It was 3 am (yes, in the morning) and I wasn’t quite feeling the humor of the situation I was in, being jostled in the back of my “taxi”.
My head bobbled between fatigue and silent petrification, as I bounced along deserted streets, in the back of a wagon. What was I thinking? Why did I agree to this?… Was I being taken for a ride in Bagan?
What hotel you going to ? I take you.
A tall, dark and twiggish man spoke, emerging from the group of Burmese drivers, who immediately faded back into the dark as my bus was leaving. Passengers were scattering quickly like leaves. Most of them had been local Burmese. The few tourists on board had somehow evaporated. I was standing alone in a dark parking lot lit by only two street lamps.
– “Mya Thida Guesthouse. How much?” I responded.
10,000 kyat. Very far.
My mind quickly calculated the distance it took my Yangon taxi to take me from my downtown guesthouse to the bus station. It was almost a 30-45 minute ride by car and it only cost 7,000 kyaat. Back then I was splitting the ride with another solo traveler my guesthouse paired me with, a solemn Swedish embassy worker, who was stationed in Bangkok and more interested in leaving Southeast Asia entirely. Some travelers have that vibe. Maybe it was fear and distrust for her foreign environment, which stiffened her face and her conversation; but she was the first person I’d come across who didn’t love being in Myanmar, much less Southeast Asia.
– “10,000 kyat? Nooo. 7000 kyat! ” I bargained, testing to see if I was right about the price.
7,000 kyat, okay.
Bingo! With that said, the driver quickly left to get his ride.
Suddenly from the darkness, I heard a clip-clop. It sounded like hooves against gravel. The driver wheeled out a horse-drawn carriage.
“Oh no ho ho, …, ” I back-pedaled. “No, this not taxi. “
I didn’t know what to make of it. I turned to the other drivers, fishing for a car taxi. The Burmese horse- taxi mafia pointed to him, backing away and saying:
He is taxi. He can take you. Car taxi come late and very expensive. He take you. He good taxi.
There was only pitch-blackness and no car taxis were in sight. I had no guidebook, so I didn’t know much about Bagan. My only alternative was to wait until sunrise amongst a gang of Burmese drivers. It was not a comforting option.
A lack of better options
I asked again about the car taxi. This time my driver spoke straight-forwardly.
“Taxi is fast. 20 minutes, but very expensive. Taxi to your guesthouse take twenty minutes. Horse,… maybe longer.”
My 3 am stupor was quickly vaporizing, but that still didn’t leave me with any clear answers. The driver picked up my luggage and I reluctantly stepped onto the carriage. Was my instinct was taking over or was it my laziness? I wanted to get to my guesthouse as soon as possible and sometimes you just have to go with what life presents you.
We were off no more than forty feet, when the carriage slowed to pick up another Burmese man … a friend of the driver!
If I felt unstable about my “taxi” decision before, it was worse now. I was a girl alone with the sound of his hooves, my imagination and two men in carriage, galloping into an obscure and shadowy landscape of closed shops, trees, shrubs and temple ruins. What did I get myself into?
Once in a while the driver would utter something inaudible to the horse, encouraging it on. It eased my mind to know he was pushing forward.
You only regret the gambles you never took.
Life and jadedness will say, there’s no way of telling what humans are capable of. People are unpredictable. Capable of scamming you. Not to be trusted.
Although morbid thoughts swished my imagination, I didn’t want to show my fear. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, knowing it might very well sink in and grow a monster. Instead, I grew silent and grave.
I quietly took my pocket camera out and pointed it at myself, taking a video of myself in secret . It would be the last image anyone sees of me… the last my parents in Hawaii might see of me if ever my camera were found alongside my rotting body. Nope, they’d probably steal the camera too… Police investigators would say I put up a good fight, but alas, one can’t outrun death or a huge sawtooth knife!
As the clip-clopping continued, my life flashed before me, as if I were a woman on her deathbed taking account of the moments she’d lived fully. I’d not regret any decision I’d made; not even the bad ones. I’d come to Myanmar to fulfill a dream and live life to its fullest; and maybe, I gambled and lost. Simple as that. But I got this far.
This was my consolation.
Forty-five minutes later, the sun’s rays streamed through and the darkness melted away into the beauty of silhouetted pagoda ruins. If I weren’t so terrified, I’d be happily snapping photos of this immaculate sunrise. This is what travelers get up at 4 or 5am to run out and photograph. Me? I was too afraid to call attention to my DSLR.
I was still alive, though. But poor horse… it was such a long way.
When fear takes over and ruins the best moments
Just then, another horse-drawn carriage came up quickly behind us out of nowhere. It was carrying a tourist, who was on my bus. I exhaled a giant sigh of relief.
Then I remembered reading something about horse-drawn carriages being one form of transportation used to get around the ruins in Bagan. The drivers at the bus station were all horse carriage drivers, eager to get a jump on tourists to sell them tours of the ruins. …Funny how your memory of important things arrives when you no longer need it.
Sometimes, travel fears are legitimate. Not this time. This time, it was my fear had taken me for a ride. It had ruined a great adventure and a gorgeous sunrise and turned a monster out of an innocent man, earning a decent living.
Next time, I’ll take a guidebook, to avoid falling into another scam …that I alone, pulled on myself!
Where I stayed:
Mya Thida Guesthouse, Bagan
Great location, good facilities, free wifi (a little quicker than Yangon). The guesthouse operates two excellent budget tours of Bagan: of the ruins (at the time of writing, it was $15) and a hike up the mountain. They’re all inclusive of transportation, English speaking guides which are knowledgeable and helpful, lunch not included (but they will take you to a good restaurant enroute),