by Marc Esanuelas
After our inauspicious arrival in Yangon, we booked seats on a bus to Bagan, home of a sprawling temple complex that many consider a rival to the more heavily touristed Angkor in Cambodia.
Our hostel was staffed entirely by rude teenage girls. In Burma, they use American dollars but will only accept them if they are absolutely flawless. This means they have to look as if they were printed moments ago with no blemishes, folds or (god forbid) a tear. Take a look in your wallet right now and I bet all of your bills meet that description. The hostel girls held each of our bills to the light to inspect it and declined a few for being too dirty, each time clucking gently with scorn. Although irritating, this wouldn’t have been a big deal except that in a country without ATMs, turning down a $20 bill meant one less day of things we could do.
Despite their rancor, I asked them for a hotel recommendation for Bagan. As they told me about a place they knew of, a man in my peripheral vision shook his head slightly with disapproval. Although I hadn’t formally been introduced, I knew that this man was the hostel’s resident guru. Numerous testimonies lining the walls of the hostel attested to his greatness. If you needed to know anything about Burma, this was the man to see. He was motioning for me to join him outside but I pretended I didn’t understand the gesture. The cloak and dagger routine made me nervous.
A few minutes later, he slipped a note under my hand. It read, “Don’t go there, bad place”. Intrigued, I went outside, dodging the ubiquitous red splotches of betel nut juice that stain every sidewalk in Burma. He reiterated that the place they suggested was bad though gave no specifics as to why and handed me a brochure of a place he knew in Bagan. So convenient that he happened to have several copies of their brochure! Because I’ve never been lied to by a brochure!
The bus ride began in the late afternoon and was due to arrive sometime in Bagan before dawn. Unbeknownst to me, Kat was sick the entire time on the bus. She spent most of the bus ride with her face in a plastic bag as I rocked out to my iPod, a mere foot away from a horrified but sympathetic Burmese mother and child.
The bus stopped at a roadside “restaurant” lit with a fluorescent strip light and covered in green tarp. I went to the restrooms, which were concrete block stalls with a hole in the dirt and a bucket of water nearby. There are moments when you’re thankful you’re a boy. I came out and Kat looked at me wearily.
She asked, “How bad is it?”
“Don’t do this to yourself,” I said.
“I have to,” she replied as she choked back tears.
I waited and she emerged a few minutes later with her arm across her chin as if she’d seen something frightful and through little sobs said, “I wanna go back to Bangkok.”
We tucked into a modest feast. I couldn’t tell you what we ate. Literally. It might’ve been beef or dog or that Spaniard that seemed to have disappeared sometime after we stopped. Kat nibbled frugally in a daze and counted the mosquitoes that buzzed by her head.
We were back on the bus for about an hour when suddenly it jerked to the side of the highway. It seemed too early for another stop and besides the lights of other cars and trucks we were in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, there was a military man with a giant gun on his shoulder at the head of the bus yelling, “Westerners out!”
Kat and I walked slowly to the front holding our passports as instructed. We were the only Westerners on the bus save a middle-aged Frenchman who shuffled along behind us. We got off the bus and were pointed towards a booth across the highway. We dashed across avoiding the trucks. No fewer than half a dozen soldiers with giant guns stood around another guy who was seated in front of a binder. We handed him our passports which he dutifully began recording into his binder. Kat and I exchanged nervous glances while also trying to look unfazed. As if we were used to being tracked by military dictatorships whilst on vacation.
We arrived in Bagan hours before dawn and were met by a driver and taken to our hotel, which would not have looked out of place in Sedona, Arizona.
We tried to take a shower but the water was off. A few minutes later, the power went out. Luckily, the sun was rising.
The outages came frequently with no discernible pattern. When the water did run, it was intermittent with long strands of algae periodically oozing out of the showerhead. Occasionally, the power would snap back on and we’d make a mad dash to plug in our electronics to get power while we could.
Although we never saw them, we could hear rats scurry around the outside of our room, on the roof, and seemingly in the walls. At one point, it sounded like they were in the bathroom running around and crashing into the (thankfully) closed door. Kat claimed it didn’t bother her but would bolt upright at the slightest sound. She put on all of her clothes and zipped up her sleeping bag in the hopes that if they gnawed at her in her sleep she’d have enough insulation to slow them down until she made her escape. I glared at her in my t-shirt, shorts, and threadbare sheet provided by the hotel.
As comically bad as our hotel was, we were there to see the temples. I’m not going to directly compare Bagan to Angkor because they are completely different experiences. I will admit that the artistry of Angkor is unrivaled but unfortunately, the complex often gets as busy as Disneyland so you’re lucky if you get a quiet moment. In contrast, Bagan was nearly empty. The only time we saw a crowd was at the end of our day when people collected at the largest temple to watch the sun set.
On our second day at the temples, we were lucky enough to catch Dhamma Ya Zi Pagoda at the golden hour. The brick temple is highlighted with gold and covered in wind chimes. I walked the perimeter several times, watching it glint in the sun and listening to its breezy melody. It was magic. It was also an experience that would’ve been virtually impossible to have at Angkor.
In Part 3, Kat and I make the acquaintance of a lovely older couple from Yorkshire, who convince us to accompany them to Mount Popa where we discover that in fact monkeys are evil, vicious creatures.