Yes, there's been a bit of a delay since my last post as my second week in Myanmar was a real blur and I'm already back in Thailand. Myanmar, first of all, was totally incredible, and I found myself really regretting I didn't allow at least three or the entire 28 days of my visa to see the country as there were places I didn't get to in my mere two weeks time. But, I guess that's what happens when you travel; inevitably you're going to get things wrong.
Getting to Bagan was an easy trip; my minivan left on time and made the five hour journey quickly from Mandalay to Bagan, all of it on the main roads which were no more than a thin black ribbon undulating up and down across the gentle hills we followed to get there. It turned out the other three foreigners were all heading to the same hostel, so it made life easy for the truck driver at the end (Myanmar, like Thailand, also loves its songtheauws, although maybe they go by another name there).
Staying in Bagan is fairly pricey, especially compared to destinations in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, so I opted for a newly-opened hostel in New Bagan called Ostello Bello, which was run by a team from Milan where there's a hostel by the same name. This meant things had undergone a lot of necessary renovations, such as bathrooms with new showers and toilets, and the design of the dorm room was well thought-out and unlike some of the dreadful hostels in Vietnam, my room had only two bunk beds, meaning we could manuever around each other (and our bags) without too much trouble.
After putting my bag away, I headed out to the patio and got to know some of the other travellers passing through town. One of the things I found funny/frustrating about Myanmar is certain kinds of travellers I kept encountering; I met some really cool recent grads at my hostel in Yangon, but like a group of people who lived in San Francisco I met in Mandalay and some of the folks hanging out at this hostel in Bagan, I definitely like I kept encountering a lot of annoying Americans who seemed to think they were making some kind spiritual pilgrimage by making the trip to Myanmar. Yes, it's an interesting place that is just starting to open up to the rest of the world, and yes, it's a long flight to get there, but no, you're not really that special for getting on a flight to go there or really anywhere in the world, so stop walking around with some smug self-satisfied look of fake piety like you're the first person to venture to this country. Aside from a handful of cool people I did encounter at this hostel, there also were a lot of really know-it-alls loudly inform everyone about Myanmar's international policies or whatever.
Maybe because my annoyance was festering, or maybe because I had two Myanmar beers with an MSG-laden dinner, but I woke up my first morning in Bagan with a crushing headache. I'd figured I'd rent an e-scooter for the day and check out Bagan, and found a large group from the hostel was doing the same. They invited me to join them, and while one part of me really just wanted to be alone and suffer my headache in silence (and see the sights at my own pace), I decided to try to be a nice person and joined along.
We arrived at Thitmilo Temple, and the group went in, while I was summoned by the guard at the front who asked for my ticket. I opened my wallet to pull out 20,000 kyat only to realize in my stupidity earlier that morning, I'd mistaken a 500 for a 5,000 note and then used another 5,000 to rent the e-scooter. What happened next was a whirlwind of confusion: me trying to explain to the guard that I had forgotten my money and needed to go back to my hotel, one guy from the group hanging around telling me over and over that I "didn't need to pay" because they don't "check for the ticket" at other temples, the guard saying the guy had to pay too, the guy repeating the info to me about not needing to pay, the guard accusing me of trying to not pay, the guard saying we could pay together, me asking if I could borrow 5,000 kyat from the guy, the guy repeating that "they don't check for the ticket at all the temples", which set off the guard accusing me of not wanting to pay, and finally me huffing away angrily, practically in tears from the whole exchange. The guy from the hostel followed me to the e-scooter repeating that you don't have to pay because the ticket isn't checked at every temple and me very tersely saying that I wasn't trying to cheat the people of Myanmar, I just needed to get a bit more money from the hotel room, and then sputtering off on my e-scooter in the direction from which we'd arrived.
I turned back on to the road and realized I really didn't know how to get back to the hotel. I continued along for a while, enjoying the freedom of the open road and having a minute to check out the scenery without stopping every three minutes to deal with someone else's problem on their e-bike. (I had been rented an actual electric scooter, not an e-bike, thanks to the awesome lady at the bike rental place.) I continued along the road and after a while realized that there were more trucks on the road and definitely no more temples. After I crossed a bridge, I pulled over and asked someone where New Bagan was. She waved me back in the other direction.
