Parul and I decided to visit Burma / Myanmar for a vacation . We ended up getting three full weeks to travel the beautiful country. In a country like Myanmar that has a rapidly evolving tourism industry, I intend to fill the gaps that I found while trying to plan a trip myself. That and a first hand narrative of the wonderful experiences that we have had.
Landing in Yanon & Aung Mingalar
It had been more than 12 hours since we left my home in Delhi to when we landed in Yangon International Airport. We had planned to take the metro to Delhi airport but were told that the last airport metro had already departed when we got to the link at New Delhi Railway Station. I had lost the bet by 10 minutes and Parul demanded her 100 rupees immediately. We then booked a cab, ignoring the nagging rickshaw walahs who promised to get us a hotel or lodge in Pahargunj. Within an hour the cab dropped us at IGI-T3. The CISF jawan at the gate asked me what I did in Burma and smiled when I told him I was going to boost their tourism industry.
We checked in with a throng of passengers at the Thai counter. The lady sitting on the ticketing desk was utterly disinterested in what we were saying and was on a rant of her own. We checked in our luggage, picked up our boarding passes and joined a rather long line for immigration. I could not figure out what was causing such a big rush at the hour. Perhaps a lot of flights departed at that time. The officer at the immigration counter was a funny old man. When Parul’s passport was giving trouble to the scanner, he asked me whether I would go if she was denied. I laughed and said I would. He called me selfish to which I shrugged my shoulders. He also advised me to learn how to cook now that I was married. How he came to figure out that we were married or why would learning to cook make more sense after marriage is still a mystery to me. I just smiled at the one track mind of the generation that he belonged to. He finished entering Parul’s details manually and we were good to go.
To keep up with the trend, the CISF jawan at the security scanner made me remove more items from the bag than was usually required. Once we had checked in, we waited for a while as the flight was delayed. We were in no rush since this was simply cutting into out long stop over at the Bangkok airport. Eventually we did board and fell asleep almost immediately. We were woken up with a couple of fruit platters that were utterly delicious. Parul put on Hotel Transylvania 2 on her screen. She did not put her headphones on as she said she wanted to sleep. So it was I who eventually ended up watching the movie while she slept. Not having seen the first part made little difference. Adam Sandler is simply awesome! I managed to get a little sleep after the movie ended.
We landed in Bangkok and then made the long hike to the transfer counters. The next flight was still a long time away so we stretched out on a few seats and tried to get some sleep. We were both up before the alarm had a chance to wake us up. We walked to the gate that was listed and the boarding for the flight to Yangon started soon thereafter. This was just a one hour flight in which we were served Hindu meals, whatever that is. I watched in dismay as everyone else around me ate interesting looking dishes while I chewed on spoonfuls of chickpea and corn. Parul finished her Hotel Transylvania 2 in mute. I had to explain parts of the story to her. I wonder what kick she got out of not putting on the headphones.
Yangon’s airport is not a huge one. We landed and were at the immigration desk almost immediately. The process went smoothly enough. The officer did not ask me any silly questions or demand any unnecessary document. She checked my e-visa document, stamped a visa on my passport and assigned me a visa number. There, done. Welcome to Myanmar! I could see that Parul’s passport was giving the usual trouble to the scanner on the other counter. As a result, she took thirty seconds more than me to complete the immigration process. Then we grabbed our baggage from the belt and proceeded to get some dollars changed for local currency. Now THIS was a real challenge. I had quite a few dollars with me, half of which I was sure would be useless since the forums had already warned me about the dollar bills that were accepted in the country. The exchange rate also depends on the denomination of the dollar bill, which meant that my good one dollar bills would be of no use anyway. I tried the two USD 50 bills that I had. One got rejected because it had a date stamp on one side. Other than that it was in flawless condition! Nevertheless, with 50$ worth of Kyats (MMK) in our pockets we felt that we were good to go.
