May 05, 2004
Bagan is often described as "Spectacular Bagan - The second best temple ruins in SE Asia."
But I wasn't impressed. I could have skipped it. The emphasis needs to be on "second best". Angkor Wat in Cambodia is much more impressive.
What Bagan does have is an amazing number of pagoda though: 2500. Pagodas cover the countryside. As I first passed through on a motorbike, I kept twisting my head in all directions looking at pagoda, nearly spraining my neck. I quickly tired of this. The pagodas, with a few exceptions, look about the same.
I considered making another attempt to reach Saw. This time, I'd try the bad road. The promise of more adventure tempted me, but I decided to give up. Even should I make it to Saw, the immigration police would undoubtedly just send me back in the morning.
Instead I came up with a new plan. The people of Myanmar have been much more interesting than the sights. I decided to avoid tourists sights and spend my time getting to know the local people. The new plan was to slowly make my way back to Yangon stopping at random small towns the whole way.
The towns often looked like scenes out of America during the great depression of the 1940s. Laborers with their faces covered in dirt. Pitiful trucks made of scrap metal and wood bounced down the road. There is electricity, but it rarely works. In Pakkoku, the electricity works about once a week. Outside the towns, in farm country, Myanmar more resembled the US during the 1840s. People live a subsistence farming life. There is no electricity and no running water. Ox carts, with wooden wagon wheels carry around livestock and produce.
Coming to Myanmar in March, during the hot season, was a mistake. I was prepared for the 100+ degrees. But I didn't think about the effect the season would have on the scenery. After all, I'm from San Francisco where we don't have seasons. The entire country is undoubtedly much more beautiful during other times of the year, but while I was there it was brown, and dusty.
The countryside was not beautiful, but the people were amazing. I have a confession to make though. I honestly can't tell how much I liked the people of Myanmar and how much I liked being the constant center of attention. I'd walk into a small villagers and just for being a foreigner I'd have crowds adoring fans. I'd often be surrounded by 50 or 60 people. Pretty girls would smile at me. Kids would pour out of houses to get a closer look. I'd pull out a frisbee or a camera and the crowd would go crazy.
There's a catch 22 in traveling: Where there are many tourists, the locals speak English, but they don't want to talk to you. Off the beaten path, the people are are thrilled to interact with you but there is a language barrier. Myanmar was an exception to this. There are very few tourists, so everyone is excited to see you, but since it is an ex-British colony English is widely spoken (at least in the cities and towns). This enabled me to get to know locals and make friends in Myanmar where in other countries this is difficult.
Myanmar is less influenced by the Western world than the other countries of SE Asia which makes traveling there interesting. Traditional clothing is still the norm. Men wear skirts called longhis. Women wear white face paint made from pulp of the tenaka tree. Monks in orange robes wander the streets carrying alms bowls. Toyotas are the norm elsewhere in SE Asia; but, not in Myanmar. The bizarre variety in transportation was new and exciting for me. Crazy brightly colored buses from Russia, funky 3 wheeled cars that looked like "the car of the future" as designed in 1960, and miniature trucks dwarfed by the VW beetles that have somehow found there way here, all share the streets.
In the final week, I finally went back to sightseeing. It would seem that I saved the best for last. The golden pagodas of Bago and Yangon were breathtaking.
Kid for Sale
When I ventured into villages, I had occasional problems such as trying to decide how to divide a half dozen small presents between ten times that number of kids. Sometimes the kids would get out of hand, pushing each other as they tried to catch a glimpse at my digital photos. Mostly, though it was great fun.
There was one incident that sticks out in my mind. I spent half a day in a small village outside of Bago. It was only a 20 minute walk from my hotel, but I don't know how many tourists have ever done it.
As I'm about to leave a woman tries to give me her baby son. At first I'm sure what's happening - I'm not accustomed to people giving me their children. The woman is there trying to hand her baby son. A daughter is crying and screaming, holding onto her mother's skirt. I didn't know how to react.
Then, in a moment of stupidity, I fell back on my standard method of defusing tense situations; with humor. I thought back to the "How much for the little girl" scene in the Blues Brothers. I point to the little girl and say "I like this one." I did at least have the common sense not to continue with the next line "How much for the little girl?"
The joke wasn't funny. The girl runs away screaming. Fortunately, my Burmese was sufficient to calm down the girl, apologize and say goodbye to the mother.
Vegas vs. the World - Edition Mandalay
I went to Myanmar because it was a interesting country, relatively untouched by western influence and tourism. But I had a secondary motive. Mandalay is a required stop on my "Vegas vs. the World" quest (as of yet unpublished). I've been to Venice. I've been to New York. I've been to Paris. I've been to Bellagio. But, how does Mandalay, Myanmar compare again Mandalay Bay, Vegas?
Mandalay Bay, Vegas:
I don't have a lot to say about the Mandalay Bay because it's not very exciting. It has a vaguely tropical theme, but it doesn't look like they put much effort into it. The hotel has one cool restaurant where waitresses have to perform almost aerobatic stunts to retrieve bottles of wine. The hosts big boxing matches on occasion. Other than that, I've found nothing of interest. It's not a bad place, it's just that the other recently built hotels are much more impressive.
The bus arrives at 6 o'clock in the morning. Trees line the streets. There is a lovely lake beside the town. 60 monks in orange robes walk across the street in a line. It's a beautiful peaceful place. Unfortunately, it's not Mandalay.
We get back on the bus and drive 4 more hours to hot, ugly, miserable Mandalay. Mandalay is hot year round. The would-be open sewers are covered only by a bit of concrete. Mosquitos breed by the millions. The tourist sites simply aren't worth seeing. The fort is unattractive and empty. The view from Mandalay hill is hazy and unexciting. There are nice pagodas, but pagodas in neighboring cities are bigger and better. The Mustache Brothers are the local comedians. They're famous because two of the three brothers spent 7 years in prison for making fun of the government - unfortunately, as comedian they're not particularly funny. The most exciting thing in town is Nylon Ice Cream Shop. It's not particular exciting either, but at least the ice cream combats the heat a bit.
A lot of parallels between these two. They're both uninspiring and neither can compare against more impressive neighbors. Mandalay Bay is unexciting - but that's better than Mandalay, which is unexciting and miserable. Vegas wins this round.