The JJ Express, the nine hour overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, was the nicest bus I’ve ridden. Each seat had movies like an international flight, reclined, and plenty of legroom.
I couldn’t sleep, though. I sleep better on planes. There was hardly any traffic at 2am in the middle of nowhere, but the driver liked to blast his horn. I read most the way. The roads were potholed, shook the bus and I kept losing my place in my book.
We arrived in Bagan around five. It was dark and cold. When I stepped off the bus a gang of short Burmese men, hungry for work like Mexicans on a Los Angeles street corner, encircled me.
I wanted to go straight to the hotel to shower, try to take a shit and sleep. But their mustached ringleader said hotels here don’t allow early check-ins. He suggested we see the sunrise for now. We got into a taxi, choosing that over the other option; a horse-drawn carriage.
The cab soon pulled over and Zucchini’s door swung open. A young man asked for $25. I thought it was a scam. The cabbie assured me it was okay, all tourists have to pay to enter Bagan. I handed him money. Then he asked for $25 for Zucchini too.
We stopped in front of a pagoda, got out and approached the steps. There were sandals at the bottom. We removed our shoes and made the steep barefooted climb.
I heard people talking on the top step, though I could hardly see them. A French woman said there was still room next to her. We sat down, waited for the sunrise, looked up at all the stars, some falling.
We waited over an hour. In just a t-shirt I had to hug myself to stay warm. I wished the sun would jump from the horizon like a jack-in-the-box so we could go to the hotel already.
More tourists gradually arrived, in taxis and on electric scooters, Russians, Chinese, Europeans and Australians. Some were old ladies. As they climbed I watched for one to stumble, fall, and die. We all sat on the pagoda like baseball bleachers.
Light broke the horizon. It was an arid plain, a small mountain range in the distance, and scattered pagodas. The pagoda to our right was missing the point of its stupa. I overheard a woman say it had broken off during the August earthquake and that many pagodas were now closed to enter.
The sun peeked over the horizon like a meerkat. I thought it would be an ordinary sunrise, a time when I wished I was rather asleep. But then I was surprised by hot air balloons that, one by one, rose in the sky and crossed between us and the sun.
Cameras were out. It was like a war zone, all the panoramic shots, the firing of shutters like machine guns. Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap.
An Australian girl who sat in front of Miss French stood up to take a picture at a different angle, blocking Miss French’s view.
“Really!? You’re going to stand in front of us right now?” said Miss French.
“Jesus. Fine. There will be plenty of other picture-worthy moments,” replied Miss Australian and sat back down, her cheery mood ruined.
Our hotel sat off the dusty ground like an old saloon. Three stories tall, it was one of the taller buildings. Checking in, I learned I’d accidentally booked the hotel for three nights instead of two. More wasted money, but we could check in and have breakfast on the roof, go to the room, shower and nap.
Three pieces of toast with butter and jam, two fat bananas, two fried eggs, a cup of tea. The yellow-faced waitress, after setting our plates on the table, took one long look at Zucchini, their faces close enough to tongue wrestle. “You’re pretty,” she said. Next she looked at me, studied my face as if she was looking at the white man for the first time, smiled, then walked away without calling me pretty.
The night bus wrecked us. We napped most of the day, only going out for a walk, Chinese food, fried bananas and honey, and had no problem falling back asleep.
We rented an electric scooter for the next two days and explored everywhere. We passed goats, cows, horses tied to trees, a kid walking a 500 pound hog.
We were cruising the neighborhood, going down a random road, when a woman flagged us down, telling us behind the wall on our left was a temple we should see.
A moment earlier, I’d let Zucchini drive. I got off and told her to park it. She looked for a reverse button to back the scooter up and turn it around. “Use your feet,” I said. She parked it. When she stood up the scooter was too heavy for her and it fell over.
The old grandmas wanted to show us something. We followed them into a hut. Inside was a sort of shrine, a fat potato-looking thing the size of a midget that stood erect out of a pot full of milk and floating bread.
The wrinkly-faced ladies, not even as tall as my nipples, gathered round before it and began chanting. They each threw a cup of milk with bread at the potato. They gave us a cup to do the same. In return, they handed us some leaves, a sort of charm.
