More Stories from Myanmar: Hpa An to Mandalay

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Ike and the Bat Cave

Fresh into Hpa-An, one of the last stops on our Myanmar trip, we booked one of the famous excursions offered by our guest house, Soe Brothers. Every night, a cave on the outskirts of town emptied itself of hundreds of thousands of bats, and we were going to watch. Initially, it seemed like Nikita and I were the only ones that signed up, but we were joined by a middle aged Japanese man in the lobby on our way out the door.

“Hello my name is Ike,” he said confidently.

We introduced ourselves and got to talking. Ike was a Japanese national living in Bangkok, and had been to Myanmar no less than 9 times, both for business and pleasure.

He was so outspoken and capable in English that I was curious. “So can you speak Burmese?”

“A little!” he shouted over the roar and rattle of the tuk tuk. “I am also learning Laotian!” He could also speak basic Vietnamese and Chinese, though I could barely understand him.

Our tuk tuk arrived at the entrance to the bat cave, a temple with a long, covered walk way. Like with every temple in Southeast Asia, we had to remove our shoes to enter. At the end of the walkway we were met with a long dirt path along the river and all promptly turned back around to collet our shoes.

“Maybe it’s better if we wear our shoes on this part,” Ike commented. “If you cut your foot you could be exposed to some kind of virus.”

“Yeah…”

Ike ascends at steep steel ladder. The climber realizes, once they're both too far from either the top or bottom, that the ladder isn't bolted down.

Ike ascends at steep steel ladder. The climber realizes, once they’re both too far from either the top or bottom, that the ladder isn’t bolted down.

At the end of the path was a series of stupas, the penultimate at the top of a steep and slightly terrifying climb. We reached the top and after taking in the view, we headed back down to join the onlookers at the base of the large rock that housed the bats. What looked like a ledge, about 20 feet up the rock, was actually a hole in the roof of the cave, from which the bats would emerge.

The sun continued to set and the faint squeaking seemed to get louder, or maybe the outside world was simply getting quieter.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, someone shouted, “There!” as the first few bats emerged and flew in tight circles around the mouth. A few seconds later, and with a raucous, squeaking chorus, hundreds and then thousands, of fluttering bats inundated the darkening sky above us. Instead of dispersing into the surrounding areas, they followed a path through the air, forming a faint black ribbon in the sky that could be seen swirling towards the sea.

Hundreds of thousands of bats empty from the cave all at once every night. How this doesn't cause mid-air collisions or traffic jams is slightly bewildering.

Hundreds of thousands of bats empty from the cave all at once every night. How this doesn’t cause mid-air collisions or traffic jams is slightly bewildering.

Besides the stupas below, two old men, possibly keepers of the stupas, began banging makeshift drums against the pavement in a slow, erratic rhythm. At first it looked like a gimmick, but the longer I watched the bats the more I was able to see them respond to the clattering sound. With each clash of the drum, the swirling tunnel of flying bats would pulse and jump in mid-flight.

It was interesting, but probably irritating or painful for the bats, who are extremely sensitive to sound, as we know.

After about 20 minutes of this, the sky darkened and the eruption of bats slowed into a trickle. Most of the onlookers had left and we turned to find Ike waiting behind us, wearing a surgical mask. The smell of ammonia from the bats was quite strong but certainly it was fine in the open air as we were?

“Ike, you’re wearing a mask?”

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t want to be exposed to a bat virus.”

We didn’t question this and made our way back to the tuk tuk waiting for us at the end of the temple grounds. One loud and bumpy ride later, the tuk tuk pulled back in front of the guest house and the three of us decided to eat dinner together. “What do you usually like to eat?” we asked Ike, trying to find common ground.

“I usually get curry or something similar. What about you? Hamburger?”

He was serious.

I turned the tables on him a few seconds later. “So you like to eat curry? No sushi?”

Ike giggled uncontrolledly like it was the funniest thing he heard in a long time. I was killing it.

We found an overpriced restaurant full of tourists, the only option at about 7:00 pm, and settled into a table. I listened to Ike converse briefly with the owner about the curry options on the menu. He was fluent in English, and his Burmese was clearly functional, but to me, the rhythm of his accent was so strong it sounded like he was still speaking Japanese. Still, I thought, good for you, Ike. You polyglot, you.

After a long discussion about our respective cultures, and interestingly, immigration, the dinner conversation turned towards Bangkok, where Ike lived as an expat.

“So,” I asked. “What are your favorite things to do in Bangkok?”

After some initial grappling with the intent of my question, Ike settled on some of his favorite things to do in the city after a day’s work: do some reading at a McDonalds or Starbucks.

Hey, you like what you like. And I’m not going to fault Ike for enjoying American fast food chains, because overseas they’re actually quite nice.

At the Bus Terminal

After an extremely thorough day trip through the countryside around Hpa An, we reserved two seats on a bus for the nearest big city for the following day.

