Friday, January 2, 2015

Breathtaking Bagan

On New Year's Eve, TunTun (who runs Nature Land with his wife GooGoo--these are the dumbed-down version of their names), drove me to Heho airport, about 45 minutes from Kalaw. We had a nice chat along the way about his family, his business and the huge/fast transformation in Myanmar with regard to technology. Anecdotally, he said that back in the 90s, he told his family about the new technology he heard about where you order stuff through your TV. His uncle mocked him. TunTun hadn't known the appropriate term for it--he was referring to online shopping. One day a couple years ago, TunTun's uncle wanted to buy him a present. TunTun asked for a coat from Thailand. They bought it together online but the uncle was still skeptical, until the coat arrived in the mail from Thailand a few weeks later. TunTun felt redeemed.

The conversation was a nice distraction. Truth be told, I was not looking forward to this--the first of two flights I would take with Myanmar's Air KBZ. I had read that planes were dated, pilots poorly trained, accidents statistically more frequent than "normal." 

I am happy to report that this appears to be one of the many, many examples of "facts" I'd read about Myanmar that turned out to be outdated or simply wrong. 

I'll not pretend that Heho Airport was...

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...even remotely modern. But overall things went more smoothly than I had expected. The check-in counter was a podium of sorts, with a few young men behind it. While one of them wrote a checkmark on his paper printout next to my name, another wrote the flight number and date-stamped a boarding pass. The third tagged my luggage and handed to the runners who would carry the bags through the small terminal building by hand, putting them on a baggage cart out by the tarmac. The first guy handed me an Air KBZ sticker to wear on my shirt so that I could be quickly identified in the waiting area when they were rounding up passengers for boarding. 

Security equipment was rather dated, but I didn't feel like it had to be more elaborate--at least, not yet. 

While waiting for boarding to begin, people were wandering in and out of the terminal building on the tarmac side--for a cigarette break or just to get some fresh air. Unusual. 
The ATR 72-500/600 we flew was new. The flight crew was very professional and miles more pleasant their USAmerican counterparts. We departed on time and 40 minutes later we landed in Nyaung-U (nawn-you) airport. Nyaung-U is one village north of Old Bagan, which in turn is one village north of New Bagan. 

New Bagan is where I would spend New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, staying at the Kaday Aung Hotel. I was very plesantly surprised by the hotel too. It was very unique: one building was a colonial mansion-like structure, next to some thatch-roofed cottages (where I would be), with bungalow behind. There was a lovely pool and a large, covered-but-open-air dining room. I received a room upgrade to a king-size bed. The room was enormous with high ceilings, and very comfortable. The bathroom, though large, was seriously dated (which made it appear less than spotless) and quirky. The original layout included a large tub, toilet, and sink. Somewhere along the line a separate shower was added: the head mounted to the wall and a shower partition assembled in front of the tub. Entering through the shower door, the back "wall" was missing, and it was left open to the bathtub. Also, there was no drain in the shower, so there was a good slope to the floor and all of the water basically covered most of the bathroom floor on its way to the drain. Neither of was a problem--just strange. Given the icy water temp of the shower at Nature Land, the first order of business was to have a hot shower and wash my hair. Ahh. Better. 

Then I started walking down the road. A few blocks away I entered a roadside eatery, the Black Rose. After a few minutes, a blonde English girl several tables away beckoned: "Hey! It's New Year's Eve! Do you want to come eat with us?!" 

This is how I met Aran and Ben, from London. We had a nice Thai-style meal and 18 rum sours between us. We walked back to the hotel, where the staff party was in full swing. All guests had been invited to join in. Many did, and eventually the Westerners had totally hijacked the party (not that any of the locals seemed to mind). Almost everybody danced--I mean, like 95%. I felt like I was at a multicultural wedding reception. Even the grandparents danced when they played "Gangnam Style." Good times.  

Naturally I was super hungover yesterday, but I wasn't going to let that interfere with the task at hand: temple touring in Bagan

I left the hotel at 9:30 with a driver that I hired for the day for $35 (plus a tip). Ko Htay (coo-tay) was excellent. He took me to 5 temples in the morning: 


One I don't remember the name of...

All of these were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some by nobility, some by wealthy people, some by widows. There are approximately 2,000 temples remaining though there were, at one time, many many more. 


Htilominlo (my favorite)

It is also impressive to consider, while admiring these pagodas, that there has been at least one significant earthquake that I know of, and likely others. 

Ananda (least favorite--but it's kind of a "must")

Lunch with Ko Htay. All good until I ate a mystery veg (size and firmness of a radish but purple in color. I dipped it in a homemade hot sauce as instructed and bit into it. As I withdrew it from my mouth to inspect the interior--looking for clues for identification--I saw the worms squirming inside. I spit out the bits in my mouth, gasping and trying to scrub my tongue with a napkin. I felt terrible for possibly offending Ko Htay but the reaction was completely out of my control. I freaked. Ick. Still bothers me. 

I rested for an hour back at the hotel and then we drove to Thatbyinnyu, the tallest. Many tourists go to Thatbyinnyu for the sunset because of its height, but Ko Htay took me to another temple just up the road (I don't know the name) because it also has great views of the sunset and none of the crowd. Indeed there were only about 20 of us chatting and admiring the view together. 

When I returned to the hotel around 6:30, I couldn't imagine finding the energy to walk up the road for dinner "out." I dined at the hotel, which was adequate, then retired to my room to catch up on sleep. 

In the morning I would fly (#2) to Yangon (aka Rangoon). This time, the owner of Kaday Aung would drive me to the hotel. Unaware of this, I was glad that I replied "it's great!" when he asked me what I'd thought of "that hotel." Upon hearing my review, he confessed his affiliation. We had a nice chat on the 20 minute ride to the airport. His son lives in Los Angeles so we had much to discuss. 

When we arrived at our destination, he handed Passenger Prize #2! Another calendar! This one seems quite appropriate, though, because I had rung in the new year at Kaday Aung, after all. 

Nyaung-U's terminal building is slightly nicer than Heho, which is somehow reassuring. This time, though, the flight would be a little over an hour behind schedule and a frightening older version of the same airplane. I was a little tense. 

Obviously I lived. 

Lived... just to risk death crossing the street in Yangon...