(VV) We left Yangon at around 8pm or so, the staff at the bus station made sure we got onto the correct JJ Express bus as there were many of them and we kept hanging around the wrong one thinking we should get on it, following what the crowd was doing. There was a small convenience store next to the JJ Express office. Joe bough a whole tray of Ovaltine biscuits as he apparently couldn’t buy them individually. It was like making a bad Rite-Price purchase, you buy something in bulk because it’s a good price and then they sit in the back of your cupboard for months. These biscuits weren’t very nice and we only ate a few of the packets and then carried them in our backpack for the next 2 weeks, until we “gifted” them to the kids of a guest house that we stayed at.
We booked a Business Class bus which means that the bus is configured with two seats either side of the aisle, while the First Class bus has two seats and then one seat either side of isle with the seats being slightly wider and generally with tablets built into the back. We booked our tickets via Facebook messenger and paid (in US$) for the tickets when we arrived at the station. You are provided with a fleece blanket and a bottle of water too which is nice and on some services we used you get tea/coffee and/or soft drink after meal breaks and these chewy sour cubes that they said is for digestion. As for safety there are two drivers who swap every two hours, a person who sits at the front to make sure that the driver stays awake and to get up to pay for tolls etc and a bus stewardess who looks after the passengers. We were so impressed with JJ Express that we continued to book them for our remaining travel in Myanmar.
Travel by road in Myanmar was so different to what we had experience from our time in India. For instance, they actually have toilet breaks at places with relatively clean, working toilets! I didn’t need to squat behind the bus while a group of Indian men smoked close by, they also make sure that all passengers are back on board after stops, they do an actual headcount. It was really reassuring to know that when you got off the bus that it would still be there when you returned. The only negative about the whole bus ride to Bagan was that the “in-flight” or “on-road” entertainment made it slightly hard to sleep, this was primarily on for the benefit of the drivers and not the passengers. Leaving the station, the entertainment starts off with western top 40 hits, this is followed by the film Shooter with Mark Wahlberg with the sound down so low that none of the dialogue is discernible, but all the gunshots are and then the remainder of the trip we have Burmese pop/rock/country/folk music on rotation. The highway is in fairly good condition however it is still a bumpy and rocky journey and we keep our seatbelts fastened to avoid sliding out of chairs that recline like a Lazyboy recliner.
We reach Bagan around 5am, the sky is starting to lighten and we decide that we will get the taxi driver to take us to Old Bagan for sunrise to kill some time, as our hotel check in time was not until 11am. You can get a horse drawn carriage (which seems like an absurd way to get into town at that time of the morning) or a regular car to drive you to your accommodation and I think with pre-arrangement you may even be able to get a minibus organised through your bus company to take you to town. We went with a regular car and our plans were thwarted by what some have called the Bagan Taxi Mafia; they set ridiculously high prices – per person none the less, and made us share our taxi with an older German couple who wanted to be dropped to their hotel rather than see the sunrise. We saw the sunrise on the road and I drove the agreed taxi fare back down as we did not get the service that we asked for.
Now being sleep deprived and annoyed about our plans not having worked out we get to our hotel expecting to drop our bags and wander the streets of Nyaung U until our room was available, but to our pleasant surprise they let us check in as soon as we arrive. Our first impressions of Yar Kin Thar however deteriorated quickly after this, walking up the stairs we see out the window; the pool, the only reason we decided to pay a premium (around $44AUD a night) for this particular accommodation, was Rio Olympic Pool Green. We get to our room; the window is broken, the bathroom is disgusting and mouldy, there are bugs flying around the room and crawling up the wall and we have two single beds. We push the beds together and put up our mosquito net and get a few hours sleep. On waking things still look pretty bad, we go downstairs and ask when they will clean the pool, they assure me it is clean, I suggest that they put more chlorine it.
