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Published: November 12th 2017
In a little text box in the Bagan chapter of the new edition of the Book, it proudly proclaimed: “A new overland service connects Bagan with Mrauk U…” This was enough to hook me when I was planning this trip. Otherwise, getting between Myanmar’s two most famous archaeological sites involves two planes and a boat, none of which connect, which means a minimum of three days’ travelling. It’s only 479 km, but, as I had quickly learned on arriving here, the number of kilometres has no bearing on the time involved. Historically, the bus option necessitated backtracking almost to Mandalay, I believe, which, on the basis of the last 24 hours’ experience would be, err, suboptimal. And so, my first afternoon in Nyaung U, the transport hub for the Bagan area, I tootled off to talk to the Ever Sky travel agents recommended by aforementioned tome.
A ridiculously short time later, I was the poorer by $30 but happily bearing a ticket that promised to pick me up from my guest house “Around 6:30 PM” for the 7 pm “Modern Bus from Bagan to Mrauk-U” four days’ later. “Seat No.17” was expecting me. The
not exactly a bus station
my home for a couple of hours
travel agent told me I’d be going by bus to Kyaukpadraung, about an hour down the road, where I would change onto the Mrauk U bus, but the driver would change with me there so I didn’t need to worry. I was to discover that some of this got slightly adjusted in translation.
“Around 6 pm” (because I’m a closet boy scout this respect), I was showered and waiting in the reception area of the lovely Saw Nyein San Guest House, where I’d been staying all week, and trying not to look at my watch every half minute. I was conscious that my hostess had looked a little put out that I hadn’t engaged her auspices to acquire the ticket, so I wasn’t exactly sure what my Plan B would be, but there was no need. At 6.40 pm, a minivan drew up and a young man came in. “Mrauk U?” he asked. (It’s pronounced “miao-oo”, the Burmese having a bit of a dislike for consonants, I was beginning to conclude. Clearly, they’re just for decoration.) I leapt up, and he took my bag while I thanked my hostess effusively for all her and her family’s hospitality. Outside, a
second man showed me into the front passenger seat, while my bag took up lone residence in the boot, and I found myself the sole paying customer on what seemed to be a family outing. The three-and-a-half year old and I exchanged my sum total of Burmese and, prompted by his father, his sum total of English, while baby sister squawked occasionally and Mum made comforting sounds.
South of the Nyaung U bus station, we stopped for fuel. “OK,” I thought, “they must be taking me the whole way to Kyaukpadraung. Nice. Time to get comfortable and relax.”
About forty minutes later, we stopped at one in a row of the large open-air shops-cum-cafés that are so common here. But a bus station, it wasn’t. Confused of South-East London. My bag was extracted from the boot, and the father kindly came to open my door, as if assuming that my lack of effort in this regard was because I was awaiting his attentions. “You wait here,” he told me, while my bag took up residence in the indoor part of the café. “Bus come. Half an hour. Less,” he assured me. “Err, really?” The doubt must have been
writ huge across my face. “Um, OK then. Jezu-ba,” I thanked him. The family headed off, and I went to join my bag. Now what?
To my relief, a couple of buses pulled up only about twenty minutes later. Result! I picked up my stuff, and scampered to the front of the café. “Mrauk U?” I asked a couple of likely candidates. “No, no, no. Wrong direction. Don’t worry. We get you,” a young man from the café assured me. I wasn’t convinced, and went back to my plastic stool.
The first bus to arrive from the opposite direction had, of course, exactly the same effect. I grabbed my bags, scampered to the front of the café, and posed my now usual question. One man shook his head at me blankly, dismissively. Uncomprehending, uninterested in comprehending. It was a rare – possibly the first – instance of rudeness I’ve encountered here, and I shrank back, bemused. But I was rescued by the lady of the house. There’s something about Burmese women running hospitality businesses, I thought, generalising wildly on the basis of two. Fearsomely efficient, their menfolk and assorted other relatives scuttle meekly in their shadows. My Nyaung
U hostess was of that ilk. Diminutive, but with a particularly staccato way of speaking English, she packed a verbal punch. And here was another. “You wait. Don’t worry. We get you. Don’t worry. May be one hour. Or more,” said my new best friend, smiling at me.