Next, we proceeded to get a tourist SIM card. That was easy enough. Telenor, MPT and Ooredoo, Myanmar’s three leading operators, had shops set up. It was just a matter of figuring out which one suited our needs best. We chose Ooredoo for it’s pricing. We did not need network consistently and thought it had a good coverage in most major cities. BIG MISTAKE. Ooredoo seems to be the Airtel of Myanmar. It fails you whenever you need it. It is not rated the worst of the three mobile network providers for no reason. If you really need connectivity on the go, MPT seems like a good deal.
Myanmar Tip #1
If you need connectivity on the go, choose either Telenor of MPT. They cover quite a lot of locations that Ooredoo does not.
We were ready to leave the airport within an hour of landing. A tout had identified us as Indians and started talking to me in Hindi about where I wanted to go. When I told him that I had to catch a bus to Bagan, he tried to sell me a taxi all the way. I shrugged him off then and there. We walked out and a few taxi drivers courted us to take us to Aung Mingalar for 6000 MMK. My research had told me that this was a bloated price and I walked on. The tout reappeared and tried to convince me that this was the minimum that I would need to pay. I ignored him and walked out of the airport complex. There were a few taxis slowly moving along the pavement. We talked to the next one that pulled up, bargained a price of 3500 MMK and got in.
Pro Tip #1
To get from an airport to downtown, get a public transport when you can. Else, there are always cheaper taxis outside the airport area.
We got to Aung Mingalar Bus Station within the next thirty minutes. It was not yet 4 PM and we were standing at the bus station, albeit without tickets to Bagan. We decided that we were in no rush. It was time to sample some food. Both of us were quite hungry and we went and sat in the first shop that we saw. This was a thoroughly local set up and a man came to help us order. I don’t quite know whether he was associated with the shop or not but he did not seek anything for his service. It was now that I was made aware of the language barrier in Burma. Despite the years of British colonization, the country did not have a big population of English speakers, unlike India where you could always find someone or the other who spoke some amount of English. I somehow managed to order some rice with a bowl of vegetables and a plate of fried fish. We were served with a couple of bowls of soup and some bitter gourd salad. It was a delicious and filling meal. With our stomachs full, it was time to arrange for our commute to Bagan.
Our original translator had vanished and we paid the bill and got out. We asked for and got to the office of J.J. Express, one of the better reviewed services online. We walked in and asked for the Bagan bus. We were told that there was no seat available. It was all booked! I was not expecting this. It is rare for a service to be completely booked. But we thanked the receptionist and went to the shop next doors. They did not ply buses to Bagan but they told of a service that might be able to help. So we went back to where we had entered the bus station looking for a certain Shwe Sin Sat Kyar service. We found it and booked two of the few available tickets.
Pro Tip #2
It might be better to book your tickets in advance when travelling in tourist season. But even if you don’t have a reservation, don’t freak out. There is always a way out!
We dumped our bags inside the service’s office and sat down to wait for the bus that was supposed to start at 6:30 PM. Parul went out to do some photography while I sat reading and researching about the country. She returned a while later with photos of street-side food stalls and people who liked posing for the camera. It was still just five, so we decided to go out and explore what the bus stand had to offer. Aung Migalar was just coming alive as the sun was going down. There were stalls serving food items on stick that we were tempted to try out. A drunk man intervened and we decided to skip the vegetarian shop. Then we went to another that was serving pork. The stall owner patiently explained to me how I was supposed to have the meat with the stock and the sauce. I gobbled down a few sticks while Parul clicked a few photographs of the stall and its keeper. Kevin came out to grab the credits for a recommendation and then we moved on to explore other options. Another stall was selling some form of masala noodles that we stopped to try. We conveyed to the woman that we were interested and she asked us to sit down. While we ordered just one plate, she served us two. I ended up eating one and a half of them! This too was served with some vegetable stock and there was some complimentary tea to be had with or after the meal. The stock and tea were a typicality as we learnt over the course of time. The tea was some kind of green tea, utterly delicious and refreshing. We finished the noodles and got up. We had spent an hour exploring the food stalls and it was time to head back for the bus.