We decided to stay in Nyaung U instead of Old Bagan or New Bagan and has somewhat cheaper accommodation and an abundance of places to go an eat on Restaurant Row. While Old Bagan is just a bunch of expensive resorts set amongst ruins and New Bagan is more of a tourist oriented village, Nyaung U is a much more functioning town that is considerably larger than the other two. While it is still relatively small, there are still a few things to do, the Shwezigon Paya and associated bazaar is worth a visit. You cannot wear your shoes inside the temple or bazaar (which is standard practice in any temple) and we took our shoes with us in our bag because the place to put your shoes where we entered was next to a shoe shop and I didn’t want my shoes to go missing so I would have to buy some new ones. While at Shewezigon Paya we were taken in by a scam of sorts. A group of ladies came up and kept placing offerings, gold leaf, little fans, incense sticks etc., in our hands and “teaching” us to worship. It was quite fun and enjoyable and I was expecting it to cost a few kyat but they extracted close to $20 AUD from us, we felt a little bit foolish but didn’t mind too much. The ladies were really happy, so at least we managed that. Lesson learnt.
(JB)On the first night that we were there, we decided that we needed to make some use of the pass for the ruins that we had bought, and decided to check out a sunset at one of the most famous of all the pagodas in the area, Shwe San Daw Pagoda, while the structure itself was impressive and the landscape though dry, was quite amazing to behold, it got so crowded with tourists and obnoxious Chinese tour groups setting up their tripods and cameras and god knows what else directly in front of you that it became difficult to enjoy. On top of this, being that we were in the middle of dry season, there was a thick haze that made it very difficult to see any real semblance of a sunset as we would know it. However, seeing the expanse of temples and pagodas all around us from that vantage point definitely got us excited for exploring them in more depth over the coming days!
The sleep that night was quite weird and uncomfortable, there was some sort of bat or bird or something that sounded like it was in our room (but it wasn’t), but it kept us up all night, the room also smelled mouldy.
The morning after we asked if we could be moved to a room with a double bed and after returning from breakfast they have a new room for us. It is a much nicer room, it is clean, the window is not broken and we also have a LCD TV! Two days later the pool is an acceptable shade of blue and we can enjoy the added luxury that we paid for.
(VV) The best way to get around Bagan is by e-bike which is really just another word for a scooter. I didn’t know this at the time and assumed that an e-bike was like a regular bicycle but with power assisted pedalling or something. This style of bike actually did exist but were for the exclusive use of Zfreeti Hotel guests who owned a fleet of them. When the e-bikes arrived at our guesthouse I had a slight panic attack, attempted to ride it in the parking lot and lost control of it while I was trying to turn it around as my hand was on the accelerator. Also having read my insurance policy in depth before leaving on this trip I knew that we would not be covered by our insurance should anything go wrong and a month prior before leaving I read an article about a woman who got into a bad crash and was stuck in a Thai hospital with medical bills over $56,000. So needless to say that I was not too keen on riding a scooter. Joe on the other hand was quite confident riding around on the scooter but not so confident that I could ride on the back (but he still would not be covered by our insurance due to lack of a licence). Our guest house owners who organised the bikes refunded us our money which was nice and we had to come up with alternate transportation for our week in Bagan.
We decided to go with mountain bikes. Most bikes in close vicinity to where we were staying were old heavy single gear bikes so we walked for around 20 minutes until we could find decent mountain bikes. I will admit that I am not the most confident bike rider, only having learnt to ride when I was 23 and I find riding on roads quite nerve wracking (primarily due to the aggression of Adelaide motorists) so riding up Anawratha Rd I was a little nervous. This wasn’t helped by Burmese motorists who give a little toot when they are approaching you to let you know that they are there and will pass you, this is actually really helpful but in my head I kept thinking they were telling me off for being on the road. Another thing I had to wrap my head around was right-hand road rules, it was so weird. I’m pretty sure that this is the only place we are visiting that has adapted American side driving, but I could be wrong. Anyway once we arrived at the first group of pagodas we get off road where the traffic primarily consists of scooters and horse drawn carts with the occasional tour bus. When I say off road I mean, compacted dirt if you are lucky and soft sand if you’re not. I stacked it on my bike multiple times not use to riding on these surfaces, I didn’t sustain any bad injuries just more blows to my low levels of bike-esteem. It was such hard work and it was so hot. However we did see some spectacular sites and small villages along the way.