So now I knew the score. Back I went to my plastic stool, out came the diary, and on went the business of the café. New Best Friend returned to her accounts, and the two teenage girls helping out continued their conversation, smartphones glued to their hands. Something prompted a comment from New Best Friend, to which one of the girls replied a touch petulantly. I laughed out loud. “Daughter,” said New Best Friend, catching my eye, and gesturing to Petulance. She didn’t to tell me: the dynamics of mother-and-daughter are oddly similar the world over. The little lad busied himself with chopping apples into plastic bags for the next set of tired and hungry passengers, he wielding a large and evidently sharp knife with careless efficiency. Later, he helped out with the accounts, shuffling notes in his roll of cash as if he’d been doing it since he was born.
He can’t have been more than ten, but with all his mother’s efficiency and self-reliance. Behind me, the twin altars of modern Burmese society: the television showing a soap opera, all bad acting, soft lighting and long looks, and the family shrine, bedecked with fresh flowers. Every so often, another bus or two would turn up, and disgorge its contents who’d make their sleepy way to the toilets at the back of the café, and then return, brighter, seeking further sustenance.
And so the evening wore on. New Best Friend had disappeared by this stage, and I made one more effort to find my own bus, but was rescued by Petulance, tearing herself away from the soap opera to save the firanghi from an erroneous destination.
Finally, the call went out. A bus – not branded “Modern” at all – had pulled up a little past the café on the far side of the road, and New Best Friend reappeared. From the looks of it, she’d been out there for the previous half hour or so, waiting to accost the bus lest it try to zip past without picking me up. I was completely indebted to her. Efficiently,
she took my ticket and went to discuss it with the driver, while my holdall was taken in the opposite direction by the driver’s assistant. How to keep an eye on two directions at once: I was left marooned in the middle, looking to each side of me in turn like pigeons watching Wimbledon. Even my small holdall wasn’t going to fit in the bus’s luggage compartments, clearly. From what I could see of one, there wouldn’t have been room for a bookmark. The assistant took my bag on board, while I caught up with New Best Friend. “Four,” she held up the requisite number of fingers and gave me back my ticket. At the third repetition, I figured out her meaning. Clearly “Seat No.17” had gotten fed up waiting for me, although, on reflection, I wondered if the change in seat was deliberate on the part of the driver. Seat no.4 was right behind the second driver and assistant. Only a couple of hours along the road and I found myself being accosted by the assistant. “Passport!” And this was to happen on three more occasions, only one of which also involved the Burmese showing their papers. It’s easier
to keep the firanghi close by if she triggers regular extra paperwork. Oddly, I never needed to show my face. It was enough that my passport could adopt a pair of legs and walk over to the roadblock or police checkpoint by itself.
My seat-partner redefined taciturn. He was a small lithe man who kept himself to himself and, if my settling in and sporadic wriggling annoyed him, he was too polite to say anything. Me, I was struggling with how to get comfortable and maintain Burmese propriety. Can you breach local etiquette if no-one sees you? Never mind my seat-partner, there were two monks on the other side of the aisle. I became paranoid about which way the undersides of my feet were pointing, but the bus was dark for the most part, and I finally pushed this consideration into second place. After all, sitting so close to the front has one major night-time disadvantage: there’s no getting away from all oncoming traffic’s high-beamed headlights, never mind the driver’s prolific use of the horn (though I subsequently noticed that it was largely aimed at avoiding the local canine population, so forgave him every tuneless toot-a-thon). I wondered if
it was going to be possible to get any sleep, and found myself noticing the bus’s red-illuminated clock far too often for what was, by any measure, going to be a long night. I dug out my iPod. Remember those? The battery lasts way longer than an iPhone’s… On went my stalwart lull-me-to-sleep-on-transport choice, Pink Floyd’s “The Division Bell” and, before I knew it, the clock had jumped on half an hour all by itself. There was hope for this night yet.
