Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bagan, Myanmar

Posted on May 1st, 2005

Since I was awake for the bulk of the train trip from Mandalay to Bagan – I don’t really count three second blink naps - I spent a great deal of my time pondering the only other Pinkie on the train. The guy was in full-on eccentric Elvis-mode, wearing jeans and long shirt, despite the fabulous heat, with a pompadour hairdo and thick sideburns, a handkerchief stuffed into his collar for what reason I couldn’t fathom, expensive watch, state trooper sunglasses and carrying nothing but a small duffel bag. He couldn’t have looked any more out of place if he’d had a date with him in full S & M regalia. The worst part was the bastard slept like a baby along with the snoozing Myanmars while I was reeling in so much pain in my back, neck and ass that at one point I actually considered standing for the remainder trip.

While disembarking in Bagan, a small slice of the Elvis mystery was solved. We ended up sharing a cab, me into Nyaung U, where budget travelers visiting Bagan cluster, and him right to the Bagan airport for a flight to Yangon. In the light of day, his appearance morphed slightly into an Elvis/Henry-Fonda-in-Easy-Rider look. He told me he was from Stuttgart, but I was too tired and quite frankly too creeped out to ask how someone so seemingly unsuited for travel had gotten so deep into Myanmar on his own accord.

I checked into the Eden Hotel, the least appealing, but cheapest place (US$4 a night) I’d stayed in all of Myanmar. The walls were peeling and the bathroom was nasty, but upon careful reflection, I realized that it wasn’t any worse than the average New York City apartment. I immediately passed out for a four hour nap, arising only marginally more refreshed at 1:00PM so I could squeeze in a half-day of Bagan, under the height of the unremitting, mid-afternoon heat. My kyat-flow problems were becoming so dire that I couldn’t even spare the 500 kyat to rent a bike. I decided I would go hardcore and walk that mother. I knocked back an entire 1.5 liter bottle of water like Mean Joe Green in that Coke commercial in front of the Eden’s awestruck lobby clerks and packed a second in anticipation of the copious fluids I was going to lose through sweating and set out.

Bagan has only one thing going for it, but it’s one hell of a thing. The region was where Myanmar’s powerful, but ethically dubious, aging social elite tried to atone for their regrettable actions in life, which everyone knows could result in unfavorable reincarnations, by trying to kiss spiritual ass in the form of a temple offering. Well, there were a lot of very naughty boys back in the day and so a lot of temples were built and now Bagan is the Disney World of pagodas. Over three thousand pagodas to be exact, varying in size from ice-fishing shacks to Egyptian pyramids. These frenzied contributions to holy charity are spread out over several square kilometers of wide open, dusty, scrub dotted plains, making for a surreal and unforgettable, stupa punctuated landscape. You can’t spit out the dust collected in your mouth in places for fear of hitting a religious artifact and the effect is like very few things you will see in your life.

While sparsely located temples start appearing just outside Nyaung U, the serious forested mass doesn’t kick off until you get near Old Bagan, nearly four miles to the southwest. Old Bagan is the nucleus of the area, sporting the highest concentration of pagodas and from there the temple offerings radiate out, becoming thinner in number over each passing kilometer, but definitely not diminishing in quality, meaning if you want to see the highlights, you have serious ground to cover. Many people opt to hire air conditioned cars/vans/buses to tackle this challenge. More thrifty people will take advantage of the army of horse-drawn carriages and trishaws. The hardcore, budget travelers will simply rent a bicycle. Then there was me, trying to make a pathetic dent in the action in a half day on foot. Even the sweating, slow roasting cyclists took pity on me, one guy even stopped to offer me his water. Though I was less enthused about Myanmar’s relentless heat than ever, I was slowly starting to at least come to terms with it and tolerate it as a fact of traveling during the hot season. Moreover, Mandalay and especially in Bagan, the environment is such that as soon as you walk out the door, you are pretty much instantly filthy. Nevermind the profuse sweating, dust and dirt combined with oily fumes and exhaust just hang in the air and it all just sticks to you like a thin spider web as you walk through it. When you factor in all of the barefoot walking required in the temples and monasteries and the low, constant hurricane of dust swirling below your knees, there's just no staying clean for more than a few moments after you get out of the shower. Somehow psychologically surrendering to the fact that being soaked to the bone in sweat and coated in grime was inevitable, made it just a little easier to submit myself to those otherwise hellish conditions.

