming Shwedagon Pagoda, we passed by a massive fancy condo development with ads boasting about its lineup of foreign investors. The purpose of its being was to have the best view of Yangon and the 2,000 year old pagoda. Go figure.

Prime example of this slew of juxtapositions has to be everything about our night bus from Yangon to Inle Lake…

JJ Express. The “JJ” I found out is for “joyous journey”, and I have to say, I was quite impressed. Myanmar night buses put Thailand night buses to shame.

  • We basically had Lazyboy recliners for seats, complete with pop up leg rests, blankets and flat screen LCD TVs.
  • There were TWO uniformed stewards handing out beverages and mini cakes or whatever they were. Keep in mind is spent $20 for this 12 hour journey.
  • AC! Extremely important for comfort factor seeing as it;’s summer in one of the hottest places I’ve ever been.

Here’s where things get interesting…

A few hours in, Heather gets up to asks the stewardess where she can find the bathroom. A couple minutes later we stop on the side of the road and the stewardess ushers Heather out to go find a nice spot in the woods. Conclusion: this bus has everything but a bathroom! Rationing of water ensues. Later on in this joyous journey, the bus stops in a parking lot in line with a bunch of other buses. A nice man translates that it will be a 30 minute stop. We pass through the row of buses and come to the most happening and inviting rest stop complex I’ve ever seen. NJ Turnpike step yo game up! I use a nice normal toilet and hope that we frequent these types of places along the way. Back on the road soon after, our pace slows and the bus ride gets bumpy and doesn’t stop. Why are we off the freeway? THEY HAVEN’T BUILT IT THIS FAR YET. Were beginning to go through the mountains and take turns around cliffs with no type of guardrail. The bus stops and honks at times to let other big vehicles pass in the other direction, seeing as the roads aren’t wide enough for two-way traffic at the turns. I wake up at one point to the lights coming on and a line of people getting off the bus. Awesome, i think, we’ve come to another fancy rest stop. Wrong. With a giggle, the stewardess motions for me to join the line of women squatting over a ditch on the side of the road. I shoo away a stray dog to take my territory and I’m sliding in the dirt slope as I’m trying to pee and a truck passing by makes me feel like a deer in headlights. As I’m walking back onto the bus while questioning reality, the stewardess is getting up from her squat and straightening her prim and proper uniform. I was in quite a daze from sleep but I realize later that all of this actually happened. Only in Myanmar.

PS Just to clarify, my bus from Bagan had a toilet on it and I still stand by my statement that Myanmar buses top Thailand buses.

There is way more of Myanmar I have to share but I though I would give a sense of what it’s like before I get into some adventures. In the meantime, I’m back in Thailand in Chiang Mai for some Songkran festivities(Songkran is Thailand’s New Year and basically a nation wide water fight). Enjoy and keep posted! Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai and Bali to come as well.