What the heck was I thinking? My next stop in Myanmar was to the outstanding Bagan. From Yangon, the most common way was to take the overnight bus, an excellent idea. This can be a budget travelers’ best friend. The drawing card is that I would save on a nights’ accommodation, which is a big deal when you are stretching your money as far as it can go so you can go as far as you can go. There is also a bit of a "travelers code" when you embark on an overnight anything. Everyone knows it is going to be shit. Everyone knows that everyone is facing the exact same challenges and everyone understands the moral victory when it is over. There is rarely any complaining. Well, most of the time you are trying to sleep but you get my point. I am not staying in dorm rooms and I am not missing any meals, those days are long gone. However, saving a nights’ accommodation is always a great moral victory. Everything was arranged for me by the hotel and they were excited to help. Seemingly too excited. This is Yangon and Myanmar hospitality. Tourism is still in its infancy here and the population understands its value. They also make a huge effort to always say, "They will try not to become Thailand" whenever they can. I can appreciate that. This gave me another day to explore Yangon. The bus scheduled to leave at 10:00 PM and my taxi was going to pick me up at 7:00 PM.
I have been watching a funny, simple and well prepared YouTube video series about Yangon called EatSleepYangon. Local guides explore various streets and areas of Yangon while a creepy camera operator follows them around. They stop in shops, restaurants, hotels/hostels, massage parlors or any place of interest and then they compare them to what people have written about them on TripAdvisor or Google. It is an excellent concept and bound to catch on. The girls all have cute personalities, are quite funny and do a great job being "Your guide to downtown Yangon".
I took their advice on a few restaurants on 18th Street in Chinatown, otherwise known as "Beer Street". They talked about a great massage parlor "that was cheaper than Bangkok". I went and it was excellent. "Beer Street" was excellent at night. Big bottles of Tiger, great food and a really good casual vibe, unlike Khao San Road in Thailand. 😎. There was no obvious and in your face sex for sale unlike everywhere in Thailand. 😎 .
One of the curiosities of Yangon is the aggressive attempt to clean up the back alleys. These were, like most in the world, strewn with trash and a haven for rats and crime. Now, after much effort, back alleys have become incredible community projects with their walls painted by local children and artists. Trees and plants are creating nice areas where kids can play and people can rest and relax. This is another incredible innovation that I hope catches on globally. Here is a nice example of 29th Street. Watch the Video.
One of the newest and more elaborate is Waziya Cinema Street between 33rd and 34th street. I only discovered it because of EatSleepYangon. It is on days like this when I miss my Canon Rebel DSL and my various lenses. This phone is good for quick clicks but I like taking the time to set up and shoot decent photos. There was so much opportunity to get creative here.
The alley was very, very cool. It had only opened to the public about a month ago. Before that time, security was tight as shown on the EatSleepYangon video. I guess they wanted a big "grand ceremony". Whoever put it together had a decent idea and a plan. There were classic movie scenes, golden age movie sets and colorful creations all along the alleyway. A brilliant way to turn a typically disgusting space into a tourist/family/kid-friendly area. At the far of the alley, as you turn onto 34th Street there was a small yet busy cafe. A direct result of this excellent community project. Well done Yangon.
After a final meal at Shan Noodle Shop 999, my fifth, I wobbled over to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. I am putting on a bit of weight with all these noodles, no matter how much walking I do so wobbling is an excellent adjective. This market was massive, clean and very well organized, almost to the point of being sterile if you let it be, much like the big riverside market in Phnom Penh. I was on a mission. I came looking for one of the only things I buy when I travel, little market/street dolls. I give these to Mom, who frames and labels them in her kitchen. I do not know how it started but now it is a “must-do” when I go to a new place. Her kitchen looks great with all the frames and it shares the journey with her. The last time I was home, I decided to paint the kitchen. I took all the frames down and the place looked empty without them. They add a bit of color and storytelling for anyone who comes into the house.
Although not a busy street market by any account, this market was one of the more colorful I have seen. Paintings, jewels, precious stones, gold, handicrafts, pottery, clothing, and food. All in one neat and clean place and organized by section. I found my dolls after a bit of searching, then had a coffee and just hung out for an hour. I did take a bunch of “clicks” and stall owners just stared at me with glazed boredom, knowing not to even waste their time asking if I wanted anything. Although the shopkeepers who were selling paintings were fairly adamant that I not take pictures. I took a few, as you do.
I wanted to rediscover those back alleyways near the temples so I headed back north, past the zoo. It was 45 minutes in the hot sun and lovely people were selling bottles of cold water everywhere. I passed a few more colonial buildings which were nice enough if you are into that sort of thing. I reached my destination and going off the main streets took me into a different world that I suspect most tourists do no see.
Tight small streets filled with shops and restaurants. Locals going about their day without a concern that I was interloping. I was not gawking, just walking and smiling. There were a lot of Ming La Ba's (hello) and smiles. I made a point, as I do, to stop at a few shops for water or snacks. If you spend a minute and a few dollars it does a long way then just walking, staring and taking pictures of the "poor people".
Although, I did become Mr. Creepy for a few minutes. This pretty young girl, (a child so don't think like that) came out of a shop in front of me. She was wearing colorful pink clothing and she stood out among the streets. She was walking and skipping without a care in the world, as it should be. I wanted to catch a nice shot of her so I followed her, but did not follow her if that makes sense. She was going in my direction but it still felt totally stalkerish. I took a few shots and then put the camera away. You never know when a father, uncle, brother, cousin or just protective citizen will have had enough. I find that I like taking shots of people walking away. Not sure why I just do. Maybe it is emblematic of something in my life.
Have fun with that statement all you amateur psychologists! 😈😈
With traffic, the bus station was two hours away. There were a few times my smiling driver drove down some eerie dark back roads and I figured "This is where I get whacked". All in all the drive was nice. We went past the house where Aung San Suu Kyi lived and was also kept under house arrest during her political battles. Her story is well documented and you can find it easy enough.
The bus station itself was packed away in a dark remote corner of a dark remote place. The driver explained that Yangon traffic was so bad that they put the bus station here so the buses have an easy time to leave the city. I loved the logic. The station was 3rd world but the people were friendly and helpful, even cheerful. The buses were modern and I had a single reserved seat. Nobody besides me. Bus ride paradise. Although the last time I had this setup I was robbed in Bolivia, but that is a story for another day.
We left right on time, 10:00 PM and were expecting a 6:00 AM arrival time in Bagan. I will explain the bus trip in just a few sentences, after all, it is just an overnight bus trip. I read that these buses cranked up the AC and were freezing cold. The young girls next to me watched me as I emerged from the bathroom in jeans and a sweater in the sweltering heat of the terminal. They politely and curiously asked me why. I pointed to my socks and told them what I had read. They immediately dove into their phones and within minutes were fully clothed and ready to go. Halfway through the trip they drowsily thanked me at a rest stop. The thin little blanket proved a bit of protection but a full comforter would have been optimal.
The ride itself was smooth enough and I did manage to get some sleep. When I stepped off the bus and into the dark Bagan Bus Terminal at 5:45 AM I was immediately pounced upon by taxi drivers. "Taxi sir", "where you going? I have the best price"? Blah blah blah. I actually got a bit snappy and said fairly loud and direct..."Guys, I just woke up, leave me alone for a few minutes". One guy came up, sat beside me and quietly said: "when you are ready sir, I will drive you". He did not say another word for the 10 minutes I needed to wake up and regroup. I jumped in his taxi. I did not care what he was going to ask for the fare.
A little bit of humanity and kindness at 5:45 AM at a dark foreign bus terminal.