Moreover, even if I’d had kyat to burn, I still would have probably opted for walking on the first day because quite frankly, by that stage of the trip, I literally couldn’t sit down. After two pounding bus rides, two days of getting spanked by the bike in Mandalay and finally the ass grinding I got on the train, virtually any form of sitting was excruciating. I felt like a frat boy after a week of hazing; physically spent, mentally trashed with a deeply swollen, aching ass.

I walked for nearly an hour before I laid eyes on the first substantial pagoda, which despite it’s respectable size, like so many of its neighbors, sat unattended and nameless. Lonely Planet takes a half-hearted stab at plotting and labeling many of the prominent pagodas in the region and there was supposed to be a more in depth “DPS map” available which I never laid eyes on, but really, a complete, detailed map of the region is hopelessly unfeasible. It would be like trying to make a comprehensive diagram of every apple in an orchard. Aside from the lofty, granddaddy pagodas which are hard to miss, much of the task of exploring Bagan’s pagodas is a simple matter of tossing the virtually useless map, letting go and allowing your eyes, curiously and if you’re so endowed, the Force, to guide you to whatever seems interesting on the horizon.

I walked to the very edge of Old Bagan my first afternoon, which afforded me the opportunity to gawk at several anonymous, but impressive temples along the way. One temple was occupied by two men, one of whom had observed me taking pictures from a distance and summoned me over with wild gesturing. Although there were no signs, I was informed that I was standing in Thatejeryhlda Pahto (this spelling is most definitely wrong). The man who had waved me over, a one Myint Ko, kindly walked me through the pagoda, pointing out the four Buddhas and leading me up the stairs to take in the view from the upper level. Of course, hospitality like this in a tourist trap like Bagan is never free and I when I tried to leave I was cornered into looking at Myint Ko’s collection of original paintings. There were dozens of acrylics in color and black and white, as well as a second pile of deeply colored sand art pieces (US$30 each). He informed me that each painting took seven to 10 days to complete and that he was selling them for US$10 each. I told Myint Ko that I only had about 4,000 kyat to my name to cover me for three more days of eating and not dying of dehydration, but in typical living-in-denial Myanmar money grubber fashion, he insisted that I stay and see the whole collection and then mindlessly beseeched me to purchase something with what he must have imagined was my secret, emergency, just-for-Myint Ko stash of money. He came down in price to $8 a painting during this doomed attempt to make a deal. I finally had to whip out my wallet and show him that it was completely empty save for the aforementioned 4,000 kyat, and he finally let me go only after I lied and promised to return the next day with the bag of money he assumed I had squirreled away back in my hotel.

Myint Ko showing his "work."

Ten minutes later I was at yet another unidentified pagoda (a non-English speaking bystander earnestly tried to convey the name “Ti Lo Min Lo” which I assumed to be the name of the temple, but it could have just as easily been a solicitation for a cigarette), where I was shown the exact same acrylic paintings, though not surprisingly these were without Myint Ko’s signature. Over the next 24 hours I would have no less than 10 guys try to dazzle me with identical “paintings,” one guy even followed me on a scooter for 15 minutes, though none but Myint Ko had the jewels to sign their names at the bottom. Curiously, no one else had the same sand art he was selling. Though my growing pessimism at the time had me convinced that Myint Ko was full of shit, taking into account the seemingly unique array of sand art, I had to wonder if he was actually making his own paintings, using the universally available mass-produced acrylics as models, which I understand is a common exercise for painters. Since I didn’t want or have the capacity to buy anyone’s paintings anyway, I didn’t dwell on it for too long.

