So it turns out that the downside of staying in a hotel perched halfway up the rim of a caldera filled with monasteries and temples is that when a monk starts chanting at 5am every word is amplified so it sounds very much like he’s sitting beside your bed. But for one morning it counts as atmospheric and so wasn’t a bad way to wake up.
Callum and I were both feeling much improved, although still not entirely recovered, and so we all set off riding from the hotel courtyard. I must say it was an absolute joy because it was downhill all the way. There aren’t any photos because riding down mountain switchbacks requires pretty much constant braking, and the back-brakes here are on the right side of the handlebars; and riding one-handed with no brakes while taking photos on a winding mountain road would have been the absolute definition of stupidity if I’d done more than fleetingly contemplate it. So no photos but it was very lovely.
Like all mountains, Mount Popa eventually petered out into a plain which made for more easy riding, but Callum, who hadn’t eaten for 48 hours, soon tired and retired to the van. Declan proceeded to put on full power and we sped through the countryside to a fairly constant chant of ‘megalabar’ or, thanks to the Doppler effect, ‘m-abaaaar’. At first it seemed like there were an unusual number of old people squatting at the roadside and shouting out greetings, then it became so frequent that it was a little weird, and then so frequent we had to ask Nay what was going on. Mount Popa is a huge draw for local tourists, which in Myanmar means rich people. As they drive down the road they throw money or lollies out of their car windows to the roadside beggars. This was the first time we’ve seen less than honest roadside greetings and it’s only saving grace, if any, was that it was directed at locals rather than us as foreign tourists.
After about 30km we stopped and learnt about the local palm oil industry. This part of the country is relatively dry and covered in palms which seem to provide much of the local industry augmented by growing various nuts. So we saw palms being harvested and were fascinated by a very clever still being used to make the local 40% proof moonshine. The boys also drove the ox-powered pestle and mortar affair used to produce peanut oil.
By the time we got to Bagan, Declan wasn’t feeling well – so Jennifer and Callum went with Nay to lunch while I watched Dec get steadily worse. By the evening he was a mess and so Callum and Jennifer went alone to the sunset boat cruise. Here’s Callum’s report:
We boarded a boat, among a flotilla, and set out up the river. Though the sun was still high in the sky, the sandbanks were illuminated in the flickering glow of the torches, set up for sunset dinners. All this was incredibly scenic, but no pictures exist, as Jennifer had forgotten to charge her camera. Within a minute of us setting out it had given its last, and left us with no way to capture the experience.
As we moved up the river, and the sun set further, it perfectly silhouetted a pagoda, perched atop a hill. As we marvelled at this, we stopped, and joined a crowd of boats, drifting silently on the current. We could not see into the murky depths of the river, and had no clue as to its depth, until our driver climbed out of the boat and showed us the true depth of the water, about half a meter. As we drifted down the wide river, the sun created a beautiful scene, silhouetting pagodas, revealing the fleet of boats below, and illuminating the wisps of cloud.
It made for a perfect photo so I then mercilessly teased Jennifer about the camera.
Sadly for Callum, who was greatly enjoying teasing Jennifer, it had to be brought to an early end when she joined to conga line of sickness.