After saying goodbye to most of our new friends in Inle Lake besides Stephenie, we boarded another night bus (we still have no idea why all night busses leave as early as possible and no matter what destination, arrive as early as possible – most of our night buses in Myanmar arrived at 4am at the latest) for Bagan, the town that Myanmar is probably most “Insta-famous” for with thousands of temples rising up from the horizon. Our bus pulled into the station a little after 3:30am and we popped into cab who skillfully talked us into going to the sunrise temple to watch the shrines pop up into the orange colored skyline. We were one of the first groups to arrive to the temple and noticed that even the temple workers were still asleep, including the worker to let Natalie into the bathroom (she paid her Kyats to the attendant as soon as she woke up, considering she was in there for a while… this should have been the first warning of what was to come). Little by little, our temple, named by tourists the “sunrise temple” began to swell with people. Soon there was only room to sit on the temples themselves or to be squeezed out of our own personal bubbles. The sunrise was a spectacular sight to behold as the more and more temples became visible with each ray of sunshine.
Feeling pretty exhausted from our all night journey we decided to nap in the common room of Ostello Bello until our tour of Mount Poppa, a big monastery perched on the top of a monolithic mountaintop. Since our tour wasn’t until 4pm, we had plenty of time to rest and recuperate. Stephenie and Ross passed out and Nat took the time to wash almost every item of clothing that she owned by hand because the temperature outside was in the high 90s and low 100s. The nice thing about Ostello Bellos is that each hostel has a pass out area where people can rest after night buses (or strenuous activities, like vacationing for a living). Finally the clothes were dry and the friends were up.
It was time to tackle Mount Poppa. We were soon joined by a French girl who was on the third day of her trip and the fourth wheel on ours. On most tours, it is not uncommon for the driver to take you on an extra detour as a part of the tour. Our detour was a shop and community whose existence revolved around the palm tree. They made everything from palm liquor to home foundations out of the abundant tree. We tried palm liquor (not bad) and some palm chocolate (so good that we bought some). The kind owner of the shop then asked if we would like to stay for some tea – why wouldn’t we? The tea came with a free delicious looking platter full of deep fried garlic, picked tea leaves, peanuts and other delectable snacks. We were hungry and also the moto of our trip is “if it is free, eat as much as you can so that you don’t have to pay for another meal later”. We stood by our moto and made a significant dent in the tea treats. The drive in total to Mount Poppa was roughly an hour and a half of bumps, twists and turns. As we wound our way up the mountain, Natalie’s stomach also started winding up, into knots.
We finally made it to the base of Mount Poppa and were greeted by a troop of monkeys in all kinds of shapes, sizes and personalities. All of them were clearly used to antagonizing humans for food and had learned to snatch anything that resembled food from their unsuspecting victims’ hands. We soon watched a monkey grab a two liter bottle of water and in one swift swoop, he turned it upside-down, bit a hole in the bottom and guzzled it contents without caring that half of its contents landed on the floor which gave us a little comfort that the monkey poop floor was being washed from the holy ground and also gave us pause to watch our footing on the slippery ground. Due to the monastery being a very holy place, it was forbidden to step a clothed foot onto the holy ground. We began our 777 step climb to reach the top of the summit. Along the way stepping in monkey do-do was unavoidable. It was best not to look where or what you were stepping on. Joining us on the pilgrimage were monks and other locals making their way to pray and worship at the top of the mountain, through the mine-field of monkey poop. By the time we reached the top, Nat’s stomach was in full blown somersault mode. We watched the sunset from the top of the mountain to the sounds on Nat’s tummy and the holy temple bells to signify the end of the day and realized why it was such a holy sight.
Getting off the mountain was a task in itself. With careful attention to our footing to avoid both the monkeys and their excrement we headed down. About half way down, Stephanie found herself with an unwanted friend, or more like an enemy. A mother monkey was very upset that she had taken a photo of her and her baby and she was on the attack. She quickly climbed up Stephenie’s pant leg and Stephenie cried out for help. Ross, who was much quicker to act and also closer to the primate perpetrator sprung into action and grabbed the shoes he was holding and clapped them together to freak out the monkey. It jumped off Stephenie and sized up Ross as its next target and snarled its teeth. Ross had seen locals bang on the metal railings to scare away the monkeys so he decided quickly that that was the best option. Reverting back to his fraternity days he smacked his shoes on the railing and shouted grunting noises at the monkey, it in turn took one more up and down look at its target and decided that Ross wasn’t worth the fight. A bit shaken as a team, we made our way down the rest of the steep mountain, mostly without further incident, except poopy feet and a stomach that was very close to pooping itself. The ride back was just as bumpy, long and rough. This time Natalie focused all of her energy on not losing control of her bowels or the content of her stomach. Not an easy task.