The highlight of the first afternoon was my last stop before turning around, Ananda Paya. Ananda had the longest description in LP, so I knew it was probably going to rule and other than the sorely unbefitting neon sign over the entrance, it didn’t disappoint. The towering stupa and neighboring brick monastery, both dating from 1105 AD, take up a full city block of space and the paya is in especially good condition. A golden, slender stupa rises up out of the palatial paya, which houses four gold Buddhas standing in positions representing the attainment of nirvana. Like clockwork, within seconds of entering the grounds of Ananda, a young girl latched onto me and tailed me for the entire visit. For her age (10), her English was excellent. Of course she initially tried to sell me postcards, but after I told her “way-pi-pi” (“already bought”) she dropped the subject, so I let her tag along and engaged her in conversation. After a thorough walk through of the paya, she took me by the hand and led me to the locked and abandoned monastery. LP reported that a determined person could probably locate someone with a key for a look inside, and sure enough, the girl roused an ancient, jabbering old man who let me in and dutifully followed me around, turning lights on and off as we walked so I could absorb the fantastic murals inside. The girl did her best to explain the significance of a few paintings to me, but this quickly got beyond her English limitations.

Ananda Paya

My guide at Ananda.

Murals inside Ananda's brick monastery

After leading me out and locking up, the man requested a tip for his efforts. Again I was too money conscious to give him much, and I only had 1,000 kyat notes in my wallet, but I managed to fish out a couple half destroyed, small notes rolling around in my pocket, totaling a paltry 150 kyat (about 16 cents) and apologized for the feeble tip as he stood there in shock, or possibly suffering an embolism, I’m not sure. The girl for her part didn’t want anything and indeed continued in her selfless guiding, leading me out the back to an unpretentious reclining Buddha.

Finally, after nearly an hour, I took note of the dipping sun and decided I had better start heading back to Nyaung U. The girl, having apparently grown fond of me, told me that she wouldn’t be at the paya the following day - it was her day off and her eight year old sister would be handling postcard selling duties – but asked if I would come and visit her the day after. I told her that I would like to, but that it wasn’t possible as I was flying to Yangon the following evening. Visibly disappointed, she ventured that she might see me in Nyaung U and then headed back to the entrance to resume selling postcards.

As I started back to town at a brisk pace, I couldn’t help but reflect on what had just occurred. Though this particular instance was one of the more intense examples of attachment to me by young kids and a few older girls, I was struck at how often it was happening and tried to figure out why. The easy, self-righteous conclusion would have been to assume that the kids, perhaps at the urging of out-of-sight parents, were arbitrarily gluing themselves to tourists in the hopes of charming their way into a donation of some kind, or perhaps even entertaining wild fantasies of being rescued and whisked away to a better life in the west. Then again, perhaps they just want to break up their tedious days of pushing postcards with a little good company, working on their English and doing a little amateur Pinkie anthropology. I’ll never know.

Though it certainly wasn’t all roses, my day of walking had been surprisingly agreeable, in addition to making me wildly popular with the locals. With the heat and distances involved, I got the feeling that tourists don’t usually submit to walking around Bagan. Locals yelled and waved at me from passing cars and trucks. Horse and buggy and trishaw guys were constantly at my side, assuming that I had somehow lost my ride and was doubtlessly in need of their services. These constant solicitations and not being able to outrun the more aggressive touts pushed me to the breaking point repeatedly throughout the afternoon. Apparently the concept of a westerner being low on money is so completely foreign to them that they simply don’t internalize the words. I had guys on my ass every six minutes, even when I was hundreds of meters from prominent pagodas, for pretty much the entire afternoon, selling those goddamn mass produced paintings, trying to insert themselves as my official tour guides, without asking, detaining me to look at pictures of their families in a desperate bid for sympathy and never taking to heart the words “I don’t have any money to spare you sniveling putz! Nothing! Not even 50 kyat, all right??!!” And then after 15 excruciating minutes of this back and forth they would walk away muttering nasty things about me. About me!! Mother *&^%@$#&^# assholes!!! The constant discomfort and the insufferable harassment was causing the Ugly Tourist in me to bubble closer and closer to the surface of my demeanor with each passing day in Myanmar. But then some old lady passing on a bike with a giant surprised smile would call out to me and renew my serenity. Focusing on a lighter approach, I decided that the next time someone rode me hard, trying to sell me something, that I’d respond by trying to sell them my water bottle. Tee hee!

