Breaking Burma Day 105: Bagan – The Land of Thousands of Temples

We arrived at the bus station at 3:30 in the morning, still far enough away from Nyaung U (home to most of budget hotels and guesthouses) so we had no choice to take a pickup truck taxi to Eden hotel. As I expected we had to pay the $20 fee to enter the area of Bagan (some find a way to avoid). As Team America we split a room together and slept past the sunrise in desperate need of an upshot of energy before any of us could attempt to take charge of the day. After some breakfast and their infamous 3 in 1 coffee mix, I rented an e-bike and bought a map onto which I plotted the full scope of temples I hoped to see over the course of my days in Bagan. To things off, I first rode my bike to the end of the main street to get a feel of how vast the area really was. The first temples were two of the largest in the Bagan area called Thatbyinnyu (hitting the charts at 207 feet) and Htilominlo Pahto. They required the Archaeological Zone ticket that I purchased early this morning but apparently it was left at the hotel. Luckily they led me slide through the entrance. Even across the plains you can see the history that exists. The well over 2,000 temples still standing were built over a 230 year span way back in the 11th to 13th centuries. I got my first taste of the hawker presence at these initial temples as many people asked either for donations, tried to sell me on their variety of homemade and otherwise pieces. One girl around my age showed me to a platform that gave a decent view of the temple and seemed quite genuine in being kind to me but it grew to fishy to me to the point I eventually gathered what she wanted and that was to sell me on some tourist items to help pay for her university schooling. As predicted I did kindly said no thank you and left before a sob story could begin. Onto another crowded temple I was harassed nonstop by annoying kids trying act like tour guides and make me feel obligated to pay. Then the fake tears and whining came out making me not want to give money even more if that were possible. Beyond the annoying hawkers, the temples were quite magical even as the number of temples I saw began to pile up. At a few temples, I saw long neck called the Karen wearing the typical golden rings around their necks and wrists while they wove their crafts. Finally at last, I got an explanation for such a random purposeful alteration of the human body. Apparently, at least when the trend began and maybe still today, they wear them to protect themselves from tiger attacks if the beast were to swipe at their jugular or wrists. It makes sense but that is a lot to go through for some armor. I had been running into a group of Burmese women around the temples and each they wanted a picture with yours truly, the Caucasian celebrity. The Ananda Pahto was quite a sight to be seen regarded as the most beautiful due to the impeccable preservation. Inside, I witnessed worshippers placing gold leaf on mini Buddhas in places that they hoped would become healed on themselves or better overall such as the knee for weary legs or the forehead for greater wisdom. At this temple I chose to complete a full lap of the perimeter and with bare feet, as is expected at all the temples, I got an idea of what walking on hot coals is like. I hopscotched from shady spot to shady spot over the ground that had been baking for some time. What a sight it must have been for Myanmar people to see a pasty white guy (due to the thorough lathering of suncream all over my body) dancing around like a lune. I chatted with a man selling his lacquerware artwork (apparently the Bagan area churns out a lot of this material). Once we got past the whole ‘I ain’t buying!’ bit, he explained his desire to see Thailand which is why he has been asking foreigners for Thai baht instead of Myanmar kyat for his items. It is kind of hard to picture a man at his age working for as long as he has having never stepped outside his borders when I just recently flew in around the world to the country of his dreams. During my limited time in Bagan so far, I can already tell how built up it is in comparison to other places in Myanmar through its restaurants, hotels, and shops geared for the tourist. Then again, Bagan is the calling card for bringing in foreigners. Needing to get out of the sun’s rays at its worst, I stopped at a vegetarian restaurant called Be Kind to Animals the Moon very near to the Ananda Temple. I got their set menu and I did not leave disappointed. Along with usual mound of rice, I ate their ginger lentil soup, tomato salad, and tomato, chickpea tofu curry. Never have I had such good food while in Myanmar and all for such a good deal. After checking at a couple of smaller temples, one of which had some fantastically detailed and colored mural drawings showing what I can only assume are stories from the life of Buddha, I worked my way towards my chosen sunset spot that supposedly had less tourists since it was further from the main road. On the way, I ran to a group of guys that called themselves the pink ladies thanks to their pink bicycles with the attached electric batteries to each. Joining this group, I went to see Dhammayangyi Pahto, the largest temple in terms of the sheer number of bricks used to build such a behemoth and one that also looked very much like a pyramid, distancing