We were two travelers who wanted to support private initiative without supporting the Myanmar government. So my husband and I put our tourist dollars into low-end travel and roughed it on the road from Yangon to Bagan.
The best vehicle we could get for the two-day, 17-hour drive between the two cities was a 1990 van with a dubious suspension. Our Burmese driver, Ti, spoke little English, and like many people in this police state, was politely circumspect. But a day into the trip, he relaxed and started teaching us bits of his language. By the third night, he was singing Burmese hurtin' songs for us while playing, as Ti called it, his "gitter."
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Governed by the military, its democratically elected leader has been under house arrest for more than a decade. Guidebooks recommend that travelers spend their tourist dollars in low-end guesthouses, small restaurants, or private transportation businesses, such as the one through which we engaged Ti. The airlines and high-end hotels are little more than fronts for the government.
Our schedule allowed us only six days to stop over in Myanmar (being en route to Hong Kong at the time), so we opted to use most of them in one place – the famous temple city of Bagan. The balance we would spend on the road, driving there from Yangon. If we wanted to invest our tourist dollars in small businesses, we couldn't fly. Besides, I've always appreciated the journey as much as the destination. My husband said that what he'd appreciate most of all was a reliable, road-worthy vehicle.
There are many makeshift toll collectors along the road for communities to raise money. There's no moveable barrier, just a small hut or someone sitting on a chair at the side of the road. In fact, we wouldn't have recognized these points as tolls at all but for the fact that Ti would slow down, throw money out the window onto the ground, and then continue. No full stop. In the rear mirror, we could see someone run onto the road to pick it up.
At one place, there was a toll on one side of the river and another on the other side. At home we'd call that highway robbery! And it's not as though your money is paying for bridge maintenance – since there isn't a bridge. We drove across the sandy, rutted, dry riverbed that, months from now, will be impassable when the rainy season returns.
The narrow, chewed-up road is used by trucks and overstuffed buses hauling produce and peasants squatting on top or clinging to the side, precariously, as the vehicles lurch left and then right as they enter and emerge from potholes the size of meteorite craters.
Farmers in oxen carts claim the edges of the road. Strings of maroon-robed monks pick their way over broken sidewalks each morning to collect alms.
Villages consist of houses with thatched roofs, rattan walls, and raised floors on stilts. We stopped at one such home where I gave away 20 pictures from my Polaroid camera of proud mothers and their children, creating quite a stir in the area as word got around.
We were booked into the best of only two hotels in Pyay, a small town halfway to Bagan. We asked the attendant to tell us the location of the ubiquitous generator, since we know that nightly brownouts force all the guesthouses to equip themselves accordingly, and these machines are always noisy. We chose a room far away from it at the end of the corridor.
Oops! The hotel actually abutted the main railway line. Not only did the building shudder on the hour as tons of steel shunted across town, I was all but blown out of my bed with the blast of its whistle at midnight.
Still, the cooing and rustling of a dozen pigeons nesting in the attic above our room was welcome white noise in between trains, as was the distant purring of the generator.
The next day, it took us 11 more hours in our clanking, groaning van to reach Bagan. Exhausted, we collapsed in our room at the lovely resort found for us by Ti. For $20 a night, the teakwood room was spacious, air-conditioned, and included satellite TV. There was also an elegantly designed pool and garden.
Here we would recharge our batteries each night after a full day exploring the monuments. Bagan is considered the Angkor of Myanmar, with more than 3,000 cataloged temples spread over 42 kilometers of sun-dried red plain. The view from the top of any one of them is breathtaking, rewarding the effort to get there; red and gold stupas unfold to the horizon.
On our last night at the resort, Ti borrowed a guitar and sang for us a few numbers that sounded oddly country western.
Then he broke into "House of the Rising Sun" in some language, vaguely English, but with far too many vowels. He stretched out the last line of the song, squeezing out the words, stopped, and grinned. We clapped and cheered, acting out all the goodwill we felt but could not express in language without consonants.
My husband and I had to leave the next day to reach Yangon in time for our international flight.
A week in Myanmar is far too little, so we know we must return some day. I've made a mental note to bring new "gitter" strings for Ti. There are so many songs waiting to be sung in this country.