We saw a few men with tied up lungis playing Chinlone in an empty parking space. It is one of the traditional sports of Myanmar and everyone seemed to be quite good at it. Also, the country was crazy about football. My kind of place! We walked back to find the bus waiting. We gathered our luggage from the office and put it in the luggage compartment of the bus. We boarded and the bus was off by 6:30 PM as promised. This was the first of the few instances of the country’s punctuality that we would witnessed.
Nyaung U & Mount Popa
The bus ride was as comfortable as can be expected of a 10 hour journey. The bus was air conditioned and had recline-able seats. Blankets and water bottles were provided for. It seemed like a steal for the 15,000 MMK that we had spent (roughly USD 12 or INR 850). We fell asleep almost immediately after boarding the bus. The speaker blaring loud Burmese sounds right overhead was no match for our tiredness. We slept for more than a couple of hours till the bus pulled over for dinner at a highway stop. Neither of us were particularly hungry after the binge eating at Aung Mingalar so we just grabbed some chips and a Coke to kill time till the bus was ready to depart. Once it did, the driver put on some soothing music and turned off the lights to encourage everyone’s somnolence. We woke up next to find ourselves at another short halt a couple of hours before Bagan. The passenger sitting across the aisle, who had looked like a bouncer in some shady club, offered us a couple of wet wipes to clean our faces. I thanked him and accepted his gift. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had been too apprehensive of being in a new country. The people were not half as bad as I was used to back home. I decided to easen up a bit.
The remainder of the two hours to Bagan went by easily enough. The wet wipes had helped little; my sleep fought back and I drifted away as someone played loud Burmese rock music for the benefit of the entire bus. We pulled up in the Shwe Pyi Bus Station at around 4 AM. A horde of taxi and rickshaw drivers surrounded us as we deboarded. We were probably the only tourists on board this one. Google Maps said that our guest house was just 6.6 kms away. Had it been later in the day or had I been alone, I would have probably given walking down to the town a shot. But right now, it was not a possibility. The taxi drivers were quoting an outrageous amount : 10,000 MMK for the two of us. I was using my taxi ride in Yangon as a benchmark to refuse. Once the initial rush died, they came down to 5000 MMK but even that seemed to be too much. So we waited, hoping that an alternative would present itself. Of course there had to be a cheaper way in which the locals travelled.
We wasted an hour because of my stubborn refusal to be ripped off. We went round and round the bus station, refusing anyone who approached. The shared cabs that were plying on the road did not stop for us. We were surprised at to why this was; I still am. We tried playing smart and stood at the highway. Nothing gave. We saw a man lurking in the shadows and following us. We agreed that he was either informing the taxi union about our movements or was hanging around to see if we decided to walk and then mug us. Perhaps he was just fascinated to see two fools running around in circles, but that did not sound too interesting and it would also mean that we were admitting to our foolishness. Finally, when we tired of acting smart, we decided to grab the next taxi that came our way for 5000 MMK. This took a while and by then J.J. Express pulled up in the station spilling it’s tourist passengers who were happily paying the 5000 MMK per person (around USD 4) that the taxi drivers were asking for.
Our cab took us towards the town and stopped at a fee collection booth. There was a ticket to enter Bagan. This was worth 25,000 MMK per person and would be valid for all sites within the archaeological zone. We were not expecting this and did not have that kind of cash on us. I offered to pay in dollars. Yes. How much? 22$ per person. I tried using the bill that was rejected in Yangon. It worked! Good riddance! I had got a bad conversion rate but that was alright. Better than lugging that bill around with me. We reached the guest house (Shwe Na Di) in Nyaung U and saw an unusual amount of activity for the hour. An exasperated female was telling the guest house’s manager to call the bike rental shop on the opposite side of the street to open up and deliver their promised bikes. The famous sunrise of Bagan was stirring up the town with just an hour to go. We decided to skip the gala event and rest ourselves instead. It had been over 24 hours of continuous travel. The sun would rise the next day as well and we could see it then. We helped ourselves to a sumptuous breakfast instead, of fruits, juice, coffee, tea, omelette, toasts and a sweet bread roll called e kya kway. Once we had stuffed ourselves, we went to the room and snored away till after mid noon.