My walk back to Eden Hotel was momentarily enlivened when I stumbled onto the Bagan chapter of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Forgetting briefly that all offices had been closed and the workers imprisoned when Aung San Suu Kyi was re-arrested in 2003, I thought I’d stop in and say hello, but when I got closer it was plain that the place was locked up and had been abandoned for quite some time. The compound was overgrown and in a shambles. As I stood back to take a picture, I suddenly realized how conspicuously sympathetic to the NLD I must have looked to the people on the street. Having developed a recent paranoia about the government’s undercover rats being on every street corner and their penchant for unceremoniously jailing and forgetting about anyone who looks like they might have the potential for dissident behavior, I retreated and made a quick turn down an unmarked dirt street.

After awkwardly cutting through the grounds of a monastery, I found myself in the middle of a dirt covered residential area. It was all bamboo/straw huts and property fences, literally dirt poor. While I could hear action going on behind the fences and in the huts, I was the only one on the street, aside from a couple kids playing soccer with a half deflated ball. It was pretty much dark by now and I had no choice but to just wander. The area turned out to be huge, without a single permanent dwelling. Everything had just been lashed together from available material and light weight, woven bamboo. Yet, clearly the settlement had been there for a long time. Apparently the overall weather in Myanmar isn’t quite so punishing and lightweight shelters like this can endure for a surprisingly long time.

After lengthy staggering through full darkness down countless identical dirt “streets,” I finally found myself on an encouragingly paved road. After getting my bearings I realized that I had gotten turned around somewhere in the hut village and had been walking in the opposite direction of where I needed to be. Thirty minutes of backtracking later and I was finally on my street, tired, bathed in dried sweat and filth and covered to the knees in a layer of dirt and dust. My sandals looked like I had fished them out of a dumpster. I had stopped trying to rinse the grime them off of them at the end of each day by my third day in Myanmar and I just decided to let them be until I got back to Bangkok, where I’d hose them down and soak them in bleach if necessary.

I dined at a nearby Chinese “restaurant” being run out of the front porch of a private home. I had an intense relapse of my germophobia as I sat waiting for my food, watching two guys at the next table eating their meals. Like much of Asia, people in Myanmar often eat with their hands, even sloppy, low-consistency food such as rice and curry like these guys were digging into now. There have been precious few moment in my life where I felt that my hands were clean enough to eat something as absorbent as rice and curry without being terrified with what the food was pulling off my fingers and carrying into my gullet. It’s safe to say that these feeling were incalculably magnified in Myanmar where it's a good bet that you're eating a micro-universe of nasty gems and organisms picked up from random contact with the street, money, vehicles, toilets, dogs, etc. Ew, I’m getting the willies just writing about it and my appetite at the time was flagging like I’d just been served a plate of raw sewage. After dinner I scrubbed myself down and was in bed by 8:00PM.

I was up at 7:00 the next morning in an effort to get in the bulk of my Greater Bagan touring before the mid-day heat reached capacity. I ate breakfast on Eden’s second floor, open air balcony. Any other time of the day, this spot, which is directly over the pandemonium of Nyaung U’s main drag, would be fully objectionable, but at such an early hour, it was actually quite peaceful and enjoyable. The air was still cool and the building refrain of constant horn honking was just getting started and was largely easy to ignore. I ate every scrap of food that was offered to me, even downing two cups of the muddiest coffee I have ever had in order to stockpile the calories I would be needing for the extensive biking I would be doing that day. My plan was to be the first one at the bike shop when it opened, carefully inspect everything and sneak off with the best bike they had. From there I would zip down the same route I had taken the previous afternoon with my head down and pick up the trail at the Tharaba (Sarabha) Gateway on the edge of Old Bagan.

Despite a full, dedicated paragraph in LP, the all-brick, half-trashed Gateway was a bit of a disappointment, though I suppose I wouldn’t be looking so hot either after 11 centuries.

Tharaba (Sarabha) Gateway

Just inside the gate was an incredibly huge, very out-of-place, nine story structure under constriction. I impulsively steered the bike onto the access road for a closer look and was immediately pounced on by two guards. They literally threw their bodies into front of the bike and seemed very nervous that I had taken an interest in the site. As they frantically waved me off, explaining that the site was going to be a “new palace” (for which royalty exactly?), I quickly realized that this project may be one of the rumored government, forced labor endeavors that were meticulously hidden from tourists. I complied and turned the bike around before some decided I needed to be killed for national security.

