I mean no disrespect when I say that this week I have really seen enough Buddhas to last me a lifetime!
It began in Bagan. We spent 3 days there in this laid-back, friendly Myanmar must-see. It’s 42 square kilometre plain covered in thousands of pagodas: intact and ruined, ancient (1057 – 1287 AD when they built 2500!) and modern. Earthquakes, neglect, looting, erosion and bat dung have taken their toll but, as the Lonely Planet says, “imagine all the medieval cathedrals of Europe, sitting on Manhattan Island – and then some – and you start to get a sense of the ambition of the Bagan kings.”
With Zayzay and his horse Bo-bee-bo, we explored lots of Bagan’s temples and pagodas. It was a hot day so a horsecart was a nice way to travel except for the bumps at times.
The best thing about the pagodas was viewing them from high up because of their sheer number.
Various shapes, sizes and finishes differentiated them. Inside there were usually Buddhas, sometimes painted walls or carvings and persistent people selling things – paintings, lacquerware, bracelets, postcards (including tiny kids selling home made ones), and remnants of temples that were either fake or they shouldn’t have had them.
We enjoyed watching the sunset from a good viewpoint.
On another of our days, we explored on electric bikes in the blazing sun. The bikes were quite fun in the end, once I’d figured out that I couldn’t move it manually when it was switched on as it would run away! Part of the day we got stuck in treacherous terrain (slightly deep sand) far from the official tourist track, making us feel like proper adventurers, though we realise we do look a bit silly on the odd bikes!
After Bagan, we travelled on a night bus to Yangon/Rangoon, the ex-capital city. We didn’t really like it! There were a few reasons: rip off accomodation, Dean got food poisoning, open sewers everywhere, dirt, dust and fumes, not much to do. But you win some, you lose some! We did quite enjoy these cakes and this train ride though:
The main activity we did do was visit the Shwedagon pagoda which we had to pay the special foreigner fee of $8 each to enter. It’s a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists who wear their best clothes and travel from far and wide. Inside the massive complex is a strange atmosphere. It’s a bit like a village but instead of houses there are loads of ornate covered platforms holding numerous Buddha statues or a giant bell or some Buddha relic or other. As you have to take your shoes off, the marble paved ‘streets’ are pretty hot underfoot so it’s preferable to stick to the shade.
In the centre there’s the main attraction: the massive golden pagoda which stands 98m high and can be glimpsed from all over the city. Rudyard Kipling described it as, ‘a golden mystery… a beautiful winking wonder.’ It’s surrounded by trends of golden stupas with various meanings. There are also eight ‘corners’ (left above) representing the days of the week (bear with me!) where you go to pour water on the Buddha image if you where born on that day or if an astrologer told you to. It’s all very complicated and relates to Hinduism and astrology. Each day is linked to a compass direction, an animal and the celestial body which it’s believed to carry:
Monday – east – tiger – Moon
Tuesday – south-east – lion – Mars
Wednesday morning – south – tusked elephant – Mercury
Wednesday afternoon – north-west – tuskless elephant – Yahu (a planet in Burmese astrology)
Thursday – west – rat – Jupiter
Friday – north – guineapig – Venus
Saturday – south-west – naga (mythical serpent beast) – Saturn
Sunday – north-east – garuda (mythical eagle man) – Sun
This is us in a mirror mosaic!
There are people everywhere but there are two discrete, contrasting groups: those reverently kneeling, bowing, chanting or bringing offerings and those who sit and eat lunch with friends or hold hands with a parter or take a nap in the shade. Quite a pleasant wander but, as I say, enough Buddhas for now!
I suspect only truly committed worldwanderingwonderings readers will make it through the last thing I thought I’d write about today! Partly because it took up a good proportion of our week and partly to give you an insight into the less fun side of travelling, I thought I’d spend a bit of time recounting our mammoth 48 hour journey from Yangon to Koh Tao. It’s a route/border crossing that has only just opened to foreigners so we hadn’t been able to find out anything online so, the first part at least, was a voyage into the unknown. We didn’t enjoy it but, at the same time, I hope it doesn’t come across too negatively because, believe it or not (know me or not!), we take all this stuff in our stride (except maybe the final bit!), accepting it’s just the reality of adventuring.
At around 3:30pm on Thursday, a taxi driver appeared in our hotel lobby with another customer. He told us the bus station was much further away than we had previously been told and it would take 90 minutes. This panicked us so we went with him but it turned out it only took about 45 minutes as we’d thought. He had quite good English so we had quite a nice chat with him on the way.
Arriving at the bus station, we felt quite prepared, armed with the company names, times and prices for three separate bus options from a travel agent, but that feeling soon disappeared and was replaced with the sense that everyone was lying to us. We were given reasons why we couldn’t use any of those we had noted down and then were ushered by various teenage boys to another bus company and then another. We didn’t know who to believe and couldn’t communicate sufficiently with anyone so in the end I waited at one place whilst Dean went to try to find more information without any ‘help’. This had the unexpected outcome of us being offered a big discount (to a much more reasonable but still overpriced amount) for the company I was waiting at. We concluded that all the choices were unknown gambles and so went for it. The deal was 7pm until 11am Friday with reclining seats and air conditioning for 10000 kyats each (£6 which doesn’t sound much but is what we’ve paid for spacious VIP buses previously).