I finally made it back to the hotel and got some money. I headed out again looking for the first temple and managed to get fantastically lost. I must have pulled on and off the road five or six times before I finally made it back to the right place, where I found the guard and explained the situation. He apologized for accusing me of trying to cheat the system and sold me a ticket so I could go inside. After visiting the first temple, I drove way up a road to another temple, then headed back to the hostel for a late lunch.
Having been out in the hot sun for so many hours did not help my headache at all. I had some lunch at the hostel, then lay down for a few hours in the dark room of my hostel, then got some ibuprofren from the front desk, which helped a lot. I headed back out around 5pm to see if I could catch a sunset, but with the bike's speed quickly decreasing from 40 kilometers-per-hour down to barely 10, I didn't think it was a good idea to keep heading away from the hostel. I headed back, only to have the bike slow to a halt about 10 minutes from the hostel. I pulled over a hotel and made them call the bike rental place to come rescue me. Back at the rental place, I gave the woman 5,000 kyat and said to keep the bike for me the next day since it had been so much fun to ride; she said to make sure they could recharge it at lunch to make sure it would be good to go for the afternoon.
The next day was way better. After breakfast, I headed out on the bike and drove to the edge of town, turning around when I began to see signs for the airport. I pulled off down a dirt path and pulled up at a cluster of temples not on the map. An old man came running up to me and said he lived at the temples and could show me around. He unlocked the gate to the first temple and used a flashlight to show me the fading Buddha depictions on the wall; then we went to the neighboring temple where we climbed a tiny, narrow set of stairs up to the roof, where we climbed a bamboo ladder on to a ledge, then walked along a tiny bit of brick around the temple to get an amazing view looking out at Bagan.
Then he wanted to do something that everyone else I would encounter that day wanted to do: show me his art. He squatted down on the floor and unfurled a roll of traditional depictions of Burmese Buddhism and Burmese life. I politely declined and hopped back on the bike, heading further down a dirt road. A man on a motorbike sped by as I was pulling up to the next cluster of temples; did I want him to show me around the monastery and temples? We walked around as he described monastery life and showed me the inside of the few temples, then the essential question: did I want to look at his art? I politely looked through another 50 paintings, all similar to the first set. I don't doubt that the paintings are done by hand, but it's all about replicating the same images over and over again -- a very different mindset to 'art' than what we have in the West that's all about individual expression (it's the same in India, and probably other parts of SE Asia, so I'm not surprised).
The rest of the day was amazing: I bombed around the roads and dirt paths of Bagan checking out temples, most of them totally void of other tourists, minus a couple of the more famous ones in Old Bagan. I found myself mostly alone in flat, desertic landscape marveling at the idea that I was the only person as far as the eye could see in such a strange setting. It was just me, my e-scooter and the ancient temples of Bagan. Unlike the temples of Angor which are surrounded by jungle, Bagan is flat and arid, an expanse of skinny pale green trees waving in the wind between newly ploughed fields and just brick temple after brick temple popping up out fo the landscape like a strange souvenir from a bygone time. While the temples of Angor are each unique -- the mysterious faces of Bayon, the jungle-covered ruins of Ta Prohm, the majestic size of Angor Wat -- the temples of Bagan are not as varied. I found myself way more impressed with the scope of Bagan and with the way I was experiencing it -- just little old me on a scooter, bumping up and down on a narrow dirt road trying to avoid thick patches of sand that caused the bike to severely wobble, totally lost but completely free to decide where next I wanted to go. At one point, I followed a trail past a woman shepherding a flock of goats, only to find the trail deadended at the edge of a field. Later, I came across a group of British travellers on their e-bikes.
"Is there a road this way?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you come from a road?"
This question confused them. "Yes I think if you go that way there's eventually a road," one of them said.
I jostled along through the rocky parts and tougher terrain firmed up by previous motorbikes and cars, honking at the errant wild dogs who trotted out to greet me as I bopped along the uninhabited territory. Every once and a while, a motorbike would rumble past, which was encouraging because they seemed to be headed to a road. At one point, approached a stretch of the dirt path that was flanked with high brush, it occurred to me that in addition to having no idea where I was, in another part of the world, I could be in very unsafe conditions with no one around to see me. What if someone rushed out of the bushes? I thought. What if there were bandits hiding?
