I have never created a bucket list. At least not officially. I make lists of many things. I do this on sticky notes and note pads. I check things off when I am done. But a bucket list is nothing I have officially put on a sticky note. I have always had this yearning to travel, experience different cultures and see new things. I am a history buff and an archaeology buff. So old things tend to draw my attention. I also tend to plan vacations in my life around that.
My first big vacation in my life was Hawaii. I went specifically to see the volcano national park. My second big vacation was to Italy. I specifically wanted to see ruins. My third big vacation was Belize. Only because I wanted to see Mayan ruins.
I also don’t do a lot of planning for trips. My main trigger is a photograph. Here in Vietnam I will see a picture on the internet or at a tour guide shop and say “I need to see that”. That is how I have explored most of Vietnam. Tam Coc River in Ninh Binh was the classic example. I saw a picture of people in row boats down this river surrounded by flowers and limestone mountains. So I figured out where it was and saw that. I did not really plan it out. No agendas. No time tables. Just a small list on a sticky note in my wallet of things that I would like to see. Sometimes it may be one thing. Sometimes is may be ten things. Sometimes when I get a place I cannot figure it out so it does not get seen. Hence the downfall of not planning:)
I work for PATH in Hanoi, Vietnam. But that is only 1 of 3 offices that the regional director covers. There is one in Saigon and one in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). Myanmar was no where near a list. Real or hypothetical. But the staff here and the director said I should go. That I would really enjoy it. She looked at me one day and said: “Chad you love temples right? You have to see Bagan, Myanmar.” Ok I said. I honestly did not even look up pictures or anything. But I decided to go anyway. First step is always visas. E-Visa! Wow that was easy. Then it is just setting up a date. So over the Thanksgiving holiday in America I decided to take a long weekend and head to Yangon and then to Bagan.
I had no real expectations. This was also the first time I have really traveled alone. No other volunteer or friend. I travel alone in Vietnam, but I don’t see that as travel anymore. I am so comfortable there that it is like a second home. But this was not. Myanmar has only recently been open for tourists and is still a bit of an unstable democracy. It is also illegal to be gay there. I had a bit of anxiety about traveling alone, but it was either go or don’t. Go big or go home right?
So on Thursday, I landed in Yangon. It is a fairly large, “modernish” city. This is a developing country so low expectations. I only had one day in Yangon and I got to see a lot of their temples. Their main temple is Schwedagon Pagoda. It is very impressive. Day or night it was impressive. But other than that there was not much else to see. So the next day I was off to Bagan.
Well the flight to Bagan was an experience. I show up at the airport to the domestic terminal. I walked up to what I can only describe as a lemonade stand where I checked in. They took my passport and then hand wrote me a boarding pass! Then they slapped a sticker to my chest and told me to go through security. What about my bag? They literally stuck a sticker on it and told me to move along. Nothing printed. No monitors. No flight status. After I got to the waiting area they had a person hold up a sign with a flight number and airline and walk around the room. If that was your flight then it was boarding time! Ok then. That is my sign.
I landed early in the morning and took a cab to New Bagan. PATH was kind enough to make my arrangements so I would not have to stress. On the way to the hotel I started passing temple after temple. I am not talking like tiny structures. I am talking massive structures. I wanted to stop and go look, but the driver was determined to drop me off as quickly as possible apparently. I checked in and immediately had them hire me a driver to take me around. I did not know what to ask for. I did not know what to see. But thankfully he did. He took me to a couple of temples and then told me I had to go to one I could climb. Awesome. Tombraiding!
What I can say is that I was not prepared. I climbed this temple. Super steep and very tiny steps. I got to the top out of breath and then turned around. For as far as you could see was temples and green. Large temples, small temples, mountains, rivers and green space. No buildings. No high rises. No billboards. The temples are not next to each other. They are spaced out. The sheer scope of it was mind boggling. I can honestly say I was awestruck. I did not want to climb down. But eventually I had to because they have 4000 temples to see. I was like a kid in Disneyland. Templeland!!!!!
The driver took me around all day and then said that I need to see the sunset on top of a temple. Well absolutely. He showed me on a map. I said there was no temple there. He said trust me there is. And there was. So I got to sit on top of a 1000 year old temple and watch the sunset behind the mountains and river. What can I say? I did not even know this town or these temples existed. But here I was.
The next day the driver recommended I go see Mt. Popa. Okay! It took an hour to driver there where you come to a mountain that has a massive temple complex at the top. Not on top. It takes up the entire top of the mountain. It is gilded in gold. The village you come to had to be one of the poorest I have ever visited. But they showed gratitude and thankfulness with what they had and that my driver brought me there. They blessed his car with flowers all on the inside. To get to the top you had to climb 1000 steps. Great. I have been doing crossfit. Then I start to look around. There are monkeys everywhere! Hundreds and hundreds of them. Mostly they left you alone as long as you left them alone. I did take a picture of one that decided they wanted payment. He jumped down and tried to grab my Coke Zero out of my hand. Well to make a long story short, no one takes my caffeine. I won this tug of war!
Over the next two days I rented a motorbike and got lost on the back roads and trails. I went to temples that no one does. Bagan was hit by a major earthquake in September so some temples were in ruins while many where under repair. I found temples you could climb where there were no tourists or temple keepers. No souvenirs (even though I bought a lot).
I don’t tell you this to brag. I did not even know this place existed. Much less put it on a bucket list. But I feel it is my duty to tell you to put it on yours! If you are like me and like history and ruins or a world where you have no choice but to disconnect then you now have a destination. Sometimes you have to jump in and go. I am so glad that I have gained the courage to go. Not think too much. Not over plan. Not afraid to be a tourist when need be. Not afraid to take the path least traveled. I will be eternally grateful for this experience. I am thankful for Pulse and GSK for allowing me to do the work that I am doing and being able to explore while I am here. It has forever changed me…for the better.