"You want to go sunrise?"
The night bus from Yangon arrived in Bagan at 5 a.m., an hour earlier than we’d been told by the kid at our hotel who sold us the ticket. (Myanmar hotels all seem to employ a crew of teenage boys who do everything from haul baggage to cook breakfast to arrange transportation.) We’d read some blog posts that said the night bus got in at 4 a.m., so as Allison and I scrambled to gather our things, we agreed that 5 o’clock wasn’t actually that bad.
But why the hell would a bus arrive that early anyway, rather than, say 6, 7, or even 8 a.m.?
The reason became clear soon enough.
The parking lot was full of taxi drivers, more than enough to transport the two busloads of groggy tourists who had arrived simultaneously. As we stumbled around in the darkness trying to find a bathroom, we could hear voices whispering in the cool night air:
“Hello, hello, where you going?”
Or, more bluntly:
And blunter still:
“You want to go sunrise?”
Watching the sun rise (and set) is the main thing tourists do in Bagan. The area contains more than 2,000 ancient temples of various sizes, with varying levels of fame and degrees of accessibility, most of which are spread out in clusters across a huge, scrubby plain dissected by winding sand roads. (In the Myanmar episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain says there are "over 4,000” temples in Bagan, but I haven’t seen that number anywhere else.) Figuring out the “best” place to watch the sun rise and fall dominates much of the daily planning tourists do. There are maps to consult, books and websites to read, and—for the intrepid—aimless e-biking to be done.
But when you arrive at 5 a.m. on you first day in town, you are at the mercy of the taxi drivers. We knew the initial offers of 15,000 kyat were wildly inflated. Our hotel was probably a 10-minute drive away, and upon we’d only paid 8,000 kyat for an hour-long bus ride from the airport to our hotel in downtown Yangon upon arriving in Myanmar. I was determined not to get swindled.
“No, we don’t want to see sunrise right now either!”
These cabbies were nowhere near as pushy as, say, their Indian neighbors, but I was annoyed at being thrust into a situation where I had essentially no bargaining power. Normally I would just walk away, but it was still totally dark and we didn’t even know which direction our hotel was in.
We had four more days to see the sunrise, and anyway we were in danger of falling asleep right there in the parking lot. The night bus seems like a good way to “save” time (“We’ll also save money on a hotel for the night!” Allison said gleefully at least half a dozen times, and when I finally told her "YES, I KNOW ALREADY!" she joked that her two biggest fears in life are “heights and spending money”), but what really ends up happing when you opt for a "bed" on wheels is you lose a proper night’s sleep as well as at least half of the next day because you inevitably crash when you finally see a real bed.
Rather than walking away, we ignored the taxi drivers until they dwindled sufficiently in number that one finally agreed to take us for 5,000 kyat. We piled into the back of a minivan with a British couple who confessed they’d agreed on 7,000 each to be taken to their hotel (Allison put the question to them immediately, of course). The British chap—or should I say bloke? no, he was definitely a well-to-do chap—held firm in his weary, vaguely disdainful assertions that, no, he certainly did not want to go see the sunrise.
I could already begin my resolve beginning to waver.
But first there was the business of the Bagan Archaeological Zone card. We knew that every tourist in Bagan is required to purchase a card that grants them access to the temples: 25,000 kyat (about $20) for five days. What we didn’t realize is the essential role the taxi drivers pay in this process. There are almost no Archeological Zone workers selling or checking tickets at any of the temples. What happens instead is that the taxi driver stops on his way into town (whether you’re staying in Old Bagan, New Bagan, or Nyaung U) and a guy pokes his head in the window and says everyone needs to pony up either 25,000 kyat or $20 to pass. It feels a bit like extortion, happening as it does in the dark in confusing, broken English, but afterward you have to admit they were really rather friendly about it and $20 is not that much for almost unfettered access to thousands of ancient temples for nearly a week. (Even so, when I did the math later and discovered that 25,000 kyat is actually only worth $18.25 at the moment, I did feel irrationally annoyed at having spent my American money instead. I could have bought dinner with that $1.75!)
The taxi driver dropped the British couple off at the Royal Bagan Hotel, which looked very posh indeed, its garden and doors lit up invitingly and flanked by impressive golden sculptures on both sides. Allison and I, on the other hand, had booked the Eden Motel (Lonely Planet describes it as “not quite paradise”), which was completely dark and had no sign whatsoever that I could see, although Allison swore she saw one.
“Power out.” Our taxi driver gave us a sympathetic smile.
I had no idea what to do with this information; I could only glance helplessly at Allison and hope she had some kind of contingency plan in place.
“This happen a lot,” the driver went on cheerfully. “Power, yes, maybe 7 a.m." He paused, letting this sink in. Then: "You want to see sunrise?”
He had us now. Perhaps this had been the plan from the start. The British chap had been resolute, even disdainful in his dismissal of the very idea of a sunrise. I’d been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days, which is full of racist colonial-era characters with appalling opinions about how best to "deal with the natives," and I imagined for a moment that this British fellow had inherited his stern manner from a great grandfather who had been part of the British Raj or something.
With my confused, distinctly American air, on the other hand, I figured it was pretty clear I could be talked into a sunrise. Many Burmese hawkers seem to think all they need to do is murmur "Ah, big country. Obama!" and my wallet will come flying open. They're not far from wrong. (What will they say in a month when Trump begins his Reign of Terror?)
“Uhh, how much?” I ventured.
“Fifteen thousand kyat. For you, good deal. It’s not far.”
That's 10 dollars and 88 cents.
“Wanna do it?” Allison said, expectantly.
I did, but I was worried it was all part of some elaborate plan—like perhaps the driver had called ahead, informed the hotel owner he had a couple of American yokels on the line, and the owner had cut the lights out just before we’d arrived (for a cut of the fare, of course). But what did it matter—and why was I being so miserly and paranoid anyway?
“OK, let’s do it!”
The decision made, I felt a sudden burst of enthusiasm. We climbed from our seats in the back of the minivan up toward the front, just behind the driver.
“What’s your name?” Allison asked.
“Coco.” He laughed good-naturedly through betel-stained teeth, adjusted his baseball cap, and stepped on the gas.