My first temple stop of the day was a big one, the massive 12th century Thatbyinnyu Pahto, which among other things was one of the first temples to built in a two story configuration and boasts the highest point in Bagan (until they finish that “palace”). Unfortunately, for reasons of preservation, people can no longer climb to the second level to take in the view. This was a very popular pahto. Even though it was barely 8:30AM, there were several trucks and buses unloading Myanmar visitors and a handful of westerners as well. As always, I was a hit with the locals. The occupants of one particular bus took a special interest in me, with the guys and the girls (especially the girls) hanging out the window and engaging me in my routine Myanmar dialogue. After doing my act for a few minutes I left them and entered the pahto where I was predictably adopted by a kid selling postcards, this time a 13 year old boy. Again, he kept the sales pitch to a minimum, probably because his English was limited to about seven words, so I let him hang around.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

As I prepared to leave, he surprised me and instead of a last ditch attempt at begging for money, instead he begged for a pen. It took several moments for me to understand this request as I simply wasn’t expecting it. Yes, he definitely wanted a pen or pencil. As much as I wanted to give him something, I had nothing of the sort and left him empty-handed.

Next I let the Force guide me to a nearby temple that was relatively gigantic and pristine (that is, as pristine as red brick can get), with several smaller buildings on the compound, but it was totally unlabeled. A whole family seemed to have taken residence out back. A mother and two small children appeared immediately, but no one tried to sell me anything. The mother went to work tending some shrubs and the kids just shadowed me as I circled the grounds. Suddenly the older of the two kids, about four, got an idea into his head and raced off, returning in a few moments with a key. He dragged me into the pahto and the key turned out to open the stairway leading to the second level. The stairwell was almost impossibly cramped, even for someone of my dwindling size, but I managed to get to the top and the view was sensational.

Nameless, but beautiful temple.

After many photos, we returned to the ground floor where I was almost killed by a thick, foot-long lizard that had been scampering across the ceiling, when it lost its footing and plummeted to the floor, narrowly missing my head. Again, though I expected a solicitation for some kind of handout for the effort of getting me to the second level, it wasn’t the usual. The kid asked for, I shit you not, shampoo, like I might be carrying a bottle in my day bag for emergencies. Then he asked for writing utensils like the last kid. Obviously, people in certain areas could do better with donations of utilitarian items than the usual begging for money. These people in particular, who seemed to be permanently camped out behind the temple, probably didn’t get into town too much - I didn’t see any form of transportation on the premises. I made a mental note to inform everyone via my web site that people coming into Myanmar should bring plenty of supplies and western crap to trade or give away (done).

I turned the bike around from there and backtracked down a side road to Shwesandaw Paya, a monstrous pyramid-like temple dating from 1057. There’s nothing stopping you from scaling to the top of this five terraced structure, except pure fear of course. Shwesandaw provides the highest accessible vantage point in the entire Bagan archeological zone and the steps leading up get progressively more steep, shallow and all around terrifying as you climb. With a two-handed death-grip on the kindly provided railing, I slowly and carefully climbed the giant steps, planting both feet firmly on each step. Meanwhile two punk kids were racing up and down the steps and around me, no handed and carefree, having a pebble fight. Little crapheads.

Shwesandaw Paya

The brick shed with the cramped reclining Buddha

Again, I took far too many almost identical looking pictures from the top of the paya, before inching down and stepping into a neighboring brick shed that housed a reclining Buddha. With virtually no natural light inside and the fantastically cramped space, getting a decent picture was impossible.

From there it was time for the long haul. I needed to circumnavigate a giant open expanse of dusty, non-bike-friendly plain to get to my final objective, the Toe Recommended Dhammayazika Paya. To do this I needed to ride a total of 10 miles – if you believe the scale on the often questionable Lonely Planet maps - cutting through New Bagan and then turning back to intersect with Dhammayazika. I broke up the ride with a stop at Mingalazedi Paya (Blessing Stupa), circa 1277, which aside from being on the commendably massive side with three levels if terraces, also sports dozens of pieces of glazed Jataka ceramic tile art. While many of these pieces have been stolen or destroyed over the years, there are several that are still intact (do not touch!), though they all looked the worse for wear.


