People had talked about Mandalay and I wanted to leave the place behind before I had even arrived. I thought I’d be happier that way. I was sitting on a bus from Bagan to Mandalay. The driver was pushing the throttle a bit too much.
The dusty and dry air in Bagan lead me to think that a big city like Mandalay would not be any better. It turned out I was right but there where other things that caught my attention. After buying a train ticket to Hispaw I had half a day to explore the streets of the city.
I don’t feel at ease when I walk from an ice cream bar to a shack town. Only questions without answers arise when looking at people using the murky river to wash themselves after a long day. This wide river bank was their toilet, backyard, playground, workplace and home at the same time. I tried but could not find the photo I was searching to do justice for the feeling I was experiencing.
I was passing through on this random search for sunsets and beauty when most of the world was looking to feed their families and stay healthy in conditions where the odds where not in their favor. A stone throw away from a shack town an amusement park was being build. Roller coaster and karaoke bar with neon lights across the street was too strong of a contrast for me to digest.
What is a tv but a modern day altar that we worship by giving it our time and attention. There is no interaction only pre filtered exposure to our senses.
Barcelona or some other big European football team was playing at 3:30 a.m local time. The teahouse in the outskirts of Mrauk-U was packed with young men staring at the screen. When our bus pulled over the men rushed to ask if anyone needed an accommodation or a ride somewhere and then returned to watch the game. The +12h bus ride had been one of the most painful ones I could remember. Stretching first body and then mind with milk tea and moving frames felt like heaven.
The teahouse in Pyay was full. Myanmar Idols was starting. I pointed my chair away from the screen and started watching faces while listening to the voices of the future. The proven concept broadcasted it’s gospel from the LED altar. People from all ages were glued to their seats sipping tea while the busy road behind kept spreading the dust and gasoline fumes.
On the hills close to Hsipaw the the sun was still behind the horizon when the villagers started walking up the hill. At the top is a buddhist temple where people pray each morning for 40 minutes. Many return there to pray several times a day.
So which altars and tv shows are good for you and which are bad? The question seems irrelevant. Maybe what matters is what we do after this single focused attention. To which direction do we point our thoughts, words and actions? What was learned at the altar? Time was given so something was received.
You can refill you water bottle almost anywhere, leave your belongings unguarded and trust the words spoken. You can also practice hackling, negotiating and skepticism or even distrust but it doesn’t seem to be part of the culture. Myanmar, as many kept telling me “is not corrupted by tourism, yet”. The leaders and military might act differently but I met none of them. On the streets there is trust.
Booming city with Indian and Western influence
Foreign money is pouring into the country and not just from the pockets of travelers wanting to see beautiful sunsets and pagodas but from big corporations and governments wanting to invest. Yet Yangon is still a chaotic city where skyscrapers are kept at bay by street vendors selling fake smart phones and 20 cent milk tea. Downtown is full of markets, temples and people spitting excessive beetle juice from their mouths. Walking anywhere feels safe and smiles are returned from strangers.
Guide books will list you plenty of things to do in Myanmar. No doubt ‘Get in, see, do, eat, sleep & get out’ -sections will keep you busy. But what if you just got lost and stopped planning what it is that you want to happen next? Well, that was kind of my approach to exploring Myanmar. Maybe I was too lazy to do my homework or didn’t want to plan too much. Either way for me ‘not knowing’ is the exciting part.
I had arrived to Bagan bus station at 2 a.m. It was 6 km to the town. The taxi drivers were few and they knew the power they had. I could tell the guy talking to me was full of boloney so I decided to walk.
4 a.m I was sitting in hotel reception. No need to sleep tonight. 40 cents for a rent bike and I was of to see the pagodas, ruins and temples. Apparently the sunrises were nice here.
Renting an e-bike would have made things less sweaty but it was nice to move the body a little. The distances are long in Bagan so I ended up doing a loop that made my legs a bit shaky.
Yes, the sunrise was beautiful and it took some effort which makes the prize always nicer. Lack of sleep gave a nice overall buzz for the whole experience which was mostly amusing.
The receptionist had recommended an pagoda to see. It ended up being full of people who had woken up too early, skipped their breakfast and coffee to capture something unique for their Instagrams (here is mine).
Amusing part was that I felt like I had surrounded myself with people who had climbed up the stairs of the pagoda to see something life changing. I tried finding eye contact with people around me and greet them but only got suspicious looks.
These people had travelled half way across the world because someone said it would be amazing to sit on top of an old building and watch the sunrise and hot air-balloons.
The view was nice but it was also funny. It was funny because none of us were there alone yet we tried to ignore the fact and definitely not document it. It was funny because the air balloon floating in the distance were full of people paying 350 dollars each for 30 minutes of fresh air above old building before heading back to the airport. It was funny because you, a lovely woman, looked at me like I was crazy when I offer you my tripod so at least few of your photos might be sharp.
I give my respect for the past generations that build these monuments and apologies for the living ones for sneaking down from the side of the pagoda so I wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee. That saved me enough money to travel one day longer.
The backroad took me further into the plantations filled with smaller payas, pagodas and temples. Don’t ask me about the differences. I know there is one but I doubt anyone really cares anymore.
From the distance I saw the hot air balloons and started cycling towards them. Maybe there would be something on the way.
It was 8 a.m and I was getting hungry. It was going to be a long day.
That night I would sleep in a real bed.
Getting to Myanmar was a bit of a race against time. Border crossings are getting easier each year and acquiring an E-visa is a simple procedure for many nationalities. Nevertheless out-dated information can cause some headache.
I was in Pai, North Thailand and my initial plan was to cross the border from Mae Sai to Tachileik. I had two days of visa left when during breakfast someone told me that from that part of Myanmar you could not travel to other parts of the country. Roads would be closed for foreigners. Internet seemed to agree with him. Later I found out he was wrong.
After finishing my breakfast I thanked him for the info, changed my plan and started hitchhiking over the mountains down south. Same man warned me that two days was not enough with the route I had chosen.
3 pick-ups and one bus later I made it to the border 30 hours to spare in my visa.
6 a.m. It was a short walk across the bordering bridge from Mae Sot to Myawaddy yet in the dark I could already see I was entering a different reality. Mothers with young children were sitting on the bridge. They were not begging with their words so much as with their presence.
5 minutes of friendly custom formalities and I was free to go. 10 minutes from that I was sitting in a family wagon with 4 local men heading to Hpa-An. With no idea if the price was right (it was) or any common language we set out on the 130 km journey that would take about 3 hours.
The driver stopped to fill up the tank from some local man with his own pump system. Right next to us was a newly build gasoline station empty of customers. After filling the tank the man gave the driver a bottle of water. An hour later our driver saw a car on the side of the road with it’s hood open. He slowed down and handed them the water bottle. No words were exchanged.
We stopped few times to say hi to a friend, wash the car and buy fruits. I was dropped in front of the bus that goes to Yangon. 7 hours later the bus reached the outskirts of the city. Taxis and motorbikes kept asking: “Where you go?” but left me alone after telling them “I don’t know”.
On the side of the highway a man told me to take the same minivan with him. It would take us to the centre. An hour later he showed me a good hotel and wished me all the best. Thanks to the help of many people on the way I had arrived to a place where I could take a shower and sleep.