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Escape from Paradise – Pyin Oo Lwin to Bagan, via Mandalay | We're Not There Yet

This banner was enough to get us in the door at a local bar in Pyin Oo Lwin. I wonder where on earth that photo came from.

We left Pyin Oo Lwin via a very cramped pick-up truck for the two-hour ride down to Mandalay. R was all for taking the pick-up for soaking up local flavor, but I had my doubts, which were confirmed as soon as I was squeezed into the innermost seat in the pick-up where the leg-room was taken up by sacks of grain and what appeared to be huge rings of sausage. Other people were making themselves cozy by sticking each foot through a sausage loop in an effort to find a reasonable seated position. The meat bundles in front of me, however, were draped with heavy canvas, so I could only struggle to sit Indian-style, which gave me leg cramps before we even started moving. The stretched tarp roof was positioned to shelter people about a quarter of my size- even the much shorter adults were hunched over to fit inside. Somehow R snagged a seat at the back with all the legroom a man could want and then moved up top to a questionably mounted roof rack where children, monks, and, apparently, Westerners ride. He passed his time chatting with the young guys who crewed the truck and a monk around the same age. He showed them his camera and took some photos and was soon directed to take pictures of cute girls we passed on the road. As we climbed off the truck at the end of the long, hot slog, the monk, who had been reserved until then, asked R for his iPod. R laughed at the request and told the monk ‘Sorry, I’m not a Buddhist’.

First class

A young passenger

Napping in the open air

Nice enough guy, but get your own iPod

The ladies of Myanmar: the monk directed R to take zoomed-in shots of girls as they drove by:


We tried to avoid the Nylon Hotel, where we had stayed during our previous stop in Mandalay but were turned away from the next best option so back we went. The hotel itself was fine and the staff friendly enough, but we got ripped off purchasing our bus tickets to Hsipaw through them. When we checked in this time, R told the manager that he was upset about being overcharged for tickets and misled about the quality of transportation, but the manager insisted that it was all just a misunderstanding and he did no wrong. We weren’t convinced by his pseudo-apology but decided to let it go.Coming down from the highlands into Mandalay

Dusk in the streets of Mandalay

Local transport in Mandalay

The only reason we came back to stay in Mandalay was to catch the twice-a-week ferry to Bagan that is supposed to be an interesting, if long and hot, trip. After we settled in, I went downstairs to buy our tickets but was told that the ticket office was closed and it was too late to get on the 5am ferry the next morning. I was really put-out because I had hinged a lot of our plans on timing them to make the ferry but didn’t do enough research to make it happen. I sulkily agreed to buy early morning bus tickets to Bagan instead, okay paying a bit of a premium because the bus company they use was recommended in our guidebook and a free shuttle to the bus station was included. But that was sold out, too. In the end, we got early afternoon bus tickets with no shuttle (we folded ourselves into a local pick-up again to get to the station) and arrived to find a beautiful row of gleaming new air-con buses…. and one little broke-down one, which turned out to be ours. Once again we had been overpromised and overcharged by our shifty hotel. We were promised air-con but were loaded onto a bus that looked like it had a former life as a terminal shuttle at a regional airport in 1972 Korea. When the hotel promised us air-con, I think they were using the term metaphorically because they certainly couldn’t have meant the plastic nozzles that emitted just enough warm air to blow dust around. Shame on me, though, for going back to the same well that I knew was bad.

Our broken-down bus on the way to Bagan

‘Repairing’ the bus

At least there was a road-side stand selling warm beer

Despite a break-down on the side of the road, the bus did get us to Bagan and ahead of schedule, which has become a strange consistency of bus travel in Myanmar. We had been chatting with an Aussie couple on the bus-ride who had made reservations with a hotel that offered free pick-ups from the bus stop. We asked if we could tag along and were ushered to a cozy little horse-drawn buggy and whisked away to the hotel. We took a room that was a tiny bit pricier than we usually choose, but we were hot and tired and ready to be done with our backpacks. Then the buggy driver started demanding money for the 5-minute ride over and management told us that they only offer transport to people with reservations. It could have turned into a bit of a scene, but Dave, one of the Aussies who had made the reservation, spoke up for us and for Ethical Treatment of Tourists and we cleared that hurdle.

I have identified a theme in my negative experiences in Myanmar and that is that they all revolve around transport. Each destination we see, each activity we sign up for- even food and accommodation, which we had low expectations of- has been fine-to-great, but the getting between has been a trial for me. I like to think that I am an easy-going traveller and can manage less-than standard conditions, especially if they are temporary, like a bus ride. I don’t know if it is just me getting older and fussier or if some kind of injustice is actually being done, but it really does get to me. R has been much more Zen about all these things and I can remember past trips that have seen me share space with livestock, sit on strangers’ laps, and even hitchhike on a busy freeway when my bus broke down on the way to the airport. I know I have been through worse than a bus without AC, but something about the way it all breaks down rubs me the wrong way: misrepresentation, overcharging, being given the hard sell at every turn. Other than that, Myanmar is a delight.