Thursday, June 9, 2016

Burmese Temples and Beaches


After my time in Inle Lake I headed south to Hpa-An where I stayed for two nights. My first day there I just wandered and ate but then early the second day I joined up with a group of four others to take a hostel tour of the surrounding area. We piled into one of those sketchy little trucks and started off at this one monastery cave that was a giant cavern that we could walk through that was dotted with religious figures everywhere and beautiful views if you were willing to climb up a bit. The next temple we saw seemed to be flipping off gravity itself. There was this giant rock and at the very top of this teetering rock was a pagoda seemingly there by magic. Weirdly we were actually able to climb the stairs up to the top, I say weirdly because the way it was balanced I’m amazed it could handle the monks inside it so a steady stream of tourists seems too much like tempting fate. On my way up to the top I was stopped by a monk who grabbed my wrist, then blessed me right there and wrapped an orange thread around my wrist to bring me protection on my travels. I could have used that bracelet before the dengue fever or falling through sidewalks but better late than never! The final stop on our tour was this giant cave filled with bats where we needed flashlights to go through. It was also bizarre walking barefoot through this giant cavern but because it was like a religious pagoda to them we had to adhere to the no socks, no shoes rule. At the opening on the other side of the cavern we found the long boats waiting for us where we were transported through the reeds back around to the entrance and somehow the weirdly balanced pagoda was still always in view. After the tour we headed to the Thanlyin River where I saw one of the most amazing sunsets every before heading off to my last destination in Myanmar.
Sunset over the Thanlyin

Traveling to Chaung-Tha
From Hpa-An I travelled to Chaung Tha and my journey from hell actually started off pretty decently. I easily caught a bus from Hpa-An to Yangon and while it was weird that at one point some man took my passport, left the bus and showed up with it 10 minutes later and we had no leg room because it was taken up with cases of beer (that we weren’t allowed to drink), it was a great bus ride because a half hour into the overnight bus ride the a/c broke greatly reducing my chance of freezing to death. In seemingly no time at all we were at the Aung Mingalar station aka My Personal Hell, this bus station is so crowded, huge, confusing, and covered in unreadable lettering that I’m sure it’ll be the setting of many future nightmares. The taxi drivers were harassing me from the second I stepped off the bus and as I wandered around trying to find out where to catch my 6am bus to Chaung Tha. The cab drivers of course told me there was no such bus and that I needed to pay 8,000kyt to get to the other station, however when I finally found the rare bus station employee or traveler who spoke English they also told me I needed to go to the Kline Taya station. I kept trying to research the station and find out where it was but it didn’t seem to exist so I had no clue how to get there or if there was even a Chaung Tha bus there. Turns out Kline Taya is spelled Hlaing Thar Ya and there was in fact a share truck I was able to take there for only 1,500kyt. Sitting next to me was a man who’d been on the Hpa-An bus with me and who ended up being my Guardian Angel aka GA. The drive to the also confusing Hlaing Thar Ya station was 30 minutes of death defying driving with a madman at the wheel where seatbelts weren’t needed because we were crammed in so tightly. GA showed me where to catch the bus and as we’re in the middle of nowhere waiting for a random bus to another town with an unpronounceable name where I am the only westerner at this station, I thought for the umpteenth time, where the hell am I? The bus broke down twice and the third time it broke down we waited so long that the next scheduled bus caught up to us. GA tapped me on the shoulder, said ‘We go, bus not going’ and we ran onto the next bus. This bus was so full that the aisles were packed with little stools and people packed on them. I was sitting between the legs of some old dude as GA was sitting between my legs, where my knees were up to my chin and a chicken sat next to me. That was an extremely long 5 hours. From there we were dropped off on the side of some random road, grabbed a share taxi into a random village and caught the final bus on my journey. The entire way was horrendously confusing and I guarantee without GA guiding me every step I would likely still be lost. Even when he got off an hour before me I was still surrounded by lovely people who kept trying to share their food with me. Also I think they are trying to kill tourists. Every bus that was predominantly foreigners has had the worst music ever. Sometimes just religious wailing cranked up to max volume. The zillion local buses I took to Chaung Tha all had decent music. Coincidence?

Chaung Tha
I arrived in Chaung Tha dead tired after my million hour commute and a little pissed off because apparently there was in fact a direct Yangon-Chaung Tha bus at Aung Mingalar station that locals don’t seem to know about, and even though I was tired and desperately in need of a rest, I quickly found out that Chaung Tha was the most difficult town to find a guesthouse in. I asked the first place how much for a night and they just shook their head. This happened multiple times and sometimes they’d mix it up by responding “No, you no stay here”. Finally after checking a dozen places one person spoke enough English to explain to me that guesthouses needed to pay for a special permit to have foreigners stay there and most places didn’t have one since it was more of a vacation spot for locals. Miraculously I did find a place a little out of the way that even had a ‘dorm room’. Well the dorm room was a cottage surrounded with beautiful scenery with 3 queen size beds (pro) and only one single couple staying there who didn’t seem to want to socialize the one night they were there (con).

When normally thought of Myanmar I pictured temples and pagodas (so basically Bagan) but never really thought of it as a beach destination, turns out the beaches in Chaung Tha were pretty beautiful. I spent most of my first day there enjoying relaxing and watching the sunset and being mistaken as a mermaid - okay that last part was weird even for me. The next day was somewhat of a tough day for me. I was completely alone in the dorm, there was nobody around for me to hang out with so essentially I spent my entire birthday by myself. I still made it out to the beach that day but my heart just wasn’t in it, I’d never been alone on my birthday and I wasn’t even able to call anyone from back home. Luckily my ex boyfriend and mother saved the day. Before my mother visited me in Thailand they coordinated to have dozens of birthday/Christmas cards given to my mother that she passed along to me. These cards had been burning a hole in my pack since November and finally I could justify opening them. At this point I’d been away from home for 6 months so these cards and messages of love meant the world to me. I am so incredibly grateful to all the people who wrote cards and especially to my mother and Phil. For the rest of my time in Chaung Tha I mainly wandered the small beach town and bounced back and forth between the two main beaches. One was a mostly empty beach next to my place where there was the occasional foreigner and you could wear a bikini, the other was the main/locals beach where I wore a tank tops and shorts while swimming and it was still the most scandalous swimwear around.

My time in Myanmar ended so quickly and while it ended up being pricier than I’d expected it was a place of beautiful endless pagodas, great and dirt cheap food, absolutely lovely people, bizarre road rules, great beaches, nauseatingly bad bus soundtracks, and amazing scenery. It’s bizarre to think about much it will likely change in the upcoming future and that if I return in 10 or even 5 years, it will likely seems drastically different and/or much more touristy.
Our view from the boats in Hpa-An

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