It was not all plain sailing on my last day of explorations at Bagan . First I discovered - at a remote temple - that the flat tyre I'd had the previous day was definitely down to a puncture. The tyre had become flat again, but I'd found an obliging ice-cream seller who pumped it up for me, but within five minutes of riding, it was flat again. I was not too far from the main road to Nyuang U, so I pushed it the rest of the way and found a repair man in a hut at the side of the road. He hung the bike on a wooden frame, popped out the inner tube, found the puncture in a bowl of water, and dried and patched it. The whole process took no more than five minutes, and cost only 100 kyat. I continued my ride into the town, where I ate lunch before going to the Golden Express Hotel to use the pool. I'd considered going the day before, but had returned in the hope of a nap, not realising that the power was off; I didn't want to make the same mistake again. It cost $3 to use the pool - a bit steep, when you consider that I sometimes get a bed for the night for the same price - which was a little murky, with quite a lot of flies floating on the surface. Still, a pool is a pool, and I did get the use of a towel for that price. I got changed and had a quick dip, lying in the shade of a tree afterwards. Before too long I heard the rumble of distant thunder, and saw a few clouds in the sky. I wasn't too worried - there'd been some thunder the previous day but nothing had come of it. A short while later I felt the first spots of rain, so I put my bag in the changing room and got into the water, thinking that a swim in the rain might be fun, and it was bound to be a quick shower; how wrong I was.
The rain got heavier and the clouds darker; fork lightning lit up the sky, and the thunder followed it soon after; the temperature dropped. I stood by the side of the pool, and ducked down in the water to keep warm - the raindrops were very cold. I made sure I was near to a tree, so that I wouldn't attract a lightning strike. I hadn't realised that I was close to a submerged light, though. Suddenly there was a big flash and an almost simultaneous crack, and I felt as if I'd been punched in the side - the electricity lines in the hotel must have been hit, I think. I giggled as I checked my extremities, to make sure my hair wasn't smouldering or anything, and moved rapidly away from the light. After a couple of hours I realised it was not going to stop raining, and left the pool - at least I'd had my money's worth. Though it seemed pointless, I dried myself and got dressed, and cycled off into the rain. The rain continued all afternoon, throughout the evening and into the night.
The next morning, after breakfast, I set off with the hotel manager and his friend to visit the extinct volcano, Mount Popa. I'm not terribly sure how I got talked in to doing the trip, as it wasn't cheap at $25. I think it was because the last two activities - the trek and the ancient cities - had proved to be fun. The manager had recently passed exams to become a fully qualified tour guide, and was keen to practise. We stopped first at a little place beside the road where I got to see peanut oil being pressed by a cow and palm juice being collected, and turned into toddy. Oh, and I got to puff on one of those big cheroots too, just for comedy value. We then continued to Mount Popa, and visited the nat shrine at the bottom.
Nat are spirits, ghosts, and there are 37 main ones. I'd first assumed that it was a type of animist belief, where people attribute a living soul to trees and rocks and rivers, but it is quite different. Each nat was (supposedly, at least) a real person of some repute, who died in a violent way. Particularly connected with Bagan are Mr Handsome and his sister Miss Golden Face. Mr Handsome was a very strong blacksmith, whom the king felt threatened by. He was going to kill Mr Handsome, who found out the king's intentions and hid. The king managed to trick his Miss Golden Face into marrying him and, after some time had passed, persuaded her to contact her brother and tell him it was safe to return, and take up the royal position that was now his. It was all a cunning plan, however, and the king captured Mr Handsome, tied him to a tree and set fire to him. When Miss Golden Face realised what had happened, she threw herself on the fire and died too. The tree - which was understandably haunted - was chopped down, and set afloat in the Ayeyarwady River, and came ashore at Bagan, where the two now guard the Tharaba Gate. The manager told me that if anyone buys a new car or motorbike, they take it to the gate and show it to the pair, to ensure their safety.
When Buddhism was introduced, the people were told that the nat worship Buddha too, so he is top of the pile. Saints and very religious people outrank the nat, so they don't have to worry about them, but everyone else does. Offerings are given to the nat as well as to Buddha, and sometimes it seems more attention is paid to them. My guide at the ancient cities explained it very well, I thought: Buddha will only give you good luck, but the nat can give you bad luck too, so you have to keep them sweet. The nat are especially associated with the mountain, and it is an important pilgrimage site.
We started up the steps to a small peak - separate to that of Mount Popa - that was formed by lava forcing its way upwards once the main opening had become plugged. A multitude of monkey hung around the bottom section of the steps, where visitors feed them bananas or little paper cones of peanuts; the debris litters the floor, and the pungent smell of monkey shit is hard to avoid. There are less of them further up, and the air became much fresher. At the top of the mini peak are some temples and shrines, some to Buddha and some to the nat. My guide pointed out the surprisingly small cave where a lady ogress gave birth to her two sons; the three of them and the father are all nat. The views were good from the top, and the clouds shifted briefly to allow me a glimpse of the top of Mount Popa proper, a good deal higher than we were. We returned down the mountain, and back to Bagan. It had been an interesting outing, but not really the best use of my money.
When I had enquired about a bus ticket to Lake Inle, the manager told me that he thought the price was $10, and that only a pickup made the journey from Bagan Myothit (a proper bus leaves Nyaung U at 0500, but to get a taxi there at that time of the morning would cost 5,000 kyat). I said that I thought this sounded a little steep, so we went to the Tiger Head Express office, a few doors up from the hotel. There I was told - via the manager - that the cost was 8,000 kyat; this was for a seat in the cab, which is where tourists travel. I wanted to know why I couldn't sit in the back - I'd ridden in the back of pickups elsewhere in the country, why wasn't I allowed to here? It was agreed that I could, for a cost of 5,000, and I went away wondering whether I would regret my persistence.
