Tues p.m. Lovely guide in Bagan took me just where I hoped she would as I told her in the politest possible way, I'd quickly become 'pagoda ed out.' Took me to 2 local 'schools'. One simply a monk, three children with the national newspaper sitting round a table. ' Education' for village children whose families couldn't afford the small fee for local school. Serene and lovely monk. Monastery provides clean water ( because children were drinking river water) food and a kind of learning. Received a warm welcome and singing. Very shaken by it. We have too much. They have nothing and drink up what they do have. Put my hand in my pocket, what else ? A drop in the ocean. Bitterly regret not taking a whole pack of paper, coloured pencils really basic kit that would be like jewels.
'Proper' school was next door but so basic. Novice monks and village children in serried rows. Imperfect English written in chalk (!) on the blackboard. Again all students intent on learning. My visit regarded as a novelty. I stood at the front and spoke in English to the class.
Wednesday / Thursday
Yangon airport domestic arrivals, a crazy hub for dozens of different tours setting off, and not the easiest of places to locate my group. Took a while.
Most of the party , part of a longer Intrepid trip had just flown in - some of the original lot had departed elsewhere -myself and another Brit joined it today.
Then there were 10 :- 2couples. 2 female friends travelling together and 6 single female travellers and 4 nationalities. Most very seasoned travellers.
An age span I'm guessing of at least 20 years between us -but no young backpacker types - there's even a hint of other flash packers. Everyone really welcoming to the 2 new 'girls'.
Transport it turns out is in small, quite ancient but perfectly adequate coach, complete with curtains. If the roads weren't so awful, would be as comfortable as you get here. Our guide, Aung, is a young local man with a Physics degree but with no hope of a job to use it. Very sweet. English not perfect but he really tries hard and you have to make huge allowances. Nothing is ever going to be slick here. How can we expect that ?
Our journey was long ( about 5 hours) but made bearable by several interludes : comfort breaks ( thankfully !) a lunch stop and provision of little snacks which involved the guide making some roadside purchases of bunches of bananas, piles of oranges and something called Chinese potato that looked like turnip and that we were invited to try. Tasted like a sweet water chestnut.
Eventually, leaving our bus and main bags behind at the foot of the mountain to make our ascent on one of the many big open top trucks. It seemed that there were thousands and thousands of others making their way to the mountain top too -crammed on bench seats with more genuine pilgrims equipped with warm clothes and bedding so they could spend all night in the open. After a steep and slightly
hair -raising climb of about 45 minutes we reached the top where a party spirit prevailed. Stalls, noise, a degree of tackiness alongside so much reverence for the Rock and its significance to Buddha, they had to have a sleep over. Slightly disappointing first impression. Like Blackpool meets Mecca and distinctly lacking in the peace and spiritual atmosphere I'd expected from the Trip Notes. Managed a few 'snaps' but, being dusk, quite disappointing.
Hotel was quite basic just as we'd been warned - but clean and bearable. Unfortunately long before dawn, the racket began. A cacophony of sounds rose up from the road outside from before 4 a.m. that wouldn't be going away. By 5 I decided I'd go out to see the dawn. No - one else in the group doing this but figured if I was awake, might as well. Still dark as I went down the hotel path hailed by a dark figure through the hedge. Thinking he was a hawker I politely dismissed him ( later found out from Aung this was a hermit monk, clad very differently from his saffron robed fellow monks. He'd come down from remote hills to beg. Felt awful afterwards. Then was approached by a couple of little girls selling sweet fried breakfast treats. Initially declined but realised monks lining my path collecting offerings and bought some so I had something to give. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by a whole load of them handing me even more bags of the same treats. Gave them to the monk. Being really naive, thought that they were being generous. Then got harangued by a pack and the 'ringleader' got quite hostile saying they want more money for each bag. (4 in total) - ended loudly shushing and using my best teacher voice at them. Gave them one more note but these were savvy seasoned tourist trapping beggars and wasn't going to be duped. The monk issued them a quiet bollocking.
Compared to yesterday, the dawn atmosphere at the summit felt very different. Less tack, more reverence. The hordes making their way downhill looked as if they'd spent a cold night outside and sacrificed comfort in the interest of devotion. Certainly felt very chilly to me. Before the sun came up, my bare and filthy feet were freezing.