Around 4pm all the tour buses come out and kick up so much dust, that there is an yellow haze in the air. You start to see more and more people with face masks or scarfs wrapped around their heads, attempting to keep the dust out of their nose and mouths. Having asthma this starts flare up for me and when we returned to Nyaung U, I have a tickle in my throat and then proceeded to spend the next 3 days in bed trying to recover from my respiratory issues. Joe went out again on the bike and explored a bit more and I stayed in bed watching Mariah Carey’s reality TV show. I didn’t feel that it was a waste of my time.
When I was feeling better we woke up for sunrise and spent into the early afternoon walking around the pagodas of Bagan. I was the perfect time for exploring as the weather was relatively cool and the roads somewhat quiet. Walking back, we had a few motorists stop to check that we were ok or if we needed a lift, it must we quite uncommon for people to walk here, but it was nice to know that the people were looking out for us.
Another excursion that we had was out to New Bagan to see our friend Emma who was staying there. We got a taxi down there and had some lunch and a wander and planned to get a Songthaw back. It was impossible, we found the location of where to get one but no one wanted to take us and the drivers kept trying to call a private taxi for us. In the end we did get a taxi but were a little deflated that we were unable to manage to take public transport due to the language barrier.
While living in the tourist town we took advantage of the exceptional Italian food that was on offer. We had unusually good pizza and pasta in the middle of Myanmar at La Terraza. Most places made their own cheese and they had fantastic chilli in olive oil. Another favourite of ours was Sharky’s. On discovering Sharky’s, which is located away from Restaurant Row, we visited almost daily, not always for a meal, but for our daily ice cream fix. Their ice cream was delicious and all made in house, the caramel was our go to. Their savoury food was just as good. They grow all their own organic vegetables and rear their own chickens and other livestock too. The rotisserie chicken was the best that I have ever had. They also do pizza and burgers and pasta and modern takes on Burmese classics. Sharkey’s wasn’t kind to our backpacker budget but the prices were actually pretty comparable with the offerings on Restaurant Row. When we visited Sharkey’s had only been open for around 6 months and we relatively quite as they have not yet made it into any guidebooks or blogs, but I’m sure once they do and work get around they will be super busy.
Generally, we try to eat local cuisine as often as we can as it helps us to save money and also because the whole point of travelling is to try new things, but we struggled to do this in Myanmar. In Bagan in particular what was on offer was watered down, unbelievably bland and expensive versions of traditional Burmese food, so we often went with a western option as the savings to be had was minimal. When we did eat Burmese food we found it to be overwhelmingly bland most of the time, or on occasion inedible due to sanitation reasons. That being said I had a delicious tomato and tofu curry at The Black Bamboo off of Restaurant Row which I still think about.
We also had a day trip out to Mount Popa to see Taung Kalat Pagoda which was built on the extinct volcano. We organised our trip up there which cost about $18AUD for the two of us. It included pickup from our hotel, a stop at a road side stall making and selling palm sugar candies (called jaggedy) and some nice palm moonshine which you are encouraged to try. We sampled the candies which were delicious but could not bring ourselves to have a shot of crude spirits at 10am. Once you reach Mount Popa you have 2 hours to explore, which really only gives you enough time to climb up the 777 steps up to the summit, look around the shrines and monastery and climb back down. The steps are pretty steep and your thighs really do start to feel the burn, but there are stops for drinks, food, souvenirs and toilet breaks along the way if you feel the need to rest. There a loads of monkeys on the walk up so keep any food or drink well hidden. The view is at the top is fantastic.
We left Bagan by day, with JJ Express and journeyed to Kalaw which we will go into in the next part. I will endeavour to get the next one out this time next week!