Bago; the Golden Rock; the biggest Buddha in the country and the Worst bus journey of our lives

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January 30th 2009
Published: February 24th 2009
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Well at the end of our Myanmar trip we have mixed feelings. There have been some great times, but most of the 'highlights' were big letdowns. Especially with the awful, excruciatingly long, 'bus' journeys.


After our adventures in Yangon we headed to what would turn out to be one of the actual highlights of our trip. With Anders and Pauline, and our new friend Kris we got the bus to Bago. A 3-hour pickup ride. It's amazing how many peop,e can fit 'in' a pickup. Apparently 8 can hang off the back, but women can't sit on the roof. Comfort doesn't exist. Children, animals, luggage, dried fish (that %^$ing smell will haunt my dreams) and just about everything else crowds around you. Though we've never experienced quite so well behaved children on any journeys elsewhere in the world except SE Asia. Laura came up with some quite convincing theories as to why they put up with such long trips without even opening their mouths.

The men negotiated a good price to get all of us on the roof of the pickup, including the ladies. We had to pay extra because apparently they would lose business with girls on top. But they weren't allowed on top until we had left the town, and then not yet because there was a monk on board and he would be seriously offended to be below a woman, and then not yet because some aggressive Indian man wouldn't let them. In the end we just got a refund. Kris and Dom sat and the roof whilst the others endured the inside.

Bago was a beautiful place. We were befriended by 5 guys on mopeds who gave us tips on how not to pay the exorbitant 10 dollar entry fee to the monuments (money straight to a currupt regime) and later became our guides to the monuments so we could do it in a day. After an all-you-can-eat vegetarian Thali for less than 50 UK pennies we got on their bikes and saw some big buddhas, a huge 70 metre reclining buddha, some more buddhas and a 119-year-old boa constrictor which is apparently a reincarnation of a monk, and allowed to slither freely around a village full of children.

This was back in the days when we weren't completely bored by stupas, pagodas, payas or whatever you want to call them, so the sunset from a nearby one was lovely. The next day we ate breakfast at the house of one of the drivers which was almost better than the entire day before. The main drag in Bago is like any other city, but 10 minutes walk from it is this guys house, and loads of others, weaved from some kind of leaf and set along a misty river. The guys mother cooked for us and looked on proudly as the locals slowly heard of our presence and came to have a look. This was back in the days when being a celebrety was fun, too.

All the children turned up to say 'bye bye', apparently what they learn to say 'hello', along with frantic waving.

The next stop was the 'Golden Rock', which turned out to be more of a 'Golden Crock'. It wouldn't have been so bad if we hadn't got up at 1AM, YES ONE IN THE MORNING. To walk there in time for sunrise. The lonely planet says that either sunrise or sunset is the best time to see it, but doesn't mention that 1. it's not really worth seeing, especially not for that much effort (a 5-hour hike) and 2. that the sun rises opposite it so is completely worthless! Lucky Laura dropped out of the hike vomiting with a bad stomach after 30 minutes whilst the rest of us fools stormed up the mountain. Oh and did we mention the 4 hour pickup to get there in the first place? Dom was getting used to the roof but everyone else was fed up. Even more fed up were we when we had to pay 6 dollars to look at the damn rock. Men could venture so far as to touch it, but the women were strictly forbidden from doing so. Dom's jest of 'about time!' didn't cause the outbreak of raucous laughter it had been intended to bring about.

Laura woke up for the first bus and must have sailed past us in the bus back to our hotel. She then had to wait two and a half hours for a military convoy to pass, nearly causing us all to miss our bus to our next port of call. If only we had seen her, we could have shouted "No! Turn back, it's not worth it!" Little did she know she would have to climb for the best part of an hour up steep switchbacks in the midday heat to pay 6 dollars to see a rock on a cliff.

Maybe it wasn't that bad, maybe we were all just bitter about the grueling walk there and the almost more horrible walk back down to the bus. Maybe..

Anyway after lunch we got a REAL bus to a nearby town and attempted to get to Hpa-an to ride the ferry to Mawlamyine. Not possible in one trip, so we got a pickup half way with the intention of meeting a connecting pickup. none, so we went straight to Mawlamyine, making it 10 hours on a pickup on one stretch, missing the scenic boatride and starting to have a real attitude problem in the direction of Burmese travel.