We will spare too many of the gory details here but the long and short of it is that everyone prepares to get sick at sometime on a year long trip to mainly third world countries. So it was never a matter of if but always a matter of when. This illness came in and left like a mighty storm leaving no prisoners behind. All of the poisoned food were trying to escape the hurricane forces of the illness happening in her stomach in any way possible, through both of Natalie’s orifices. Unfortunately for our roommates, we were both on top bunks. We agreed that if one of us was to get sick during our trip that we would drop the planned accommodation for the night and get to a place with an easily accessible ensuite so between bathroom stops, we started looking at hotels within a half mile walking distance of our hostel. Natalie, being Natalie (and clearly also being a bit out of sorts since projecting her insides out) started to scrutinize each properties for their amenities. Ross however, being the more rational person when in crisis took over the computer and said that the only thing that matters was having a toilet next to a shower. Fair call. He then made a joke about how funny it would be if Nat had to poop and barf at the same time. Not funny and not a fair call because that night (until morning) it would become a reality.
To get to our hotel, we planned to take a taxi but when we asked the front desk at the hostel it turned out to be the same price as the 45 minute journey to get to the hostel (still only about $3 USD but it was highway robbery tonight) so we walked instead. On the way to the hotel, Natalie decided to water the plants with bile and when they got to the front desk she gave the concierge a death look when he contemplated not letting us in due to not having our passports on us. Meanwhile back at the hostel, it was hitting Stephenie and later the sickness (sans barfing) would hit Ross as well. The saving grace of the entire night was an angel disguised as Zofran, an anti-nausea pill that would chemically stop your body from the physical reaction of vomiting. Stephenie shared the unbelievable drug with us. We still don’t know if the French girl suffered our same fate.
The next day all three of us rested and Ross walked in circles to keep himself from suffering the same demise Natalie did the night before and we searched stores for anything that resembled Gatorade, complete with a photo of Gatorade for shop owners that had no idea that Gatorade was a drink. For fears of letting our upset tummies win the battle and making us lose a day of traveling, we set out in the evening for a relaxed sunset cruise, which we didn’t know would turn into a turbulent tour. We started our lovely sunset cruise on a boat with around ten other backpackers. We all got free drinks (of which Ross had Nat’s) and headed out on a river (that resembled a large lake more than a river) to watch the sunset in the distance. The whole outing seemed calm enough that we thought both of our stomaches could handle. As the sun started to dip below the clouds, about 20 minutes after we boarded the boat, a strong wind began to blow the river around us. At first the boat rocked gently from side to side and we watched as the wind began to gain strength on the shores of the river. Farmers and shop owners rushed to grab their belongings before the wind decided to sweep them away and our boat went from a gentle rocking to a violent shaking back and forth to the point where waves were crashing over the sides of it. Soon it became apparent, at least to our captain, that if we did not get off this boat, it was going to sink. Our captain quickly “docked” (aka slammed the boat into the shore and told us to get out) at the banks of the wild river. This was the closest we have ever felt to being in a hurricane in our lives; as we made our way to shelter, sand whipped across our faces so hard that we put our shirts over our faces and peered through them to see. The group from the boat, along with some other local people seeking shelter took refuge in a very kind person’s home to wait until the storm blew over. About 30 minutes later (after we both contemplated pressing the SOS button on our GPS), our van came back to get us. Safe and sound at our hostel, it looked like there was never a storm and no one knew what we had just been through. It was like we had been in the Twilight Zone and no surprises here but, we were not offered a refund.
The following morning, we decided to finally see what we had come here to see, the temples what Bagan is so famous for. We woke up bright and early, feeling a bit better and rented e-bikes for sunrise. Two other friends joined our group and the five us headed to the temples. This time Natalie rode her own bike! The spot we picked for sunrise was a low temple where we climbed to the top. This sunrise was much better than or first sunrise in Bagan both because our temple wasn’t packed and also due to our view not being obstructed by clouds. We spent the second half of the day quietly scooting (e-bikes don’t have sound when they move) from temple to temple. Upon visiting one of the far away temples (in 100 degree plus weather) we peered down to a familiar location, the river we had been on the day before but now it was filled with half a dozen or more sunken boats and owners scooping water from the boats berths and surveying the damage. Clearly our captain knew what he was doing and we felt lucky to have avoided shipwreck the night before. On another note, perhaps this blog post should have been named Bagan is Breathtaking because the city was like nothing we have ever experienced, barfing and all.