The plan was pretty straightforward, but with it being our first day in Myanmar we were too naive to realize a plan in this country actually takes a little extra effort to execute. Eight of us, loading into 2 taxis, we were to go view the sunset at Shwedigon Paya in Yangon before heading to the bus station to catch the night bus to Mandalay. Easy enough we thought.
As tends to happen in the chaos that is Yangon rush hour traffic our taxis lost each other, the 2 groups of us were dropped off on opposite sides of Shwedigon Paya, just as the sun went down. With no means of contacting the other group, no nearby wifi available to sit down and steal for a moment as would be the case in a place like Thailand, and rather than walk the giant perimeter with our giant packs on our backs we decide, quite sensibly that we’ll hop in another cab and head to the bus station which was still another hour away. Surely this is the same conclusion the other group would come to under these circumstances. Head to the bus station, meet up there, grab some food and wait for our bus to depart.
This decision was made with a certain idea in our minds of what a bus station should be. A fairly well traveled group, we’ve seen bus stations all over the world. One thing all major bus stations in cities this size have in common is some sort of terminal, some main central point, this is where in our minds we would meet up, surely even in a large terminal a group of 4 tourists would be able to spot another group of 4 tourists.
This was not that kind of bus station. In fact I wouldn’t call this a station at all. After turning off the main road which was littered with buses and taxis on both sides we entered what could only be described as ‘Bus City’ where we quickly realized this was not going to be as easy as we thought. This was a series of dimly lit dirt roads with buses absolutely everywhere, the scene outside the window of our taxi was absolute chaos, people, taxis, buses, all moving frantically. We still held out hope of a main terminal we could be dropped at until our driver asked us what company we were booked with. Good question. Fortunately I was in the same taxi as Tim, who had all 8 of our tickets, Tim always has the important things, keep him close when traveling. He shows the tickets to our driver, JJ Express is the company, he takes us deeper into Bus City to where our bus will be. All we can think about is how in the hell will the other 4 have any idea what company we’re booked through, how will they ever find us?
Worst case scenarios start running through our heads. They won’t find us, they’ll have to book another bus. And what if there’s no decent wifi in Mandalay and we can’t reconnect!? Our group of 8 has now become 2 separate groups of 4, we can’t get split up on day 1 of our Myanmar trip!
So we did the one thing that if you saw it in a movie you’d scream at the TV “No you idiots! Bad idea”, we split up, 2 groups of 2, better chance of finding them, and at least we all kind of know how to get to our bus. We wait at the “main” entrance in hopes of seeing them come in in a taxi. I only say it’s the main entrance because it’s the first one we entered, in reality it was no different than the other countless entrances and exits.
Taxi after taxi turned in, with each one we perk up and try to peer in through the dark. Of course this leads to the driver stopping, rolling down his window and asking “you need taxi?” The way we stared down every single taxi we must have looked like we were desperate for a taxi, sitting anxiously by the entrance/exit, giant backpacks next to us, so when we’d decline some would respond with a very confused “you sure?”.
Trying to lighten the stressful mood we try to come up with a best case scenario as we have already come up with and rehashed repeatedly what the worst case scenario would be. The taxi driver asks them what company, they’re absolutely clueless. But maybe this particular driver speaks some pretty good English, at least enough for them to explain that their friend in a different taxi has their ticket. This driver might also be quite helpful, as most people we had come across in Yangon had been, he might offer his phone for them to use. Maybe they’d have the hostels phone number somewhere and think to call the hostel that we booked through and see if they had record of it and they could get the company name that way. Yes, that’s what would happen, and we’d all be reunited just in time to board our bus. Positive thoughts.
About 20 minutes before we were required to be at our bus we decide to head back to our bus to see if they did in fact manage to find it. We would all head down different roads and make our way back, hoping one of us would find them somewhere in this mess.
Walking down the alley where we were to board I near our bus and as I do I start seeing dark, yet familiar figures. Could that be them? As I get closer, yes! It is them! Waiting at our bus, now nervously looking around for the 4 of us. The first 4 of us slowly show up one by one, each with a huge sigh of relief from all the others. Turns out our best case scenario turned out to be the reality. All 8 of us, at the bus, with enough spare time to sit down next door within plain view of the bus and enjoy a beer to calm the nerves. We are going to sleep like babies on this ride.