Finally I made it back to the road and then eventually back to my hostel, where I regrouped for a bit, then headed out again. I realized that more than seeing any of the temples up close, what I was enjoying most was simply riding the e-scooter, marvelling at the strange and surreal expanse, so I did just that until the sun sank low behind the dark, cloudy skies and I headed back to the hostel to eat dinner and pack.
The next day was an early morning -- up at 6:30 along with two of the other folks in my room to catch 7 am 'buses' to Kalaw. Leaving New Bagan was insanity; there was some initial confusion about where we were headed (a pack of very loud British/American kids accidentally said they were going to Inle Lake when they meant Kalaw), and it didn't stop there. For at least twenty minutes, the bus driver and the woman from the ticketing agency (also the woman who ran the e-bike shop!) went back and forth, the bus driver gesticulating wildly. None of us could figure out the confusion -- Kalaw is on the same road to Inle Lake? Then we drove way across Bagan to another town where we parked in front of a shop next to another minivan; the driver and the attendant got out, talked wildly on the cell phones, got back in the van, then we drove to a hotel where a couple joined us. Then it was driving around in circles, back to the original random stop, back past the hotel, and finally we got on the road, an hour after we were supposed to depart for Kalaw.
What the driver lost in time due to the confusion (and still I have no idea what the confusion was over), he made up for by driving like an absolute lunatic the rest of the way. Swerving in and around cars, screeching to a halt ... the only thing that made it worse is that after smiling at him once politely while getting out of the van at a toilet break, he continued to try to grin at me in the rearview mirror, flashing his betelnut stained teeth at me, then leaning out the window and spitting wads of red saliva on the road.
As we began our ascent into the mountains to Kalaw, I grew truly nervous. It's one thing to be erratic on a relatively empty, relatively straight road cutting through mostly flat terrain. It's another to be the World's Worst Driver on twisting mountain roads. As someone whose first driving lesson was on Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean, and who had many years of solid instruction/advice from my dad about the mechanics behind driving such roads, I can assure you that this man's technique was 100% wrong. He'd accelerate, shifting gears higher and higher as we approached a curve, then slam on the brakes and rapidly downshift, only to begin accelerating again after we'd reached the break in the curve. I wanted to pull him aside and say, "Look, there's a better way. The best thing about it is, we won't die!" Instead we continued on this way for a couple hours and with every curve I began to pray and also wonder if perhaps God had accumulated the worst people in the world to send off a cliff that day ... looking around it didn't seem like there was anyone worth saving. Well, the French girl who'd been at my hostel in Bagan was nice. If we crash, I thought, I'll save her. And the Spanish girl, one-half of the couple who got on at the hotel, had been nice, too, so I'll see I can save her as well. Everyone else, I decided, would be on their own.
We finally made it to Kalaw and I confirmed plans with the French girl that we'd look for a trek together. Mostly I was just looking for a minute of escape from the obnoxious pack of British and American kids, one of whom sounded like Marge Simpson on helium, although with more shrieking in her voice (side note: everyone in the U.S. should record themselves and listen to how they sound when they speak, then figure out how to adjust their voice if they realize it sounds totally unpleasant, too loud, shrill, like a pirate, etc.).
After settling into my room I got impatient and set off to the trekking company where I'd agreed to meet my French friend. There, I got the lowdown on the 2-night, 3-day, 62 kilometer trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake; during the spiel, a young British guy joined the room, then an Australian. When I saw the two people who'd signed up for the trek so far, I thought "perfect!" Worst case scenario, I thought, is if they're annoying, they can just speak in French together. Best case scenario is that they will be awesome.
Thankfully my luck changed -- the French duo turned out to be awesome. The British and Australian guys from the trekking office signed up, too, as did the French girl I'd met in Bagan. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of Myanmar, and one of the best experiences of my entire time in Southeast Asia. But I will leave the tale of our trek to another post. For our trek was not riding dirty, as this post's title says, but more like slogging dirty, as we trudged through mud and rain for 3 long, hard days. Until that post, as the Myanmar people say, tar tar!