For the lack of a better way to spend the day, we decided to take a shared cab to Mount Popa. Mount Popa had escaped our original itinerary but since we had only half of the day available we decided to do it as well. We booked our tickets and then sat in a local shop to grab something to eat. I ordered a plate of fried rice and a papaya shake. Parul ordered a serving of “Chinese Fried Cabbage” and a “Noodle Soup”. Much to her surprise (and my amusement), the noodle soup turned out to be a meal in itself. As if she had not a challenging enough lunch in front of her, she took on a new opponent : chopsticks.
The lunch ended with us leaving most of the cabbage untouched and me finishing half of the noodle soup in addition to my own order. We went back to find the cab waiting for us. It was a sedan as opposed to the van we were expecting. We were somewhat disappointed to find that we were the only ones sharing the cab. We were hoping to meet more travellers on the trip but it was not to be so. Anyhow, we started with our driver – a cool guy who was dressed in a shirt and lungi, with shades and was constantly chewing on some beetle nuts. The shirt and lungi were something of a national getup. Almost everyone wore similar attire with varying degrees of formality. It was heartening to see that the years of British subjugation had not influenced the nativity of the Burmese people to a point of loss of identity.
We stopped at a palm products shop midway. I was a little apprehensive to begin with since it reeked of a familiar tourism stunt to extract money out of foreigners. However, it was quite a trip. This place was not just a shop but also the workshop for palm products like juice, toddy, whiskey and jaggery. A very agreeable young woman, Yamin, made us sample a lot of these products. We particularly liked the palm juice which we could not buy because it was for free. Tables were arranged for anyone to come and sit and have some juice and snacks. We ended up buying a bottle of palm whiskey that Yamin had said, with a smirk, was “good for strength”. We spent some time talking to the amicable family that ran the business; talking to them and taking some photographs. Then we set out to Mount Popa with our driver.
We got to the base of the mountain around 4:30 PM. Our driver told us that he would meet us at the same spot at 6 PM. We set out climbing the stairs that was crawling with monkeys. Parul was initially scared but managed to gain enough confidence to continue up the stairs. The monkeys were rather harmless and kept to themselves, being fed peanuts by the local tourists and chased by the vendors.
Mount Popa was unlike what we had imagined it to be. It had a bazaar on the lower levels and the stairs were littered with the offerings made to the monkeys. Vendors sold cans of soft drinks and packets of snacks. The empty cans and packets made their way above the railing and down the rock’s slope, gathering into small heaps of rubbish. I sensed a similarity to the Indian religious destinations. We kept climbing up and stopped at times to enjoy the vistas that the elevation afforded. The sun was mellowing down and gearing up for it’s descent. A breeze appeased us once we had reached a certain level. There were many small temples on the way, all heavily decorated and beautified. A series of sculptures told the story of the mountain and it’s inhabitant spirit. Donation boxes were overflowing with the goodwill of the devotees. Many wooden boards also announced sizable donations made by foreigners in their currencies.
Up on top, everything was again different from what I was expecting. The pillars and structures were all washed in the colour of gold.
There was an overwhelming gaudiness to everything around here. I felt at a loss. This was not a Buddhism I knew. During my travels through the hilly states on India, I had come to start loving the religion for what set it apart from others. Here I felt that line blurring rapidly. There was the familiar flashiness that I had seen in Hindu temples while growing up. I eventually gave in and treated this more like a sightseeing than anything else. The top offered a really great view of the surroundings. The metal work on the crowns of the pagodas was also quite impressive.
We walked around for some time and enjoyed it as much as we could. Parul clicked some pictures and then we saw the sun dip below the horizon. It was close to quarter to six so we started on our way down and got caught up in a slow moving human traffic. The monkeys were still amusing everyone. One of them had snatched a small ball from a little girl and sat chewing it while the family pleaded the monkey to return the ball.