An example of the Jataka ceramic tile art at Mingalazedi

I was detained on my way out of Mingalazedi by the hardest selling souvenir vendors yet. There persistence was infuriating, though at the same time it was plain that they were desperate for some business with low season being in full swing. When I gave the now well rehearsed speech that I was down to minimal kyat, one guy insisted that I trade something with him. He wanted all kinds of stuff that I didn’t happen to be packing in my day bag including American quarters, cheap watches, t-shirts, flashlights and pens. While I was being harassed, a bus full of Myanmar tourists arrived and the vendors didn’t even glance at them, knowing that trying to vend anything to them would be like trying to sell mosquitoes to Minnesotans. My philosophy was that if the Myanmars knew better than to buy that ca-ca, so did I. I departed, leaving a trail of anti-westerner grumbling in my wake.

The thing that killed me - well, truthfully it was only one of the many things that killed me that week – nearly all of the souvenir stands in Myanmar sell the exact same shit. Postcards, paintings, wood craved figurines, bronze figurines, cheap t-shirts, decorative dishes (bamboo and horse hair), chimes and hand fans. Even worse than having the same stuff shoved in your face 35 times a day was when the people would claim that they or a member of their family made the stuff. While dumb ass Myint Ko was the most blatant offender, he was far from alone. People made the same claim about virtually every other type of knickknack with a perfectly straight face. Did they not realize that us tourists were seeing identical items and hearing the exact same lines every 20 minutes all day long? It was a strong illustration of how many Myanmars live their entire lives in their own little bubble, unaware that there is a whole world raging on around them. And no amount of refusal would detour these people. If I’d lie and say that I already had 30 postcards and 10 shirts and only US$2 left to get me through three weeks of travel, they would never give up. Ultimately, I eventually realized that the best and most unique souvenirs were back at Inle Lake. If I was going to buy something, I should have bought it back there.

Finally I managed to removed myself from that scene and continued on to New Bagan where I had a lemon soda to replenish blood sugar and a large bottle of water to replenish everything else. As expected, by 11:00AM it was inconceivably hot. My clothes were soaked in sweat and clinging to me. I took so much time replacing fluids, trying to dry off a bit and chatting with the girl selling the drinks that I completely forgot about paying her, and she forgot about making me pay, until I was a good kilometer down the road. I almost didn’t go back. That one kilometer had been an unpleasant uphill climb all the way and plus, I could use the extra kyat, but my conscious got the better of me and I turned around and paid like a good boy. At least I was able to coast downhill back to the stand in just over a minute.

After re-climbing that hill and cutting through New Bagan, I was back on the desolate, deep fried, open road, heading for Dhammayazika Paya. The sun was getting brutal for this last part of the journey. Even after having just refreshed myself with water and sugar, I felt the heat quickly wearing me down. Finally the huge golden stupa of Dhammayazika came into sight and I pedaled like mad to get there and get out of the sun for a while. Even with the suffering of the bike ride, Dhammayazika was totally worth it. Though it didn’t rate a mention in LP (probably because it was so freaking out of the way), it was probably the all-around best Paya I’d seen in Bagan. I spent a long time here, circling the main stupa, checking out the Buddhas and loitering out of the sun’s reach. There were a few high priced, van driven tourists hanging around while I was there and I realized that I was still feeling very disconnected and alienated from other travelers. Not only because they were mostly clueless rubes, dumping huge money into government-run tour companies and staying walled up in resorts when not in the protective custody of their tour guide, but also because I had succeeded in removing myself from them even further with my decision to cycle out in that blasting heat, making me the next thing to a leper, bathed in sweat and filth, over-heated, red faced and actually having gone through the trouble to memorize and speak some Myanmar. We were polar opposites and I didn’t want anything to do with them as much as they wanted to pretend that I wasn’t there.