I was told I would be picked up at 0330, so had decided to take a tablet and go to sleep at six in the evening, to get a full eight hours before my arduous trip. I was a little perturbed when incredibly loud, untuneful music piped up outside the hotel at a little after three, and went out to investigate. I found a number of men in a variety of costumes jumping around and shouting into a microphone, accompanied by several instruments, also amplified. The nice man who worked in the hotel explained that it was to do with a forthcoming festival, and that a rich man across the road had commissioned it. I was also relieved to hear that it would be moving on after half an hour or so - I'd had visions of it continuing all evening - so listened happily as a lorry pulled up with more instruments on, and started playing a different tune in competition with the first.
Six o'clock was bedtime, but I was awoken at eight by the manager, who hadn't realised I'd gone to sleep already, and wanted to give me a packed breakfast of two boiled eggs and some buttered bread. He next knocked on the door at five past three, to tell me that the pickup was waiting. I protested that they were half an hour early, but truth be told I'd slept through my alarm, and would not have been ready at half past three anyway. I hastily dressed, and packed away my remaining possessions, and by a quarter past three I was seated in the front row on the back of the truck. We drove to the town of Nyaung U, stopping to pick up more passengers on the way, then had breakfast in a small tea shop.
A man with some English invited me to sit with him and his friend, and explained that they were both from Inle Lake but living in Bagan, and returning now for the festival. He asked how much I had paid for the ticket, and told me that I'd paid twice the local fare. This rankled somewhat, as it would be just as uncomfortable for me in the back of the truck as for the locals (more so, really, as I'm larger than the average local - though that's hardly anyone's fault). The man said that maybe they had charged me double so I could take up two seats; this idea appealed to me. The seat that was rightfully mine was the front left corner one, but the roof was curved over that seat, so that I had to try to bend my neck at right angles to my body to fit into it. Even sitting like this, there was not enough room for my legs to fit in front of me, and I had to splay my legs. If I tried to slouch down to ease the pressure on my neck, then my knees had to slide further apart, so I was almost doing the splits. By moving over slightly, and taking up the first two seats of that row I could improve my position slightly...though I was still unable to straighten my head, or sit with my legs straight. I began to understand why they make foreigners sit in the cab.
When we resumed our journey, the man I'd spoken to sat in the front next to the small gate, that allows entry into the row, to stop anyone else getting in that section - which should hold four people - and giving himself extra room in the process. Several hours later the driver made him move to the back, so two elderly Bamar ladies could sit alongside me. Normally I would have scrunched up to make as much room as possible, but I remained in my position overlapping the second seat - feeling a little mean, but consoling myself with the fact that I had paid double, and satisfied that the small women had enough room. It was not really cramped enough to reach the numb stage during the twelve-hour journey, instead I oscillated between the painful and uncomfortable stages.
Views from the road: lambs being manhandled into a lorry; my pack secured to the roof of the pickup; nuns running for a train
In the darkness the air had been cold, and I'd wrapped my blanket around me to keep warm. Even after the sun rose, I still felt a chill. The roads were quite bumpy, but not all that bad, and the vehicle was capable of moving at a decent speed. The main reason that the 250-odd-kilometre journey takes so long - five hours longer than the bus - is the stopping. Some of the stops were perfectly reasonable: to let passengers on or off; one stop for breakfast, another for lunch. Many, though, just seemed to be for the driver and his crew to sit in a cafe at the side of the road, either eating, drinking or chewing. During these stops none of the passengers moved. It was a little odd, I thought. At our breakfast stop, the man I'd spoken to began to tell me something about the driver in a guilt whisper, but his friend had stopped him, and the sentence was left hanging. They were a number of police/army stops too, where only some of the passengers had to alight and show their identity cards.
At one of these a uniformed man, who appeared to be slightly drunk, came up to me and asked for food (the universal sign for food being bunched fingers held up to the mouth). I shook my head, pretending not to understand, but I was sucking on a Werthers' Original (brought over by my sister the previous month; I'd been saving the packet for a suitable occasion, and had decided that the long journey justified opening them), and he persisted. I removed the sweet from my mouth and offered it to him, but he turned his nose up at that, so I replaced it and carried on sucking. He pointed to a hairband on my wrist, and gestured that I should give it too him, but I shook my head again. He started eyeing my bag, so I gave him the boiled eggs that the manager had given me for breakfast, and he went away satisfied, picking off the shell.
As is often the case, when I know I have a long journey ahead of me, the time passes reasonably well - sometimes it is the two- or three-hour journeys that really drag. I'd been told that the truck would arrive in Shwenyuang (the junction town where I would get off) at twelve o'clock, so had only psyched up for nine hours, so I found the last three hours particularly tiresome. I was very glad that I'd had a good sleep beforehand, and wasn't overtired, but this did not ease the pain in my back or neck. It was with much relief that I got off the pickup at half-past three, and made my way in the light rain to the bus stop for the trucks for Nyaungswhe, a popular town near to Lake Inle, which was my destiion. An hour or so later I arrived, and made my way to the May Guest House, where I am now. I'm going to take it easy tomorrow, and give my back a chance to unkink, before visiting the Lake.
Visit SerenityPhotography.co.uk, where you can buy beautiful pictures from around the world...all taken by yours truly!