At 1.45 am we stopped for toilets, refreshments and a change of driver, though First Driver stayed with us and would continue to alternate with his colleague. EU long-distance driving and rest regulations all too evidently don’t apply here. When it looked as if everyone was refreshed in both directions, as it were, Second Driver tooted the horn, and First Driver kindly made sure I knew what this meant, the combination jolting me out of my glaikit reverie.
At this point, we left the Irrawaddy river plain, and started the climb into the hills that separate Magwe state from Rakhine state. (The joys of the impressive mobile phone coverage here: I could keep an eye on
our progress, both geographically and time-wise, with the help of Google Maps, although I made sure to add at least 50% to whatever time estimate Google was giving for the remainder of the journey, and even that was to prove to be an underestimate.) Second Driver took it cautiously, with plentiful use of the horn, this time to warn downhill traffic of our imminent appearance, and I lost count of the number of times I opened my eyes to find I was looking at a mud bank as Second Driver wiggled our way around yet another hairpin bend.
For some reason, we stopped again at about 4 am, this time for an hour or so, while the assistant tinkered with something. As the engine (and therefore the air conditioning) was left running, I’m assuming it was bodywork related, and the assistant’s pristine white shirt was a good deal less pristine by the time he got back onto the bus.
Eventually I became aware, on my sporadic eye-openings, that it was getting light outside. Sharp ridges of hills rippled away on either side of me. But my neighbour was keeping the curtain closed, and my eyes were more interested
in their lids than our surroundings, so I dozed off again. Since the bodywork stop, we’d been treated to Burmese music, I think from First Driver’s own mobile; it certainly wasn’t bus-wide, but it was enough for me not to challenge Marillion, who’d now succeeded Pink Floyd after a blast of way-too-lively Tom Petty, so I’d turned my own music off.
At the everyone’s-papers-check well into Rakhine state, we heaved ourselves off the bus to stretch muscles and in search of toilets, but, shortly after we’d piled back on, we were treated to a breakfast stop. “Showtime,” said First Driver, somewhat unexpectedly, turning towards me to show off his English. This café was a definite grade up from New Best Friend’s. It was a cavern of a place, almost all indoor, with a double-height ceiling and a balcony around three sides. As we’d exited the bus, we’d been given the thoughtful gifts of a wet towel and a toothbrush/paste kit. Most people beetled off to use both, but another female passenger and I elected to have a quieter wipe-up while waiting for our breakfast, and for teeth to be done afterwards. When I did go out back later, I
was embarrassed at my fellow passengers’ (and no doubt several days’ worth of passengers’) behaviour. Toothpaste tubes and plastic wrappers littered the ground beyond the water tank, despite a crate being provided for litter. But sadly Myanmar, like most countries, is only coming late to the recognition of the evils of litter and the possibilities for recycling. (I had seen a couple of plastic bottle receptacles around Old Bagan, but sceptically wondered if the bottles then went anywhere, other than the general landfill.)
In the meantime, I thanked, for the nth time on my travels, the fortuity that “coffee” is one of those internationally recognised words. The young girl serving nodded, and reappeared seconds later with a mug of hot water and the now-inevitable sachet. Coffee is not something Myanmar does, I’m finding. I kicked myself yesterday afternoon when, for my final meal in the Bagan area, I was given the best cup of coffee in the country so far – WHY hadn’t I known this fact about this particular restaurant before then? Coffee at hotel buffets has tended to be filter, but sometimes pretty weak. Coffee when you’re out-and-about can mean a cold can of, effectively, coffee milkshake
– and very fine it is too, particularly when you’re a little hungry but aren’t feeling confident about the street food on offer. Otherwise, “hot coffee” means exactly what I was now being given. At the end of the day, it’s hot and wet and reasonably coffee-flavoured, and fools my digestion into thinking it’s had the day’s caffeine intake, and that’s what matters. (Maybe the British should have let the French extend their influence over Indochina into Burma after all – you get great coffee in Laos and Cambodia!) And here I was also presented with a basket of pre-wrapped bakeries. Who’d have thought that my first meal in Rakhine state would have involved marmalade? Yes, my plastic-wrapped e-number-laden white roll – no doubt manufactured back in the ’90s – contained what tasted suspiciously like the good ol’ British breakfast staple.
