Westerner Behind the Wheel

By Oliver Hargreave 28 August 2020


Off to the floating pagoda

The first mistake was choosing an indirect rural route to Bago. Though we were not starting from the airport, we should have taken the Yangon-Mandalay Highway and made the easy two- to three-hour drive to Bago, and then driven on to Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State.

A famous British general once attributed Germany’s invasion of Russia in World War II to Hitler looking at small maps. I had long considered minor roads to be much more interesting than busy arterial highways.

Using a Periplus paper map of Myanmar, I had lighted on a minor road from Thongwa in Yangon to Bago via Thanatpin in Bago Region. I hoped it would take me through unseen Myanmar; as a bonus we could visit the “floating” Kyauktan Pagoda.

Our route through Yangon’s suburbs took us past places to be listed in an itinerary, but another crocodile farm or a staged attraction like the National Races Village held little interest. However, whether any trace remained of Syriam, the base of the 17th-century Portuguese adventurer Filipe de Brito e Nicote, did arouse my curiosity.

Narrow bridges with steep ramps slowed traffic. / Oliver Hargreave

What kind of man was de Brito, a Westerner in a faraway land who had sought mastery over Lower Burma? Perhaps his fate was inevitable after his forces desecrated Buddhist sanctuaries in a war that ended when King Anaukpetlun sacked Syriam in 1613. Stripped naked, de Brito took three days to die on the iron rod that impaled him.

The view from the bridge over the Bago River as we crossed over to Thanlyin where Syriam was located suggested we were more likely to find high-rise apartments, if not petrochemical installations. Only later did I find out that ruins of a church thought to date back to that period yet stand.

It was also becoming increasingly clear that to reach an overnight destination east of Bago in daylight, we had to get on—the company doesn’t want employees driving company cars after 7 p.m.

By the time we reached the pier at Kyauktan, I needed a coffee. The camera was fogging up outside the chilled cab— the day was half done and it felt as though nothing was in focus.

From a jetty by the car park, pilgrims were crossing by boat to a pretty-looking pagoda on an islet about 150 m from the riverbank. No doubt they would go barefoot across spotless tile floors to prostrate before ancient images, but we had no time for a boat ride.

Back road to Bago

Beyond Thongwa, the road narrowed, its hard shoulder barely wide enough to allow oncoming vehicles to pass each other. Traffic had to slow, if not stop, at single-lane wooden bridges with steep ramps.

Geese, cows, families on foot, cyclists and motorcyclists thronged the road near villages and small towns. Khayan, Thet Ka La, Ka Ma Se—their centers consisted of little more than a few shophouses near crossroads. Muddy-looking side streets went off between wooden houses and compounds shrouded by trees.

A practical diesel vehicle for farmers / Oliver Hargreave

Between settlements, delta landscape stretched to the horizon; distant patches of forest around villages broke the monotony of flat agricultural land. Our pickup stood out among the mix of vehicles. Air-conditioning insulated us from heat rising above sunbaked asphalt.

We got to the entrance gate to the Kanbawzathadi Golden Palace in Bago 30 minutes before closing time at 4 p.m. It was not worth buying the one-day ticket to see Bago’s main archaeological sites.

Speeding east

Going faster than the national speed limit of 90 kph seemed barely noticeable on the smooth, wide asphalt on Highway 8 east of the Hpar Ya Gyi intersection. That is until we momentarily became airborne on an unexpectedly abrupt down ramp on a bridge over a canal. Never take a road in Myanmar for granted!

On the south side of the iron bridge over the Sittaung River, the pillars of the old road-rail bridge were in plain sight. British forces retreating in 1942 blew up the bridge to slow the Japanese advance, but the “Sittaung Bridge Disaster” stranded British units on the wrong side of the river and barely delayed the Japanese capture of Rangoon.

Tom’s schedule afforded no time for a diversion to Mon State’s Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, but I thought we had time to go up to admire a late afternoon view from one of several pagodas on low hills on the approach to Thaton. Covered flights of steps up to Myanmar’s pagodas can be deceptively long.

We reached Thaton in the dark. It was the first of many days when I would arrive in a town at night and have to check out hotels and choose one to stay in. The Thuwunnabhumi, which is within walking distance of the market and the Sithu Tun Restaurant, seemed the best of three we looked at.

I knew days on the road could go like this: there’d be places to note, but seldom time to experience them in any depth. There seemed plenty of photo opportunities, albeit in available light, but each time this required stopping and setting up, by which time potential human subjects had usually moved on. The best images were fleeting in the mind’s eye.

Hotels in Myanmar

Government regulations require foreigners to pay a premium over local rates for hotels in Myanmar. A hotel costing around US$25/night (33,430 kyats) is often all that is available in upcountry towns.

$25-35/night is usually enough to get a standard room with air-con and bathroom attached in mid-range hotels.

Hotels charging $40-50/night in the mid-market price range and much more expensive luxury hotels are usually only found in cities and tourist destinations.

Oliver Hargreave created “WorldClass Drives in Myanmar” for Yomacarshare.com. Opinions expressed in this article are not those of Yomacarshare.

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