I had no problems getting up early for this morning’s boat trip to Bagan, since there were plenty of roosters, noisy buses, honking motorbikes, and half a dozen mosques to help me wake up well before my alarm clock went off.
As the first fingers of murky dawn light spread across the city, I was sitting at the pier next to a slow-moving Mandalay River, ready to board a boat for the day. I was packed and coffeed as were several dozen others, and we watched the small ferry manoeuvre into place. The boat company was called Shwe Keinnery and I had paid the sum of forty US dollars in clean, crisp notes for the cruise. Grim-looking elderly European tourists queued tightly like eager school children in front of the jetty’s main access gate and I wondered if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
I had expected the boat to be lightly sprinkled with package tourists, but I hadn’t expected to find only a handful of Burmese on the boat. Later, I discovered all of them were crew members and the only reason this boat connection existed was due to the needy demands of tourism.
The taxi driver who had driven me here told me he could take me to Bagan in an hour or so on the highway. I also heard the food on board was pretty lousy. All these thoughts went through my head as the gate was opened and people starting shoving their way on board to claim the best views.
My designated seat was forward on the lowest deck and there were two decks above, the first level served as a dining hall and space for extra seating with a sun deck above that. My seat was broken, as were many others on the deck, permanently stuck in the reclined position to guarantee an even more relaxed posture for the day. The characteristically broken reclining chairs seemed to be common to all forms of transport in Myanmar, including the elephants, and I wondered if this was a deliberate tactic by the Myanmar Tourism Ministry to sell more pillows.
I sat down and made myself comfortable using a make-shift pillow out of a plastic bag full of dirty laundry. There were the few usual idiots who sprinted up to the top deck and claimed the best deckchairs with their towels before returning to their assigned seats, but for the most part the passengers were all fairly mellow and took to taking numerous photos of the temples and statues we passed as we slowly cast off and left the city’s outskirts. Since I’d explored most of those highlights the day before, I stayed below and looked at everything from my starboard window. Later on, I explored the boat a bit more, peeked into the engine room and generally enjoyed the view from several spots on various decks. There was a free breakfast soon after we had passed the interesting bits of the outskirts of Mandalay – a basic meal of toast, strawberry jam, bananas, eggs and instant coffee. Not exactly a continental breakfast, but making compromises was a big part of being in Myanmar.
A few of the fellow passengers clearly had other ideas, and their complaints to the hapless crew members was an indication that this wasn’t the luxury cruise liner that they had envisaged. We were all on a shaky, old, half-broken and rather shabby old boat, but this low standard of transportation clearly wasn’t in the glossy travel brochures back home. The scenery also wasn’t in the brochures, the countryside we were passing was flat and featureless, only the occasional boat or farm building breaking up the monotony of the sandy banks of the river. This wasn’t a boat trip to see the sights of Myanmar, it was one to relax and do nothing at all. It was perfect for me.
Then the plastic bag broke, and my dirty underpants flew into my neighbour’s lap.
And so the boat floated slowly down the river, with a lot of passengers very busily pretending to be somewhere else by reading news of their home countries, and I had a chance for a little socialising. Obviously, not with the man sitting next to me. I got up and walked around a little and soon got talking to a Canadian hippie couple. Over a plate of noodles, Tom and Gene told me that they had been to Myanmar several times over the last few years and about how the place had changed in that time.
“You used to get a lot of stares as whities around here, but that’s changed now. The locals have gotten used to us.” said Tom with a tone of regret in his voice. The change in tourism in Myanmar had evidentially been a negative one for the hippies. I wondered how the locals had fared.
“Yeah, it’s slowly becoming like anywhere else in the world,” agreed Gene. The two Canadians had been to a lot of different places in South East Asia, but Myanmar still appealed to them. That didn’t surprise me, as the one thing I had noticed myself while travelling in this country had been the overwhelming friendliness of the locals. I hadn’t had a single negative personal experience since I had landed in Mandalay, only smiles and an abundance of helpfulness. Sure, there had been a few times when I’d had to say “no” repeatedly when confronted by someone trying to sell me souvenirs, but that was completely understandable and the same anywhere in the world.
