Mandalay to Bagan

I wake up in a coughing fit at 4am. I can’t stop. That dry itchy feeling in the back of my throat and neon gunk from the depths. Don’t think MacKay is gonna be sleeping through this attack. I can’t clear it. I sit up in bed to see if it makes a difference. Maybe. This kills at least an hour of the early morn before I manage to get my eyes shut again. Sick again.

But it’s a no rush morning and that alone feels pretty good. Only thing on the agenda is getting to Bagan. It’s nice not having to scramble getting shit packed up and out to some bus or boat in the wakey hours. I take Schindler’s Lift down to the Ostello Bello common area for their noodle breakfast plate.

MacKay and Drisdelle file in too and are telling me about the Moustache Brothers show. Sounds pretty zany. We hit the front desk and book a bus ticket to Bagan. We’d looked into boats yesterday but they leave super early in the morning, take all day and are like 50 bones each. We’ve been boating our brains out already this trip so we decide to skip them and opt for the faster and much cheaper option.

The bus arrives at Ostello Bello just before midday and we grab our shit and make for the door. I snap a few pics as we are leaving OB. It was a great hostel, hopefully their Bagan version will also be this good.



The bus is this red beater called the OK Express Power Euro III. Calling it ‘OK’ may actually be an exaggeration. ‘Ok, I’m a piece of shit’ would be appropriate. We climb in and there isn’t any room for our bags so the driver ends up stacking them at the top of the stairs by the door. This is all well and good except there’s another dude with us from the hostel and he’s rolling with a fully packed suitcase on wheels that is just stupidly gynormous. It has a flower pattern like your grandmothers worst chesterfield. Or like one of Drisdelles best shirts. So now the driver has to re-finagle the bags into some luggage ziggurat which of course falls over into the aisle as soon as we start moving.

Dude with the oversized luggage sits in the back with us and we instantly start chirping him about that ridiculous bag. He takes it well, “It’s mostly condoms.” He’s a punky looking kinda guy with the sides of his head shaved and a flop on top. Baggy clothes and a don’t give a fuck attitude. He’s just a youngin from Brooklyn, NY and says he’s been travelling for 6 months. He has a job offer as a hostel cook somewhere and is going to the OB in Bagan to get trained.

He’s a nice enough dude, tries to keep it light and funny. Tries a little too hard maybe, but he’s young and seems to be learning his way about the world. He also offers up that there’s a recent breakup that kind of spurred the trip. Can’t argue with that logic.

About an hour into the shit roads on the ‘OK, I’m a piece of shit express’ we get a flat tire. The driver pulls to the side of the road and climbs over the luggage temple to check things out. Yep, it’s flat alright. But he gets back in and continues anyways. We just start laughing. I mean the roads are miserable as it is, now it’s just.. well, it’s laughable. He doesn’t get too far before realizing it’s just not going to work. I don’t know where the next town is but it’s still 5 hours to Bagan.

He pulls over and starts taking the tire off but I don’t see a spare anywhere. The driver doesn’t speak English really either sooooooo…? “Go stand in the shade?”, “Yerp”.


We kick it for a half hour or so in the shade not quite sure what to make of the situation. Our assumption is that another bus is coming or someone with a spare tire. Soon a bus from the same company pulls up. This one is the OK Express power euro II!! While a whole digit behind the power euro III this is clearly a superior OK bus. A guy jumps out the door of the bus before it even stops and runs to the back. He grabs a spare and helps our driver pull the good tire off and jam the spare on the inside. Good to go! He runs back to the OK epe-II and gives us a bee-beep as he pulls away.

We clambor back aboard the bus and hit the road. Our driver is fucking bombing it now. Maybe he still wants to make the run in the original time? He’s absolutely horn-blasting everything with wheels right off the road and we are  OK expressing our asses off on some bumpy AF roads.

We pull into a town and get a short reprieve as lady’s with baskets on their heads come to our windows to sell some snacks. MacKay buys some quail eggs off a girl’s head. Brooklyn goes for some mandarins.


Not too long after this we come to a rest stop. It seems strange and out of the way, surrounded by nothing. Almost looks like a junk yard. But it’s got toilets and snacks so who cares. There’s a funny dude running a little shop there. He seems really intent on selling us some soy bean crisps. He starts showing MacKay pictures off his phone of other rest stop patrons eating them and smiling or giving the thumbs up. What the hell, haha, fine we’ll get some. He wants a picture, of course. We douche it up big time for him. Now we can also be part of his picture collection of white guy approved soy bean crisps.

Ok, actually those soy bean crisps are really good! I also grab some peanut brittle and spicy chips and we’re back on the OK I’m a piece of shit express to complete our shit bus to Bagan. Just three more bumpy hours of horn blasting anti-bliss.