When the bus arrived (late), our hearts sank as it was filthy inside and there was hardly any space: I had to have my heavy camera rucksack on my lap for the entire journey. The people loading the bus proceeded to lark about for so long that we ended up leaving at 7:45pm. Our relief was short-lived as it then stopped a couple of minutes later, apparently for one of the two attendants to do some shopping. Then it stopped again for petrol. During the journey we must have stopped about 15 times for reasons ranging from half hour midnight-snack and breakfast stops, a 90 minute nap stop (where the driver and attendants slept under the bus on the bags), engine repair stops requiring spanners, and a bus-wash stop towards the end! Very frustrating, especially knowing we needed to get a bus to Bangkok straight afterwards.
The hours of darkness passed in fitful periods of shivery, upright sleep whilst the TV loudly played Burmese films and music videos. They are abysmal! It sounds harsh, but believe me! The music videos are as if primary school kids have been given a camera, what with shaky panning, overlong zooming, dreadful transition effects between angles and zero creativity. Almost all feature a badly dressed, mismatched couple – the man always has Justin Bieber hair! They’re all set in uninteresting parks or roads or cafes, wherever is free I suppose. But the worst thing is the ‘acting’ which is almost exclusively done through lingering meaningful stares or hurt/flirtatious/angry/coy/jealous glances with the odd awkward hand gesture or clumsy hug. Then of course they all have the song words scrolling across the bottom for kareoke purposes!
Anyway, come sunrise, we pulled over for breakfast (we had a couple of samosas having missed dinner) then began the treacherous part of the journey, up and across some very tall mountains along exceedingly bumpy and windy roads. It was mainly one way aside from motorbikes speeding past and was terrifyingly narrow and high throughout. On several occasions the corners were so tight and unevenly surfaced that the bus tipped sideways at an alarming angle. The attendants showed their worth, leaping out to guide the driver round corners or to apply wooden wedges behind the wheels every time we stopped in an uphill traffic jam, of which there was several hours’. Genuinely scary as all this was, the driver and his accomplices were amazing and seemed to be working hard and concentrating fully to keep us safe. They should get paid danger money having to do that every day! Needless to say I forgave them all their earlier procrastinations!
We eventually arrived, shattered, at Myawaddy at 2pm after 18 hours! Here we were immediately accosted by a crowd of motorcycle and rickshaw drivers as we unloaded our soaking wet, suspicious-smelling bags from below the bus. We agreed to take a rickshaw to the bus station but hadn’t accounted for there being a steep hill on the way which he could neither cycle nor push us up so Dean had to get out and help!
The border crossing was pain- and cost-free but a bit embarrassing when I knocked over a metal railing with my bag which was not, to be fair, positioned at a backpacker-friendly distance from the departure window! I thought we were in trouble when a voice grunted, “You had better come inside,” but they were all actually very friendly and one wanted to compare visual impairments and terminology thereof with Dean!
Crossing a bridge, we reached the Thai side of the water, and found a sawngthaew (pickup) which gradually filled and then departed for the bus station. Within a couple of minutes we were in a minivan to take us to another bus station then, at 4pm, another minivan to take us to a town called Tak. We arrived there at 5:30pm and finally had a much needed pot noodle and toilet break before boarding a ‘first class’ bus to Bangkok at 6pm.
This bus was cleaner and a bit more comfortable than the previous one but not much! Fortunately there were no more mountains to contend with! It arrived in Bangkok at about half past midnight. Then we beat the taxi touts who stormed the bus as we arrived offering a ride for 550 baht – we paid 95 in the end to an honest driver using the meter like he was supposed to!
By the time we’d found our hotel – which we’d booked as close to tomorrow’s bus stop as possible – showered and put our clocks forward, it was 2:30am and we were pretty wide awake!
The alarm sounded at 5:30, and we were on our next bus by 6am. This was full of tourists so didn’t keep stopping and arrived at Chumphon at 1pm. We were starving by this point and, since we were a boatride from our very touristy destination, we bought a mini Mars and Snickers and a bag of Kettle Chips!
At 1:30 we boarded the catamaran and I, along with many others, spent the next tumultuous 90 minutes very much wanting to die as I was reacquainted with the aforementioned Western snacks!
At long last we arrived on the island of Koh Tao, ready for a good feed and a long sleep. For me, however there was the small matter of a two hour diving theory lesson to undertake before I had even checked in!
Not all our journeys are like this of course, this is an extreme example. Well done if you’re still reading!
So here we will spend Christmas and, so far, it’s seeming like a good decision! I’ll leave more on that for my Christmas blog post though!