Mistakes Were Made
Posted March 05, 2013
When we started talking about going to Burma, I liked the idea of a group tour. Not because I wanted a big air-conditioned bus to herd me and my fellow travelers from place to place or felt the need of an English-speaking guide. My concern was getting ourselves from place to place, particularly between cities, in a country where we don't speak the language and not very many people speak English. (My other go-to, French, useful at times in non-French speaking European countries as an alternative, was no good here either.)
As it turned out, we had incredible good luck with getting around Burma. Our hotel owner in Yangon ordered our bus tickets to Mandalay for us and had them delivered to the hotel. We happened upon an English-speaking taxi driver in Mandalay to take us to Pyin Oo Lwin, where the hotel front desk attendant helped us book a shared taxi to Monywa. From there, we were able to get to Bagan by going to the bus station and repeating "Bagan" until we were sold tickets and directed toward a bus. We flew from Bagan to Ngapali and Ngapali back to Yangon with the help of a travel agent in Yangon who said the bus to and from Ngapali was "not safe for foreigners". Whatever that means. All of these trips were wonderfully uneventful.
It was a small day trip where our transportation luck came to a seeming end. We stopped off in Monywa (two syllables: mone-YWA, a pronunciation that gave Raj fits throughout) between Mandalay and Bagan, in part to avoid another marathon bus trip like Yangon to Mandalay had been. The shared taxi there had been a bit of an experience. It was a half-full 15 passenger van that picked us up at our hotel in Pyin Oo Lwin. We drove into Mandalay, where we picked up a teenage boy who Raj and I at first thought was just being obnoxious, hanging out the window and shouting. Soon we realized that he was shouting "MONYWA! MONYWA!" and was there to rustle up passengers. And the van was indeed full by the time he was dropped off outside the city with a fistfull of kyat, his cut of the fares.
We spent the afternoon and evening chilling in and around the pool of our hotel there. (Have you read Personal History, Katharine Graham's memoir? I realize I'm way behind on getting around to it, but I read a lot of it by that pool and it's good reading.) The next day, we asked at the front desk about getting to Hpo Win Daung, a series of man-made caves carved into a limestone cliff to house Buddha figures. They pointed us toward taxis outside.
This "taxi" turned out to be what can only be described as a jalopy, except less reliable. It was a very old motorbike attached to a metal cart with two seats. It did have a canopy to shield the stupid foreigners from the sun. The driver told us it would cost 30,000 kyat, which is a lot for a taxi ride (around $30 - most taxis in Yangon were around $3) but we didn't have any other options, so we went for it.
Lonely Planet had not indicated how far these caves were from town, so we weren't sure whether we were being extorted. Turns out not. This ended up being a two and a half hour trip. Not for, say, a bus, car, or reliable motorbike. Just for us.
I read a quote somewhere along the lines of "adventure is discomfort remembered in tranquility". This trip was physically uncomfortable, yes. I don't normally get motion-sick (except on the back and forth pirate ship kind of rides at carnivals) and was fine during our extremely bumpy horsecart ride in Inwa. But I was sick by the end of this one. Because our cart was vibrating throughout. Particularly when going uphill. This motor did not have enough power for all of us. I really thought Raj and I should get out and walk up hills. I honestly believe, without exaggeration, that we'd have gotten there faster if we had.
But the real discomfort came during our multiple stops for repairs. Basically I began to wonder whether we were going to die in the Burmese countryside, particularly once we'd left the real road for a one-lane affair into the woods where there was no other traffic to rescue us. We thought maybe there would be a shared taxi at the site that we could take back. We'd still pay our driver the full amount (provided we ever got there) and pay whatever it cost in addition to secure reliable transportation back to Monywa.
We did eventually get there. Our driver walked over to a tea house and we eventually found our way to the caves, picking up a guide who turned out to be a really sweet girl, though not above raising a flip flop in the direction of one of the resident monkeys who turned out on the whole to be less adorable than really quite menacing. We did get some nice pictures (though not of the monkeys, because I was keeping my distance.)
We gave our guide a tip at which point I am sorry to tell you we got back in our motorbike jalopy for lack of other options. About half an hour from the caves, we were stopped so long for repairs that I strongly considered attempting to flag down a pick up truck that went by and then deeply regretted not having done so. Whenever we were both moving and near people, they openly stared at us. "People look at us like we're crazy," Raj said. I told him I thought they might be right.
The next day, we saw from the window of our bus to Bagan another foreign couple in a similar contraption. "See, we're not the only stupid ones," Raj said. Though when we left our hotel for the bus station a couple of miles away, guess how we got there. I would have walked, had there been time. At least there weren't any hills.