Day 70: Bad beginning to backpacking Bagan
Thunder showers sweep across the thousands of Pagoda in Bagan. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IT'S everything I hate about backpacking in a third-world country. Hostel, jostling for position, a dozen dark, greedy faces crowd the open doors of the tour bus as Michelle and I disembark in the fabled Bagan in the early hours of the morning.
A slick, young punk in a longi and a jean jacket has separated us from the pack and claimed us as his prey, demanding 15 dollars for a taxi to Ostello Bello. 15 dollars for a 15 minute taxi ride, as Michelle points out on her map.This is the kind of little shit that eventually overruns and ruins a tourist destination.
Without my motorcycle, I am completely helpless. We can walk away from the crowd of taxis, but we don't know the lay of the land and, to be far, we don't know what we should be paying for a taxi. However, 15 dollars sounds exorbitant.
“I know here too, it's only 15 minutes away,” Michelle says, in our fight not to get ripped off. I say “our”, but the reality is that I hate this sort of bargaining, especially when dealing with someone I despise. So, instead, I'm uselessly hanging in the background.
Michelle nearly gets a different taxi driver to take us for eight dollars, but the little punk who has claimed us yells something at the man, a clear threat. He's oblivious to the fact that it doesn't take a master poker player to read his aggressive body language toward the other driver. At this point, I'd walk to the hostel rather than give a single Kyat to him.
Eventually, Michelle is able to shut him and his lying cohort down, finding a different taxi for ten dollars. Ten dollars is also too much, but feels less like an attempted robbery.
“Ten is fine,” I agree, glad to not have to pay into the little punk's scheme.
On the way out of the station the driver stops by a small concrete office, the florescent lights shining white in the early morning dark.
“You have to pay 25,000 Kyat,” the driver says.
It smells like a scam.
I've covered taxi scams in Phuket, a tourist destination infamous for its aggressive and manipulative taxi mafia. I've written up stories about taxis refusing to take people to the right hotel, over charging, making sexual passes on clients... the list just goes on.
“I don't think so,” I say.
“Yes, it's for the Archaeological Zone,” he says.
A man comes out of the building to explain it all to us, his figure just a dark blur in the general darkness. I'm not sure why they think that having someone else, who has no credibility at all, tell us the same things is going to make a lick of difference. However, the signs on the building explaining the fee do look legitimate. I attempt to check my phone, but my data package has just run out.
“What if we don't want to go to the Archaeological Zone? We just want to go to out hotel,” Michelle asks.
The men stubbornly hold their stance. The one outside attempts to open my door, which I secure closed with a hand.
“Okay, here, Lonely Planet says it's 15 dollars,” I say. That's a huge step in the right direction, at least it isn't a complete scam – assuming the tickets they give us, which are supposed to be valid for a week, are legit.
“When was the book published,” Michelle asks, ready to just pay and get to our hostel.
We pay cash and receive our little tickets, freshly stamped red with today's date.
“Maybe the prices were raised recently, when the new government took power,” Michelle says.
“I doubt the price of ticket is very high up on their priority list.”
“What? Raising revenue through tourism to increase their gross national product to pay for social services and developments,” Michelle says, her tone sharpening.
“I'm not going to argue with you about this,” I say, matching the edge in her voice. Neither of us slept well on the bus.
This isn't the best introduction to Bagan. In fact, I've already decided that I don't like Bagan. On top of that, I'm not about to build an argument reviewing Myanmar's major exports – rice, peanuts, rubber and gems (jade alone is has an estimated yearly value of 31bn dollars alone) – in an attempt to explain why the tourism ticket price increase is probably not at the top of Aung San Suu Kyi's to-do list as she attempts to end decades of civil war, human rights abuses and endemic corruption, while still balancing her newly gained control with the Army, which maintains a powerful force in the civilian government.
“I'm not saying it's a top priority...” Michelle says.
We sit in silence as the car makes the ten minute journey to Ostello Bello.
The young black woman behind the counter of the beautifully laid out hostel greets us with a chipper smile as we arrive. It's amazing how a smile can change the world.
We can't get our rooms yet – it's 5am. However, there are beds and showers in the common area on the roof, coffee and tea downstairs, breakfast starts at 6am and there is a free all-day tour starting at 9am.
With our bags locked up in the luggage room, Michelle opens her laptop to work on her references for a paper she's been obsessing over since I met here (and clearly for weeks before then). I crawl onto one of the soft, high beds in the common area on the roof.
“Either way, wake me up before the tour and I'll decided,” I tell Michelle.
I wake up from a beautiful, dead sleep and roll the die, making the tour a 66 percent favorite.
It's a four – I'm going on the tour. Ten minutes before it takes off, I roll out of bed, grab a quick cup of brewed coffee downstairs. I'm ready to go. In total, there are a dozen of us, all renting electronic scooters for the tour. Our guide is a young, bright faced Burmese man with a shinning complexion who is dressed in a longi, a white, Indian-collar dress shirt and a straw hat.
Our electric moped gang gathers around our guide. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I offer to give Michelle a ride, since she's a bit wobbly on the moped, which does have a sharp throttle, but maxes out at about 40km/h. However, she's determined to get a hang of it and declines.
Our little scooter gang buzzes off, out of New Began – established in 1990 – and into the forest of ancient brick pagoda that surrounds us.
The silent scooters plow past a horse and cart, their shoed hooves clattering on the cement as a thanaka faced woman steers the animal.
Little, elegant pagoda crop up in the dusty, aired landscape.