The day dragged on as we chugged along the featureless, flat river landscape until the sun sank in a spectacular funnel of colour, with the first ghostly spires of the Bagan pagodas slowly looming ahead of us in the haze of the encroaching lightlessness. The boat pulled into Bagan pier well after dark and I was greeting by a squad of guys selling taxi rides and offering themselves as guides for the temples. Since there were over 3000 of them I would have to consider carefully which ones I looked at first.
I did that the next day, and the following day as well and I still hadn’t had enough. What made the whole thing even more interesting was not the vast abundance of groovy temples to slog through, but that I could connect the dots on a battery-powered moped.
And so for the next week, I roared along the dirt trails and Bagan roads on my trusty electric scooter at an awesome, thundering 20 kilometres an hour. While technically not a motorbike, it certainly sounded better to say that I was on a motorbike than a battery-powered machine that could be outrun by a lawnmower. I was a bikie and I felt like the guy from Easy Rider, a movie, incidentally, exactly the same age as my brother.
The electric motorbikes in Bagan were marketed as an eco-friendly and safe alternative to their petroleum-powered cousins, but with me at the helm, Steppenwolf was neither an emissions-free mode of transportation, nor in completely safe hands. I saw more temples, waved and honked at locals as I whizzed by, and overtook the guys clinging for dear life on the back of badly balanced horse carts, which was another very popular way to get around Bagan, but not as cool as my scooter.
What’s more, I still had my cowboy hat on.
I’m not sure how many temples I saw in Bagan. I saw one with a golden Buddha, one with several thousand of ’em, some temples with carvings, other with frescos, others with je ne sais pas. I was aware that to get the full impact, I’d either have to get a take up Buddhism or read a guidebook, but I was in the mood for neither and so I remained culturally ignorant and just enjoyed riding my scooter through the dirt.
One day, I had lunch at a restaurant called Pyi Wa, which also had its own ancient pagoda and a chance to park my bike and let both our batteries recharge for a while. Thus, with a splendid view in the noon day sun, I sat and considered the menu carefully.
Lately, it had become my habit to order the most badly-spelt items on any given restaurant menu. However, today I felt like neither an “Omelelt” or “Orange Juikce”, so I went for the most creatively translated dish titles instead.
As soon as I had ordered, the waiter barked a few orders into the kitchen, hitched up his longyi and rode off on his motorbike. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going to happen next, but miraculously, my feast consisting of “Sort of fried chicken with eggs”, “12th kinds soup” and “Potato Crecken” appeared about ten minutes later, as did the waiter bearing one or two missing ingredients which he added as he brought the food out from the kitchen.
I had also ordered a “Shakshuka”, mainly to find out what that dish actually was, but I still couldn’t identify it when it finally arrived.
I ate my food in silence and considered my surroundings. Behind the restaurant stood a small group of thatched huts, and I could see a small yard where the family that ran the restaurant lived. A few kids played in the shade, scruffy dogs sniffed at the rubbish pile and women busied themselves with laundry drying on untidy lines in the dusty air. A simple, communal area, fenced off from the rest of the empty restaurant where I was sitting at a fully decked table.
The soup came with a Chinese soup spoon which is impossible to use without making very loud slurping noises, so that was the end of the silence.
It took a while to eat the ridiculous amount of food I had ordered, but walking up and down temple steps all of the previous day had left me with a greater need to feed. Once finished, it was time to get the waiter’s attention and get the bill. The way to do that in Myanmar was to make a loud kissy noise. I had seen this a few times at a few other restaurants when burly cabbies had schmatzed the waiter’s attention, paid for their bottles of whiskey and stumbled back to their horses. I didn’t understand why grown men made sweet kissy noises to get a waiter’s attention, but that’s what they did here, so I did likewise. I also didn’t know if it was considered drunk driving if the cabbie was completely legless, but his horse was sober as a judge.
I also didn’t understand why a civilization would want to build thousands of amazing temples packed in the area of an over-sized golf course, but I was very glad they had. What did make perfect sense to me was that the best way to see a world wonder of this type was from the back of a motorbike and that made me smile. I thrust a few thousand Kyats into the waiter’s hand, waved to the kids giggling at me from behind their drying laundry and jumped onto my own trusted steed and rode off towards the setting sun.