I woke on time and grabbed my bags. The hostel owner was waiting for me with a small packed breakfast, bless him. I mounted the motorcycle taxi and we nipped off. After five minutes, I was glad I’d dressed in preparation for arctic air-con on the bus as it was pretty cold outside.
After 20 minutes or so, I was dropped at the junction to await the Bagan bus which sets off from Taunggyi. Roughly twenty minutes late, it arrived and at least I knew that air-con wouldn’t be a worry. It was a “midi-bus”, larger than a mini but maybe half the size of a luxury coach. It was dented, battered, had stools between the main seats to seat extra people and my rucksack went under the back seats.
The window next to the seat in front of me was missing so the first couple of hours until the sun was well in the sky were freezing. I put my cap on to keep the wind from blowing through (what’s left of) my hair, huddled up and tried to zone out. Sleep was impossible as the roads here are awful. At times I was bounced 2-3 inches out of my seat when we hit a particularly large pothole.
As we travelled, we picked up more passengers. Amazingly, at points I do think I nodded off or at least figured out how to meditate as time seemed to disappear in jumps. I didn’t get many children waving at me from the roadside as I think it took them a while to register that it was a strange bearded foreigner in the bus bouncing past.
If I did this trip again, it’s one thing I think I would change. Go to Inle Lake first, then hike the opposite direction to Kalaw. First of all, the coach to Inle from Yangon costs the same as the coach to Kalaw and it’s a better bus than this one. Then, when you get to the junction there will be more transport waiting, and it’ll be a more reasonable hour (around 7am) which means the journey into Nyaungshwe will be cheaper than the 4500K I paid to get out at 5am. The trek should be comparable in price, as would the bus from Kalaw to Bagan. However, as you’d be getting onto the same one I was currently on, you’d get a couple of hours more sleep as we didn’t pass through Kalaw until around 7:30am.
We drove down mountain roads having to pull over for trucks as usually only half of the route had any kind of tarmac on it at all. Sometimes we passed them on the left, sometimes the right. Sometime around midday, we had a stretch of decent road as we were close the the main highway – Route 1 – that links Yangon and Mandalay. Aside from the 8-lane superhighway which feeds off here to the new capital of Naypyidaw (and along which only private cars are allowed to travel) this is the only decent stretch of road in the country.
Just outside Nyaung U, we stopped at a security point where someone rapped on my window. Foreigners must pay $10 to visit Bagan and this was where I had to cough up so that the generals’ daughters can have nice, swish weddings while their people starve. Needless to say, I tried to wheedle out of it by giving them five $1 bills and $5 bill with a tear in it. Which tehey refused to accept. I told them this was all I had and they told me I had to sort the permit once I got to my guest house. Yeah, sure.
In total, the journey took almost spot on 12 hours. My bum was sore by the time we pulled in near the market in Nyaung U. Note that this isn’t the bus station marked on the Lonely Planet map, but a distance off to the east. As ever, I was hounded with “Do you need guest house?”, “No”, “Can you tell me where you are staying, then?”, “No” and so on. I collected my bag – which was coated in a thick layer of dust – and started walking towards the Pann Cherry which I’d picked from Lonely Planet.
On the way, I was tailed by a sai-kay (side car pedalo) who said he’d get commission if he dropped me off there, which seemed nice and honest. I hopped in and we got there in a couple of minutes. And then I found out I had a small problem. Nobody checks your permit while you’re in Bagan, although you “must” have one as a foreigner. The way the government works it is that you can’t check in to any guest house without one. Well, you can – but if the inspectors turn up and an owner has housed a foreigner who doesn’t have a permit then the owner gets in trouble.
Long story short, Pann Cherry wouldn’t take me in unless I went back to the way station to get a permit.
However, Pyinsa Rupa down the road would. As long as I gave them the $10 so they could sort the permit out for me, which was fine. They also have aircon and hot water in their $4 rooms, so they’re a step up from Pann Cherry anyway. Also, the staff speak far better English and the manager sat up for ages with me later that evening telling me where to go in Mandalay as he’s from the old (old) capital.
It was getting on, so I settled in and enjoyed a terrific hot shower. The electric started to get a little dodgy, which is pretty much routine around here, so I went for a walk to Restaurant Row where I picked out the excellently named Wonderful Tasty. An Indian set menu cost me 3500K with the chicken tandoori and it was fantastic. I’m no curry expert, and this wasn’t spicy enough for a tandoori, but it tasted great and came with as much chappati and rice as I could plough through. A shame the Star Cola was warm, but the setting was lovely and the staff attentive. So add that one to the choices laid out in Lonely Planet, where it’s not mentioned (yet).
Finally, I headed back to the guest house for some much-needed rest. My backside felt like it had been tenderised by a professional chef and I intended to wake early the next morning to see sunrise at one of the 4400 temples in the area.