So Mawlamyine was our next stop, which turned out to be another one of those 'nothing towns' that Myanmar does so well! We were lucky enough to witness another monks funeral, trimmings and all, and to snack on some Burmese style 'fast food'.
Mawlamyine is home to the biggest Buddha in the country, or world, depending on who you listen to. We were impressed at the scale of the Buddha, but having already seen 1000's of them we weren't blown away. To be fair though he was 170 metres long, which is no joke. But he only had 8 toes... and was littered with scafforlding. The inside (yes you could go inside!) was partially done, and full of hundreds weird sculptures depicting the phases of Buddhism, including horrific scenes of hell. It was all the more creepy for there being no light or windows in parts of it, so we had to shuffle quickly through, ignoring the ghostly figures around us! Creepy!

And then we left Mawlamine to go up North... Firstly we caught a pick-up to the bus station, 30 mins later we arrived and tried to get on a bus to Bago where our first change was. Apparently foreigners weren't allowed on that bus. This is a problem we were to come across more than once in Myanmar. We were instructed to go to a different bus station by a hoard of drunks who inhabited the bus station, unfortunately most of them were mototaxi drivers (motorbike taxis) so we had to carefully pick 4 that hadn't been drinking. We got to the other, foreigner-friendly bus station in almost one piece and clambered on our bus which was leaving as we looked for seats. The seats Dom and I had chosen were soon taken by people who had tickets. We were stuck with the aisle seats, removable seats which are very uncomfortable. Laura's had a broken backrest and Dom's was a plastic stool. We were on that bus for 7 hours.

Our connection in Bago left us with just enough time for a few boiled duck and quail eggs for lunch, our patience already thinning. Once again we had to wait for the 2nd bus as the first didn't have seats suitable for foreigners. We found the seats... but Dom couldn't fit into his (long legs). We negotiated a seat for him at the back in the middle (a seat Dom has learned to accept as his only friend on busses). We stopped for dinner and ordered a safe meal of noodles; but none of us could stomach more than a mouthful. Once back on the bus we discovered that the back row had been filled with boxes and bags. The conductor physically tried to put us all in different seats, ripping Dom's trousers in the process. We spent the next 20 minutes moving boxes and bags, which we found to our delight were full of dried fish ( OH GOD THE SMELL). We sat with these boxes under our noses for the next ten hours. The bus also had a delightful way of playing tinny ice-cream van music when it was stopping for a break; we were woken up by this at least 5 times and told in no uncertain terms that no one should stay on the bus during breaks (nice at 3am).

4am, and we reached 'the junction'. Our next connection wasn't for another hour, so the plan was to just wait. 5 more drunk guys offering their service as moto taxi drivers made us change our plans and go to the bus station. We walked and were followed by the drunks where they tried to charge us 7000K (about $7 US) to get on their friends' minibus. We held out and as the bus was leaving the price became 4000K, but no more comfortable.

This 3 hour trip took 7. The seats sloped towards the open door leaving us clinging onto our seats for the entirety of the journey. The mountain it mini bus was climbing up was dust roads, the dust came in though the open door. We also stopped for 2 hours with no explanation, and for between 20 and 45 minutes several times whilst bags were tied to the roof and the driver ate or smoked or did whatever drivers do when they get bored.

In summary we spent 28 hours on buses, ate 10 boiled eggs and 20 quail eggs and one packet of Lemon crackers. When we arrived in Kalaw we didn't even have the energy to be angry about the pain in our rea ends. We ate and slept, to wake the next day and sort out a trek to Inle Lake.

Additional photos below
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Scorpian! Scorpian!

Dom doesn't know how to not get too close to things!

24th February 2009

Hello Laura and Dom, Wow, wow, wow!!! I had so much fun reading this last tale!! Thanks so much for it! Although I've been to most places that you mention in this story, I really do envy you for being able to travel this long right now. Reading your stories makes me seriously think about quitting my job and leaving to travel the world again on an open end ticket just like 10 - 15 yrs ago when life had much less responsibilities ... Guys, enjoy ALL of this, even if there are crappy times every once in a moon!!! Be safe, be healthy and continue to have a fantastic journey!! Can't wait to read more :-) Love - Yvonne
24th February 2009

your photos are incredible!!! so the blogs...keep em coming! tonnes oof love xxxxx
6th March 2009

I'm enjoying the warts n all travel write ups. Myanmar is definitely not an easy place to travel around and I'm glad you're not painting a superficial tale of sunsets and Buddhas and how amazing it all is (man).

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