In a regrettable fit of austerity, we decided to take the overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, a place in the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The area around Bagan is famous for its Buddhist pagodas that erupt from the plain like stalagmites in a particularly stalagmitey cave and Jessica’s shutter-finger was itching to photograph the scenes. Taking the overnight bus, I calculated, would not only save us the cost of two relatively expensive plane tickets, but would also eliminate one night in a hotel. Genius.
We climbed aboard the relatively modern coach and I instantly realized that the thing had no restroom resulting in the urgent need to pee, which I did three times before the bus pulled out of the station. Prophylactic urination, I believe it’s called. We stopped twice during the nine-hour trip and, although I wanted to sleep and quench my annoying thirst, I instead awoke, availed myself of the hole in the floor that passed as a toilet and refrained from drinking anything that might exacerbate the urge to evacuate my notoriously small bladder. The other thing that became readily apparent as the crowded coach bounced along the ill-maintained roads was the temperature inside the bus. I suppose in an effort to cancel out the sweltering heat outside the coach, the driver opted to chill the inside to meat locker levels. In recognition of this, the passengers were issued thin, crusty blankets that immediately brought to mind the warning, “You don’t know where that’s been.” All in all, it was a truly miserable night and we were both grateful to alight, albeit in the wee hours of the morning, in Bagan where the next part of our journey to Myanmar would happen.
We had a bit of difficulty finding a taxi to take us from the bus station to our hotel so, when we did attract the attention of a cab driver and he predictably quoted the “stupid, rich Western tourist” rate, which we readily agreed. It was not a long ride to our hotel but it was an uncomfortable one. The cab had a small bell hanging from the visor and it annoyingly rang every time the taxi hit a bump in the road. Given the condition of the roads in Myanmar, the sound was that of an old-fashioned telephone with an emergency on the other end. Things brightened considerably for us when we arrived at the Blue Bird Hotel in New Bagan. We were received warmly by the two women working the front desk and a staff member from the hotel’s restaurant brought us cool, wet towels to refresh ourselves. Though our room was not yet available, it being many hours before check-in time, we were able to check our bags and book a horsecart for the afternoon. Yes, I said horsecart.
The horse’s name was Dynamite, not exactly apropos of his demeanor, and he plodded along morosely, dragging the cart behind him while Jessica and I sat back feeling like we were in a scene from Downton Abbey except for the thick dust, the dearth of caucasians and the ubiquitous Buddhist shrines. The driver took us on a route that showed us the major pagodas nearby to our hotel and we soon got the sense that, if you’ve seen one pagoda, well, you know. For me, they all started to look the same although Jessica, whose perception is much more discerning than mine, appreciated the different styles of the ubiquitous shrines. We did learn that two basic kinds of structures erupt from that Bagan area landscape. Pagodas or stupas are solid structures while the temples are hollow. Otherwise, they kind of blended together for me after a while.
We noted a few interesting cultural idiosyncrasies among the Burmese as we became more familiar with some of the people we ran across. People like Peepee and Pupu (I kid you not!), two young girls who spent their days chasing down tourists and trying to sell them trinkets. First, most of the men chew betel nut. Now for those of you who are not familiar with the practice, slices of the betel nut (actually, it is a berry but, as Leslie Nielsen famously said in Airplane!, that’s not important right now) are wrapped in a betel leaf and chewed providing the chewer with some semblance of a high and curing his halitosis. There are a couple of unintended consequences, however, one being the production of a red juice that Burmese men spit on the ground like it’s their job. It is almost impossible to take a step in a Burmese town without prodding on the stuff. It makes the streets look like someone drove a mobile abattoir over them. The other problem with the betel nut is that it causes cancer but that doesn’t seem to have dissuaded anyone from chomping on the stuff.
A distinguishing feature of the Burmese women (and young boys, as well) is their use of ground wood of the thanaka tree on their faces for both protection against the sun and as facial art. Mixed with a little water and turned into a paste, it also reputedly cures acne, is an anti-fungal and can be used as rocket fuel in the event Scotty can’t get the dilithium crystals recharged. (I made that last part up.)
We arose early the next morning so that Jessica could be ready to sip champagne and hop into the basket of a hot-air balloon. Balloons over Bagan is one of a few ventures that offers sunrise floating over the pagoda-strewn landscape and, for the sum of $320, one gets a bubbly breakfast and a one-hour ride. Since hanging from an inverted pouch of hot gas with no mechanical means of propulsion except for a large flame above your head smacks of risk and adventure, I opted to sip coffee and eat an omelet at Blue Bird while Jessica sailed around on the wind currents. She enjoyed it immensely, as I did the omelet, and the photos she took are worth more than a thousand words.
For the rest of the day, Jessica and I cruised around Bagan on e-bikes. These contraptions are to motorcycles what a Mini-Cooper is to an 18-wheeler and I spent the day trying to avoid disaster and the unavoidable chasms in what pass for roads in that part of Myanmar, all the while breathing in the dust and fumes that are an integral part of the area’s atmosphere. I confess that, at times, I fancied myself Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, in Easy Rider but then I remembered how that ended. Between the bicycle sidecar adventure in Yangon and the e-bike marathon in Bagan, my tailbone looked like the face of an untalented prize fighter with no arms. For days after, I had to pick a cheek when I sat because any involvement of the bottom of my spine sent bolts of pain through theretofore pain-free parts of my body. Jessica was fine, though.
Our final “touristy-thing-to–do” in Myanmar was a sunset cruise on the Irrawaddy River, the watercourse that connects Bagan and Mandalay. We spent about three hours on the boat that looked to me to be barely river-worthy. Some of the floorboards of the rickety thing still showed names of shops of which they had been parts, a dead giveaway that we were not on the Queen Mary. I was grateful for the fact that we never ventured too far from shore on our 3-hour cruise (Isn’t that how long Gilligan was supposed to be out for?), envisioning an abandoned-ship swim in the muddy flow that passed for water. Along the way, we got to see how Burmese people outside the cities lived and it was an experience that changed how we scaled poverty. The homes were no more than pieces of wood or metal scavenged from signs promoting a soda pop or cigarette brand fastened to some pieces of bamboo stuck into the soft, sandy ground. There is no water supply, the river providing it, and no electricity or any other service other than shelter from sun and rain. Every day is the same for these people who struggle to survive. There are no holidays, no time to be sick, no chance to kick back and relax. No mechanical assistance is available to the people, brute force doing the work, provided by the oxen that serve as beasts of burden or, in most cases, the people themselves. They tend their meager crops or cast their nets into the river to make sure that there will be food on table and they gather firewood for the fuel they need to cook the food. The next day, they start over again.
Jessica and I sat on the decrepit craft and watched sunset over the Irrawaddy as our pilot bathed himself in the river behind the boat, preparing himself for a hot date in Old Bagan, we surmised. For not the first or the last time, we considered how fortunate we are to have the life we have and silently said our own little prayers of appreciation for it as the sun sunk into the dank, tan waters of the river.