Next to traveler's diarrhea and your Hostel fears coming true, what's one of a traveler's worst nightmares?
Well, we had an experience of that on our way to Bagan.
Granted, we really should've double-checked online the distance between our homestay in Yangon and Aung Mingalar station instead of taking our host Aldrich's word that the bus station was only ten minutes away. (Note to self: Google is your friend...well, sometimes.)
We left the homestay at 7 in the evening, thinking there was ample time to arrive and freshen up before our 8-hour trip from Yangon to Bagan. The taxi driver's English was horrible and he had a hard time communicating with us, but we managed to let him know our destination.
Thirty minutes later, we were still stuck in traffic, already panicking. We were still obviously far from reaching the bus stop. Katrina and I peppered the driver questions of how many minutes more would it take for us to reach Aung Mingalar, in various permutations. Fumbling with his scant English, he assured us that we were only "fifteen seconds" away, which we took to mean fifteen minutes (because seriously, has anyone really mastered the power of teleportation?)
We arrived at the bus stop twenty minutes late. The bus had already left and we were panicking. I surveyed the waiting area where some locals had begun to make themselves feel at home, playing cards (or was it board games? can't remember exactly) and drinking. I said to myself that we either look for a nearby hotel or we head back to our homestay because waiting for the next bus ride was definitely not an option. Not under those conditions. (As much as I would like to fantasize that I am a rugged outdoorsman set to conquer the wilderness, I am really a traveler with a valid fear of hepatitis and amoebic dysentery who has a list of creature comforts I'd like to maintain, given the chance and the choice.)
Fortunately, the ladies at the station counter were kind enough to swoop in to our rescue, calling the bus driver and asking him to wait for us somewhere along the road. We grabbed the next taxi we could find, paying around 8,000 kyats (maybe less, my memory is a blur) to take us where our ride to Bagan was waiting, full of impatient travelers wondering why they were stopping in the middle of the road. We got to ride the JJ Express (yes!) and it was a fairly smooth ride from there.
(I highly recommend JJ Express: the bus we got was new and the attendant gave blankets to keep passengers comfortable throughout the trip.)
I woke at around 6 in the morning: the bus had just arrived in Bagan. There were taxi drivers waiting for travelers there, quoting exorbitant fares to take us to our hotel. Of course you could always take a horse carriage, but I thought it was horrible to ride a horse, so we instead put our awesome powers of negotiation to use. From 15,000 kyats, we managed to lower the price to 10,000. Mia, a French tourist who was on the same trip with us (I got to know her when the bus stopped for a bathroom break and she was trying to look for the toilet), joined our ride, much to the annoyance of other taxi drivers who thought they would get to swindle money from an unsuspecting Caucasian. (Ha -- budget Asian travelers, represent!)
Getting to our hotel room in Razagyo Hotel was like finding the light at the end of a long, dark, damp tunnel that's not from the headlight of a speeding train. Suddenly I began to understand what Lewis Caroll was thinking when he thought of the word "frabjous". Sure the internet was sucky and slower than constipation, but -- a real room! With a clean toilet! And a soft bed! That was more than enough to make up for our horrible experience.
First order of business was finding a place to exchange our money. We skipped showering and immediately headed out, sweating and lost, asking for directions to the nearest money exchange place near our hotel. There were two Burmese kids who saw us walking and tried to sell us their hand-drawn postcards (which are just crayon drawings on a piece of paper) for 1,000 kyats. Humoring them, I took their photo and then said they owed me money as well. They laughingly protested. I ended up giving them five pesos and twenty-five centavos. No use to them, but I thought they might find it cool to have another country's currency. (They were probably pissed but I couldn't understand them, so...)
After reading reviews that taking a bike was the best way to go temple-hopping, I rented an electric bike so Katrina and I could check out some of the temples around the area. This turned out to be a terrible idea. Or probably good, depending on your perspective. I had to pedal for kilometers with her riding behind me, frustrated that the electric bit of our electric bike wasn't working as properly as I expected it to be. I was soaked in sweat by the time we arrived at Ananda Temple. (Then again: cardio time. My personal trainer would be proud.)
Katrina was less than impressed with the temples in Bagan ("You've seen one, you've seen them all" was how she put it.) I guess after seeing the more intricate ones (Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was definitely not made for minimalists), it makes you wonder if Bagan was more of a quantity-over-quality kind of thing. If I remember correctly, there are thousands of temples scattered around town -- from the small roadside structures to the big ones such as the Dhammayangyi (the biggest, which we unfortunately did not get to see.) The sheer number will either overwhelm you or cause temple fatigue. Those who have less time to spare should skip the small ones and make sure to check out the four most popular ones: Ananda, Dhammayangyi, Thatbyinu (the tallest), and Shwezigon. I'd recommend Mahabodhi as well, if only because there's an extra perk of meeting the charming lady who sells longyi and traditional Burmese clothes (made in Bangladesh I assume, haha I kid!) outside the temple. She managed to lure us in to her shop with the promise of thanaka on our faces, and ended up getting us buying her wares.
For our first lunch in town, we found this LGBT-friendly restaurant named Nooch, which you can easily spot because of the rainbow flag painted outside the entrance. Katrina ordered the tea salad which was spicy and very filling. Meanwhile, we had our first dinner in The Moon Cafe, one of the more popular vegetarian restaurants in town (there were only two anyway as far as I knew, and Yar Pyi, which was just across The Moon, had less choices. So it wasn't too difficult a decision to make.) I happily wolfed the glass noodle salad and the fried tofu dish I ordered like a ravenous vegetarian deprived of proper vegetarian-friendly food. Katrina was equally delighted with her choices, but her eyes gleamed like a little girl's on Christmas Day (or Halloween, being the goth that she is) when they served the free tamarind candies at the end of our meal. If I remember correctly, the waiter said it was supposed to be a palate cleanser, but I'm not a food connoisseur. The candy was delicious though.
The next day, we decided to skip the whole biking thing and rented a car instead to tour us around the area. It cost us somewhere around 20,000 kyats to travel around Old Bagan. Our driver suggested we go to Mount Popa the next day, which turned out to be a bad idea since it was raining really hard. Mount Popa wasn't as nice as the other temples in Old Bagan, and the floor was extremely slippery, more so since you weren't allowed to wear shoes or slippers when entering temples. (Katrina felt dizzy midway our climb and had an accident during our descent.) I would suggest to skip it -- if you're after seeing monkeys chasing tourists, I'd recommend visiting the Uluwatu Temple in Bali, Indonesia instead. The views are also much nicer there.
Despite our mishaps and frustations, we left Bagan with a heavy heart. if I haven't convinced you enough, let me say it clearly: this place is a must-see in Myanmar. You will hate the slow internet connection and the fact that establishments close at 10 p.m., but Bagan is a microcosm of Myanmar's rich cultural history. Call it romanticism, but I think it was a very welcome break from the hustle and bustle of city life. I really wish though that their government will strengthen its efforts in protecting this heritage site. But then again, it seems heritage preservation is one of the things first to fly out the window when your country is stricken with extreme poverty.
P.S. While Googling for info on Myanmar, I encountered this website which might come in handy for all tourists. I wish I saw it earlier.
HELLO, MY NAME IS EVAN TAN.
I'm a writer and communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. Outside of my regular job, I like to travel, work out, volunteer, watch movies and plays, go to art galleries/ fairs and museums, read books, and eat vegetarian food.
More about me here.