Then the one young girl of the group asked me for $5. I tried to hand back the leaves. She demanded the money. All the old ladies bickered at once and gathered closer round us. I wanted to escape. Our scooter, parked facing a wall, was in no position for a quick getaway. I was afraid of what they might do with our backs turned. I was afraid what they might tell authorities and how much money we’d have to pay then.
I handed the girl $5. Then she, smelling I was a pussy drenched in weak sauce, demanded and equal share for some of the old ladies. I handed over three more bills before they let us go.
“We’ve just been robbed by a gang of old ladies,” I told Zucchini.
We vowed not to stop for any Burmese, to trust no one, and entered the temple grounds across the street. A Burmese man called out to us, asking where we were from. They always ask where you were from. That’s how it begins. We ignored him, doing a quick circle around the temple and left.
At first we’d stop at random pagodas, check out the buddahs inside and walk around.
Burmese laid out paintings and asked you to buy one, after having asked where you were from. One guy tried to give us a tour without us asking. Another guy carried around a book with paper currency from all over the world, even an American two dollar bill, taped to the inside pages. Learning Zucchini was Japanese, he said he was missing yen from his collection and asked if we had any. The smallest note in yen is 1,000 yen ($9), more than the Burmese 8-hour daily minimum wage.
After seeing so many pagodas, unless they looked extra impressive, massive, or unique, we didn’t stop. It was more fun to explore the dirt roads on the bike. Farmers and school children gave genuine smiles and hellos.
Squirrels with rat tails darted across the roads. I feared a spitting cobra would slither out in front of us, stand up, spit and strike.
The bike’s battery life was short, maybe three hours. In the evening, on the way back to our hotel, I had to killed the headlight to conserve. The power became so low, the speed so slow, even a walking horse-drawn buggy passed us. Bicyclists passed us. I drove on the sidewalk to stay clear of passing traffic. When we hit a hill I had to get off the bike and push it, or make Zucchini push me. But we made it back all right. The road into Old Town is a long downwards slope.
On the bas back to Yangon from Bagan, I started a new book, You Can’t Win. I got so sucked into the story I didn’t mind the long drive. But then I had stomach cramps. We stopped at a road station. A pack of wild dogs roamed through the parking lot, approached the crowds, and startled those who were sitting down on the curb when the back of their heads were sniffed.
I used the toilet, thankful it wasn’t an Asian floor toilet. But there was no toilet paper and there were pee drops on the seat. I tried to hover over it but as I was full of gas and needed time to let it out, my legs weakened. I surrendered, plopped my ass down. I was the last one back on the bus. They’d waited for me. Now I could read comfortably again.
Arriving in Yangon, we stepped of the bus and got on a shuttle van bound for the airport. We had 15 hours before our flight but we’d had enough Myanmar time, and I hoped we could get an earlier flight out. The shuttle van filled with passengers. Seats folded out into the aisle to accommodate more. A buddhist chant played over the radio. Ever since reading No Exit I no longer thought of hell as hellfire but being trapped in a small room with people. Now I thought an eternity in this van, with the buddhist chant, worse than that.
We couldn’t get an earlier flight. The free wifi had a 15 minute limit. We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken and leaned on one another to try to sleep.
I made multiple trips to the toilet, my stomach always filling with gas. Every restroom had a custodian that stood inside or just outside who did nothing. One trip I lacked toilet paper, the second time I’d pulled my pants up without wiping. I found a third restroom, cleaner than the rest. The custodian chatted away to another worker. I wished for quiet but it was better than knowing he stood alone listening to the sounds of my asshole.
Zucchini was more miserable than me. If I was at home I’d be reading You Can’t Win anyway. I wanted to be a professional thief, opium smoker, house burglar, steal people’s money from under the pillow of their sleeping heads, stick people up and hop trains. If life ever got too grim, row out into New York harbor and, with weights tied to my feet, drop overboard.
We landed in Bangkok, where people, for the most part, leave you alone. I told the taxi driver the main street I lived on and that my building was next to Bangkok University. Then I stuck my head back in my book. Turns out there are two Bangkok universities, the second one, where he took us, on the opposite side of the city. Instead of taking us to the right one, even though I told him I’d pay, he dropped us off at the last stop of the Skytrain.
Zucchini was pissed. Once we got to our station, she speed walked in front of me the 15 minutes to our apartment. I did not bother to catch up. I had the keys. Japanese women can’t shit and not wipe and smile afterwards.