It was Saturday at noon when I first set eyes on the Road To Mandalay, the beautiful river boat operated by the Orient-Express in Myanmar, that was to be our home for the next four days and four nights.
We'd arrived in Bagan that same morning, after a quick and painless flight from Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital. It was almost like a bus ride, really. And from the airport we'd ridden through dusty roads and driven past equally dusty plains with old temples jutting out of the grass and weeds like Christmas presents on a dining table.
Bagan seemed a dry and difficult country to try and live in, but it was magical nonetheless. My heart pounded with the excitement of new discoveries ahead. Beginning at 4 PM that same day, we were scheduled to see the first handful of temples in old Bagan. The day was to be capped with a climb up a temple -- about three or four steep flights of stairs -- to see the sunset over the plains.
But first the business of checking into the boat and getting travel paraphernalia organized.
From what I suppose was one of Bagan's main roads, our van turned into a narrow dirt road so full of bumps that we jumped up and down in our seats a couple of times. Then we passed some more beautiful temples that I made mental note of to go and see sometime.
Eventually we passed a beautiful wooden monastery, reportedly built in the 11th century. I had never seen anything like it: a dark wooden structure almost completely surrounded by graceful and elegant carvings.
WHO OWNS THE GIGANTIC HOUSE?
Finally we reached the end of the road, and there was a pretty gate that opened up to a path that led downwards to the river, and on top of the gate it said "Road to Mandalay."
As soon as I got down, however, I noticed a massive concrete structure next to the gate, built in such a mix of styles that it was difficult to label it as Burmese or Western, although it was largely in a Western style but it also had Burmese sculptures on the walls. I thought at first that this was some sort of clubhouse or terminal for the Orient-Express.
"What's that supposed to be?" I asked our guide Sam, as I passed the gate of the structure on the way down.
"Oh, that's the home of the brother of The Lady," Sam replied.
Fortunately, I'd read enough current affairs magazines to know that Burmese people are referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's national hero, who was under house arrest for many years and who is now running for a political position in the upcoming Myanmar elections, when they speak of "The Lady."
It was a very big house -- enough for 30 people to stay in comfortably, I quickly calculated, judging from the number of floors and windows. It had a very nice location as well, right by the Ayuryawady River that flowed upstream from Bagan to Mandalay.
NICE TO VISIT, BUT...
But Bagan, nice as it was, is mainly a tourist destination. Everyone should visit this place once in their life to see the amazing temples on a plain, as there are perhaps thousands of them. It really is enough to take your breath away.
But living in Bagan is another story. Even the few Burmese I spoke to in Yangon simply couldnt imagine themselves moving from Yangon, which is already quite a sleepy city vs. the rest of Asia but nevertheless the center of practically everything in Myanmar, to Bagan, a beautiful city of relics that is really lost in the past.
It has some small towns and even smaller villages, but not much else in terms of infrastructure. There are no deluxe hotels, few restaurants (although I did see a little restaurant in town with a sign saying "Best Italian Food") and I'm not sure if they even have a real hospital -- although they do have free Internet within their major temples, so I'm not complaining at all.
However, the only real top-end infrastructure in Bagan is the Road To Mandalay cruise ship run by the Orient-Express, and even that's not permanent as it only docks here about once a week as it goes up and down the river. But if you want real comfort while sightseeing in Bagan, this is really the only option.
So I couldn't really imagine an intellectual from a family so involved in Myanmar's political life to be living here. I learned later that it's his vacation home because he loves Bagan so much. Now that, I can understand.
Anyway, my curiosity was piqued; and each time I went up and down between the van and the boat, I would look at the house a little more closely. One day, there were a couple of fancy looking SUVs in the driveway and a lot of activity in the house. The doors and windows were all open and people were bringing all kinds of things to and from the house. I spotted women carrying sacks of rice and baskets of vegetables.
Someone whispered: "The brother of The Lady has arrived."
It certainly seemed like he had because even at night, the house was all lit up with a string of bulbs across the structure like a string of Christmas decor. I had a free afternoon once, and I actually thought of just walking up to the house and ringing the doorbell to see if he would talk to me.
I'd heard he and his famous sister were at odds and that he worked in the United States. No one knew exactly what he did for a living although someone said he thought the brother worked at NASA. There were so many questions I wanted to ask him, especially about his famous family. His father had been assassinated as a relatively young man and the political mantle had fallen on his daughter.
But eventually I figured he may not want unexpected visitors. I tried to put myself in his shoes, and I know I certainly don't want strangers knocking on my door on the spur of the moment. So instead I took a lovely coffee table book on life in Burma when it was a British colony, complete with beautiful and terribly interesting black-and-white photos.
Apparently, Yangon (or Rangoon, as the British had called it then) had been quite a lively capital in its heyday, and the British had established a strict pecking order of importance as well as their own rules and venues for socializing. I spent a few hours pouring over the details on the top deck of the ship, with the beautiful sunset as entertainment.
Just another day in a never-ending Travelife, on the Road To Mandalay.
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