Hpa An itself is not a big town, so directions to the terminal were thankfully quite simple, “Go to the clock tower and look to the right.” We did so and found a small shop with the familiar banner marking the route of their buses hanging from a desk, but when we looked up at the desk we saw a child sitting behind it. He couldn’t have been any older than 10.

Tiny bus attendant.

Tiny bus attendant.

We stopped a bit in our tracks, unsure if perhaps the shop was closed and shot each other confused glances. The kid looked unfazed by our presence, so Nikita got out the ticket receipt and held it out to him. The kid leaned over on the desk on his elbows, hands clasped attentively; a tiny, well-played version of a self-assured businessman. He took the receipt, read it, and smiled, confidently nodding and gesturing for us to wait at the front of the shop.

“Well?” Nikita said, for lack of any other words, giggling quietly at the absurdity of the situation.

We were amused but also concerned about the legitimacy of the bus station attendant and the bus in general. I looked again at the kid, who remained at his post, smiling calmly. There was no adult in sight.

Out of everything we had experienced in Myanmar it seemed ironic that a competent 10 year old bus station attendant was dealing us the most culture shock. Which is not to say that we hadn’t seen children working in the country before.

Restaurants and tea houses frequently had children taking our orders, serving tea and bringing food. Among the monastic members of Burmese society were quite a few child monks and nuns. In Yangon children begged in the Chinatown throngs, not unlike gypsy families many see in Rome (albeit with much less gusto and determination). Knowing the level of poverty in the country, I can’t say I was surprised to see children working.

So far though, desk jobs and attendant positions were clearly better jobs than most in Myanmar’s still developing economy, and up until now had been entirely adult maintained, especially in sectors that involved dealing with foreign tourists.

The phone on the desk rang and the kid answered it, responding to the caller on the other line with one word responses. It seemed to suffice and he hung up and went about his business of holding down the fort and looking adorable.

20 minutes past and, I’m assuming, the attendant’s mom pulled up in front of the shop on a motorbike. Seeing the first adult on the premises, we rushed to her and showed her our receipt only to get the same response to yes, just sit here and wait. She was as nonchalant about the whole thing as her son had been and quickly went to take care of business around the shop while he held his post at the front desk.

A bit calmer now that we had an adult corroborate the situation, we loosened up a bit and engaged the young attendant in a photo shoot. A bit of a hypocritical move, we admit, but he didn’t seem to mind 🙂

Overnight Train to Mandalay

The last stop on our trip was Mandalay, where we would celebrate the new year and then return to Bangkok by plane. After leaving Hpa An, we endured a long, frustrating day at one of Myanmar’s top attractions, the Golden Rock, before making it to the town of Bago, where we would find a way to Mandalay.

Upper class car of the overnight train bound for Mandalay. Doesn't look that bad, right? Just wait!

Upper class car of the overnight train bound for Mandalay. Doesn’t look that bad, right? Just wait!

Bus-weary from so much traveling, we opted for the train on the solid recommendation of a German couple we met in Yangon. Germans love trains, I stereotyped, so this should be good.

Compared to trains, buses in Myanmar are much faster and many offer air conditioning, making them more expensive, and consequently the transportation mode of choice for tourists.

We arrived at the city of Bago as the sun was setting. The town looked to be by far the most polluted place in Myanmar, which is saying a lot from a country that uses burning as the trash disposal method of choice. The train station, not catering to tourists, had a rougher crowd than the buses, but the staff were extremely friendly and the station had a lot of charm.

The station master, and his multiple, antique landline phones.

The station master, and his multiple, vintage landline phones.

We waited, bought some unidentifiable snacks and soon after dark the train pulled in. There was only one sleeper car and no more tickets left, so we opted for the upper class seats. I would have loved a sleeper seat, but catching a glimpse of economy class which consisted of dented metal booths, I was simply happy to not have to ride on those all night.

We got to our seats and a few seconds later the train pulled out. Immediately, the ride was extremely loud and jarring, and at infrequent intervals the train would lurch forward violently like a surging, galloping steed. The windows for the train were also left open, so as the train sped through the night, little bugs were sucked into the car and stunned or killed as they smacked into the bodies of passengers. Every once in a while I would look down and see a dusting of tiny, motionless bug bodies on my clothes that needed to be brushed off.

I stirred and woke up briefly many times throughout the night, but was extremely surprised when I awoke for good and saw that it was 5:09 AM. We were due to be in Mandalay by 6:00 and I had, somehow, slept through most of the night. Of course, the train ran on Burmese time and we arrived at Mandalay station around 7:30.

Clearly my traveling skills are improving if I was able to sleep through any part of a ride like that.

New Year’s Eve, Mandalay

Our last day in Myanmar was in the old capital, Mandalay, and also happened to be New Year’s Eve 2015. Mandalay doesn’t have the reputation of having lots of exciting things to do besides temples, and we’d seen quite a lot of those over the past 20 days in the country. We decided to stay in and work on the blog (which actually requires a lot of time and effort; we’re looking at you, family!), and go out and enjoy ourselves for the celebration, which would take place around the walls of the old palace.