Dhammayazika Paya, judging from the flashy sign


Finally, I returned to my bike. Even though I had carefully parked it in the shade, during the short time I had been in Dhammayazika, the sun had shifted enough so that my seat was exposed to the sun and it was hot enough to actually singe me. I poured some water on it and got moving. My touring day was done. I was going to head straight back to Nyaung U and the marginal comforts of Eden’s hard wood furnished lobby, but it was no small matter. Again, Dhammayazika was so far out of the way that I was now looking at another eight or so miles of biking through unrelenting heat, with my gears and freewheel becoming increasingly gummed up with invading dust.

I have no idea where these ladies were headed, there wasn't a settlement for miles.

These soldiers armmed with automatic weapons were ominously snoozing at the entrance to this temple.

While there was nothing in my immediate vicinity to break up the ride (or provide some precious shade), it was still a memorably ride, as I was treated to very deeply moving long views of the entire Bagan archeological zone. Thousands of temples, big and small, lit up by the high sun and seemingly right on top of each other from this great distance. I was intensely happy that Toe had convinced me to save Bagan for last. He was right, despite the unforgettable sight of a pagoda dotted landscape, probably one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, I was definitely pagodaed out. I was done. Finito. Seeing the comparably ho-hum offerings in Mandalay after Bagan would have been a gigantic letdown. I focused my energy on getting back to Nyaung U without succumbing to heat stroke and was in the marginally cooler lobby of the Eden Hotel by noon.


After waiting out the hottest part of the day in the lobby, watching terrible American movies on satellite TV, I left the protection of the building to seek out a huge meal that would serve as both lunch and dinner at an LP recommended restaurant called Myitzima. Whoever did the restaurant research for Bagan really earned their money that day. Myitzima, was way off the main road, down a frankly uninviting dirt alley. Half way up the alley I almost turned around thinking that no place serving decent food could possibly be down this derelict street, but sure enough, Myitzima appeared with it’s pleasingly designed courtyard and open air seating area decorated with startlingly gifted pieces of art reportedly from local artists. All that and the food was fantastic. Possibly in an effort to impress me, one of the guys hanging around not doing much popped in a Robbie Williams CD into the small stereo. It occurred to me that this was the first western music that I had heard since I arrived in Myanmar. The guy was clearly proud of not only having this music, but that Robbie was name dropping a Myanmar city in one of his songs. The guy’s English was exceptional and we ended up talking music for quite some time. He said he only bought the Robbie Williams CD for one song, “Road to Mandalay” which he loved. He went on to describe how he enjoyed all types of western music, particularly Bob Marley, but just three months earlier the government had banned (or re-banned, it wasn’t clear) importation of western music and he was seriously bummed out about it. After a little more music talk, he asked if I would listen to and write down the words to “Road to Mandalay” so he could better understand the song. I agreed, but trying to interpret the song was a disaster. Apparently Robbie was in a cryptic mood the day he slapped together the lyrics to that puppy, because it made virtually no logical sense. Few lines seemed to correspond to any others and I had to explain to the confused guy that I didn’t understand the song and that sometimes song writers just kind of go a little crazy with the metaphors, leaving the listeners to scratch their heads. He understood and accepted this, being happy to just have the lyrics on paper, accurately transcribed by a native English speaker. I used the time that I had left at the restaurant to teach the guy a bunch of pertinent English slang like “kick ass” and “this sucks!”

Random streets in Nyaung U


From there it was time to go to airport. I returned my bike, collected my bags and jumped into a waiting taxi that I had arranged the day before. I have to admit, I was very excited about this plane trip, because it signaled the last leg of my journey through Myanmar. Though there were many things I liked about Myanmar, I was very much looking forward to getting back to Thailand. My full itinerary and insane pace had left me exhausted, travel beaten, tired of counting kyat, filthy and I was especially weary of the hassling I was experiencing. All I had left was one easy night at Motherland Inn II in Yangon and then I was on my way back to the comfort and excesses of Bangkok. At the airport my mood was soaring as I checked in at the Air Mandalay counter (it was more of a folding table than a “counter”). So it was with a spirit crushing mix of confusion and disappointment that the agent handed my ticket back to me saying “wrong date.”

“Say what?” I said briefly returning from visions of decadent food and oil massages.

