The Cynical Traveller Goes to… Myanmar (Part 5)
Bagan is Myanmar’s version of Ankor Wat; not quite as grand, not quite as famous, and not quite as popular. It’s kind of the travel equivalent of Christina Aguleira.
The boat to Bagan however, was probably the most civilized transportation we took on our entire journey through Myanmar, which is frustrating as the damn government owns the thing.
The first thing you notice about Bagan is the heat. Despite the fact that it was the rainy season, Bagan was 40 degrees and dry when we arrived. The second thing you notice is that there are tourists there. After five days in the rest of Myanmar, we had seen a sum total of around ten tourists but on our boat there were 40 or 50 all in one hit. It kind of bursts your little bubble of exclusivity. The next thing you notice is the enormous crowd of hawkers on the docks, mostly children, drawn to the tourists like polar bears to a penguin party. The next thing you’ll notice is that the bloody government charges you 10 dollars to get off the boat.
There are more than 100 temples in Bagan; a similar number to Ankor Wat, but they are far more spaced out. A bit like some of the travellers there really. We decided to see them by bicycle rather than the favoured method of horse and cart, and after about three temples I realized we had made the right decision. The heat and tired legs were a small price to pay to avoid the mobs of hawkers that appeared from nowhere whenever you heard the sound of a cart approaching.
For some reason, my sister had firmly decided that, after a week of noodles, the one food she really craved was pasta or pizza. The Lonely Planet guide to Bagan states that “There are two types of food in Nyuang U: Pizza and non-pizza”. While we found the latter in ample supply, the former was strangely lacking. Indeed, we visited two separate restaurants with large signs out front saying “Italian Food”, only to find that they didn’t have any when we entered. Finally, in desperation, we chose a quite swish looking place closer to old Bagan in the hopes of a tourist menu. Unfortunately, the restaurant appeared strangely deserted and 5 minutes later, the owner approached us to tell us that their chef had gone off to help in the village, which has apparently caught fire. So, noodles it was.
The next day, we took on a three hour taxi ride with some Germans to a temple called the Popa Pagoda. After paying a substantial amount for the taxi, and riding with Germans, the payoff was sadly a little pathetic. Pictures of the pagoda make it look like a majestic castle perched on top a ragged crag. The reality is that it’s not much more than a few run down buildings, a bunch of monkeys, shops selling tourist junk and magic cure-all stones and a bunch of fat sweaty Europeans from a coach tour.
I was so disappointed that I composed a little song, to be sung to the tune of Copacobana:
At the Popa
There’s nothing to see, just a load a
Monkeys and hawkers
And fat Spanish gawkers
At the Popaaaaaaa
The bus for Kalaw left at 3.30 the next morning. There’s not much to say about the trip. It was ten hours long, but apparently only 180km. My seat had no padding, the seat in front of me was too close to fit my legs behind and the aisles were filled with plastic seats. The road itself was slightly less smooth than the face of a 14 year old chocoholic.
Arriving in Kalaw, we were greeted by a rather insane Australian man (apologies for the tautology) who rushed up to the bus as it stopped for fuel, 500 metres from its final destination. His name was Percy and he appeared to be his mid to late 70s. He had come to Myanmar on the advice of a Burmese friend he worked with and ended up marrying his sister (that is, the Burmese man’s sister, not his own sister [although I wouldn’t have put it past him]) and staying for 20 years in Kalaw. Starved of opportunities to speak to Westerners, Percy charged at the bus every day and accosted every tourist, hoping for conversation. He was delighted when it turned out that we were from Australia as well, and he invited us to his home for dinner.
We decided, with some trepidation, to take Percy up on his offer. We arrived at his $2500 house in time to see the start of an Australian football final. Fortunately, the weird sensation of watching an Australian sport in the middle of Myanmar wasn’t to last long, as ten minutes in, the power went out in the whole of Kalaw.
Dinner at Percy’s was a rather informal affair; at least judging from Percy’s attire anyway. In the style of over 70s everywhere, Percy had decided to dress in a pair of sky blue shorts that had been pulled up to somewhere just below his nipples. He was charmingly misogynistic, relying on his wife to do pretty much everything, from cooking and waiting, right through to changing the TV stations for him. He referred to her as “Luv” or “Darl”, using the kinds of expressions that haven’t been heard outside of the soap opera, Neighbours, for 45 years. Despite this, he was an interesting person to talk to and surprisingly knowledgeable about the workings of Myanmar society.
Percy was particularly keen for us to take a look through his photo albums, but once we discovered a photo of him and his wife in lingerie on their honeymoon, the rest of the photos were skipped through at great speed.
That night, we opted for a massage to knead away the stresses of the bus ride. Kalaw had one massage practitioner and his apprentice. He was around 70 years old and referred to himself in the third person as “Massage Master”.
He also told us about his rather turbulent life. Apparently he grew up on the border with Thailand, a particularly troublesome spot in Myanmar. He recounted a story of when soldiers came to his village. They had set fire to a large portion of the village and he was particularly worried about his sister and her son. Eventually someone found her son and rescued him from a building, but they were still unable to locate his sister. Days later they found her. She had been raped by a group of soldiers and had taken her own life.
There were tears in his eyes as he related this story and it was difficult to know how to respond. It was a poignant reminder that while we were enjoying the country, the hospitality and friendliness of the people there, it is impossible to know what they have suffered. I had never felt more like a tourist in my life.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 13th, 2007 at 6:39 am and is filed under Outside Tokyo, Overseas Trips, Trips, Way, Way Outside Tokyo. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.