Chillin’ in Bagan

Greetings all,

I’m in the most relaxed mood in a while today, for a few reasons. First, after a lovely but way too long 15-hour slow boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan, I got a decent night’s sleep last night. Second, I managed to change my flight so that I’m leaving this Saturday, on the 17th, on the same flight as Marjan. Third, Bagan is the most relaxed place I’ve been in Myanmar…and we just had the first decent meal in like 2 weeks (believe it or not, fresh pasta with fresh tomato sauce). But most of all, this morning I got a reassuring phone call from the US consulate in Yangon.

It seems that one Andrea DiCastro McGough had been inquiring with her about my possible whereabouts, and she’s been calling around to look for me ever since. She finally tracked me down at the New Park Hotel here in Bagan, where she left me a message to call back. Of course, my first thought (while the woman in the hotel was trying to get through on the phone) was that something terrible had happened to one of YOU. Hehe.

When I finally got through, she was great. “I figured you were somewhere upcountry trekking and having a wonderful time,” she said. And she was right! She told me that things are pretty much back to normal in Yangon. The guest houses and most of the rest of the city have electricity back. There’s no food or water shortage in the city. It’s most expensive, but that’s pretty much it. I told her my travel plan and she said I’d be safe. So I feel better, and I hope you all feel better as well!

So, my final Myanmar plan:

Now-Thurs: Bagan

Thurs afternoon: bus from Bagan to Yangon with Marjan (arrive Fri am)

Friday – arrive Yangon; hang out in Yangon for the day

Saturday 8:30 am – flight to Bangkok, arrives around 11 am Bangkok time (12 hours ahead of NYC, so around 11 pm Friday night NY time)

I’ll send a text message to Zoe and Drea when I land in Bangkok.

OK. Enough about that. Let me say *something* about this country! It’s wonderful and strange and difficult to communicate and dirty and hot and the food sucks and the people are ridiculously, over-the-top, knock-you-out friendly and helpful and incredibly cheerful. In its “Dangers and Annoyances” section, The Lonely Planet travel guide says: “Most travellers’ memories of locals grabbing your money are of someone chasing you down because you dropped a K500 note (about $0.50) in the street (‘you dropped this sister’).” That’s no exaggeration. Everywhere we go, people say hello and “Where you come from? America?!? That’s a very good country. And you very beautiful.” They sometimes follow up with “You need something? Trishaw? Taxi? Some guest house? Buy some postcard?” – but not that often. (A trishaw is a bike with a two-seated side saddle. The “driver” pedals and you sit in the tiny seats. It’s a popular form of transport for short distances.)

In Mandalay, we befriended a trishaw driver called Tin Nyit who took us around for cheap (“I need business, so I take you for K2000,” he replied, when we told him we were going to Mandalay Hill, 4 km away, on a hot day.) And then we were stuck with him. He appeared early every day out in front of our guest house and stayed there until late at night, in case we needed a ride somewhere. We need a taxi to take us to a few ancient cities outside of Mandalay? He had a younger brother with a taxi. We wanted to go to the famous Moustache Brothers show? He could take us, and knew a great place nearby to eat dinner. Sure, it got annoying after a while. And sure, between what we paid him and the commission we’re sure he got from the places he took us, we gave him some good business. But we would have paid other trishaw and taxi drivers for the same services, and Tin took care of us. We needed a travel agent to see about flights, and he know a great one near our guest house. We had a question about anything, and he would answer or find the answer.

Anyway, he’s just one example of how people in the tourist industry here go above and beyond to make sure you have everything you need, and they’re extremely rarely sleazy about it – trying to trick you into taking an expensive trip somewhere, etc. Other people are simply curious. They want to interact with us, but don’t seem sure what to ask…thus the endless shouts of “Hello!” and delighted giggles when we answer back.

There’s so much more. Where do I start? Men in skirts (or rather, longyis), and shoulder bags. No Coke or Pepsi signs! (Though yuo can buy Coke that’s been imported from Thailand.) Cities reek of diesel. Ancient Mazdas and other cars held together with duct tape and wire. Horribly broken, pot-holed roads (even pre-typhoon). New computers stacked as cargo in the last few rows of the passenger bus from Yangon to Kalaw. Burmese “pop” music with accompanying karaoke videos played at top volume for most of the 12-hour bus journeys. “The government owns the land, the sea and the air,” said Robin, our guide for our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. “The people just lease it for 99 years. And if the government wants to take the land, they can do it at any time.”


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