Imagine a big wooden box with a rickety fan hanging on the ceiling and two single beds that cry out in pain when you lie down on them after a tiring day. This is my room at The Golden Myanmar Guesthouse at Bagan.
There is an old rusty metallic contraption on one of the wooden walls that I later found out to be an air conditioner, which surprisingly comes to life if you know exactly where to punch it. The small flickering tube makes sure that the room is dark enough for you to not see the stained bed spreads.
You can’t be grossed out by something you cannot see!
At night, it is not uncommon to feel the tingle of small ant feet marching on your chest to get to the cupcake (or any food for that matter) that you had kept on the bedside table, for in case you got hungry in the middle of the night. No matter how good the packaging is, these little fuckers will get in there. After a couple of nights, however, you would realise that you do not need to worry about the ants. Just don’t bring food to your room.
The cockroaches however, are a different story.
There is a window in this wooden box too, that can be used as a door to access the terrace, where early in the morning guests have their complimentary breakfast. I don’t get the complimentary breakfast since guests staying at the budget rooms are not entitled to such luxuries. Another luxury that we are not entitled to is a private toilet.
The common toilet-cum-bathroom is downstairs and is used by all the budget room-guests and the host family. The waiting time can range anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on who is in there and what they are doing.
Waiting for your turn however, isn’t as boring as you would think. You can hang out at the living room which also serves as the reception and see the busy road outside or watch some Burmese TV show with the host family. These shows reminded me of the popular shows that I used to watch on DD National when I was a kid; bad direction, awful acting, terrible special effects but totally enjoyable.
Though you exchange pleasantries with most of the family members, there are two people you need to interact with on a daily basis. One is the skinny teenage boy, Thet, who mans the reception and the other is his uncle, Myan, who manages the bicycle rentals.
Thet is nice. He helps you turn on the air conditioner, bangs on the bathroom door if someone is taking too long, and tells you about Bagan’s hidden pagodas. Myan, on the other hand is a bit of a dick. He cribs if you get late even by a minute, never gives you the bicycle that you want and has a totally different theory about how much air we should put in the tyres.
He is overly protective about his cycles. I bet if an earthquake hits Bagan, he will save his cycles first, clean off the dust, grease the chains, check the bells and the brakes, line them up in a neat queue, and then try to save his mother.
If you are in mood for some local food, there are some decent joints all around the Nyaung U- Old Bagan Road where you can sit with the locals, sip coffee or enjoy some chilled beer and oily noodles.
In the morning, if you manage to get up early enough, you may see monks dressed in their orange gowns, walking along the road, taking alms. A bit further is the main market of Bagan where locals come out to shop for vegetables, chicken, meat and various household items. It gets crazy busy in the mornings since everyone tries to finish most of their errands before the heat of the day kicks in.
Bagan is in the hottest region in the country and it is not a good idea to be out in the afternoon. No matter how much you love pagodas, you are better off spending the afternoons inside the wonderful establishments in the Food Street, trying out different dishes from the local cuisine.
I found that out the hard way when on my first day while cycling through the ancient pagodas I found myself getting roasted in the afternoon Sun, unable to even find the energy to return back to the guesthouse. I decided to take refuge in a pagoda named Shwesandaw Paya, climbed on top of it and rested in the shade of its dome for almost four hours.
The first two hours because of the heat and the next two because I was mesmerised by the beauty all around.
Sitting up there in complete peace, with hundreds of ancient pagodas scattered all over the landscape, the mountains and the beautiful Irrawaddy river in the distance, I felt at peace with the world. Sitting there, listening to the chirps of birds and breathing in the fresh air, it was hard to imagine that I was still in the age of flashy iPhones and quad-copter drones.
For almost 250 years, the Burmese kings built thousands of pagodas across the country and it is said that almost 2000 of these still stand. Some became popular with the visitors, while some were forgotten. Pagodas like the Ananda Pahto and Schwezigon Paya are swarmed by tourists all day and are home to numerous gift shops and souvenir stands, while others stand awkwardly near the farms and provide shade to the farmers during their afternoon naps.
Every evening I would draw up a route, with the help of my guidebook, to ride through the next day, and get it checked by Thet at the reception, while I waited for the bathroom to vacate. I learned to account for the afternoon heat and would find a cosy family run joint where I would have my lunch and a couple of beers. Some of these joints had friendly hosts, who would sit with you and try to converse, while others had cute cats who would just stare at you while you eat.
Doesn’t matter whether you have a human or a feline for company, you will always feel welcome.
One day, during one of these hot afternoons as I sat at a small roadside establishment near Old Bagan, clouds moved in out of nowhere and it rained. The titter-tatter of the rain drops falling on the tin roof started, and the kids ran out of their houses to enjoy the calming shower. The houses and shops around the road that had looked abandoned and desolate just minutes before, suddenly came to life. The windows that were tightly shut were opening up and curious smiling faces were peeking out from them.
I saw the air conditioned tourist vans speeding down the road, doing the pagoda tours and I felt glad that I was sitting at the joint, watching the rain. Those poor folks breathing in the artificial air had no idea how wonderful the earthy smell of the rain was.
The simplicity of Bagan is infectious.
Sitting in these family run joints, cycling around the pagodas, watching sunsets felt like the best way to spend my time in Myanmar. I remembered all those times when sitting on the banks of the Inle Lake I had debated with myself to whether skip Bagan and spend some extra time there. I felt glad that I hopped on the night bus heading to Bagan and endured the horrifying 8 hour ride.
All good things must come to an end and soon the day came when I had to check out from my wooden box and catch the evening bus to Yangon. I said goodbye to the hosts and returned my cycle for the last time. They shook my hand and said the “Come back again”s. I nodded insincerely because I knew I probably wouldn’t be coming back.
It is just a matter of time before the modern world catches up with Bagan, the city gets mushroomed with fancy hotels, and the family run places give way to fast food chains. The kids that ran out to play in the rain would soon be so engrossed with their cell phones and computers that they won’t even notice that it rained.
It may sound a bit negative now, but it is the truth. In many places around the city, the transformation has already started.
When I think about Bagan, I want to remember it for the friendly locals, the pagodas, and the breathtaking sunsets and not as a city that is a shadow of what it once used to be.
They say change is good but some things are perfect just the way they are.
Never change, Bagan… Never change!