Putting my time in Myanmar into any sort of narrative has proven to be quite difficult. It’s been over a month since I left the country and I have now put 2 entire counties between me and it. Myanmar was unlike any place I’ve ever seen before, the people unlike any people I’ve come across, and the food, from the traditionally Burmese curries to the heavily Indian and Chinese influenced dishes, absolutely incredible! The unique experiences came at us rapidly, not leaving a whole lot of time for reflection or to allow it to sink in. It was 3 weeks of sensory overload. As I’ve told all my fellow travelers who have inquired about my time there, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
So here is my attempt to put some of those experiences into words. Warning: rambling thoughts to come…
Starting in the chaotic streets of Yangon, colorful sidewalk markets on both sides of the street, spread out block after block after block, spilling into traffic lanes. The smells of fresh fruits, grilled seafood and meats, and incense. Random passerbys walking up simply to engage in some basic english conversation, “Hello! How are you!”, “I am fine, my name is John. Where are you from?”, “Ah, America!? Obama!”, “Have a good day. Bye bye!”. The yelling and honking of the packed streets, as all traffic laws appear to be ignored yet somehow this works. This place is loud, it’s dirty, it’s dusty, it’s humid and it’s beautiful. Sweat dripping down your forehead as you wind through these markets in the scorching heat, winding from the sidewalk to the street, into traffic and back to the sidewalk before coming across a tiny stand with a few small plastic chairs. You sit down and enjoy a cup of yogurt and tamarind juice over ice. It feels like a cool wave splashing over you. The stand with the hotpot full of pig parts behind you ceases to exist. The guava stand to your right is now a hundred miles away. The traffic just 10 feet away goes silent. at this moment this is the most refreshing creation ever put on this earth.
After a morning spent strolling along the banks of the grand palace we decide to go grab lunch before checking out a few of the other major attractions in Mandalay. We decide to turn off down a random road to try to find some cheap local food. This takes us down a road that quickly turns into a dirt road, receiving looks as we pass by that seem to read “they must be lost”. We pass a a school where at the sight of us the children all run to the windows screaming “hello!” We finally settle on a small roadside restaurant to enjoy our lunch. Choosing a restaurant was the easy part, choosing a meal would prove a bit more difficult. Our goal was to be delivered a variety of dishes to share, what dishes really didn’t matter, which we thought would make this process quite simple. Bit the menu being entirely in Burmese and the lack of any understanding of English by the staff combined with the fact that our phrase book apparently was lacking in accuracy made for quite a frustrating back and forth for both sides, which judging by the laughs of the other patrons must have been quite entertaining to watch.
Eventually our waiter disappears for a few moments, he returns with what appears to be a menu from some other restaurant, this one with english translations. Somehow once we have this menu we are finally able to communicate that we would like to be surprised with a number of different dishes. We watch as dish after dish is delivered to our table, the waiter enthusiastically pointing to the item on the menu as its delivered. The entire staff is now surrounding our table, ensuring our beers stay full and serving more rice when needed. We must have been served at least 6 dishes, all but one of them being widely approved by our group.
To think, just an hour prior we were wondering how we would ever get food to come to our table and now we’ve just eaten the best meal so far in this country and we’re laughing and joking with the staff, at least the best we can considering the langauge barrier.
Over the course of lunch we decided on our next destination, we will take the train from Mandalay up to Hsipaw in the north. A journey we’ve heard is as beautiful as it is bumpy, and none of us are quite sure how a train can be bumpy. We set off to find the train station to buy tickets. Based on the map we had we thought there should be a station nearby, but evidently our map was either outdated or just plain wrong. In yet another example of the incredible hospitality shown to us by the people in Myanmar a woman noticed we had walked past her shop a few times while looking for this station, she came out to ask where we were going. She informed us the station was actually quite far but then invited us all into her home behind her noodle shop for drinks, water and orange soda, both a perfect treat on a sweltering day like that. Her daughter practices her English with a few of us as we drink down our orange sodas. As we prepare to leave after learning of our further than expected trip to the train station we’re told by the daughter, “oh no don’t worry, my dad will take you all on his truck”. Once again a stranger is going out of their way to help us out, beginning to see a trend in this country.
We board the train to Hsipaw at 4am for what will be a bumpy 12 hour journey through the countryside. Shortly after departing the station the train has already come to a stop. With all of us still half asleep we start hearing what sounds like goats. Definitely goats. Quite a few of them. No, a whole lot of them! It’s still dark out so we can’t see much but we here the terrifying human-like screams of about 50 goats, as they are rounded up and one by one loaded into the car directly behind ours. We were half asleep when we stopped, but half an our later when the train got going again we were as awake as you can get, listening to 50 goats scream bloody murder will do that to you, those sounds can haunt your dreams.
Shortly after the bumpiness we had heard about starts, I don’t know how the train remains on the track at all. It was so bumpy that a 40 pound backpack flew off the luggage rack and crashed onto the head of the person beneath. We all scrambled to strap our bags onto the luggage rack to avoid any further flying bags crashing onto people.
Eventually we start to see the sun come up over the mountains, illuminating the small villages we’ve been passing and the endless rice paddies and farms. After spending our first few days in Myanmar’s 2 biggest cities getting to see the countryside is breathtaking. Children are running from their houses to wave at the train as it goes by. The 12 hour journey was the perfect introduction to the rest of Myanmar.