Lots of offerings were being made to the various processions of monks and at the Rock. Mountains of food and notes donated. Lots of praying. Was taken by a group of novice female monks garbed in pink. Hundreds and hundreds of people there but only saw one couple who looked Western. Felt privileged to be there.Stopped to listen to group of teenage boys , one with a guitar, all having a dawn sing song. A really lovely sound. When I clapped at the end, they came over and were really friendly and asked if I wanted a photo of them. So sweet.
Went back for a hot shower to warm up, feeling very pleased I'd joined the pilgrims at dawn. The monastic breakfast even felt apt.
Thursday stopped off at another temple, a palace and the WW 2 Commonwealth War cemetery. Was a bit templed out and though the palace was an ancient centre from the 13th century, soon lost interest because of the dusty presentation and midday heat. But the war graves were something else. The cemetery, a tastefully landscaped space dotted with frangipani was full of reminders of the ravages of war. Tens of thousands of sailors, soldiers and airmen died. Casualties of several nationalities. So many soldiers only in their twenties. Some graves unnamed, bearing ' Known Unto God' as the inscription. Really moving.
Thursday night - back to Yangon and reasonable civilisation. Out again with the group for dinner. Really good company and various entertaining anecdotes being told round the table, one by one of the hilarious Irish women about a failed attempt to poison her ex husband.
Another early start. Bags outside the door for 7.30 a.m. and out by 8. Eek this goes against the grain but managing it.
It took 8 bumpy hours to get to the beach, the finale of this trip. En route we entered moreof a challenge and more remote territory. Finding comfort break stops , with Western suitable toilets or coffee started to be difficult - for the former we 'crossed our legs' though some of us hedged our bets and had a drink at a local cafe, causing quite a stir. One little boy came close and and grabbed our wrists to peer closely, captivated by mine and someone else's watch
From the lofty glimpses of the coach, villages seem to be getting poorer and poorer and lives more challenging. Houses are rickety and made of bamboo.Most seem to have just one room, no matter the size of the family. Mats for beds. Washing draped outside to dry ( on the way people were washing clothes in the river.) Pigs and dogs roam in and out of the houses.
Conditions are incredibly basic and any form of work gruelling in these temperatures managing with only primitive tools. You see a lot of young women, as well as men, working like dogs on the fields, the rice paddies, repairing the many pot holes in the roads. The arduous process of production of rubber at the plantation involved numerous stages, all for 1$ a sheet. Though this country produces a lot of rubber, it can't compete with Malaysia and Thailand , who mechanise more.
And yet there is that strange juxtaposition between old and new, East and West. Some houses are patched with metal sheets gleaned from hoardings, advertising beer and soft drinks. The landscape is strewn with man made litter, especially plastic bottles. Lots of local temples in villages blast out ear - splitting religious music and announcements over loudspeakers. You even see a few mobile phones. We passed what looked like a wedding, but it was actually the ceremonial opening of a Western style petrol station, cause for celebration when what it replaces are roadside pop bottles of gasoline. Mainly there is no power ( or rationed power), no running water in most villages and heart - wrenching poverty.
The beach resort is attractive. We find out that the villagers have been cleared off this stretch of coast to make way for tourism. There are several similar hotels but, like ours, all seem to have low occupancy. It is high season but the beach is empty most of the time. Occasionally, locals make their way past, keeping to the water's edge usually on horseback or on decrepit looking motorbikes. Women walk by carrying goods on their heads, going about their business. No hawkers. No hassle.
It is perfect peace. Just the sound of the sea and the cooling breeze. Worth the arduous journey, tolerating the rationed hot water and air con arrangement and the most feeble internet of the entire trip.
Two full days of nothing but early morning walks on the deserted beach, sitting under an umbrella sipping fresh coconut, chatting and reading. Bliss !
Am getting in the swing of the group concept. Wasn't sure how it worked, but seems a good balance. In the day people generally go their separate ways the habit is to link up for dinner, always supporting local restaurants, which the guide sources and never the hotel. We're quite an eclectic mix but some people especially nice. Works for me this mix of company / privacy.
But it is nearly over.
Have found my sea legs to stay on and re- scheduled my flight back to Bangkok to see just a bit more. Will be heading off tomorrow when the tour finishes for a few extra days. Going solo for a few more days, hoped to go to Inke Lake but that is looking unlikely now as booking domestic flights and accommodation is tricky at the best of times. Nothing arranged because of the rubbish internet. Will explore Yangon if I don't make it.