The bus pulls into the neighboring town to Bagan called Nyaung-U and drops us off around mid-afternoon. We transfer to a Tuk Tuk. Problem is Brooklyn’s flowery beast luggage takes up so much fucking space that I literally have to stand on the bumper and hang off the back. We start rolling down the road and the scenery is temple after temple, they’re everywhere, it’s insane. Just whizzing by brick brown temples every second.

We drop off some local guy at a place in town and the driver comes back and takes me by the arm to put me in the front seat. There’s a small picture of a girl on the floor in the wheel well. Maybe the local guy’s daughter? I scoop it up and hand it to the driver. He is very thankful. He wipes it off and puts it in his shirt pocket, smiling and tapping the pocket.

Soon we’re on the dusty dirt roads of Old Bagan. The temples have taken a break in the scenery and now it’s little local restaurants, shops and shantys. Seems smaller than the town we just came from and set back in time quite a ways.

Roll up to Ostello Bello Bagan, it’s the only semi-modern looking building around. It has a similar vibe to the one in Mandalay. There is a sea of travelers swirling about the place. Tons of outdoor seating and people are laughing and having drinks. Looks like another great hostel.


We get to the front desk and check in with a local girl. They have a huge list of rules that she runs through and makes sure we agree before taking money for the room. So serious. We assume this is because asshole tourists are probably getting drunk on all the centuries old temples around here. There are just too many temples to effectively have any sort of security for them. Curfews, and rules in general, don’t usually sit well with us. I’m still insanely sick though so it may not be an issue.


After check in we head back to a laundry place out front. Apparently if you rent an eBike from them you get free laundry. We decide this would be a good way to see the temples tomorrow and throw down on some eBikes and laundry. They don’t give us any ticket or receipt or anything. They don’t even take our names. We ask if they’ll remember us and the girl says, “Yes, you’re very handsome.” Ok…. that should do.

We hit up the hostel bar for some drinks. Time to relax after the shit bus. Drisdelle and I decide to get some hot toddys. He’s not feeling so great now either and we’re going to try anything to kick this shit. The bartender has no idea what we’re talking about so we just order up two shots of whiskey. He looks at us like we’re crazy, haha. I guess it is only 6pm or so. No lemons so we get some limes. Then back to the front desk for the hot water and voila! Makeshift hot toddy. We take it to the roof.

We chill on the roof with the drinks. There’s no one up here at all. Presumably because there’s no bar up here and it’s a flight of stairs or two more then you’d like to keep going for drinks. Some monk chanting can be heard in the distance. Live or recorded, we don’t know. It’s on super repeat. It’s only relaxing for the first 10 seconds. Fortunately some Spaniards come up and launch into a full on ping pong battle with a surprising level of skill.


The Spaniards are getting sweaty and the chanting is getting annoying so it’s back to the first floor for another round of recovery drinks. We meet a girl from Denmark sitting in a comfy wooden rocking chair looking out at the street. She’s a chef who was working in Banff for a while. On a little tour now while she figures out her next phase in life. She’s off to Mandalay soon with OK buses. Ha shit, we give her a heads up.

We ask her how she enjoyed Bagan and she unleashes a dramatic recounting of her sunrise balloon ride over the temples. It sounds incredible. “Yes! I’ve been trying to convince these guys to do that as well!” MacKay was a solid ‘nope!’ when he found out the price ($350 and 5am pick up). Drisdelle was still on the fence. When this Danish girl drops the whole, “I almost cried.. it was so beautiful”, and you can tell from her eyes she truly means it.. I think Drisdelle is now sold.

The Dane departs on the OK shitbus power dump IV for Mandalay and Drisdelle confirms that he’s 100% convinced of this balloon ride now. Woot! I was gonna go by myself if these guys didn’t jump on it, but it’s way better to have company. We go to the front desk and book one for the day after tomorrow. This of course turns into a shit show.

The only way to pay by credit card is to wait for their agent to show up at 1030 tomorrow. Does he arrive by balloon, wtf? But then we’ll miss the free ebike temple tour we just exchanged our laundry for. I guess it’s time for a Bagan ATM adventure! We’re on the case.

Drisdelle and I crack open and try to scout the area for ATMs and banks. Bagan is just a small little town. We’re basically in the center. Our trust of the results on the map is bordering 40%. We drop our toddys at the bar and hit the dust to the East.

The first ATM we find, which actually is on the map, isn’t even plugged in. The next one on the map doesn’t actually exist. 0 for 2. Well, time to try a little more North. We’re on some side alley shitroads now. Interesting place, Bagan. One of those places that seems super run down but you know everyone is happy here. I like this dusty little town, it has character. It feels authentic Burmese with little colonial grip or western influence.

