The hazy sky broke apart to reveal irregular squares below, each dividing line drawn shakily, in orange dirt. These lines vaguely separated water filled rice paddies, brown crumbling soil, and green grass fields. Looking down from above, it reminded me of a children’s drawing. I loved its simplicity, and how it lacked perfect order.
Shimmers of gold flecked the landscape, glinting prettily against the muddy tones. Hills hinged the horizon, a towering mass of cool jutting up against the belting heat that bore down on the flat plain below. A dirty brown river snaked its way through – slowly, surely, dividing yet binding.
I breathed in and watched the scene unfold. I had a birds eye view. It felt, at that moment, as though I had stepped back in time. And as the plane began to descend there was an air of excitement. There was something magical about coming here, to this land bathed in the old, yet awakening to something new.
Curious eyes struggled to catch glimpses from scratched windows. There was not one person I could see on that plane, who did not peer out inquisitively.
We filed into customs and through the necessary checkpoints, eager to reach the world outside Yangon Airport. There was something strikingly authentic about the whole experience. There was an element of discovery, and adventure, that I hadn’t felt before. I had tried to research a little about what to expect, coming here, but the information available had been somewhat limited and out-dated. The growth was now, which meant change was happening daily. What could be expected yesterday could not be relied upon today. This time, I felt I was ‘winging it’ in the purest sense.
I was greeted by a friendly taxi driver. I didn’t bargain. I just went with it and trusted my instinct. I’d been feeling anxious because I didn’t know what to expect, but as my feet touched the earth I felt grounded again, like it would all be okay.
I followed my new friend to an old car. The doorhandle didn’t work, so he opened the door from the inside. I scrambled in, winding down the window as it squealed in protest. The vinyl seat was old and torn, it was hot and stuck to my legs. Sweat dripped from behind my knees. Noisy gears clunked us into motion, lurching us forward. And every now and then the sound of metal grinding on metal pierced the heat, distracting me from the rising temperature. The sun belted with ferocity and as we sat in midday traffic, chatting, I reminded myself this was winter, the coolest time of year. I couldn’t begin to imagine arriving in summer.
We chatted freely. I felt comfortable listening, and asking questions, which he seemed to enjoy answering. He spoke of the change, and Obama, and how suddenly everyone wanted a piece of a pie that simply wasn’t big enough to go around.
“Myanmar, third best place in the world to visit!” he proclaimed with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
“But you see, accommodation, all full,” he said, shaking his head.
“You have booking?”
“I think so…” I replied, suddenly aware I hadn’t received any confirmation of my ‘booking’.
I felt somewhat reassured I had attempted to book something for my first two nights as he told me of people who had been turned away with nowhere to stay.
“Cheap place, expensive place, doesn’t matter, all full,” he said.
I asked if it was just Yangon, or all of Myanmar.
“Everywhere,” he said.
After we’d driven for awhile and chatted, I agreed to let him drive me to a ‘travel agency’ he knew of, where I could book more accommodation for the remainder of my trip. We got out of the car and I followed him around back streets, and into a building that marked no mention of anything remotely travel related. Eventually, on the fifteenth floor, he took me to a small office. There were some people on phones, and a few brochures. We sat on cushioned seats as he tried to help me develop a plan. Not much of a planner, I managed to create a vague itinerary. He sauntered off with the piece of paper we had scribbled all over and returned with two hotel options for two of the four places I had penned down as being of interest.
“That’s it,” he said.
“Too much,” I replied.
“I can’t afford this”.
“Oh,” he stuttered.
And here I was expecting to be met with some well-executed plan, options, an alternative, or something, and all he could offer was “okay”.
No alternative. No request for money. No concern that I had wasted his time.
And that was it. That was his genuine attempt to help me, in a climate that didn’t have options. It suddenly dawned on me I had no idea what I was up against. This man wasn’t taking me for a ride, he just didn’t want me to sleep on the street. And he seemed happy to accept that I couldn’t afford it. Simple. He did what he knew how to do, and that was all he could offer. This ‘travel agency’ of sorts, I realised, must have a list of a few hotels for each town and that was it. I figured budget rooms probably didn’t feature highly, if at all, on that list.
He drove me through sweltering heat to get a bus ticket for a bus that he said would take 8 hours, but maybe 16 hours, to take me from Yangon to Bagan. And I resigned myself to my lack of control in that split second. I threw it all in – to chance, to fate, to whatever, because I realised here I would not be able to plan at all. At least not in the way I was used to in unfamiliar environments. I couldn’t ‘book’ a room. I didn’t have a phone. All I had was a fake lonely planet book, and some dodgy map.
Here, I was going to have to believe in magic.
So after spending half the day trying to sort things out, to no avail, we said our goodbyes and he said he hoped I found somewhere to stay. I returned to my hotel, no closer to having a plan than when I left. I had a bus ticket though, so I was going somewhere, and that was something. I might arrive in Bagan at 4pm, or 10pm, and either way, I would have to find somewhere to sleep when I arrived. And if I couldn’t…
I’m no princess, but I haven’t had to sleep on the street yet, and I don’t particularly want to. It dawned on me though, that I might be up against odds I couldn’t beat this time. But somehow as the minutes ticked by, I felt more and more sure I would be okay. It would work out. I felt safe for reasons unbeknown to me. I’d heard about people sleeping in monasteries and figured I’d be knocking on their door before I set up camp in a gutter somewhere. Here I was, on a fairly tight budget, in place I envisioned would be affordable and I was beginning to realise, it may not be, at least not yet.
Still, I was determined to make it work. I was pretty, kinda, sorta sure I could make it work.
And deep in thought, I found myself in a lift that I didn’t dare think too much about entering, with a few people. We started chatting.
Where have you come from? Where are you going? What’s good to eat?
All the usual traveller talk. And it dawned on me how in more developed places that seems to happen less. It still happens, but it’s less. In those places other travellers are commonplace. But when you go somewhere where they aren’t, or where word-of-mouth is all people really have to go on, suddenly – people are talking. They’re talking in restaurants, in foyers, in the street, in bathrooms, in lifts…
It’s interesting watching the way the new slams up against the old – it’s dividing and yet binding, a bit like that river. And this new chapter, this new adventure, has got me thinking. This is a new world, waiting to be discovered, as they all are. But this one feels special, like there’s some magic starting to shine through from behind a clouded and troubled past. And I’m kind of ready for some magic now. I’m ready for something new. And somehow, in some weird way, it feels as though Myanmar might hold some of that magic for me.