It’s been a bumpy ride to say the least, not just because of the road conditions, which made the five-hour ride feel like a detour down a rocky backroad. That’s how long it takes on a bus from Mandalay to Bagan.
When we arrived by plane to Myanmar we quickly realized we weren’t fully prepared for this brief expedition to Old Bagan, the land of over 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries.
Mandalay International Airport doesn’t offer wifi, which squashed our laughable plan of getting a Grab or Uber like we’ve done during our other SE Asia trips. It’s now embarrassing to admit we thought we could simply catch an Uber, because even finding a taxi was a difficult, expensive headache.
We eventually bought two tickets for an hour long van ride to the Mandalay bus station. From there, we were told, we could catch another bus towards Bagan. Imagine a gravel and dirt lot lined with open shacks, no signs, and a bunch of locals eating, talking, and spitting betel on the ground. One of those shacks was the bus station, although there was nothing to distinguish it from the others.
We were the only tourists in sight, and all eyes were on us. “How do we even buy a water?” I thought. Somehow we managed to find the “bus station.” There were no signs or price lists, so it was one of those situations where you just have to trust a stranger’s word. Once again we approached a language barrier, but found our way over it and onto a bus after paying 18000 kyats.
Looking out the window was like watching an unfamiliar film as I observed settings that were so different than the world I know. Locals squatted under trees that seemed to be the only source of shade for miles. Fisherman stood chest deep in rivers with their bamboo rods. No tall buildings or intersecting paved roads. No traffic lights or shopping malls. No billboards or 7 Elevens or stores. Just thatch-roofed huts selling golden mangos that overflowed from weaved baskets.
Instead of pants, men wore longyis, which are the traditional sheets of cloth worn around the waist by Burmese men and women. Instead of makeup created in factories, women wore a cosmetic paste called thanaka, which they make by grinding matured Thanaka trees and mixing the grounds with water. It is antifungal, has a sandalwood scent, and is used for cosmetic beauty and sun protection. Thanaka paste has been used by Burmese women for over 2,000 years and is a distinguishing element of Myanmar culture.
Scenes that seemed fictional reeled in reality. Women carried on top of their heads an assortment of snacks I’ve never tasted. They looked so poised and graceful with their heads held high and shoulders pressed down and back. One lady turned, looked from left to right, and ran across the road, all without dropping the items precariously propped on her head. Her sense of balance alluded me.
It was a humbling sight as other women walked across sunny fields with bundles of bamboo bent over their shoulders. The women were so small yet so strong, and I admired their strength.
A pair of young men squatted in the dirt weaving palm leaves and sticks into roofs and fences. “We could learn so much from these people,” I thought.
I realized this would be a new experience for Eric and me. No one on the bus could speak English, nor could the bus station employees. So, not only were we unsure of our arrival time, but where exactly the bus would drop us was also a mystery.
“Are they taking us to our hotel or to another bus station?” I asked Eric.
“I don’t know, probably another station,” he responded.
* * *
Five hours later we arrived at another bus station. We made it to Bagan! Some locals greeted us and then led us to a truck taxi called a lain ka. Riding in the back, we looked out into darkness for twenty minutes before reaching a town with streetlights, restaurants, and hotel signs. It was crazy to see how dressed-up the tourist areas were, especially compared to the small towns we passed on the bus.
It was now late, and we still had to check in and organize our scooter rental for the morning. As soon as we put our backpacks down, we laid on the bed with our legs up the wall. Inverting after long days has become a ritual. We could literally feel the synthesized energy in our feet and ankles trickle down our legs.
Even though our hotel had five stars in cleanliness, a mildewy smell came from the bathroom, and the tiles were moldy. Inside the room, mosquitoes were drawn to me like jing-joks to night light. I already couldn’t wait to get back to our comfortable, convenient condo in Bangkok.
During our travels, we’ve stayed in some rough rooms, including a thatched hut in Cambodia. I hoped that traveling would help me overcome some of my OCD tendencies. But I still feel that distracting discomfort when I’m in a place that doesn’t feel clean. I was already getting bitten by mosquitos just sitting on the bed.. I just felt uncomfortable.
I started thinking about the Burmese houses without plumbing that I saw from the bus. I felt grateful for the showers I take at home and decided to take this shower with the simple intention to wash my body. The shower didn’t need to be clean or comfortable.. It just needed to have soap and water.
We hadn’t eaten a “square meal,” as Eric would call it, all day. We took the map given by the hotel front desk and walked the dark roads to a late dinner at 7 Sisters, a nearby restaurant run by seven local sisters.
By the end of the long, expensive day that we thought would be short, cheap, and easy, I just wanted to lay my head on Eric’s familiar chest.
I guess we didn’t really prepare ourselves for this trip, which was supposed to be a painless ‘visa run.’ At first, visa runs were fun. They were an excuse and opportunity to explore SE Asia. We researched and put a lot of thought and planning into the trips. Now several trips later, the intoxication of the nomadic life has faded into a need for balance and stability.
Though we wanted to stay in Thailand, we had to hop across the border. So we planned a last minute trip to Thailand’s neighbor, Myanmar. We thought it would be the most inexpensive and quickest option. Mandalay was the cheapest flight promotion through Air Asia, and we both wanted to see the archaeological zone in Old Bagan. So we booked it.
And even though it was a stressful day.. we made it. Traveling and living in Asia has helped us learn how to adapt and make it through unknown, uncomfortable situations. A sense of accomplishment arises when we have to adapt and improvise without things we usually depend on like wifi, google maps, and spoken communication. We made it here without any of those things.
Monarch butterflies on their great migration don’t carry maps or follow signs, but somehow they arrive at their destination. They don’t teach their offspring the route, yet somehow they too can follow the same path. We need to get back to the nature within us.
Tomorrow we will wake up at 4:45 to see the sun rise over Bagan. It will all be worth it.