I am not particularly keen on ‘touristy places’. What is the point in making the same photograph as postcards? Ok, these days maybe you don’t even see postcards around, say website, something we see on facebook, or shared in instagram… All the great images are already out there. So as a photographer, why go to places everyone is pushing each other to take same ‘perfect postcard photo’ that look just like PR image from the tourism board? But Bagan, I did not know what I should expect. I did not look at many pictures or guidebook so I won’t build up too much pre-conception based on other people’s visualisation. I got to the station in Mandalay at night, bought some snacks and large bottle of water, and waited for the train.
I remember the freezing cold train ride near Chiang Mai years ago in which I found myself freezing in over-cooled train (much colder than outside where it was not even hot). I also had an experience of a bus journey in Laos when the passenger in front of me kept opening the window (despite the perfectly climatised cabin), resulting in cold air blowing my face and body, and I kept closing it and cursing him and telling him to be considerate (he was the only one who would even feel the need to open the window in the entire bus) several times… until in the end I gave up. So I thought I should be prepared. I had my thin long microfibre towel and a rain jacket. Surely them combined it wouldn’t be so bad. Until the train arrived into the platform, it was pretty warm I was comfortable in T-shirt. How bad could that be on a train?
The train ride from Mandalay to Bagan was… LONG.
No, more precisely, the journey felt long. All seats on the 3-diesel-car train were reserved and allocated. So you don’t need to worry about missing out on your seat. It was an old train from some rural line in remote area of Japan. There are some stickers, plates and old signages that tell the tale of its previous life. My seat was in the first car. While looking at the people living next to the restaurant on the track side, I kept looking ahead every time somebody walked past my seat to go to the front where the driver’s cabin was. There were 4-5 people in there. I don’t know why there were so many people there and what they were doing, but they were all in there. Finally the scheduled departure time came and the train took off. As somebody was saying in their online material, the trains and other services here in Myanmar, at least in main cities, tend to be punctual. Where it gets challenging is during wet season, for example, when the infrastructure cannot help them run as smoothly as during the dry, like lots of trucks get stuck along the road, etc. The train line was a bit bumpy and twisty. You’d feel quite a few bumps and thrown about from side to side. Sometimes the train would stop for a long time, like 20 minutes or more, in the dark field in the middle of nowhere as far as I could see in my limited view, and without seeing any train coming the other way or anything, eventually it would start running again.
The man in Seat 61 described the trains in Myanmar as being “usually not in the best state of repair”. My seat was facing towards the direction of travel, which I was happy about. But the window was one of those old ones that you can grip the latch to slide up and down. The latch was broken and the window was permanently jammed in an open position. As I said, it was warm when I boarded the train in Mandalay. But the sun had set and the night air had some chill. As it gathered speed, it became pretty cold just to sit there. In addition to that, I seem to be more sensitive to wind than average people. I cannot stand the fan blowing wind right at my bare skin or face, even in a hot and humid room. I feel suffocated, and I was freezing.
Eventually, though, I managed to fall asleep.
When I woke, there were a lot of movement around me. It seemed like the train was arriving somewhere. And sure it was, we arrived at destination. Some guys came down the aisle and spotted me and one other couple in the carriage who were also not a local traveler. They asked where we were going. I was half asleep, and I was not sure whether they were some kind of local official checking visitor. As it turned out, they were taxi drivers, getting on train to catch their business. I was pissed off being hustled. They said it was too early for me to get into New Bagan where my accommodation was, as it was way before breakfast time; they insisted that I went to a sunrise view at some temple and then get to accommodation at the day break. They said it cost US$25.
It sounded crazy expensive amount. But I had very little research, nor any experience of negotiating the taxi fare, or any other form of transportation in this country, to know how normal this was. I did not even know how remote everything was from the station. After walking around the station pissed off at the rude push-around, I negotiated it down to US$18, and got into the front seat of the no-metre car. Later I learned that it was still way too much, but how would I have known.
Would I have been happier if I researched and avoided being ripped off? Maybe. But that would have taken away the direct exposure to my senses that I was looking for in my trip, rather than second-hand consumption of somebody’s experience, like a replay, which is inevitable to a degree, when researching much details about the trip. I had the guidebooks I borrowed from the public library a few days before the departure, I had plenty of US dollar cash, and I knew I was going to survive so that’s that.
After about 15 minutes of driving, he parked the car in front of what looked like an old stupa. He told me to wait there, and walked around the side of the temple to the small house in the back, knocking on the door. Shortly a man came out with a torch and keys. He was the gate keeper of the temple, apparently. After the driver left, I was asked to pay him for the key money. First come, first served. Fine.
It was pitch black. I turned on my small head lamp to find my way up the narrow and steep brick-laid steps and got out onto the roof. There was an open space. I put my bag down in the middle of it, looked around to get a rough idea of what’s there, and turned the light off. In the darkness, the stars glow bright.
I wondered if I got a great seat all to myself. Then I heard a few motor cycles come to stop nearby. Then a car or two. Before I know it, the place was so packed full of tourists. I was no longer in the best seat in the house but behind the wall of people’s backs. I had to keep asking some insensitive people from turning the lights off as they hurt our eyes and we could not see the view around. People started to set up tripods, people climbed the tower in the back of temple, anything goes. I was embarrassed I was a part of it, but I supposed that was how that economy worked.
Eventually, I recovered my calm and found my own images, rather than, or almost avoiding, the straight-ahead shot everyone was shooting of the sun rising behind a big old tower. It looked like a famous, almost symbolic image of the place. But did it inspire me, no.
Soon after it got bright enough and the morning fog/smog was less photogenic, I was among the first to leave the temple top. Along the way to my accommodation, the taxi passed by what looked like a functional monastery, and I asked him to stop the car.
Arriving at the accommodation, it was a shock to the senses, but let’s leave that story to my next blog post…