Back in it!
After weeks in Thailand being surrounded by fellow tourists and struggling to connect with the locals on any level, Shelley and I are definitely in travel land again in Myanmar.
The little jungle plane to Mandalay was less than half full. We then took an extremely long bus ride given the relatively short distance and arrived at our hotel for the night. Breakfast was easily the worst breakfast I’ve ever had. I settled for toast and this one cookie that didn’t taste funny.
We then got on a crazy bus that took a solid seven hours to get to ညောင်ဦးမြို့ (Nyaung-U) (pronounced nyong-oo). We were lucky enough to get the back seats so on the one occasion that Shelley managed to doze off she was abruptly awoken by flying up into the air shortly after. We stopped due to a traffic jam with a heard of cows. We stopped midway on a bridge because it was too narrow to fit two cars. We stopped multiple times to get gas, drop off locals or just hang out. The total distance is only 107 miles but clearly there was no express highway option.
Mandalay and Nyaung-U remind me a lot, surprisingly, of Egypt. There is garbage all over the place. The buildings are dirty. The traffic is completely unregulated. The people trap you in to sell things. Oh, and they also have an affinity for blinking neon lights. There are plenty of obvious differences and Mandalay is certainly a lot nicer city than Cairo, but there seems to be general patterns of poorer parts of the world.
I unfortunately discovered the reality of garbage burning soon after arriving in Nyaung-U. I had heard that this is a thing in Asia but I didn’t realize the extent. It was common for Shelley and I to be gasping for breath walking down a street while our lungs were flooded with the smell of burning plastic.
We grabbed dinner at a place called Weather Spoons on basically the only inhabited street in town. I was really surprised to see how undeveloped this area is. I think we really are coming here as it is just becoming open to foreigners. Dinner consisted of spring rolls, chicken cashew and this really good vegetable tempura. I’m not even sure what veggies were clumped together, but it was delicious and also very aesthetic.
* * *
Such a fun day today! Shelley and I rented an e-bike from our hotel for all of $7. I had originally thought e-bike would mean those electric assisted bicycles, but it was actually an electric scooter. So we scooted around Bagan all day at full throttle (about 22mph).
The area is absolutely littered with temples. I don’t know the exact number but I had heard 3000+ thrown around. You can look at the map to get a vague direction of where you want to go but ultimately something will spark interest and you’ll park the scooter and go explore.
The first temple we got to was Htilominlo Temple. Locals fill the interior wall of the grounds with crafts for sale. They get quite pesky after a while, honestly. You’re paintings are very nice but I simply don’t want to carry it around for the next six months!
We went inside which consisted of buddha statues facing in all directions and the faint remnants of paintings can be made out on the walls and ceiling.
On a locals recommendation we checked out the boxy building just outside the temple grounds. After squishing up a narrow dark staircase we arrived at the real jaw dropper. Shelley made a good point about where we are: so many tourist attractions have beautiful photos advertising them but then you arrive and find that there was this one iconic view and the rest really wasn’t all that inspiring. That is not Bagan. The photos we had seen before really did indicate what we were about to see. And this is true from anywhere in the ~20 square mile area.
We got back down and just started walking into the maze of temples. We found another building with no roof and shortly after discovered that there was a stair running through the entire narrow inside of it. I just couldn’t believe where we were. It was an endless historical playground.
A few temples later and I had discovered that the inside is rather predictable. Buddha statue, faded paintings, but not a whole lot else. Maybe some bat guano to spice things up. I think that they should put some crazy statue, like a crocodile statue or something, instead of Buddha in one of the smaller temples. And then it can be like a scavenger hunt to find it. It would make going in every temple exciting! The real punchline is definitely the view of endless temples through the wilderness. My goal eventually became just finding the best temple to climb up on and get a view of the surroundings.
Lunch was some local food, and I feel like I have to go on a bit of a tangent here. We got a platter of various dishes and I think from about 10 different things only the potatoes and pumpkin were edible. You would think a bunch of simple vegetable dishes would be delicious but I’ve definitely grown to be weary of potential unwanted flavors that pop up in my mouth…generally bitter, rotting or just straight up gross. The food has been hit or miss over my travels in Asia. Mostly it has been really good, but sometimes I just loose my appetite altogether. Personally, I don’t eat much rice and I just sort of feel unsatisfied if I subsist on only rice. I’ve been trying to avoid meat and dairy given where I am. It particularly hits home when you see a goat walking down the side of a dirty road with swollen unhealthy-looking breasts and you suddenly realize where your dairy is coming from. I am typically very open to trying new things. But after being as sick as I have been I think I unfortunately don’t have the open-minded attitude I typically would. I’m sorry, but I can’t do hardboiled eggs that taste like rotting fish. Tomato paste that smells like a poorly maintained goat farm doesn’t really spark the appetite for me. The easy way out (aside from leaving) is to order western food. It’s offered even in little old Bagan, and I imagine the reason is largely because I am not the first person to feel as I do. I have gotten a few western meals or done things like subsidize my chicken cashew with a side of french fries, (although don’t set your expectations to traditional western), but I’ll try to stick to the local diet and see how things pan out. Updates to come?