It was the morning after thanksgiving and for me it was slightly similar to the day after Thanksgiving for many people back home. Waking up long before the sun comes up, putting on warm clothes and heading out to beat the crowds. Only I wasn’t heading to Best Buy to get in line to buy a half priced TV. We head out from our hotel around 4:30 am, walk down the street to the ebike rental. (ebikes are electronic bicycles, they have pedals but you don’t use them. It sounds really lazy, and it is, but they are wonderful, especially in a place like Bagan. No one wants to be pedaling a bicycle once it gets to 95-100 degrees) We all get our bikes and start riding towards Shwesandaw Pagoda. After a chilly 25 minute ride we arrive, park the bikes and ascend the giant, incredibly steep staircase and scope out our perfect vantage point. And then we wait.
After a while the horizon starts to glow, outlining some of the larger pagodas in the distance. Everyone sitting upon the pagoda is silent. Watching as slowly you start to see a glimmer of the sun itself, more of endless expanse of pagodas gets illuminated before eventually the sun is sitting above the tallest one in the distance. Then the finale. One by one hot air balloons appear, rising high into the sky and then traveling across the horizon, over pagodas and through the sunrise. Nearly 20 in all. One of the most mesmerizing, beautiful sights any of us have seen, and a better reason than most to wake up at 4am.
Our last stop for the final 3 of us in our group was Dawei, a city on the coast in the southeast portion of Myanmar. One of the more recently opened regions for travel, international tourists were only allowed in this portion of the country beginning August of 2013. From Hpa-An it was to be a 2 or 3 hour bus to Mawlamyine and then about 9 or 10 hours on a bus to Dawei. Our first bus was of the $1 variety, meaning when you get on theres a good chance there’s going to be a sack of vegetables in your seat, or containers of fresh fish. Our seats were moved at various times as the driver tried to best to fit all the cargo and passengers in the bus. This part of Myanmar also has significantly more police checkpoints than the rest of the country. We go through many with no issue before about half an hour outside Mawlamyine we seem to be stopped for longer than usual. The 3 of us are the only non-Burmese people on the bus, so although we are sitting in the front right next to the driver we can’t understand a word that’s being exchanged. After about 10 minutes it’s communicated that everyone needs to get off the bus. Everyone and all luggage, all except the styrofoam containers that we were guessing were full of fish.
Asking what was going on was of no use as no one seemed to speak more than a handful of words in English. Eventually 2 officers board the bus again, and off it goes, our bus and our driver to who knows where as we sit on the side of the road with our bags wondering where the hell we are and if we will ever make our connection. Eventually someone was able to communicate quite simply “taxi come”. Perfect. When? Who knows. After a little bit of waiting a taxi does come to pick up many of us on the side of the road. We get to the bus station with enough to time make our connection and get on the bus for Dawei.
Around 6am after a 12 hour ride we arrive in Dawei where our patience is about to be rewarded. It being my last full day in Myanmar we decide to fight through the exhaustion that usually accompanies the day after a night bus. We get to our guesthouse in a small village outside of Dawei and rent our motorbikes. We’re given a map of the various beaches around the area and set off. Our ride takes us through numerous small villages, and it still being a novelty having tourists come though children are sprinting into the street screaming “Mingalaba!” which is hello in Burmese. This also creates a fun moving obstacle course as we try to respond so as not to be rude, but also to avoid hitting them as they run in front of our bikes.
After an hour of riding we find the beach, a long curving stretch of sand, with clear blue water, and not a person in sight. Paradise. On the other side of the peninsula we find yet another empty beach, this one smaller but with some shade. There’s about 10 colorful fishing boats out in the water, a small restaurant on the pier and nothing else. We decide on some lunch at the restaurant where we are brought into the kitchen and shown what fresh seafood was just caught that day. We decide on prawns and squid. Both are delivered to our table in delicious stir-frys. We eat within sight of the exact boats that caught our lunch just earlier that day. After lunch it’s naps on our own beach, swimming in the crystal clear water when it gets too hot. Just before sunset we make our way back to our guest house where we arrive just in time to see the end of the sunset at the local beach.
By the time we’re ready for dinner it’s dark and we head down to the beach which is lined with small restaurants. You walk down a poorly lit dirt road, on your right are the restaurants, on your left is the beachside seating for the restaurants and then then the beach itself. Aside from 1 or 2 tables of locals the entire stretch is totally empty. We place our order and find a table on the beach. It’s easy to see how this place could change drastically over the next few years as more and more people start finding out about this wonderful place. But for now it’s absolutely peaceful. It’s too dark to see the waves but we can hear them crashing behind us. Aside from the waves and our conversation it is absolutely silent.
After 3 amazing but exhausting weeks of bouncing around this country, amazing experience followed by amazing experience this was the perfect way to end the journey. Not a care in the world, empty beaches, and the freshest, most amazing seafood. By the following evening I would be back in Bangkok, paved roads, western fast food chains and 7/11s, but for now it’s crab curry and the ocean.