itself from the usual design of most other temples in Bagan. Although a great photo, the temple lacked any personality in its interior besides the numerous, modern seated Buddha images that all temples in Bagan have. Once we reached Sulamani Pahto I found a temple worth its clout. Not only was it large enough to be seen from anywhere in Bagan but it also had a well maintained lotus structure and rich mural drawings lining the interior. These drawings covered epic battles between good and evil, ogre-like spirits or demons as well many other paintings of a certain special person reclined in meditation. Unfortunately they weren’t as keen to the arts so we left sooner then I liked but I can guarantee you I will back to really let the masterful artwork really soak in as it should be appreciated. Before I met the pink ladies I had stayed more or less on the main road where the path was paved and a smooth effortless ride. However to get our sunset point we had pass over main dusty dirt paths which the e-bike’s wheels couldn’t handle as it churned through what ended up being smooth lined piles of sand that ruffled the bike out of sorts. Without a deft hand and a slow accelerator it would only be a matter of time before you would careen of course and meet the ground head on. The sunset point was not too crowded at first but we arrived early to make sure that we got good seats. As the sunset continued to approach, bus after bus filled with Chinese and Burmese tourists unloaded more people than I reckoned could fit on this still sizable temple platform. Sure enough they were actually taken pictures of the group of us from a distance even though the natural assumption would have been to think they were taking pictures of, you know, the temple itself. The sunset was nice for my first in Bagan but it died way to early in the clouds before it had a chance to reach the mountains. Plus the number of buses that parked right in front took away from the view of the many ripe temples reddened a still hot, deep red from the sun’s tour of the day. I was cruising along with the rest of them thinking how nice is it that I am not sweating right now, a rare moment for me. Sure enough as soon as that though popped into my head, the battery died with me and this heap of metal still a few kilometers away from the hotel. The bike had pedals but it wasn’t meant for pedaling since the alignment created a motion akin to an adult trying to ride a child’s tricycle with my knees reaching for my elbows. After a grueling half hour I made it back to the hotel by way of pedaling and walking that sorry ass battery to where it came from. Onto other news, I had been planning on seeing Mount Popa, a holy site about an hour from Bagan by share taxi. Mount Popa is a pagoda and monastery capped mound that rises seemingly out of nowhere from the ground as a pile of rocks from an old, extinct volcano. Once again, I went price shopping and found an agent offering it cheaper than the rest. The woman was extremely friendly and spoke well beyond my expectations in terms of her English. Eventually her husband came by and so the three of us sat down to chat. They kept inquiring on whether I had a girlfriend. The husband wanted to hook me up with a girl that worked at the shop during the day. Eventually I turned the tables on them and asked whether they had a child. They said they didn’t but that I could be their child, albeit a very large child. So from there on out I started calling them mama and papa Myanmar. I found the husband spoke Italian thanks to his godfather of all people. When they asked me whether I spoke any other languages I sheepishly said that I knew a little bit of Italian, which was embarrassing to admit when you have fluent Italian speaker in front of you coming from the very strong Italian population of Myanmar. I didn’t buy the ticket yet since I still had time decide but I told them that I for sure will be stopping by to visit. Before going, I asked if they knew of a good Burmese food restaurant nearby. The husband led me to a restaurant devoid of tourists so I felt like I was in good hands. The meal was in fact dreadful. The chicken curry was barely above room temperature while their side dishes had strong tones of fish paste within their flavor profile, along with being served barely warm. Maybe I have just been having shit luck but my time eating Myanmar food needs to come to an end. I have tried and tried time and time again with their native dishes with but I just can’t do it anymore. Besides the plain Jane noodle dishes like Shan noodle and their tea leaf, tomato, and ginger salads (still not too noteworthy after getting drenched in oil), I am not a fan. I love the people but I can do without their food and especially the fish paste. That fermented sauce smells like death and tastes like death. And why would you tamper with a perfectly tasty vegetable like that, poisoning and depriving it of its original inherent flavor. I can now spot a bad restaurant by the smell of this fish paste which acts like a kiss of death in my eyes. It reminds me of the Old Testament story in which Moses instructs the Jews to mark the entrance of their homes with the blood of cows or sheep to ward off the evil spirits. That was a random example so I will just end the post with that on your minds. Cheers!

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