Bagan for vagabonds (First of two parts)
AS soon as the doors of the sleeper bus opened, touts in sarong-like garments called longyis milled around the passengers who had traveled 10 hours overnight from Yangon, offering taxi rides to Old Bagan or neighboring Nyaung-Yu. Just as what an online travel guide had warned. Bretha and I squeezed cautiously through the mob at the New Bagan Bus Station, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, or else that tout would lock in on us and follow us to the ends of the earth until we relented. Luckily, no one took an interest in travelers who looked like locals with tiny backpacks, so we slipped unnoticed and picked a quiet spot near the stalls that had just opened shop. It was probably around 5 or 6 a.m., so we had some hot milk tea for warmth.
As we waited for the mob to dissipate, I noticed a Burmese teen rolling powdered leaves with crushed brown fillings. “Momma!” I exclaimed at Bretha, bringing memories from two years ago when I first chewed betel nut in Sagada. Here, they called it kwun-ya or kun-ja, and I asked the boy for some. Laying betel leaves on a counter, he spread a layer of slake lime from an oddly shaped mortar and pestle, then sprinkled chopped areca nuts on each leaf. He took one leaf, rolled it with his dexterous lime-caked fingers, and, flashing a smile stained dark red, handed me a lovely roll of organic Burmese chewables. “Wan’t some?” I asked Bretha. She declined. In hindsight, it was the right thing to do.
A very long trip
As was the custom, I, brimming with confidence, popped one kwan-yu in my mouth and chewed vigorously. The next thing I knew, my head was buzzing. “You okay?” Bretha said. I chewed one last time before I spat everything out rapid fire at a ditch.
It was at this point that a driver approached us and offered to take us to Old Bagan, and I, lightheaded from the extra-strong betel nut now swirling in my head, nodded without hesitation. Before Bretha could protest, the driver, who like every other local was chewing kwun-ya, led us to the back of the terminal where a horse cart was waiting. Yes, a horse cart. After a few long minutes of deliberation, I finally persuaded Bretha that this was a good ride. And so our slow motion trip to the ancient city of Bagan begun.
Hello there, stranger
We were dropped at the edge of Bagan, in Nyaung-U, where we headed straight to the market and found the irresistible Burmese staple mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup dish an elderly woman served piping hot, the same dish a group of monks were enjoying at the next table. A taxicab then took us to a resort hotel that I had booked for a really low off-season price. To our surprise, the resort was one of understated elegance, situated along the Irrawaddy River at a dedicated site with other early post-colonial structures that now offered accommodations. A few yard shrines, ancient but well-preserved, dotted the four-hectare Aye Yar River View Resort. After taking our backpacks to our room, I returned to the lobby and found Bretha chatting with a guest wearing a hijab at the lobby. We shall call her Aya. Since she was also doing the day tour in and around the temples, she offered to share her van with us and just split the fee. As a couple, we don’t usually mingle with other travelers, much more get cozy with strangers, but we hit it off with Aya rather quickly.
Off to the temples
“Traveling alone?” I asked mindlessly while waiting for the van at the lobby. Aya nodded, adding she was on a business trip in Yangon and decided to fly to Bagan for the weekend while her peers stayed behind. Aya is from Egypt but was working in Dubai, and while her work in the Middle East took her to different continents, her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us, who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time, can relate to. The van eased into the driveway, and we hopped on for the whole day tour in and around hundreds of centuries-old temples and shrines that would take us back to a once glorious time of kings and empires.