As Bagan is situated in the middle of the dry zone of Myanmar, a few cacti appear in the strips of low, wiry scrub forests stretching between sandy, light brown planted plots of peanut and sesame seeds. Two big, white brahman cows pull hard at a wooden till as a man walks them through a field, turning the soil, preparing for a fresh crop.
“Holy shit,” I mutter to myself, which is at least 50 per cent correct, but still doesn't seem to be the best description. There is something to scattering of pagoda along the road and deeper into the fields, like a child's Lego world haphazardly spreed across a sandy beach, that is awe inspiring.
The temples are scattered among plots of peanuts. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
At the front entrance to the Dhamma-yan-gyi Pagoda, a giant, formidable brick structure like a miniature castle that is housing an extended family of Buddha images, there is a handful of little tin-roofed shacks with locals selling water, paintings and other handcrafts.
We take off our shoes at the entrance, before making our way down one of the narrow, unfinished hallways and up a long flight of stairs, the sharply cut keystones above us classic example of Bagan architecture.
On the top roof, below the bell and girdle which are blocked by an iron gate, the flat landscape stretches out west to the Rakhine Yoma mountain range.
The soft brown landscape, accented by sage-green trees, is speckled with pagoda; thousands of pagoda stretch up out of the dry landscape toward the sharp blue sky.
Our eyes drink deeply; the “temple-scape” breaths a magical breathe into our souls, filling us, expanding us, as we look in all directions at the archaeological wonders built during the 300 years reign of a deeply devote kingdom.
The dice made a good choice: there was, of course, a 33 percent chance that I would still be in bed right now.
I stood in complete awe of the majestic 'temple-scape'. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back on our little mopeds, the convey starts for Sulamani Guphaya, which our guides deems to be the most beautiful of the pagoda.
Cutting along the sandy, compact path I long for my baby. The CB500X would be a gem in these conditions; a total pleasure on which to play. Perhaps, I'll make it back up here with the bike next month.
From the Dhamma-yan-gyi Pagoda, the biggest in Bagan, we were able to see Sulamani, in fact we could see everything, but Sulamani stood out, its elegant brickwork and stature holding your attention, even at a distance.
A stone inscription, now inside a mesh cage, explains in ancient Burmese that the temple was founded after King Narapatisithu found a small ruby at the location – Sulamani literary means “small ruby”.
As we stand in the arch of the outer wall it's possible to see across the courtyard and deep into an enormous alcove where a large, peaceful Buddha image resides. None of the major Buddha images, which always face one of the four cardinal directions, is an original.
“We were under military dictatorship for about 60 years, so we could not take care of the temples,” explains Christopher, our 23-year-old guide. “Like in Cambodia, there were tomb raiders, so most Buddha images are not originals.”
Sulamani Pagoda was founded after a King found a small ruby at the location. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The group votes for a cheap Burmese-style lunch, at the same place Aung San Suu Kyi came to eat when she visited the national treasure. Squatting on low stools around a plastic table, Michelle and I pile into our fish curries, which tastes similar to a Thai tom yam, tossing little spoonfuls of spicy sauces into our bowels of rice.
After lunch, the tour continues. However, I and a couple other guys, head back to the hostel – I need tor recover.
Six free cups of coffee into the afternoon, I'm starting to feel better. The break from the temples was essential. I want to give Bagan plenty of time, so there is no reason to burnout on pagodas on day one.
Megs, a young British woman with deep, Labradorite blue eyes sits down next to me, picking up our conversation where we left it this morning. We chat about DiceTravels, though I've find myself being less and less enthusiastic when explaining the project, as if I'm questioning how awesome it is.
We then chat our way down a long, winding story about her job at an auction house, which is fascinating despite her specialty being designer clothing and accessories. She has a contagious enthusiasm. Though she's taking the night bus to Yangon tonight, I find myself hoping we'll cross paths somewhere down the line. Possibly in Myanmar or Chiang Mai.
Three of us, the ones that ditched the rest of the tour, head back out to catch the sunset ending.
Completely lost in the maze of ancient structures, we find one of the many larger, popular pagoda and climb the extraordinarily steep steps to the top for a sunset that never comes.
Storm clouds sweep up from the south east, the rain blurring out the mountains as it fills the already swollen Aye Yar Waddy. To the west, a different storm system blocks out the sunset, leaving us and the temples in a small dry pocket as the horizon is slowly consumed by storms in all directions.
I leave the temple on my own, as dark settles in, along a narrow, sandy path I drive past the looming shadows of pagoda, their peaks merely sillotes against the sky.
As the night settled in a single archway glowed under the light of my motorbike. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back at the hostel, Michelle, who booked our room, has made sure reception knows who I am and can check me in. A long, hot shower washes away about 48 hours of grime and lures me toward bed. However, dinner at The Small Restaurant across the street first.
After dinner, Ostello Bello is buzzing with life, yet I find myself being reclusive, sitting at a corner table in the lobby, away from the drinkers smokers having a good time on the patio outside. Michelle invites me out to join the group when I'm done writing.
I'm already halfway through a Cuba Libra, before I wrap up my work. I wasn't planning on drinking. However, I tossed the die, giving booze a 17 per cent chance. It landed on a six, my drinking number.
It'll be an early morning tomorrow. Droning and photography at sunrise, perhaps even a little meditation in the early blue darkness, wrapped up in a wonder of the world that rivals the feelings of awe that were stirred within me when I first encounter Angkor Wat and the Pyramids of Egypt.
Nearly all of the original Buddha images in the thousands of temples were stolen by tomb raiders. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli