You are on the new Golden Myanmar Airlines jet watching the shadows of clouds speckling the stupa-pocked landscape below. You had planned to stay in Bagan several days but decided it was quite prudent to depart early. The escape had to be done via bus, train or plane. And given the costs, moreso the time investment of one hour or so versus 12, the plane seemed to win. The plan had you flying from Yangon—arriving in the late afternoon—snagging a taxi for a reasonably lengthy trip from the airport to the Dagon Ayar Highway Bus station (located on the western edge of the city) and hoping to find a bus that will run you to Chaung Tha Beach.
It would have been quite nice to know bus schedules going in but these things are constantly changing and so a roll of the dice was the best option. Further, even if the bus schedules were online, the terrible state of internet in Bagan would’ve rendered it meaningless anyhow.
The plane lands smoothly along the runway in Yangon and comes to a stop just outside the airport. Why an airport bus is being called to transport you the short walk seems to be more a mirage of modernization than any real need, but you play along with the sequence.
Outside the airport, you are picking your way through the thick taxi line, asking each driver how much it would be to go to the Dagon Ayar station. Some just shake their head, not wanting to be bothered. Others give an inflated price all while ensuring you know that “you will not find lower”. You continue to weave your way about. The lack of giant backpacks and other baggage commonly seen on others is not weighing you down, allowing you to look more hopeful than hopeless, and gives you a negotiating edge.
Eventually, you find a driver who appears interested by your request and you settle on an 8,000MMK ($7.50) fare and start the trek westward. The journey between the Yangon airport and the Dagon Ayar bus station is longer than you anticipated, not helped any by the rush hour rush, but eventually the taxi turns right and pulls into a dry, dusty lot filled with buses of all condition.
Now you are standing looking about, quickly noticing that there are no signs for which buses go to which places, nor anything that would appear to be a central hub for information. It is also quite noticeable that there only seems to be locals scampering about, heading to or from their respective buses or merely wandering the lot while selling drinks and snacks.
You head over to one bus stall and ask a few people standing outside where to catch the bus to Chaung Tha Beach. One of them understands and you follow him inside a rudimentary office with a flickering TV and chairs filled with waiting passengers.
And then you hear the words you somewhat expected to hear, that the last bus left at 7PM. “Sorry, you come back tomorrow morning for Chaung Tha beach.”
Realizing that this bus station is out in the boondocks, that the hotel situation in Yangon is not at all good—with rates far in excess of quality and occupancy rates against your favour—that the probability of finding something around the bus station with a lack of local language is not too favourable and that even finding something is only burning you time, you ask if maybe there is a bus to Pathein, the last major town located on the way to Chaung Tha Beach.
“Yes, yes, Pathein bus go soon,” you hear, now opening up a much better adventure than burning the night in Yangon. You hand 3,800MMK ($3.50) over the counter and in return get your ticket. And then you wander out of the office to go see if you can find some food, having not eaten all day, and facing several hours in a bus.
You are seated in a very dirty restaurant, half-filled by locals eating noodles and drinking beer. Old, rusted bus are parked out front, some being worked on and others belching exhaust into the air as they are started up and go to idle. A young girl waits your table, probably the most likely to understand the English-heavy order that commences. It seems food poisoning, if it is going to happen, is going to happen here, but your options are quite limited and plus, there is always the chance amazing food in being created behind the wall.
The Shan noodle dish, or interpretation, or whatever you want to call it, comes out a short while later, with the young grinning girl behind it. Michelin stars, New York Times reviews and visits by the Food Network are probably not going to be coming to this outpost at the highway bus station anytime soon; the dish is not very good but they provide you with a full stomach and an interesting experience, especially the confused glares your presence invokes.
The bus trip is uneventful, which in countries such as this, is certainly a thing of high praise or great fortune. You pass a fair amount of small villages, villagers working, selling and winding down after what was most assuredly another long, hot day. One of the best parts of the bus ride would be that the air-conditioning unit was either non-existent, non-functional or not operational that evening. Rather, open windows provided whatever temperature relief was needed. Open windows on a train or bus are always a great luxury for those who want a clear photograph or a more authentic feeling of the surroundings.
A little less than four hours later, you are pulling into Pathein: it is dark, the streets are much more desolate than you had imagined and you will need to find a place to sleep, preferably one with a roof and bed.
You hop off the bus and start to wander, chancing upon Taan Taan Ta Guesthouse. You open the door to find a couple people loitering in the lobby. After asking about vacancy, and finding numerous rooms open, you are heading up the dingy stairs after the front desk clerk. The first room he shows you is the lower-priced type of room. It is dimly lit, smells of mold and appears extremely dirty. The second room is just as bad as the first, but with an air-conditioning unit. The feel of the place is something between a half-way house for drug addicts and a prison. You politely excuse yourself back out onto the street.
You head north a few blocks and then east, along the street that the bus rode in on, as you noticed a few different places. The first place you stopped in at was much too expensive, and didn’t look very good at all. The next one tells you no foreigners are allowed, only locals. After finding a few more that didn’t take foreigners, one that had plenty of keys on the wall (indicating vacant rooms) but claiming no rooms were available (despite it being late in the evening), you find the Htike Myat San hotel.
After some wheeling and dealing on price (including a talk with the manager) you are sitting in the subterranean room with small windows to the hall (which let in excessive hallway light). It is the best you are going to do. The shared bathroom consists of two rooms, one of which comprised solely of a squat toilet which is closer to squalor than cleanliness. The other room a shower, which is pretty much a necessary stop after the visit to the squat toilet.
After prowling the hallway looking for light switches or a power panel, you locate the offending highway lights and shut them off, hoping that the glowing security camera was not blowing your cover to the front desk. After tucking yourself into the bed in the sparsely decorated room, you thankfully realize that the hallway stunt has indeed gone unnoticed for long enough allowing an easier pathway to falling asleep.
After a reasonably nice breakfast, served on the upstairs of the hotel, you are on your way to the bus stop for the bus to Chaung Tha. As you walk up to the stop, as it shows on a map handed to you, you realize no bus is to be found.
“Where you go,” a man yells out, his teeth stained brown from his betel leaf habit. Pretty soon you are walking up to a rickety beatbox of a bus with a mass of people around it. Upon climbing aboard, a woman is yelled at to move to the back to make way for you. You thank her (even though it seemed she had no choice). It is extra nice because this seat has legroom, until 3 more minutes pass and every single square-inch of space is filled by a passenger. Your leg room is now serving as a place for a handful of people to stand. People are hanging out of the bus doors as the engine coughs several times. You grow uncertain that the bus will start and very quickly after, it starts to roll.
Bags of flour, cases of liquor, sacks of who knows what, large jugs of vegetable oil and more passengers board the bus as part of the adventure to the beach. It curves up through vineyard-looking hillsides and along single-vehicle lanes dodging obstacles the whole way.
Road crews work by hand on small patches of the beat up road, with metal drums of tar tipped on its side and rolled into roaring fires. Women sprinkle gravel from shakers onto the road in a specific fashion as scoops of tar are lifted out of the flames. It makes you appreciate the small patches of new road that you roll over intermittently as part of the journey.
The bus stops for a quick moment at roadside seller and you hop out. You look up to see the roof full of more passengers, sitting in the blazing sun’s direct path. Also on the roof are various goods securely strapped by numerous methods.
After about two hours, the bus makes it way down the last hill and you pass a sign welcoming you to Chaung Tha beach. You note a hostel on the left, another on the right and at the T-intersection, fearing the bus might make a right hand turn, you jump off to go check on the lodging options you just passed. The bus heads left on its way further into town (as you later realize) and to the bus stop conveniently located therein.
Before you can start to walk up the street, you have people asking you to consider their lodging option, all of them being the best quality, cheapest price and best location possible. You waive them all away and gather prices and assess room condition.
There is a new establishment that seems like it will be quite nice, given the terrible conditions of some of the others – one of which you surmise should be named the Malaria Hut. An older, overweight gentleman sits outside.
“No, sorry, this is a new building not a hotel,” he says in excellent English in response to your question about it possibly being a hotel or guesthouse of some sort. “Where are you from?” he asks and after hearing America, he goes into a long-winded discussion about politics, in which you are leery to dabble.
He notes that he was raised Christian, went to Missionary School—hence his excellent English—and was a school official until a new government came into power and caused lots of trouble. “Here” he says wistfully, “I dream of democracy but I have been dreaming for too long. You should feel very grateful that you can live in a free country where you can say what you want.”
Unfortunately, you do not know if he is sincere or a governmental spy looking for rabble-rousers and so you can’t get too involved in his political discussion. He jokes about whether you are CIA (“What are you doing in these parts, you aren’t CIA are you?” he asks with a hearty laugh) and soon thereafter you thank him for his time and head back down the road, following the path that the bus had taken just earlier.
You decide to start asking every hotel you see how much they are, as if it were a game. After summarizing all the pricing, amenities and locations, you settle on a specific hotel that was smart and offered you a volume discount (for a stay greater than 2 days), free WiFi internet (the not-so-common offer especially given it ran off solar during the day), electricity from night to morning (the common offer), seeming freedom from Lonely Planet-travelers (another property seemed thick with them) which means more interaction with locals and a free breakfast (which some of them offered). It was also right across the street from beach access.
You drop your bags off and head for the sounds of Chaung Tha beach.
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