|Monks collecting rice in Mandalay's early morning|
Okay, Bagan wasn’t precisely my last location in Burma. I had half a day left back in Mandalay, so I took a slow boat up the Ayeyarwady to Mingun, a riverside town with some epic feats of architecture. A huge plateau just past the banks had been magically carved into a cubic temple with steps leading to Buddha enclosed shrines on each of its four sides. Burma is subject to earthquakes, occasionally of great proportion, and quakes past had inflicted mighty scars in the plateau – beautifully terrifying rifts now filled with shadows and gentle yellow grasses.
The world’s largest uncracked bell is a short stroll upriver, and a two foot measure of tree trunk leaned nearby invites you to make it the one time world’s largest uncracked bell with a satisfying bash that sends noticeable vibrations through the air. Further upstream is a lovely white temple and a beautiful exercise in repetition and symmetry, with identical archways cascading down the steps from its peak.
All in all it was a nice day breaking up the monotony of a long and painful commute.
An overnight bus took me to Mandalay and another one awaited me there for my return to Yangon. Already the first nighttime commute had worked curses into my buttocks and I dreaded spending yet another night of sleeplessness sitting upright.
In Yangon, and to my amazed frustration, I relived my awful experience of trying to get to the airport I suffered in Kuala Lumpur. A bus conductor at the second bus station in Yangon (I had to take a bus from my bus to get to my bus) assured me his bus went to the airport, and I double checked with the driver that we were indeed going to the airport. Just like last time, I sat patiently next to the window until my face slowly began to wear an expression of, “where the hell are we going and what’s taking so long” that became cause for the passenger next to me to ask what’s wrong and if he could help. I pulled out a map and he showed me that we were in fact going in the opposite direction of the airport. I got up and had them stop the bus. I was so strung out and I wanted to curse at the driver so badly, but did my best to contain myself. Asians don’t react well to foreigners losing their cool. I don’t know if the conductor and the driver in both instances were trying to con me, if out of a sheepish desire to be agreeable they just said the bus was going where I wanted, or what, but whatever it was almost cost me hundreds of dollars, and again, I searched frantically for a cab that would take me on a nervous ride back to the airport. Somehow instead of finding zen in Asia, I’ve found myself slowly becoming less patient and more readily stressed out – I’m finding myself getting pissed off at little things and having cruel and petty thoughts that are completely out of character for me. I think the cumulative discomforts I’ve endured in the name of saving money have been slowly chipping away at me and leaving me more sensitive to the rigorous parts of traveling. I’m not a superstitious person in the slightest, but I’ve found myself clinging to the pendant I bought in Nepal. It’s etched with the Om mantra, but I can’t read Sanskrit, nor do I remember what the mantra is, but somehow I’ve replaced the syllables of the mantra in my head with Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction commanding, “bitch, be cool,” which seems to have the same basic function and desired calming effect on me. Making a small mental effort to mellow out is starting to help me cope with the more stressful situations and I want to keep developing tricks to rebuild my psychological defenses.
Once again, I had an overnight connection in Kuala Lumpur before flying to my ultimate destination, and when I was checking my bag and asked if I wanted to pick it up in Malaysia or have it forwarded to Cambodia, I decided right then I was going to be a bum and find a way to sleep in the airport. The sweet lady taking departure cards then wished me a happy new year, and I realized I had forgotten to give the guy next to me on the bus a midnight smooch – but I guess I was sleeping (or at least trying to sleep) at the time anyway.
Internet access in Burma was utter rubbish and I looked forward to catching up with my interweb business in the airport, but later found that during one of my overnight busses I had accidentally left my electrical adapter, and like fun was I going to spend $15 on one at the airport when I could get it for a dollar in Phnom Penh, so I had to get creative about staving off boredom for 17 hours in the airport. I walked clockwise first through the entirety of the main and auxiliary terminals, being as thorough as I possible in my scrutinization of each of the duty free shops. I felt the vanity I had learned in New York and was hoping to unlearn in Asia seep back into me as I perused beautiful Italian shoes, absurdly expensive watches, the newest versions of my camera, and fine bottles of scotch. Without discipline, the cost of airport food could have easily outdone my attempts at saving money on boarding and transit, but I was fairly scrupulous with my dollars and the Malaysian Ringgits I received in change. Out of curiosity, I had to try a blended drink made from soy milk, red beans, and cendol, weird strands of slimy noodles I would later learn are made from sweetened pea flour. Somehow the airport roti I used to take down a bowl of Malaysian curry was the best roti I’ve ever tasted.
Cleverly, the auxillary terminal is a large circle with a tiny bit of rainforest jungle embedded in an open air enclosure in the middle. After a pair of automatic doors you leave the air conditioned coolness of the terminal and get treated to warm jungle humidity, the pleasant sounds of birds, a manmade waterfall, and verdant vines, trunks, and palms. Plaques on the foot path tell you about each tree’s geographic distributions in Malaysia, typical height, and uses in industry. It whetted my appetite for true jungle adventure and made me terribly excited about the days to come.
Around 10:30 in the p.m. I went to a dimly lit terminal I had scouted ahead and snuggled into a row of benches facing away from the corridor, hoping their positioning would buy me some privacy and protect me from the scrutiny of security. Worry, though, kept me from sleeping and turned every footstep I heard into that of a guard’s telling me I had to go. At three in the morning, it happened. A guard tapped me on the foot … but to my relief, I found the room had since filled up with other vagrant sleepers and he was merely asking us to relocate so they could give the room its routine cleaning.
Ninety minutes before my flight I shook out as much of the fatigue of three nights without a bed or shower as I could, took breakfast, and boarded my flight to Cambodia.