And so our journey continued. The roads had been much worse since we left the plains, and now the horn was being used to warn roadworkers of our approach. The majority were women, in the kind of flat/conical straw hats that I used to associate with the Vietnamese in rice paddies, but which are so prevalent here too.
Here the women were loading baskets with sharp-edged gravel to fill holes in the road. The man on board the grader was wearing a mask against the dust. The women weren’t even wearing gloves.
When we dipped back into flat country, the fields were peppered with people and animals working on the rice, and I realised I hadn’t seen a tractor on the land since I’d arrived in Myanmar. Everyone has a role: kids tend the goats, men work the oxen, everyone helps in the fields, and those back home lay out the rice and monkey nuts for drying. Here the rice paddies were almost luminous in colour, the plants at that just-about-to-bend-over stage, but brilliantly green right now.
The bus assistant had dispensed small black plastic bags to the paan chewers, though I was relieved not to hear any hawking from my fellow passengers. My neighbour discretely hid his head behind the curtain to spit. Younger Monk decided to use his water bottle instead. Somehow smoking (which I’d seen him doing at a couple of stops) or taking paan, which both monks did, didn’t seem very monk-ly. I find myself more and more sickened by the habit
here, having noticed a bit of a reduction when I was last in India. At Kyaukpadraung the previous evening, I’d seen a woman paan addict, her mouth looking dark and menacing, despite its smile; positively vampire-like. I was told by my Shwedagon guide that it causes gum cancer – that’s why, he said a touch piously, he didn’t indulge. What about the fact it looks awful? Hideous red gums and gappy teeth.
Slowly, slowly we made progress. We reached our first passenger-offloading stop in the early afternoon, a real milestone, I felt. My hope, since we’d come down the inter-state hills to the estuarine plain, that it’d all be flat country from now on, had long since evaporated. Odd little hill ranges would pop up, and without warning, the quality of the road on the flat would change dramatically. After a mid-morning snooze – what was that the Book had said about our arriving at Mrauk U “at 10am or 11am”? We were still, by my assessment, a good four hours’ off – I woke to find that we were actually on full width, two-way road, as opposed to the largely single-track-with-wide-patches-of-dirt-for-passing version that we’d had since the middle
of the night. But that didn’t last long. Through the villages, the road reverted to dirt, and, for the most part, it remained patchily sealed, with large patches of very unsealed. But I’ve been on far worse, and finally we were drawing into Mrauk U. I found myself tracking the route as we drove, remembering the route from my scrutiny of the Book and Google Maps. When we stopped, I made to get up, but an older man, with whom I’d been speaking earlier, motioned for me to stay put. I’d worked out that my hotel lay on the bus’s route – it was going on to Sittwe, another 4-5 hours further on, I’d guestimate (which, for those who had started at Mandalay the previous afternoon going to the end of the road, would have meant a humungous endurance test) – and, sure enough, from what I could pick up, he’d essentially told First Driver that the bus was going to go right past my hotel, so please could they drop me there? I was losing track of my fellow travellers’ kindnesses, and this one – absolute door-to-door service – took the biscuit. And all for a bus ticket of $30.
21½ hours from leaving my Nyaung U guesthouse to arriving here.
Boy, that shower, cold beer and bed are going to be welcome. I’ll postpone the temples until the morning. They’ve been here several centuries. I think they can wait another 18 hours.
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