Around 10 pm we tore ourselves away from our laptops and headed towards the palace. The most celebratory crowds were to be found along a strip of fancy hotels with across-the-street views of the palace, and as we headed in that direction small groups of young Burmese greeted us with the familiar “hello!” and a new vocabulary phrase, “Happy New Year!”

Hello! Happy New Year! Look here please SAY CHEESE!

Hello! Happy New Year! Look here please SAY CHEESE!

The crowd thickened the closer we got and our celebrity status increased as every so often a group of drunken revelers would surround us and a poorly executed photo shoot would commence.

We wandered through the crowds along the side of the expansive moat that surrounded the old palace in search of the official New Year’s Eve Party, but from what we could tell: this was it. It was the first time we’d seen so many young Burmese gathered in one place. For a country with a reputation for social conservatism and a violent dictatorship in their not-too-distant past, they were all doing a fine job of enjoying themselves and assuming the ranks of global, modern youth.

A group sings to acoustic versions of Burmese pop hits along the moat of the old palace. New Year's Eve 2015, Mandalay.

A group sings to acoustic versions of Burmese pop hits along the moat of the old palace. I don’t think the acoustic guitar has attained chick magnet status in Myanmar at this point in time.

There was a commotion on the adjacent street and we noticed traffic was stopped, while pedestrians piled onto the median to observe. Not having anything better to do, we followed and watched as what appeared to be young and rebellious Burmese, armed with motor bikes, had stopped traffic by congregating in the street and refusing to let anyone pass.

The gang thoughtfully stops traffic on the street. Everybody really loved it.

The gang thoughtfully stops traffic on the street. Everybody really loved it.

They did this so that they could create enough space in the street with which to perform tricks and stunts on their motor bikes (not motor cycles). No one was allowed to pass, and some who did so were pretty much assaulted on their way through.

Mad motorbike skills dude.

Mad motorbike skills dude.

myanmar-stories-mandalay-bike-gang-3

Vroom vroom.

Ok at least someone’s on a real motor cycle.

After about 10 minutes of this, they got back on their bikes, and with a flamboyant rallying call from their big-haired, vainglorious leader, they all sped forward and rode around the street several times before slowing down, stopping traffic and doing it all again.

Everyone wanted to see more of this nonsense. Who were they to say no?

Everyone wanted to see more of this nonsense. Who were they to say no?

This display went on multiple times until suddenly, we heard the boom and crackle of a firework. And then another.

Looking at the time we saw that it was 12:02 and there had been no New Year countdown and that the fireworks display was simply citizens who had bought fireworks for the occasion setting them off at about 12ish.

The motor bike gang again began to rush through traffic and revelers from along the moat spilled into the street. The atmosphere appeared to be hurtling towards an explosion of crowd and chaos until we saw that the pedestrians were rushing to get their high fives and handshakes.

Yes, handshakes.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year again!

Any human was an object of goodwill and faced with an onslaught of unbridled cheer as happy and not untipsy partiers aggressively wished them a happy New Year in both English and Burmese. Vehicles full of passengers were surrounded as groups of revelers forced their hands through the windows to handshake each and every passenger and wish them well.

Coordinated young lads dance on a slow moving jeep.

Coordinated young lads dance their way through traffic on a slow moving jeep.

Riders on motorbikes sped through the streets with pedestrians waiting in the road to high five them as they passed. Some celebrators hovered on the sidelines, looking happy if a bit confused by the mood and the point of the whole thing.

Of course, as foreign tourists, we were enthusiastically well-wished, handshaked, and high fived to the point where I could no longer feel my face from the perpetual polite smile plastered onto it.

I've had worse New Year's for sure.

I’ve had worse New Year’s for sure.

After about 10 minutes of this, we’d gotten through the thick of the crowd, but most of the traffic had died down anyway. The biker gang had left, fireworks cache long exhausted, and what had looked to be a huge crowd had thinned into stragglers. We walked the mile back to our hotel and the city seemed basically empty.

Mandalay, though a big city, was still in a country with a lot of developing to do. It would, thankfully, be a long time before ten-thousand strong parties and gatherings like those in New York or even Bangkok would take place.

We left for Bangkok the next morning, sad to leave Myanmar, our home for the 3 weeks, in the past.

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Comments

  1. Hello! Very interesting blog here :). I am planning the trip to Myanmar this year, and just wondering how to book a bus from Hpa An to Mandalay, as I checked on myanmarbusticket.com/, they said no direct bus from Hpa An to Mandalay. Could you please share on that. Thanks so much.

    1. Hello, if I remember correctly it’s best to buy your bus ticket after you arrive. When we went there wasn’t a direct bus to Hpa An, but you could take a bus most of the way there then catch another bus for the last leg. I forget what town we switched buses at.

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