We randomly pass an ATM and I go up to it. So the currency exchange is about 1 USD to 1350 Kyat. We’re gonna need about a half million Bruma bucks each for this balloon ride. Of course the machine will only allow me to take out 200,000 at a time. It actually works and I have a stupid wad of cash in my hand because the highest denomination is 5000 kyat. So I’ve got 40 of those and I’m going in to double it up. Nope. No, that was all the money in the whole machine. Well shit.. we’re only 1/5th of the way to what we need.

Alrighty let’s wander South back towards the hostel some. Not having much luck with bank machines here in Bagan. We’re almost back to the main circle now where OBB is, “Is that one?” Drisdelle eagle eyes one sitting off the front of a restaurant. He goes in. It works! 200k kyat.. 200k more… and 100k more! Sweet! I jump in on it mostly expecting it to also be out of bills now that we’ve yanked ninety 5000 kyat bills out of the thing. Nope, this little trooper holds on for the win and we are loaded to the tits with burma bucks.

We get back to the front desk of OBB and the guy who was helping us earlier is eyeing us up bemusedly, wondering how we fared in the ATM adventure. There are usually only three options when you’re holding a wad of money this ridiculous. All of them look great in slo-mo.

Option 1: You make it rain by slapping the wad against your palm and spraying bills while moving your arm side to side in a sprinkler motion sending bills cascading off into the distance as you laugh maniacally with your head cocked waaaaaaay back.

Option 2: Just throw it all in the air and immediately drop to lay on the ground doing snow angels in the waterfall of bills as they tumble down on you. (I believe we have a slo-mo vid of MacKay doing exactly this in Uzbekistan but that’s a story for another time. It also helps to laugh maniacally for option 2)

Option 3: (Spoiler alert: I choose option 3) Get the super villain eyes going and start laughing maniacally before a full 2 spins of your arm, and double windmill slam all of the bills as hard as you can onto the counter. The force and gusto will have them rebound off the counter top and splash into the air resulting basically in option 2 (snow angel optional).

The guy behind the counter is shocked but also finds this display to be hilarious. Other hostel goers look over at the sound of it wondering what the hell is going on. Kyat is spread all over the counter. We get a receipt. We’re done here.

We nab MacKay from the room and hit a little place across the street for dinner. The place is packed with travelers. There are typos all over the menu. Drisdelle and I take the health conscious route with some soup. Then we wait and we wait. They keep piling people into the restaurant but there are only two servers and they just can’t keep up.

An hour goes by.. still no soup. I mean, it’s just soup. Heat it up! My fever comes on strong and I’m hacking up a lung in annoyed no soup misery. When the soup finally comes I’m a coughing wreck slurping it up between labored breaths. Ok this is bullshit, Drisdelle’s soup hasn’t even shown up yet. Whatever, I’m out of here.

I curl up in bed just a sweaty fevered mess. What the hell, I can’t seem to kick this thing. I had 2 hot toddys and everything. There is a guy sharing our room now, his stuff is on one of the four beds. Dammit, I hope I can keep my cough down tonight and not bother everyone..

The exact opposite happens and I’m in another 4am coughing fit. The guy in the other bed is this Korean fella. I’m definitely keeping everyone up, I just can’t stop. I’ve got syrup and antibiotics and lozenges, basically everything I can find at a pharmacy and nothing is stopping this nonsense. It goes on for about an hour and I’m pretty sure I’ll be the cause of some cranky tourism tomorrow. With the sun coming up I finally fall back asleep.

Oh but wait, what the fuck is this… I wake up a few hours later and arch to cough again. When I do, I feel a tug on my closed eyelids. They won’t open. Whaaaaat?! I can’t open my eyes?! They’re sealed shut somehow. I’m coughing and the force of it just pulls on some hardened crust that has sealed shut my eyes. I stumble out of bed basically blind with my hands outstretched searching for the bed post. I’m toe tapping my way in the dark towards the bathroom. I stumble over some shoes and know the door is on my left somewhere. I feel my way along the wall and into the bathroom.

I get to the sink and fill my hands with water to splash on my face. This moistens the crust around my eyes enough to start pulling away layers of pus. I can partially see out of one now. I catch myself in the mirror. It’s terrible. I look like shit. I look like a fucking zombie. There are layers and layers of yellow pus gunk around both my eyes. My eyes themselves are bloodshot and a dark red. There are weird red lines like scars around my eye sockets. I start coughing again. What in the fuck is this?! I’m in hell. I find my phone and look up hospitals in Bagan.


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