We got down and met with our driver at the appointed place. He then stopped at a point that afforded complete view of the top of Mount Popa. The sky was darkening and the lights of the pagodas were glowing brighter. It looked quite beautiful and if not for the garbage lying around, would have been quite magical.
Back at the guest house we freshened up and went out to find some good food. There is a famous restaurant street in Nyaung U and we decided to hit it. Most of the restaurants were advertising European cuisine. It seemed pointless to come to Burma to eat an Italian Pizza. For me, tasting the local flavours is as much a part of the travel as looking at the tourist attractions. We saw a board that announced Kan Daw Gyi, Myanmar Food with an arrow pointing to our right. We turned to the right without hesitation and ended up in a large and mostly empty establishment. A man came out to greet us and invited us to sit down. The television was airing an EPL match between Arsenal and Manchester United. We took a seat that gave us a view of the TV and set to order food. The menu was simple enough. It was a buffet with unlimited sides and rice. We could order meat for an extra cost. So we ordered for two and a bottle of Myanmar Beer. I will let Kevin show you the overwhelming spread.
This was to be by far the best food I had in Bagan. We walked back to the room on a nice food high.
The next day we started early; the alarm went off at 4:30 AM. I had identified as a certain Bulethi Pagoda to watch the sunrise from. The little research that I had managed to do the previous day had told me that this might be one of the lesser crowded pagodas to watch the sunrise from. We rented out an e-bike from the shop right opposite our guest house and set out in the dark. The cold wind did good to pull me out of my sleepiness, I had just a couple of hours of sleep the previous night. We left the main road and followed a four wheeler on a sandy track. The e-bike was not particularly stable on the sand and the darkness made it impossible to see if there was a better route. We eventually got to Bulethi to realise that it was far from secluded. There were a lot of people already on the pagoda and more would come as the minutes counted down for the sunrise. We managed to grab decent east facing seats on the pagoda along with a lot of tourists, some of whom had set up tripods to shoot the sunrise. Eventually the sun brightened and plains of Bagan came into view. There was a slight mist hanging further in the east and the sky was a little hazy. I wouldn’t rate the sunrise as spectacular as the online community seems to make it. Perhaps it was the crowd that killed it, or maybe it was just the hype that failed to realise. A few minutes later the sun appeared but the spotlight was already taken by the hot air balloons that had slowly started rising and provided a spectacular silhouette against the brightening sky. We joined the madness for running around from side to side to get some good pictures of the sunrise, or the balloons, or the numerous pagodas. At the end of it, both of us admitted that we had seen better sunrises.
We went back to the hotel to get our breakfast and shared the table with a fellow Indian from Coimbatore, Vignesh. He was in Myanmar to attend some conference in Yangon and was taking a few days to see the country. After breakfast we went to the room to catch on some of the missed sleep. I managed another couple of hours of sleep before it was time to pack up and shift quarters. This guest house, though good, was a bit too expensive for our budget. We moved into another guest house nearby, Pann Cherry Motel, which was offering a better room at a lesser rate. This was the difference that online presence made in a country as nascent as Myanmar.
Myanmar Tip #2
Myanmar does not have a huge online listing of services. You can find a lot of guest houses or hotels if you roam around the roads. Just book the first day in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises.
We then had some lunch at a nearby cafe which specialized in Italian food. We sat there for the WiFi and ate some overpriced Burmese food. Then we picked up the e-bike again and set off in the direction of Old Bagan to explore some temples. We stopped randomly at a few temples that looked interesting. These temples were different from the pagodas. They usually had four entrances in all four directions and a big Buddha statue greeted you inside. These Buddha statues showed no particular pattern and were not even the same in a temple. Perhaps there was a pattern to it but we knew no better. We stopped at Hti Lo Min Lo, Ywa Huang Gyi and Ananda.
