So it’s finally happened. After three weeks complaining about my trip, diverting myself with powerful Asian alcohol, pining for England and all those wonderful English people and things therein, hoping and secretly dreading this would happen, it’s happened:
I’ve come to a place so beautiful, so awesome, it’s countered all my complaints and redeemed the entire trip: Bagan.
The cold shadow of the government can still be felt here – they uprooted a huge population of farmers to turn Bagan into a World Heritage site – but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Yes, there are temples (and I thought I was sick of temples), but these are different: the red bricks set stark against the chartreuse fields of lentils and sesame, more than eight hundred years old and absolutely stunning. Pictures can’t do it justice – and neither can words like stunning, mysterious, breathtaking, or Indiana Jonesy. You’ve really just got to see it for yourself.
And if you can afford it (I can’t – being a travel agent had it’s perks!), you absolutely must book a $250 trip with Balloons Over Bagan.
As it turns out, Bagan has more to offer than just gorgeous vistas and thrilling balloon rides. There are also palm trees. Okay, the sight of palm trees probably won’t excite most of you, but how about the taste of palm trees? In Bagan you can visit little palm-farming communities, taste the toffee-like palm sugar they produce, quaff the “sky beer” they ferment, and sip the palm rum they distill.
The sky beer is like a cross between traditional cider and traditional lambic – its wild, fruity sourness makes it exceptionally refreshing, and really good with a plate of Yangon Restaurant’s fried chicken, smoldering in the heat of pulverized garlic and chilies.
Remember how I said Bagan redeemed the entire trip? Okay, well, I lied. After visiting the palm farm we drove for two nauseating hours to an equally nauseating mountain, Mt. Popa. After climbing Mt. Popa’s 777 steps, each one of them covered in unpredictable macaques along with copious amounts of their piss and shit, you are rewarded with an ugly temple and a shrug-worthy view of the surrounding area (you can’t even see Bagan). Oh, and did I mention you have to do this barefoot, since the whole mountain is considered part of the temple? Give me a break. Nope – no break. After Mt. Popa it’s another two-hour drive to Salay, site of an equally unimpressive wooden monastery and a hideous, gilded, twelve-foot lacquered Buddha. And the dirt-road drive back to Bagan? Please – don’t remind me.
I left Bagan suspecting that nothing would top it in the next five weeks of my trip – and nothing did, but that doesn’t mean that Mandalay wasn’t really cool, too. The workshops here are incredible – this is the destination for Oriental knick-knacks to decorate your dining room/body: bronze, gold, silver, jewels, woodwork, puppets, embroidery, tapestries, silk, cotton, lacquer – Mandalay has all of it in spades.
And while you’re there, make sure you take a trip to Amarapura to see the world’s longest teak bridge – cooler than it sounds.
Whatever goodwill this trip earned in Bagan, it totally squandered in our next destination: Kyaing Tong. Kyaing Tong is probably a fine place to visit if you like rat-infested hotels without enough hot water and extremely awkward encounters with impoverished tribal villagers; but otherwise, steer clear. I suppose there are some deluded tourists who think it will be fun to “discover” these people, but at this point most of the villagers, including the children, are accustomed to being objectified and whatever little interest they have in interacting with tourists quickly dissipates once you’ve handed over the candies and medicines that Lonely Planet has instructed you to bring. Phooey to visiting hill tribes – but the treks did offer some nice views.
Then again, they aren’t as nice as some of the views to come: next week it’s off to Pindaya, Inle Lake, and Ngapali Beach – the best beach I’ve ever been to.