Michael Meadows breaks down between Mandalay and Bagan
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Morning mist cloaks the sleeping city of Mandalay, its quiet streets a swirling sea of dawn-lit gray. After walking through the silence of these peaceful paths, it's painfully jarring to arrive at the highway bus station. Despite the early hour, it's already swarming with activity and noisy chatter. Old buses growl irritably, spewing thick smoke as they cough and sputter to life.
Blinking against the fumes, I wander through the milling crowds, nursing a bad headache and hoping I haven't already missed the bus to Bagan. A young boy selling what are surely the most popular bus station snacks-whole sparrows roasted on a stick-kindly points out my bus and I climb wearily on board.
The seven-hour journey hasn't even begun, and already I can't wait for it to be over. The aisle on my bus is best described as an obstacle course, with its flimsy plastic stools, sold at a reduced fare as "middle seats," along with coarse sacks of grain, battered tin boxes, and the occasional trussed chicken.
Squeezing through this jumble, I clamber over a box, edge carefully around an indignant rooster, and finally arrive at my suspiciously small-looking seat. Indeed, there's so little space that I have to perform a complicated contortionist act just to sit down. With my feet up on the hard seat and my knees drawn up almost to my chest, I stare blearily out of the window and let my mind wander. I've heard so much about Bagan-thousands of pagodas strewn across a plain-and am eager to see it. I just wish I were there already.
Passing through the townships, we make frequent stops to let passengers off. Vacant seats don't stay vacant for long; there always seems to be someone waiting for a ride just a little farther down the road. I watch a radiantly beautiful girl, with elegant spirals of thanaka on her cheeks and tiny flower buds woven into her hair, as she emerges from a decrepit hut and hails the bus with a regal wave. A little later, we slow for a young monk in red robes, waiting serenely with his hands clasped in front of him.
There are only middle seats left when he boards, and he settles into one without complaint. Immediately, an older man calls out respectfully and offers his seat. After they change places, I notice the monk slip on a pair of earphones and reach into his robes to program an iPod. An old woman across the aisle from me is watching too, and chuckles quietly at my surprise. She reaches over and offers me a segment of the orange she's just peeled. My faltering attempt to thank her in Burmese elicits a beaming smile and offers of more orange. Maybe I'm just getting used to it, but my seat doesn't seem quite so uncomfortable anymore.
I doubt I will ever become completely at ease with Myanmar's road rules, though. Strangely, while the vast majority of vehicles in the country are right-hand drive, they are also driven on the right-hand side of the road. Needless to say, this makes it very difficult for drivers to safely judge their position relative to oncoming traffic. So it seems to be standard practice for bus companies to employ a young boy to advise the driver. Hanging out of the left-hand door, the boy calls out a constant stream of instructions, shouting warnings to avoid collisions and soothing reassurances if there's plenty of space on the road.
This boy is also armed with a long stick, and every time we stop, he vigorously thumps the tires, checking air pressure. After one such session of energetic whacking, he exchanges words with the driver, and it becomes obvious that one of the tires is flat. But apparently not completely flat. The driver pushes stubbornly on until we finally roll to a stop outside a teashop. Everyone pours happily off the bus, most thanking him for his consideration in picking a pleasant place to fix the tire. Not a single one seems to consider this an inconvenience, accepting it instead as a welcome chance to stretch tired legs and enjoy a hot cup of tea.
The tire is changed fairly quickly, but then the driver disappears under the bus with an ice-cream container full of greasy parts and rubber strips. It appears there are other repairs needed and that we may be here for a while. I wander across to the teashop-a mismatched assortment of low benches and plastic tables spread out under a shady tree-but there are no free seats. I've only been standing for a moment when some young men wave and invite me to join their table. They shuffle up the bench to make space for me, and I settle down with a grateful sigh and a smile.
The man sitting immediately next to me has an amazing collection of tattoos crawling across his chest and back, an inky menagerie of strange-looking creatures poetically caged by swirling Pali script. I've heard a little about these. Each tattoo has a purpose, endowing the wearer with a specific quality. When I ask the man about them, he hesitantly begins to explain the significance of each, gaining confidence as he goes on.
With a smile, I complain that these kinds of tattoos aren't available where I come from, and ask if he'll tell me where I can get some done. The men all laugh at this, in relief as much as amusement, and our shared laughter dispels some of their initial shyness. They begin to talk more freely. It turns out that they speak English quite well, and we manage to carry on a meaningful conversation, increasingly oblivious to both the time and the progress of the bus repairs being carried out.
They ask me questions about my home country, and when I answer, I see such wonder in their eyes. We might as well be discussing an alien world. I ask them questions about Myanmar, taking care not to stray too close to anything controversial. We discuss the everyday instead-what do they plan to do in Bagan, are they married yet, where did they grow up, have they traveled through much of Myanmar? Despite the language barrier, and the circumspect nature our conversation has to take, their quiet, assured pride in their country becomes powerfully evident.
We are startled by the sudden sound of our bus rumbling asthmatically back to life. An hour has passed quickly, too quickly. Reluctantly, I get to my feet, and we wander back to the bus together, stretching tired limbs and sharing weary grins. As we board and move along the cluttered aisle, one of the men pats me lightly on the shoulder as he passes, and assures me that we're only one hour from Bagan now. Wedging myself back into my cramped seat with a smile, I gaze out the window at Myanmar passing by, and realize I no longer mind how long the journey takes.
Catching a bus
Most buses, except those heading farther north, leave from the highway bus station, which is about seven kilometers south of Mandalay. There are many different bus companies operating at this station. You can buy tickets there, through your guesthouse, or from ticket stands around the city. A single ticket for the bus from Bagan to Mandalay (about seven hours) is around $8. During most times of the year there are usually three departures daily. During peak holiday times, such as the Thingyan water festival in mid-April, there are more departures, but ticket prices are usually higher.
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Published on 2/13/09