The positive note about lunch is that I experienced my first correct usage of a squat toilet! It was actually pretty nice. I’m glad I had hand sanitizer though.
Not so replenished, but whatever. Time to explore more temples!
After a while of searching for the perfect location for sunset we discovered that we had found the goldilocks temple pretty early on. You see, if the temple is too big, there is too much attention and access to the top is forbidden. I think that the earthquake that occurred last year also plays a part in this.
So we returned to our goldilocks temple to watch the sunset. I’ve seen better sunsets if we consider the sky alone, but wow, the way the sun hits the landscape and turns these temples into silhouettes it’s just spectacular!
Tomorrow we’re getting up early to watch the sunrise. Time to get to bed!
* * *
Our second day in Bagan was a great follow up. I think two days was the perfect amount to get my fill of temples. We got up early and scampered around to find a spot to watch the sunrise after realizing the original location was just a temple to view, and not a good location for sunrises.
We found a nice temple near the road just in time!
We checked out a few more temples in the area. Traffic jams with the locals (by that I mean local cows and goats) help remind you that you’re in no particular rush when you’re here.
We stopped by the local market. There are some nice clothes for sale but that’s about it. The weird thing to me is that this felt very much like a local market. I’m sure it was influenced by the presence of tourists, but the majority of people at the market were locals. What confused me is that it was almost void of food. The few places selling fruits had anything but fresh looking food. The only exception was one street was lined with fish and chicken. The meat sits out on a table without any means of cooling, already cut into pieces, and the sellers sit there fanning flies off with large leaves. I was definitely put off to eating any meat after observing this.
So we left without buying anything, hit up the archaeological museum just before closing and then went off into temple land to watch the sunset. I got a brief experience of a 360 degree view before a local warned me that I could get in a lot of trouble for climbing to the top of a temple. I have to say that it was totally worth the risk. It was spectacular!
Shelley and I met a well-traveled Austrian that I was convinced was Arnold Schwarzenagger’s brother. We had dinner together and then called it a night.
The next morning was another early one. We had to get to the river jetty at 5am to catch the boat. After watching a spectacular sunrise from the boat, the day was spent relaxing in the sun on our 12hr boat ride to Mandalay. I wouldn’t say it was the most scenic boat ride ever, but it was certainly far better than the crazy bus ride we had taken to Bagan. And it was a great way to relax for the day, disconnected from everything.
Dinner in Mandalay was an absolutely excellent meal at Mingalabar restaurant (means “Hello” in burmese). The Tomato salad in Myanmar is everything they say it is. I got a bean and potato curry that looked boring as could be but was pleasantly surprised to find out it was absolutely packed with good flavor!
We wrapped up the night at the hostel playing trivia. It felt like America trivia since it was predominantly about Christmas and Hollywood. It felt a little unfair given we had three Americans, but our team crushed it and we got some free beers!
After a hectic morning scrambling to the airport, Shelley and I made it back to Bangkok for our final night together. We went to the Terminal 21 mall which ended up being an incredibly fun experience. I think this says a lot given how much I hate malls. It was just super fun to window shop with all the cute asian stuff everywhere. No shortage of weird shirts with quotes that make no sense. We grabbed a crazy cheap dinner at the food court. Everything is about $1 there! Then wrapped up the night with Star Wars! In Thailand they always play the king song before the movie starts. And everyone has to stand for this anthem. At first it didn’t phase me, until I tried to imagine this in our own country. Just imagine having to stand during a Trump song to respect our dear leader. You could easily be thrown in jail for just screaming “FUCK THIS GUY!” while standing in a movie theater.
Shelley has made her way back to Albuquerque now. I want to say thank you so much for buying that ticket! It was so great to see you and share this adventure with you, through the good times and the bus rides! XD It was really nice having a friend from home, especially around the holidays. Safe travels! Love ya!