Bago (or Pago)

I took my motorbike experience in South East Asia to another level when I hopped on the back of a motor taxi with my big backpack. A motorbike that's usually suited for one shouldn't be carrying three people (me, my driver, my backpack). But I gave my daypack to my driver while I held onto my backpack as tightly as I could, as we rode out of the city of Mandalay and to the bus station. I had a ticket for an overnight bus to Bago.

The overnight bus was overwhelming. And fancy. The coach buses, probably which have all been running for less than a year, are about five times the price of a train ticket and people are proud to ride them. I had gelato for dinner late that night, just because I could. The bus stopped at 11 p.m somewhere off the highway between Mandalay and Bago (Pago) and we were handed a little package with toothpaste, a toothbrush and wipes by the “stewardess” as we got off the bus. I was annoyed at the wastefulness and returned my care package. I was the only foreigner on the bus. I was also the only one headed to Bago, as everyone else was headed to Yangon. We were in the middle of nowhere except for a generic looking restaurant (but a restaurant with gelato!). I felt like I was back in China, all alone in a somewhat desolate space, going to places that almost no SEA backpacker goes just so I could see some history.

I'd heard the temples in Bago were noteworthy. The city is close to Yangon, and it served as the country's capital at one point. Now it's kind of an industrial town that serves as a place for the rural population to find work, if they just can't go to Yangon. I'd also read about a reclining Buddha that sounded cool and a few more golden pagodas. I knew Bago was small and had only a handful of hotels, so I braced myself for a day of wandering it solo, sad that I'd left good people in Mandalay.

The good thing about having only one guesthouse in a town of a few hotels, is that everyone stays there. All the backpackers go for the bargain-priced place run by nice people, and thanks (sometimes no thanks) to Internet travel message boards, people find somewhere great. After getting off the bus on Bago's main road, crossing it in the rain and a few street rats, I knocked on the door of the San Francisco Hotel, the longest running and cheapest accommodation in Bago. Thank God Ma Ei, one of the two sisters who ran the place answered the door a few minutes later. I had woken her, obviously, it was three thirty in the morning. She showed me to my modest room and I got to sleep horizontally for a few hours.

When I walked downstairs to the lobby that morning I was pleased to see a bunch of travellers around. I went to the front desk for a map of the city and met Laura, who was looking at a wall map of Myanmar and asking the other sister Thu Ziar how to cross overland into Thailand. I was planning to take the same route, through the Mae Sot border in Thailand. We ended up spending Laura's last few days in Myanmar together. A few cups of coffee and a few glances at a map later, Laura and I walked out to the main road and headed right, to one set of beautiful temples and little villages to be discovered. The sisters gave us a tiny map of the sights, advised us to pay the local price if we wanted a tuk tuk (150 chets/15 cents) and showed us which doors to enter in the temples so that we didn't have to pay an entrance fee. If you go into a temple in Myanmar, you aren't scamming Buddha if you don't pay the fee. The temple fees in Myanmar are only charged to foreigners and the money goes to the government. The local people who run good guesthouses usually don't want the government to get any extra money. The government right now also controls the tourist industry on the higher-end, where entrance fees are definitely paid and random costs are added to a tour package. It might be pennies for some, but it's significant for others. This is just another reason why it's good to travel on the fringe-most of your money can go to the local people.

The golden pagodas we saw, with only a few people wandering around them, were a stones throw from tiny villages. They were on either side of the “main” touristy pagoda road. We found villages going in, and going out. We smiled at the people and looked for coffee in the little shops, which were basically kiosks for people to buy their daily necessities like water and tiny packets of soap and shampoo. For the locals offering us taxi (motorbike) rides, I taught them the word “walking”, much to their amusement. We found the market, bustling on a sunny Saturday afternoon and two vegetarians walked through a bloody corner all ready to cook the evening dinner (it was hard to look, as always) followed by all the fresh vegetables Myanmar could offer.
In only a few hours, I had fallen in love with Myanmar all over again. I felt so blessed to be on the road.

Before sunset that day, I found myself caught in the rain and I was staring at the biggest reclining Buddha I'd ever seen. I took shelter under the roof of a temple; something that was becoming routine in my travels through Burma during the rainy season. I stared at the Buddha for a few moments, then found myself meditating. I just took in the sound of the rain, and the smell of the humid air mixing with the freshness of the garden flowers and grass around me. I watched the colours in the sky change with the weather-from blue to pink, then grey. About a half hour later I walked out of the temple grounds and took shelter again under the roof of a little shop. A woman offered me a coffee and a seat as we waited for the monsoon to calm to a light rain, so I could bike back through another little village in Bago and to my guesthouse. When I took off the woman turned back into her house/shop to serve dinner to her family.

I ended the evening with Laura and Matt, another traveling friend, over supper. Laura was from Switzerland (the German part) and Matt was from the U.S but we had the same stories to tell and we all learned something new from each others part of the world. Friendly locals gave us eggplant and rice and we washed it down with Myanmar's only stout beer as Matt told us about dry counties in Texas. Then I explained to my new friends that yes, I was from French Canada, but I spoke English at home. Laura talked about how odd Switzerland was to her and how it was important that she learn German. About 12 000 chets later, we walked back to San Francisco and the sisters were watching Korean dramas and smiling. They gave us instructions on how to take the train the following morning, and we called it a night.
That's pretty much a typical day in Myanmar. What's not to love?

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