“Wrong date. Ticket for tomorrow.” My brain stalled as I tried to process this and I ended up just staring at her with my mouth hanging open. She pointed at the date on the ticket, “Tomorrow.”

“No, no! Today!” I persisted, “Today, May 8th!”

“Today the 7th” she answered. This sparked five minutes of me grappling with various geek devices to set things straight. Eventually, I got to my new, space-aged Palm Pilot Tungsten T5. Ha ha! Now I would straighten this woman out! I fired up the calendar and after a few moments the events leading up to this date disaster came into focus. Somehow, my flash, reliable, expensive T5 had managed to jump ahead a whole day, presumably when I adjusted it for the time zone difference upon arrival in Yangon eight days earlier, and as I had been using it exclusively to organize my time in Myanmar, I had gone forward, planning everything using the wrong day as a base of reference. So while all my dates for getting myself safely back to Bangkok were correct, I was racing around the entire week thinking that I was a day ahead. No wonder my time in Myanmar had dried up so suddenly! Not only had I eaten a whole day on the Yangon to Inle bus, but I had also gone ahead and theoretically ditched an extra day thanks to my T5. This development opened up a huge can of worms. Beside now having to wait an extra day for cider and a decent pizza, I had the whole kyat shortage to think about. Two nights earlier I had carefully counted out every kyat and dollar, accounting for food, rooms, bike rental, taxis in Yangon, Myanmar airport exit tax (grrr!) soft drinks and even water. It was all arranged down to the penny and now I was screwed.

Despite the added expense of a extra day in pricey Yangon versus an extra day in cheap, but hot and uncomfortable Bagan, I begged the agent to try to squeeze me onto the flight that same day, which she was eventually able to do after making me wait and sweat for 30 minutes. During the sweating interval, I had resolved that I would need to break my emergency US$100 note, hopefully get US$80 in change and exchange only $20 for kyat which would provide me with enough money to live like a king for 36 hours in Yangon, a nice change from having to carefully budget for 200 kyat bottles of water. In the back of my mind I was a little excited to find myself with this extra time. Though I might have put it to better use in Inle, an extra day in Yangon would mean time to sleep like a dead dog in Motherland’s wonderful bed while giving them more business and therefore money, in my effort to make up for walking off with their key, stop for reunion visits with both Toe and Soe-Win-Naing, eat five lavish meals in a bid to put some weight back on, finally try Myanmar Rum and maybe look into a Burmese massage, which I was going to have to curiously delve into Chinatown to find. I had 36 free hours and money to burn, so I intended to really cut loose.

It became clear to me on the flight to Yangon that not only is Myanmar full with people who have no nerve endings in their asses, but they actually make a point of designing every chair to be as uncomfortable as hell. Impossibly, the seats on the airplane were the same, pathetic, cushion-free caliber as on the buses and only fractionally better than the train seats. I had no idea that passenger planes came with seat options that were this harsh, but there was no disputing the evidence. Fortunately, it was only a one hour flight and I managed to keep my weight shifting to minimize potential damage. As it stood, my ass was going to be ailing for weeks. The upshot was that this pathetic flight actually served a meal, which turned out to be tuna sandwiches and as potentially sorry as this sounds, they were actually very tasty, making me realize that I really missed tuna, of all things.

The general flouting of safety in much of Southeast Asia extends to air travel as well. Everywhere else you go in the world, you are chastised if you unbuckle your seat belt even a second before the plane comes to a complete stop at the gate. So far, every flight I’ve taken in Asia, people throw off their seatbelts as soon as the plane touches the ground. While the plane is still hurtling down the runway at 200 MPH, the distinctive sounds of latches being flung open fills that air. Fortunately, people usually wait until the plane is only going 30 MPH to get up and start pulling their things out of the overhead bins. Seeing as how seats aren’t assigned on most airlines, I have started to make a point of sitting as far back in the plane as possible, so when the pilots have to perform a hard stop everyone and all of the bags they are throwing around while we are still in motion will fly forward and brain the less intuitive people sitting up front.

I shared a cab into the city with two locals, saving 1,000 kyat, checked into Motherland II and was in bed by 8:00PM.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012