Our day was primarily travel. We are aimed for the Golden Rock, or Kyaikityo Pagoda, well outside of Yangon. We are planning a trip up the mountain to see the balanced rock at sunrise. In the meantime, our goal was simply to get here. From what I read prior to the trip, there is little else to do out here aside from visit the rock.
From the hostel this morning, we walked 10 minutes to a travel agency and bought bus tickets for the day. To get there we passed through a marvelous market just steps from the hostel that we had no idea was there. I just LOVE these markets. They are so crammed with activity. People, food, rickshaws, trucks, and dogs, all jumbled together in this kind and warm environment where everyone is looking out for each other and ready to laugh together in a shared experience. I believe this loving community must be how no one dies amidst the ruckus.
Unlike my previous experience of east Asia, in Japan, here people stare directly at you and fully engage in acknowledging your presence on the street. A truck honks from behind, one of us yelps in surprise, and three or four people nearby laugh with us. A woman carrying a large tray of fried shrimp and spinach cakes tells me she likes my sarong. Her face is covered in the yellowish-white Thanaka lotion that most women and many men wear. Children, beautiful beautiful children – I can’t even express how beautiful they are to me with their dark hair and enormous eyes and trusting, open stares – wave and smile. These people are loving toward each other, often laughing, often with their arms around each other: men, women, adults, children, makes no difference. I have relaxed my own careful observance of others’ personal bubbles and reach out and touch people when I speak to them here, the same way I would with my friends at home. Only these are strangers, and they are completely comfortable with physical closeness.
I haven’t mentioned the betel leaf that we see constantly. I have read about it often enough that when I saw it for the first time, I guessed right. Among the vendors of toys and food is always someone with a tray of leaves. They lay out the leaves, spread a thick white creamy liquid across them, sprinkle some kind of spice, then drop some chopped crumbles of the Areca nut. The leaves are wrapped up into a little packet. I haven’t seen anyone put one in their mouth, but I assume the whole thing goes into the mouth. Betel nut is a mild stimulant, like tobacco, and people keep it in their mouths and spit out the red juice. People who chew it have bright red mouths and teeth. Sidewalks are stained with great red splashes. The walls in toilet stalls are stained with red. Nearly all of our taxi drivers have opened the door and spit during a pause in traffic.
After we purchased tickets, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts at the hostel and walked out to the main road. We knew we were headed north, so we crossed the street to catch a taxi northbound vs. southbound. Crossing streets here is always an adventure, but we are getting used to it. Rarely are there crosswalks, and always there is congestion. In Yangon there are so many large vehicles that it catches our attention. Large, like USA large, and not something I’m used to seeing outside of the US. Very few motorbikes or bicycles, and way more vehicles than the infrastructure is prepared for. It’s always bumper to bumper and painted lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. Someone tired of waiting might pull out into the oncoming traffic lane if no one is coming, in order to pass several vehicles and then cut back into the proper lane when oncoming traffic shows up.
Anyway, crossing a road is an adventure because one must walk right into the street and make a path. Just wait for a bit of a space between cars and go. People tend to wait and cross in clusters (safety in numbers!). It’s best when the cars have come to a halt because of a light, or simply because of congestion. Then people walk with no fear at all, bicycles, women holding hands of toddlers, weaving in between vehicles to get through. At first it’s unnerving, but after only three days, I’m so relaxed about it. Just step right into moving traffic, and everything kind of flows around. No one gets concerned. And voila! Soon enough you’re on the other side.
A taxi pulled over immediately and we asked him to take us to the bus station. It’s supposed to be a two hour drive. This man got us there in an hour and 15 minutes. Margaret was having a heart attack and I finally told her to stop watching! Me, I was having so much fun. The driving is simply astounding, the way vehicles swerve and merge and slow and speed up. I was constantly delighted. Our driver took multiple shortcuts, such as through the University of Yangon campus, to get around stalled traffic.
Thus, we arrived at our bus station with over two hours to kill. This is the craziest bus station I have ever seen, and I’m guessing it will hold that top spot for years. It looks as though many bus companies all have their offices side by side in a big square, all facing the center. As we had already seen in Yangon, vendors set up their stalls anywhere people might walk, which is an excellent business plan you have to admit. People walk through, busses occasionally drive through, honking to warn the people to get out of the way. So imagine a giant “U” of shop fronts that belong to a menagerie of bus companies. Then imagine a bus parked in front of them all, making a smaller U. And out at the front of the busses are some vendors, but between the busses and the buildings is a regular market. There are kiosks set up, and walking vendors carrying their wares will thread their way through.
Even though I ate all of my breakfast at the hostel, I was hungry. I wandered around and bought some cookies at a small shop, then bought some more green mango with chili powder. Out here the chili powder is coarser and you can identify the chili seeds, unlike downtown where it really is just powder. Yesterday we had purchased some avocados on the train, and I put the leftover chili powder on the avocado, which was delicious. I ate some roasted peanuts. Finally I felt full.
Our bus took off at noon. Another nice thing about a super friendly country: they look after you. At one point a kid came up to Margaret and me and told us it was time to get on the bus. He took my bag and stowed it, then asked for our ticket, which I showed him (written in Burmese so the information it held was lost to me). The boy led us to our seats on the bus. I was oblivious the whole time, but this kid was not an employee, just an entrepreneur. He wanted a tip and Margaret was at least savvy enough to figure that out. She gave him a few hundred Kyats (which is mere coins in US dollars).
The plane ticket to get to Myanmar was expensive. But balancing that out is that everything is unbelievably inexpensive once you arrive. Our rooms are cheap, food is cheap, transportation is cheap. Each day Margaret and I settle up the day’s expenses. We are splitting costs, but often in the moment it makes sense for one or the other of us to pay for both, like a taxi ride. It inevitably arrives at something like this, “Ok, I owe you 2500 kyats, let’s call it $2.”
The bus ride was comfortable and clean and not that adventurous other than vendors selling stuff during stops. It’s still a bit weird for me: a guy hawking boiled eggs, for example. He was going down the cramped bus aisle selling chicken eggs and quail eggs to people for a snack. At one point the bus stopped and everyone got off. We had to ask other tourists what was going on. “Lunch stop!” we were told by the Germans. “How was Yangon?” asks Simon, from Denmark. BTW, every tourist seems to speak English. It makes me embarrassed.
We arrived, and Margaret carried her backpacks while I dragged my bag (I am clearly not as cool as the other tourists) less than a mile to our hotel. The town of Kin Pun is small and clean with red dirt. It feels more like home than the big stinky city of Yangon.
The Golden Sunrise Hotel is gorgeous. Landscaped and classy, with no trash in sight. The staff is all fluent in English. This is more English than I’ve heard since I arrived. I’m feeling distinctly spoiled.
We are going to meet in the lobby at 5:30 am to pick up a boxed breakfast and then we will walk into town and find the “truck station,” where we will get a ride up the mountain to the balanced rock in time for 6:30 am sunrise. It’s a lot of time, effort, and expense to see a rock. Margaret likened it to Mount Rushmore, which I think is apt. The attraction itself is amazing. But the time, effort, and expense to get there is significant. And once you’ve seen the display, there is nothing left but to go home.