The bigger ones were all crowded and commercialized. We just breezed past the ones in Old Bagan and stopped at the Bu Paya Stupa along the Irrawaddy river. The river was vast and broad with a few boats plying on the brown waters. The water reflecting the yellow sun and the glare stung the eye a bit. Then came the most important question : where were we to go for the sunset? Neither of us were in the mood to climb on top of another overcrowded pagoda to watch a quotidian event like the sunset. We finally agreed on Tuyin Taung Pagoda that we had seen lit up on our way back from Popa the previous night. It had looked beautiful and we thought we might be able to make it there before sunset. Plus we were hopeful that the tourist crowd of Bagan would not make that long a journey to get to a pagoda so far away.
Thus I raced the e-bike through the roads of Old and New Bagan, passing many pagodas on either side, most the same as the other. An e-bike is quite interesting. It does not have an engine drag and the bike moves as fast as you strain the accelerator. Mine did not have proper brakes as well which made stopping a bit difficult and found me quite uncomfortable with the meagre speed most of the time. We got to the base of the mountain that led up to the pagoda as the sun was going down. There was a slight chance that we might make it up in time. But the e-bike refused to climb the incline. We had to walk it all up and pull the bike along. We stopped somewhere a couple of hundred meters short of the pagoda to witness the sunset. Then we continued to the pagoda after parking the e-bike in an empty space.
The evening sermon seemed to have ended a short while ago. People were leaving the premises as we made our way inside. It was quite beautiful and, though gold again, the peace and location were reminiscent of the pagodas I had seen in Ladakh. This was a Buddhism I was familiar with and venerated. A monk sat in meditation as we circled the pagoda. The three of us made up the only crowd at the pagoda. We sat down at the northern end as the lights came on. Parul set up her camera for some time lapse photography. The sky had turned a deep blue and the glowing pagoda looked quite grand in contrast. The monk finally broke his meditation and started chanting prayers. I closed my eyes as I listened to the monk’s chant and enjoyed the breeze on my face; it felt surreal beyond description.
After a while a group of people burst into the pagoda. I suspected that a shared taxi plied to the pagoda. All these people quickly did their thing; bowed down in reverence to the pagoda, went around it and clicked selfies to assist memory. The monk slipped away sometime during the commotion. We decided to leave as well. We found our bike in the dark and then tried getting it down the slope without mishaps. It was quite a task given the state of the bike’s brakes! We exchanged notes about the moped and scooter adventures we had had and Parul formulated a generalization.
Always trust a scooty to lead you to adventures!
We ditched the sunrise the next day. It had not impressed us enough to lose another day’s sleep over it. We woke “late” to some loud sound playing outside the hotel. Turned out to be a procession of some kind with dressed up people walking down the road. Women in their embroidered shirts and htameins walking in heels. Small children riding on horsebacks with umbrellas held over their heads. A loudspeaker system brought up the rear blaring out unintelligible songs at unbearable frequencies. The procession passed on and we got ready and went down. By the time we were leaving the hotel, the procession had come around and passed us again. The hotel staff told me that it was Shinbyu(novitiation ceremony) in which young boys were initiated into monk-hood. It was an important event for the Buddhists.
Parul had done some research and marked out places that we could visit in Bagan today as opposed to the mindless riding around that we did the last day. First up was the Mahabodhi Temple in Old Bagan but it took us quite a lot of time to get there. Turns out that we have the capability to screw up a planned itinerary. We made more detours than the number of planned visits but it was fun! We ended up doing another temple and pagoda run. We got to see some of the less visited monuments and attractions of Bagan. These derelict places were heavy on local culture and experience, much unlike the bigger ones that drew heavy crowds.
At Tha Kya Pone we saw a couple of men playing a board game much like chausar or pachisi of India. This was Kyway En, a game that derived it’s name from the shells that it was played with. Another man there took the pain to tell us the rules of the game.
This temple even had access to go up top. We saw a beautiful view of the Bagan plain from the top and considered coming back to see the sunset from this place. At another temple, nearby a family had set shop with the famous sand paintings on display. These seemed to be a hot selling souvenir product and was to be seen everywhere. These works were mostly repetitive; the famous designs being copied by every artist that sold them. Though they lacked originality, the effort put into these works were quite evident. The prices were not outrageous and I thought I should get one, but I did not want to get into gathering souvenirs this early into the trip.
