NEVER could it be said that journeys in Burma were uneventful. The overnight bus from Pyay to Bagan was pretty ramshackle, as was the road. At one stage, we may have driven across – or rather, through – the Irrawaddy River, which must have been a quarter of a mile wide, although looking at a map later, I couldn’t see why we would have done so.
All I did know was that in the wee small hours we went through about three feet of muddy water for a very long time, then got stuck in sand as the bus tried to get up a bank and half the male passengers had to get off and push.
Then we were woken from our half-slumber and dragged off the hot bus into a café where Jean-Claude van Damme was doing side splits on the large-screen TV. Great, I thought., “It’s the middle of nowhere, they rely on a generator for their electricity, yet still they can find the power to inflict Jean-Claude van Damme’s turquoise Lycra-clad arse on us at 1.30 in the morning.”
Bagan was one of the biggest tourist sites in Burma: thousands of zedi and temples spread over 40 square kilometres. We arrived there at around 6am, and driving through this bizarre landscape in the early morning light was pretty trippy. The zedi were a thousand or so years old, and wear and tear along with at least one major earthquake had taken their toll.
In recent years, though, many had been restored. It was difficult to know whether this was right or wrong: Bagan must have looked more like it did in its heyday, and the project must have created work for local craftsmen, but there was a real Disneyland feel to the place.
One of the first sights to greet visitors wasn’t a zedi, though; it was a massive billboard on the road into the historical zone, which proclaimed – in English, note:
Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
Oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the state and progress of the nation.
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state.
Oppose all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”
There was a matching one in Burmese, just in case the locals need reminding that these were indeed their desire, and there were similar boards around the country.
I rented a pedal bike. First, I hit the market, which was possibly just as scary as the totalitarian billboard: there was a sack of chillies which had clearly been gnawed by rats, then a big metal dish of grey stuff that looked like nothing more than a grey cat’s fur-balls collected together and coated in slime and sold as food.
Earlier, I’d asked N about what kind of illnesses were common in Burma. “People are sick,” he said, miming retching. I could well understand that: 40 years of political isolation hadn’t done a right lot for public health awareness.
Example? In another market I had seen a woman squatting by a woven grass tray. She was in the shade under an umbrella but the sun beat down on the tray… and the entrails spread over it. Every so often the woman would turn the entrails with her bare (unwashed) hands, then scoop some into a bag for a purchaser.
Then there were the pots of drinking water scattered around public places. The pots had covers, which helped keep out solid nasties, dirt and the like, but they also had a cup attached, from which everyone drank; “safe” drinking water that was anything but.
Pretty much the only places I saw that had standards of hygiene even vaguely high enough not to induce a complete meltdown in a Western public health inspector were those where there was some kind of Western input. Cafés set up by returned expats, say, or restaurants used by Western aid workers or high-end tourists.
After lunch with K and N, who had gone straight to Bagan from Rangoon, I cycled round the archaeological zone. Some of the bigger temples were open to the public, and it was possible to climb onto the roof for a panorama of (just) some of the thousands of religious buildings.
My favourite temple had to be the Ananda Pahto, a square white temple with a golden spire; nice from the outside, lovely inside, with wall paintings, floral floor-tiles and a huge standing Buddha who was smiling from one angle and frowning from another.
Even though the number and spread of the zedi and temples was impressive, Bagan actually didn’t move me overmuch, and, in addition, I felt as though the locals saw me as a walking wallet rather than a person. If I heard the words: “You want horsecart?” (a common way of getting round Bagan – and many other towns and cities in Burma, for that matter) ever again in my life, my brain would explode, I decided.
That said, one experience taught me how much tourist money could mean to the locals. Some of them had stalls inside the pagodas, selling fabric paintings or the local speciality, lacquerware.
Even though I had been asked umpteen times too many to look at paintings, souvenirs or lacquerware, I agreed, after a lot of badgering, to go to the home of one young vendor. I had arrived at the temple where he had his pitch just as he was leaving and he looked so dejected I didn’t have the heart to walk away from him.
That didn’t mean I was at all keen about going to his house: I was leaving town at 4am the following day and I hadn’t packed or bought my bus ticket, but I agreed to let him pick me up at 9pm.
What with booking my onward ticket and paying my guesthouse bill, I was half an hour late, but still he was waiting for me. I thought I would get away with spending five minutes with him. However, when we arrived at his house – brick-built, but with very little furniture – I found his father, mother and two younger brothers there to greet me, and that his mother had laid out plates of mango, peanuts, water and beer.
I wasn’t hungry, so I said I would look at their lacquerware straightaway. “Naïve” was probably the best way of describing it, but one battered piece caught my eye. It was an old money box, and I agreed to buy it for US$10. K, the young man, was really excited – I was his first sale of the whole day – while his father kept saying: “Thank you, thank you” and shaking my hand as enthusiastically as if I’d turned up and told him he’d won the lottery.
Yep, that was how much $10 meant to them.
They were lovely, genuine people and I stayed as long as I could; we ate mango while K’s father told me that civil servants earned about 20,000 kyats (about US$20) a month, while someone with a ‘good’ job earned $100. I so wanted to stay longer, much longer, but I had a 4am bus to catch…
From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.