My holiday was wrecked before it even began.

Once it started, it went horribly wrong.

And when I thought it could not get any worse, it did.

Welcome to the Golden Land!!!

Travelling in Myanmar is like travelling through time, and by that I mean both going back in time to somewhere like Vietnam in 1990s or England in 1920s (probably), and going to another time dimension, which is elastic, rubbery, chewy, and totally unpredictable. I would not in a million years say that this is my most fantastic awesome wonderful splendid fabulous holiday ever, but it is without doubt a strong contender for the title ‘my most special and memorable trip’ for all its wrong AND right reasons.

Day 1: Hanoi-Yangon

I arrived in Myanmar after dark, and was picked up from the airport by a staff of Motherland Inn 2, with a full knowledge that somehow I had managed to secure a room to sleep in for my first night in Myanmar and an air ticket for Bagan the next morning, and NOTHING else. As this lovely young man in white shirt and red longyi led me out of the airport, I was beaming with joy of finally having some time all for myself again. But the moment I set my eyes on the blue pick-up car, I had a tingling feeling that that joy was to be short lived. The ‘car’, if I may call it so, looked more like a mini prison van, and smelled of nothing but raw disgusting petrol vapor. Luckily, I was given the front seat while the guy climbed into the dark stuffy carriage. Windows down, gears up, and so we rolled on. Some years back, the Myanmar government had decided that Yangon should be a modern city, so only cars and buses (mostly very very very old cars and buses) are allowed on the streets, no wonder why not single motorbike came into my sight during our 30 min ride to the hotel. The room at Motherland Inn 2 was a bit smelly, the mattress and blanket a bit worn out, the breakfast boring, the internet painfully slow, but the staff very cheerful, friendly, caring, and helpful, so it was all ok.

The South Gate of Swedagon Pagoda in the morning

The South Gate of Swedagon Pagoda in the morning

The South Gate of Swedagon Pagoda early in the morning

The South Gate of Swedagon Pagoda early in the morning

Beautiful decorations on the roof - Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Beautiful decorations on the roof – Swedagon Pagoda

A man walking into a side entrance of the South Gate - Swedagon Pagoda

A man walking into a side entrance of the South Gate

View of the magnificent zedi of Swedagon Pagoda from the South Gate

View of the magnificent zedi of Swedagon Pagoda from the South Gate

Marble carvings for the stairs, Swedagon Pagoda

Marble carvings for the stairs, Swedagon Pagoda

Gilded roof of the South Gate, Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Gilded roof of the South Gate

The South Gate - Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

The South Gate

I found this tiny statue while walking around Swedagon Pagoda - Yangon

I found this tiny statue while walking around Swedagon Pagoda

Local people apply a paste from tree bark called thanaka on their face as moisterizer and sunscreen

Local people apply a paste from tree bark called thanaka on their face as moisterizer and sunscreen

Many shops lining the four Gates of Swedagon Pagoda

Many shops lining the four Gates of Swedagon Pagoda

View of the streets from the East Gate, Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

View of the streets from the East Gate

Two students wearing the traditional longyi

Two students wearing the traditional longyi

A shop near the East Gate, Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

A shop near the East Gate

On the way to the East Gate - Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

On the way to the East Gate

Flower shop - Yangon

Flower shop

People entering and leaving the East Gate of Swedagon Pagoda

People entering and leaving the East Gate of Swedagon Pagoda

Local people always carry a clear plastic bag for their shoes/sandals/flip-flops.You have to take them off before entering a temple/pagoda in Myanmar

Local people always carry a clear plastic bag for their shoes/sandals/flip-flops.You have to take them off before entering a temple/pagoda in Myanmar

Details on a pillar of East Gate - Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Details on a pillar of East Gate

Two huge lions guarding the East gate of Swedagon Pagoda - Yangon

Two huge lions guarding the East gate of Swedagon Pagoda

A nat shrine, Yangon

A nat shrine

Ice-cream seller

Ice-cream seller

Trishaws in Yangon

Trishaws in Yangon

Yangon

A tea-shop near Motherland Inn 2

Yangon

I really wanted to take a photo of this couple and a mother and child in the house behind them, but when I asked, they said no

