Three Minute Stories

Bagan, Myanmar
Friday afternoon in Mandalay was upon us and we distractedly loitered nearby the Indian Consulate General. We had tried to emphasise how important it was to get the visa early in the day, and Soe worked hard sweet-talking the reception witch everyday. Finally, over a cup of tea in south Mandalay, we got the green light: Come and get your visas! Like a shot we arrived and went into the office with our passports. Now there were two men in the office. They printed the visas and stuck them into our passports. Then they wanted to chat again. “Oh you should definitely go to Kerala, and Goa and….” How am I supposed to do all that in 3 months on a motorbike you numbnuts, I thought. But I had to shut my chops as I remembered ‘there is no motorbike’. Wink wink. Alas, no administrative mistakes had been made in our favour. We only had 3 months and the clock was now ticking.

Almost running from the building we scrambled back to the hotel, got changed and jumped on the bike with only 4 hours of daylight left. We had 200km to ride to the ancient town of Bagan, and it was going to take all of those remaining minutes of the day.

That night, we all had a feeling of immense relief as we sat down to dinner with the crew. We finally had a visa to enter India and we were back on track to make it to the border in our allotted Myanmar time. The India visa was a keystone in our plans. Had it been delayed until the Monday, there would have been an immense amount of work for Soe and Htoo to modify the local permits and special permissions. It would also have cost us more money to stay longer in Myanmar, of course. From our point of view, it just gave us enough time to get into India before deciding how to get out again. It no longer felt like a tourist visa and it no longer seemed possible to see much of the country.

Zaw was so relieved that he ordered barbequed chicken arse from the menu and we tucked into a number of frosty Myanmar beers. Soe had put us up in a hotel with a stunning swimming pool, so we took full advantage of that to cool down whenever we could. The following day we clambered into the pleasant air-conditioning of the van and toured the temples and stupas of Bagan. At each spot, Soe would give us a “3-minute story” about the history of the temple or of Buddhism or of the warring kings of the region. The stories were all fascinating although occasionally he overran the 3-minute rule and left our heads spinning with never-to-be-remembered facts! Many students of english go to the tourist sights in Myanmar and very politely ask to practise english with the visitors. This seemed like a pretty good system, and Soe admitted that he also used to do the same. That’s why he is so good at telling stories!

Bagan is populated with over 2,000 pagodas, some dating from the 9th century. The size, scope and variety of these structures is equally fantastic as it is random. They are not clustered like a town or grid system, but more scattered across the whole plain. This is very much like Angkor Wat, where you can find a temple hidden under a big tree in the middle of nowhere. Angkor Wat has the protection of UNESCO, whereas Bagan failed to impress UNESCO. Many blamed the poor restorations of earthquake-damaged pagodas by the military government as the reason for this. Others baulked at the golf course nearby. I have a different theory. Since leaving Bagan, we have been to a very famous temple in India which has UNESCO status, and has been restored (with what looks like concrete moulding fascia), and has been modified, and is fenced in, and is protected by military guards with x-ray machines, metal detectors and automatic weapons. It is a joyless place in the middle of a poverty quagmire. How did that get UNESCO protection? Baksheesh, anybody?

During our day of touristing in Bagan, we managed to get the no-weight-at-the-back van stuck broadside across a road. This provided some much needed post-lunch exercise as well as allowing Htoo to practice his dance moves. We also took the bike for an “ancient monuments together” photoshoot before enjoying the sunset from Shwesandaw pagoda. Since the most recent large earthquakes hit Bagan, Shwesandaw is the only pagoda that can be climbed safely. I guess that is why so many people splash out on the balloon trips!

That evening we bumped into some fellow Australian bikers who had upsized on our trip, in every way. On a pair of factory-fresh BMW GSA’s these two Dutch Victorians were travelling overland from Oz to Amsterdam in 48 days. They were capable of going at quite a pace and had plenty of experience on bikes. Their bikes were like the starship Enterprise in comparison to Stein. He looked like a steam-powered scooter next to them!

Leave a Reply