Mandalay was wonderful, and I was sad to say ‘da-da’ to Andrew and Kaely, but I am on a tight schedule, and was next planning to head to arguably the best attraction Myanmar has to offer – the town of Bagan.
I’ll explain more in my next blog, but Bagan used to a very important region back in the day, and a hotbed of Buddhist thinking. Marco Polo ventured through here, describing it as "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes." It thus felt right to spend time in a place as historically important and rejuvenated as this over the Christmas period.
There are many ways to get to Bagan from Mandalay. You can fly, you can catch a bus, you can even get a train that bounces up and down the whole way. You can also, however, take a cruise down the Irrawaddy River, and that is what I opted to do. A little after 7am we embarked on our sedentary nine-hour boat ride.
Well, that’s how long it is supposed to take. I must admit I got slightly annoyed by the number of tourists I was surrounded by, especially after connecting with locals over the past couple of days. All they seemed interested in was taking photos, without any interaction. This was the case more than ever when, after a brief period when I fell asleep, I woke up to find us stationary.
I initially put this down to lunch being ready, but soon realised that the boat had inexplicably got stuck in the river. It had basically gone too fast and not turned in time. We were thus stuck in the mud and, unfortunately for us, no one else seemed to be playing. The river was deserted.
Over an hour passed before a larger boat arrived on the scene and decided to ram us as much as it could. It took a significant amount of time, during which the mas of tourists took approximately 14325234 photos of the scenario that was unfolding, but eventually we were free. If you are now calling me a hypocrite, I have pictures because it would have been otherwise difficult to visualise in this blog. I am not going to go around parading these to my parents when I go home and talk about my adventure. I also spoke, as much as I could, to the locals on the other boat, a fact that they seemed to appreciate as no one else did so.
It took a long time to get us out of our sticky situation. One particularly peculiar moment was when one of the rescue boats became unattached…from the rescue boat. A young boy jumped in and started swimming frantically towards it, yet the wooden vessel was always slightly out of reach. They ended up needing to throw him a dinghy whilst they turned around and rescued it. If you are asking why I took photos of this and further accusing me of hypocrisy, it is because my words alone would not suffice to explain the abnormality of what had occurred as I was munching on my noodles.
Truth be told, in spite of how intriguing it was to wake up to, I would have liked this episode never to have happened. The reason is that I was already worried about the accommodation position I had forced into. I have ranted about Myanmar’s lack of options on this matter already, but need to expand further in case you decide to visit. Essentially, it is very very difficult to ensure you have accommodation, especially in high season, which runs from November to February.
In the vast majority of countries that can be visited, this is a common and resolvable situation. You simply book in advance, be it on the internet or otherwise. Myanmar, however, is a different animal. There are two reasons for this – the lack of internet access, and the lack of places to stay due to rules regarding foreigners. Especially in high season, places are booked up way in advance. How they are, considering you have to call and be able to speak the local language, is beyond me, but you do.
It seems that travellers in Myanmar are split into two groups: a) tour groups and b) independent backpackers. Those in category A are able to book way in advance; those in B are in the same boat that I was, panicking slightly as the sun set and our arrival time slipped further and further away due to delay. Bagan is the most popular tourist spot in Bagan. It is now a holiday period here. The fact that I have been calling relentlessly since I arrived in Myanmar for accommodation here, only to be told that everywhere is ‘fully booked’, did not bode well for me.
At 8.30pm, almost five hours later than anticipated, and in total darkness, our boat docked. I got a ride with a local tri-shaw driver and explained to him that I had nowhere to stay. I was thankful that I made him swear that he would find me somewhere to stay. The fact that I tipped him almost an extra 50% of the fare will suggest to you the struggles we had.
After his initial suggestion, who he clearly worked for so was in a somewhat state of shock when told they were fully booked, we tried well over a dozen places in the backpacker district of Bagan, Nyaung U. We were getting desperate when, whilst I was busy ranting at a hotel nextdoor, he came up to me and said that I could sleep in the nearby guesthouse. On their floor.
I negotiated that I could sleep on the couch, and paid $5 for the privilege. At this time I just felt content that I had somewhere to sleep that wasn’t a monastery or the street, and it soon turned out that people who had turned up later were sleeping either on the floor of the hotel reception or in their car park under a tent. Like I said earlier, more guest houses and hostels are a necessity for this region.
It is vital because this is the sort of place that Myanmar can use to spearhead its tourist industry. Bagan is home to thousands of temples, ranging in their levels of disrepair. Some, such as the Shwedigon temple near Nyaung U, are excellently preserved, even though it is over 900 years old.
All in all, I am just relieved that I found somewhere to stay in Bagan, and that I can wake up on Christmas morning more than happy with my life. A large part of me tells me that I should be home for Christmas, but a larger part of me says that I will feel the love of my family, and vice-versa, no matter where I am. If you can show me a glistening beach and +25’C weather in Wales on Christmas Day I would also be more tempted to head back to Wales! In the meantime, I will enjoy December 25th in the remote land that is Myanmar, and report back what Christmas means to them. At least I will wake up in a bed – that is a good enough present for me in Bagan.
Love you all