New Frontier

Myanmar was on our short list of SEA countries to explore, simply because friends and websites said go now, it’s newly opened, and changing fast. This usually brings up a sticky conundrum for me about wanting to see a place before it changes, but not wanting to contribute to that change -which yes, is impossible. I fell back on Aung San Suu Kyi’s request for foreign visitors to come, especially as individual travelors (rather than on group tours who’s money goes straight to the second most corrupt government in the world, behind Somalia). Our new visas gave us a month to snoop around, which might seem like a lot, but really isn’t. There were 6-7 places that we wanted to see, but we boiled it down to 2 at which to start, and we’d make up the rest as we went along.

We flew into Mandalay from Bangkok. I’d heard of Mandalay only in casino-speak, and didn’t even know it was in Myanmar until we bought the Lonely Planet guidebook. From the airplane window, I looked down on a green, barren, marshy countryside, with a big, brown, winding river, and no sign of the city. Turns out, the city is a looooong way from the airport. We caught Air Asia’s free shuttle bus towards town and watched the green, barren, marshy countryside pass by. Scattered in the distant hills, were many bright, golden objects that looked like large Hershey kisses.

We weren’t very interested in Mandalay itself, but figured we’d use it as a launching pad for our first destination, Bagan. On the bus we learned about a bus station we’d soon pass, from which we could get there, without going to Mandalay. And just like that, the spontaneous tone of our adventure was set into motion. We collected our things, and arranged for the shuttle bus to stop along the highway and let us off -albeit seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But we were quickly surrounded in front of the bus by many taxi drivers who appeared out of the nowhere, all speaking at once, and vying for the space in front of our faces. At this same time, 2 long yellow, decorated floats came slowly past, with lots of festive people standing on them, chanting to music. We really wanted to watch them go by, but the gaggle of men clamoring for our attention wouldn’t have it. It was sort of surreal, and exciting, what we were thrust into. We ruled out the more expensive car drivers since all we carried were day packs, and chose 2 young men who had motorbikes. The ride was really fun but short, and soon we were dropped off at the town hub.

We were still far outside of the city of Mandalay, in a different village. It was small, but bustling. The streets were dirt and gravel. The people and town looked poor. It didn’t feel like Asia, and seemed instead like Morocco, or Honduras, or Africa (not that I’ve been to any of those places). We were the only foreigners, and drew a lot of stares. The main office for the bus station was inside a dark, cool, crowded and dirty waiting area. Every seat was taken. Our presence stole half the audience away from the tv set perched high in the corner. This town did not see white skin often. We were ushered into the small, cluttered office to buy our tickets. Many onlookers gathered and pressed up against the dirty glass office window and behind our 2 drivers who were standing in the doorway. A tall, strong man took control, and through broken English, sold us tickets for the ride to Bagan, which wouldn’t leave the station for another 4 hours.

With that done, we sought out lunch. and sat across the parking lot at what would be a common setting for weeks: dirty place; dirty floors; small dirty plastic chairs; dirty table; lots of flies; food that looked suspect; and small bowls with colorful spicy condiments. But we were happy, and excited by the flurry of the last hour, and the new adventure that we were now in the thick of. The food was better than it looked, and then off we set to explore the town. The area around the bus station was the heart of the village. Lots of eating places and shops. Nothing -and no one- remotely touristy. Lots of dirt, gravely roads, and unkempt streets. Backed up against a scragly creek stood a long line of wooden shanties, with babies, dogs, and chickens loitering about. We tried out our first Burmese words, and most everyone smiled and echoed them back to us: Mingala Ba!

The bus was packed. As it turned out, that tall, strong man who sold us the tickets was also the driver. As usual, the bus had a monitor up front that blared out endless cheesy MTV-like videos with variations of Myanmar love -lost or found. Passengers got off at the many villages along our way, and no one got on. Each stop created an active scene of women selling fruit and such through the windows. After 4 hours the bus stopped for dinner at a large, covered “restaurant” that suddenly became frenzied (same dirty everything and food, and stares, and the magic of Mingala Ba). Washing up before meals seemed like a self defeating act. We did our best to order and eat and get back on the bus within a half hour or so, and off we went. Darkness followed, and we eventually became the last passengers. We had the undulating, wide, dirt road mostly to ourselves now, and the bus was flying. We witnessed the pecking order of the road, dictated by vehicle size and loudness of horn. We also noticed an unusual combination: the cars in Myanmar drive on the right side of the road, but the steering wheel is also on the right. All of this combined for a harried last hour of this journey. Jennifer moved into the front seat, to converse with the driver and his assistant, her eyes wide with excitement.

It was late when the bus finally stopped along the quiet main street of Bagan and we were on our own. We had no prearranged room waiting, and this is when spontaneity can come back to bite you. Indeed, the first few places were either full or closed for the night, but the Eden Hotel had a vacancy, hot showers, nice owners, good beds, and free breakfasts! Not quite as cheap as we wanted (about $16 per night), but we were happy, and negotiated a stay for 5 nights.


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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Art Koch
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 04:50:35

    Very interesting narrative Matt. thx!


  2. Matt Colonell
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 05:42:28

    It reads like a newspaper serial . . . can’t wait to see what happens next!


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