Kids playing in Yangon

Kids playing in Yangon

This group of 4 people did not move at all the whole 5-10 min I was there, it felt like I was looking at a still-life painting.
This group of 4 people did not move at all for the whole 5-10 min I was there, it felt like I was looking at a still-life painting

Day 2: Yangon – Bagan

After a very early breakfast and a good walk around the Swedagon Pagoda, I came back to hotel to find out that my flight would be delayed by one hour. Another short walk around the area, and then off I went to the airport. I had no idea I had just stepped into another time dimension. That one hour delay somehow morphed into four hours, yes, you hear it right, four hours. So there we were, a bunch of ‘rich’ foreigners who lavishly threw out almost $100 for this flight, stuck in the waiting room for what seemed like forever. I very much bemused myself by alternating between reading my new Lonely Planet guidebook, eating my free lunch of (half a dish of) stir-fried noodles and (a quarter of a table spoon of) pickles, watching other passengers pulling their hair and demanding an explanation, and listening to the Air Mandalay staff apologizing and promising again and again to find out when we could actually take off.

It would be a tragedy if I do not give a brief on domestic flights in Myanmar. ‘You can look but you can’t touch’ should be the motto. Yes, you can check online when they have a flight from A to B, but you cannot check whether they have an available ticket or not, and you certainly cannot pay for your ticket online no matter how much money you have in your bank account. Getting tickets from travel agents is always cheaper than from the airlines themselves, and some agents have better access to ticket sources. Domestic departure/arrival hall is a world apart from its international counterpart. Forget shiny floors, fancy conveyor belts, blinking electronic notice boards, convenient jet ways, we are going back to basics. Paper tickets with your names, flight number, check in and departure time all in hand writing, luggage weighted on a huge platform scale and then carried away on trolleys by airlines staff, a sticker on your top with your flight number/destination, a loudspeaker and a placard informing you it is time to board, a short walk to the plane, and we would be warm and comfortable and count ourselves lucky to get a place in this tiny 50-seat-or-so airplane.

It turned out the early morning flight from somewhere else to Yangon was delayed due to bad weather, then there was a puncture in the airplane’s tyre, and the airlines had no other planes apart from those two or three in the sky, so we had to wait as they fixed the tyre, 4 hours, simply like that. That’s how my journey to Bagan started, and what a bad omen it was.

I arrived in Nyaung-U an hour before dusk, just enough time for me to figure out I was in a really big deep shit. I had not booked any accommodation in advance, and all hotels within walking distance from where the taxi driver dropped me off were full. I somehow found myself in Mingalar Hotel (also full), being offered a windowless room with no electricity, no toilet, and no bathroom. Tired, confused, and desperate, I asked the receptionist to help me call other local hotels to see if they have any available room. The kind old man tried a dozen budget and mid-range hotels in Nayung-U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan, shook his head a dozen times, and gave me the same answer ‘sorry, they are full’. I could not believe it, I could not @#$%^&* believe it, most of them do not have a website or an email, their phone numbers (if they have one) cannot always be called from overseas, so how come all hotels in this town, no matter how big or small, how cheap or expensive, were all full, how come everyone on earth decided to drag themselves to Bagan for Xmas this year, @#$%^&* unbelievable!!! I was furious. Full stop.

And then my guarding angels appeared in the form of Patrick and Linda, a wonderful Canadian couple who saw me almost in tears at the reception of Mingalar Hotel, opened their arms and took me under their wing. They let me stay in their room for that night. They took me to dinner, shared with me their traveling experience all over the world (including their previous 3 trips to Myanmar and 2 trips to Vietnam), and asked a local guy at a bookshop they frequented to find me a room the next day. I can never thank them enough for saving me from a freezing night under the stars, and for simply being who they are, warm, kind, helpful, friendly and generous even to a total stranger like me. I slept like a baby that night.

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