When we finally did get to the Mahabodhi Temple, we were already quite exhausted. Parul got some thanaka and went into her Burmese mode.
This complex had a very few tourists around since it was a little off the field. Someone told us that this temple was designed based on the Bodh Gaya temple. Though I have not seen the latter, it would be interesting to compare when I do. There were small structures and signs that described Buddha’s seven weeks after enlightenment. We found ourselves pulled into a treasure hunt, trying to find the boards for all the seven weeks. It was not as easy as it sounds and we spent a considerable amount of time burning the soles of our feet on the scorched stone surface of the temple complex. Finally we did find the elusive fifth week and left the complex feeling victorious.
A certain Hindu temple existed right behind a famous Buddhist one. It was here that Parul forgot her camera bag next to a trinket shop. It was a good 10-15 minutes later that we realised our mistake and doubled back. Fortunately the Burmese people are quite honest and they promptly returned the bag when they saw us coming. They even rebuked us with a laugh telling us to “No forget!” the next time. Everything was in there, even the cash. It was fortunate that Parul had chosen Burma to make this mistake!
We had lunch near Bu Paya, along the Irrawaddy, which we had visited the last day. We were quite exhausted with the day’s running around in the sun and treated ourselves to some cold Myanmar beer. This obviously named beer is Myanmar’s most popular beer, though I liked Dagon just as much. The river breeze was quite relaxing and we had a tough time getting ourselves mobilized after a heavy lunch. We had yet another weird tipping experience. Bagan has a very confusing tipping culture. Most of the places that we had frequented were run by a small family or just a couple of people who cooked as well as served. These places usually do not expect tips and we found ourselves in a very awkward situation trying to explain to the staff that we were not all that bad at mathematics and that the extra money was for their service. However, a tip is very much expected in the more “European” style cafes that cater to the uptown tourist crowd. The online information is quite misleading in this regard. Our tipping fiascoes would continue till Mandalay, where we decided not to tip and make things easier for both sides. It is just like India; you will probably not tip in a dhaba or tapri and tip a percentage in a fine dine restaurant.
We climbed up the Shewsandaw Pagoda and finally understood what the fuss was all about. This pagoda is considered the best place to watch a sunrise or sunset from and people turn up in huge numbers to this monument towards the wee hours of morning and evening. Truly, the view from up top is spectacular and for a minute we considered staying for the sunset. But we could see people starting to stream in and decided to take off. We raced the bike to a certain Pyathadar Hpaya to watch the sunset but could not shrug off the crowd. There were a lot of people here as well but this one, being a temple, was better equipped to handle the crowd. I found a nice little corner to sit and read my Kindle while the sun set. This temple had some impressive Buddha statues as well.
After dark we re-energised with some fresh sugarcane juice and set out to see the Dhammayazika Pagoda that we could see lit up in a distance. Google Maps told us that there was no direct route to it but we could see a dusty road leading south in the direction of the pagoda. Riding around on sandy routes on an e-bike with darkness all around and sudden dead ends can easily qualify as an adventure sport! It took us some time to get to the pagoda since we kept losing our way and hit dead ends or entered fields with no visible way forward. Had someone been sitting on a vantage point and seen our headlight beelining through the fields at night he would have thought us drunk!. We walked around the serene complex for a while and then decided that we should call it a day. It took more effort to find the way back but once we did, it was smooth sailing to Nyaung U.
We cleaned up and head out to dine relatively early. Bagan shut down quite earlier than we had expected it to. They probably followed the European timings for meals and there wasn’t anything in the name of night life. I had some noodle soup at a certain Weatherspoon Cafe. It was quite delicious. We topped it up with a couple of Dagon Beers (cold beer and hot soup, I know!) and then went back to the room to pack up and get some sleep. We were taking the ferry to Mandalay the next day and I was looking forward to almost twelve hours of boat ride on the Irrawaddy. The downside, we had to check in at the jetty at 5 AM!
All bordered images are credited to Parul.
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