Fantastical and exotic images filled my mind as our plane descended onto the runway at Yangon International Airport. Myanmar was my most anticipated destination in our trip because it seemed so far removed and untouched. Having just “reopened” to the rest of the world several years back, it has yet to be eaten up by the staleness of many a modernity. With only the iconic images of Bagan’s pagodas and the lone face of Ang San Suu Kyi serving as reference, my imagination soared about the truths held by the Burmese enigma. I didn’t realize then that it was going to be one of the rare moments where my imagination was met by reality.
As my friends Nica, Bernice, and I disembarked from the plane, my senses immediately sprung back to life. We had spent three days bumming around in Bangkok trying to recover from all the road travel we had done. After the high that was Koh Phangan, all the fatigue of the past few weeks seemed to catch up, leaving us drained and lethargic the whole time we were in the city. The sweltering heat and our fast-vanishing cash, didn’t help with our holing-in either. But when I stepped into the brand new atmosphere of Myanmar, an alarm set off in my brain telling the rest of my body to be alert: we were about see some things we’ve never seen before.
The streets of Yangon, the country’s capital, transported me to an era I only knew in my head. Narrow cement establishments in bright, albeit faded paint interspersed with low wooden sheds lined the roads. No signs were in English. Men and women of all ages criss-crossed the sidewalks; some pulling or pushing carts of wares. Monks strolled past, donation pots in hand, as old box-type cars crawled in the dust-sprinkled traffic. Men were dressed in traditional longyis, a cylindrical cloth tied at the waist that reached down to their ankles; while women, dressed in basic though colorful blouses and skirts, donned a cream-colored face paint known as thanaka. There were no hipsters in tank tops, businessmen in suits, or fashionistas in stylish dresses in sight. Nothing in the landscape indicated it was 2014, or any other year for that matter, except for our cab driver’s smartphone.
Heat sieved through our aircon-less cab like molten sugar sticking on my skin. Outside motors whirred and cars honked, men spat betel nut and people called out to each other. As if this imagery wasn’t enough, the empty lots laden with garbage confirmed that the city had been contained in itself all these years. The whole scene was a cacophony of gray-brown nonchalance, a complete shrugging-off of concern about one’s image to outsiders, the kind that only decades of uninterrupted routine could create.
Finally our cab turned into the famous Aung Mingalar Bus Station. It had been the topic of many blog posts, either as a warning or in sheer fascination. One of my biggest regrets of the trip was not taking a photo or video. Navigating its maze of buses was an experience no words could justify (I would still attempt to, of course). It was block upon block upon block of buses parked like they were Tetris cubes trying to fill a line . Two-story buildings lined some areas, where the ground floors served as bus comapanies’ ticketing stations. Chewed betel nut and soapy water used to manually clean the buses spattered the pavement. Nothing was in English either, not in the buildings or buses, and the only way to accomplish anything was with the help of the cab driver.
At 6pm, after about a half hour of wandering in total confusion in the bus complex, we boarded the night bus to Bagan. Truthfully, it looked somewhat like our Dien Bien Phu hell ride. It had green lights bouncing off curtains with busy patterns, and they played their radio like the listeners were in China. It was so loud and grating! Bernice unluckily ended up sitting beside a man who chewed on betel nut. He hawked passionately from the depths of his soul before he spat in (thankfully) a black, opaque plastic baggie for the rest of the 8-hour trip. I plugged my earphones to my ears, maxed the volume to my folk music, and focused my attention on the passing countryside engulfed by dusk.
From the dimness of blue hour I could make out expanses of sparse grass sprouting from dry, dusty soil, and dried-up trees. It was probably the closest thing to a desert that I had seen. There were barely any houses, or any signs of life at all.
We passed a minibus literally heaping with people. From the quick glimpse I got I couldn’t tell which limbs belonged to which heads and which clothes belonged to which bodies. It even looked like they were somehow piled on top of each other! I couldn’t make sense of it. It was like the photos I’ve seen of Indian trains where passengers were nose to nape just to squeeze themselves in. I’m familiar with overcrowding, coming from the Philippines, but the minibuses in Yangon were something else entirely. Somehow seeing that made me feel thankful that despite the noise, our bus was still easy and comfortable.
After the rest stop I dozed off and before I knew it it was 4am and we had arrived in Bagan. The night was cool and breezy, and smelled distinctly of adventure. I perked up as my head swirled in excitement again. In the cheesy catchphrase that Nica, Bernice, and I had come up with just for that leg, “we’ve only just Bagan”. (wah wah wah :P)