No matter where you travel, no matter how many times you travel… in one way or another, you always get taken to the market. But it’s up to you whether or not you part with your money.
Let’s start by backing up to the end of Myanmar, Day 3. Throughout this trip we had intended to go to Mount Popa for a night, and had even called ahead to reserve a room (no credit card necessary, just a name). However, what we hadn’t figured out or booked yet was how we were going to get there — it’s 55 kilometers from Bagan so it requires some driving, somehow.
The tour guide, who initially took us from the airport to the hotel when we arrived in Bagan and who had also toured us around Bagan during the afternoon of Day 3, knew we wanted to go there from our casual conversations. When he dropped us at the hotel at the end of Day 3, he began his sales pitch to get us to hire him and his driver to take us to Mount Popa.
First, he started his hard sell on the price: he would only charge us $90 USD roundtrip — much cheaper than our hotel, which he said would charge us $125 USD. We managed to get his price down to $80 USD, but then he had to check with the driver. Next, he said the driver wanted some of the money upfront so they would be assured of our business the next day. We didn’t feel comfortable handing cash to someone we might never see again, so we asked for his number so we could think about it and call him in the morning. Then, he wouldn’t give us his phone number. So after 20 minutes of back and forth, we walked away and told him to check back with us in the morning if he hadn’t gotten any other business for the day.
Ninety dollars in Myanmar is a lot of money. Could we afford it? Yes. Did we want to pay it? No — not when the local bus to Mount Popa was only about $3 one way, and especially not since the person asking was assuming that to us $90 USD was no problem. We slept on it and decided to find another way to Mount Popa even though his air conditioned van seemed like a pretty good idea.
The next morning we asked the hotel staff to tell the guide, if he showed up, that we had made other arrangements to get to Popa. They agreed, and even went so far as to find his number and call him (small town) as we left for the (real) market. To be continued…
The Nyaung U market is located at the north end of town — a few kilometers from where we were staying. So, back to the horsecarts we went and hired Naingshwe again for our morning outing. We rolled along the paved road into town, watching the street come to life under the rising sun — motorbikes, horsecarts, trucks with people all getting their day started.
Ppppppffffffttttt. Pppprrrrfffffffffttttttt. Pppfffssshhhhhhhhttt. Oh sh*t! Pfft. Quick! Pfft. Hold your fan over your face! Protect your camera lens, I thought to myself! Pppffftt. The horse trotted along, clearing some leaky pipes. Pfft. Pfft. Ppppfffrrsshhtt. The horsecart had a bag that normally caught what fell, but this horse wasn’t exactly putting out road apples. I couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could Naingshwe, as I looked around to see what damage had been done. Minor, but good thing I had some wetwipes. “I think I got some on my lip,” Jay said, as I noticed Naingshwe had some on his foot. A hazard of horsecarting had become clear with no need for translation. The answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.
Naingshwe dropped us off across the street from the market and parked the cart nearby so he could take us back to the hotel when we were done. We walked through a small opening between storefronts, into a quiet covered market with everything from housewares to food to flip flops to fresh flowers.
We picked up a few rattan chinlone balls of different sizes. Chinlone is like Myanmar’s version of hacky sack, except there’s no winner, loser or opposing team. It’s just meant to be played artfully, among friends.
As with so many markets in Asia, the fruits and vegetables were beautifully displayed in shallow baskets and gorgeous piles of color. Can you imagine taking a woman from Myanmar into a Whole Foods, or even a Safeway? She would probably stand in amazement at the displays, the refrigeration, the perfection of the produce and variety of things for sale. But really, the character of markets like Nyaung U is hands-down more fun and interesting than any modern grocery store.
Women were busy at work, transporting food and produce to and fro in baskets, over shoulders, on their heads. A woman eager to sell us her goods gathered them up and tried to come running after us, only to trip and fall to the amusement of everyone around. (There may have been some palm whiskey to blame.) She collected herself, then came running again with products in hand, trying to put make-up on my face, relentlessly saying we should pay “one million, one million.” What could possibly cost one million on the streets of Bagan? Yes, Toto, we are still at the market.
Afternoon was approaching and many people were packing up for the day, cramming everything and everyone into trucks to take it all back home and get ready to do it all again tomorrow.
And then, as we rounded the last outside corner of the market, Yesterday’s Tour Guide rode up on his motorbike. I just knew the saga wasn’t over. In small towns in developing countries, local people have an infallible knack for finding you when they need to. At first he was nice, but then he claimed the hotel hadn’t called him and the only way he had found us at the market was by seeing our horsecart. Maybe. We apologized for not hiring him to take us to Mount Popa explaining it was just too much money, but it didn’t seem to matter and he didn’t want to bargain. He said too many tourists had said too many “sorrys” and then he drove off in a cloud of anger. The market was over, but we still had our money.
Back in the cart, we stopped at Bagan’s Grand Palace on the way home, kind of like Duloc and Farquaad’s palace in Shrek — really nice and big but no one home.
Unable to bear the heat any longer, we retreated to the pool for the afternoon and then headed out again for sunset with Naingshwe.
The dry season was manifested in the cows and goats wandering Bagan, like bags of bones rattling down the road waiting for the rain to come.
We returned to Pya-tha-da pagoda and took in the sunset from the elevated brick terrace.
Back in the cart, this time with the top down, Naingshwe drove us to dinner at a little vegetarian restaurant he recommended called The Moon: Be Kind to Animals. Sounds great! There aren’t any animals on the moon, but whatever!
This place was a gem — amazing curries, stir fried vegetables with cashews, and a garnish of ground red chilis, peanuts and garlic. There were some great fresh juices (ginger lemon) and free tamarind candies for dessert. And best of all, the staff was so friendly and no animals were harmed in the process. What a delight between today’s poop and tomorrow’s Popa.