Breaking Burma Day 108: A Little R & R in Bagan

This morning I led the Israeli woman to the sunrise temple that I recommended from the night before. After pumping those pedals to their brink to pace her e-bike, we arrived at the temple with the sun still hiding for the time being. She bought me a can of iced coffee to give us a nice kick start to the day as we chatted and I gave her advice on what to see and do until the moment we were waiting for had arrived. This last sunrise was in fact the best sunrise of the all as the sun was at its deepest red without the typical clouds that can ruin such a sight. I enjoyed this sunrise as much as I appreciated all the others. A scenery like this composed of so many temples with the right amount of lighting to bake them at the perfect golden red shade as balloons bobbed amongst them should not be enjoyed once or twice. I simply can’t comprehend how people are content with a mere two day visit. I understand some people have time constraints but this place us a magic that isn’t available every day. The hot air balloons were fired up closer than the previous two sunrises giving us lucky few the chance to see them go toe to toe with the giants of the plains. I played the part of photographer as several asked for their picture to be taken. Refusing to give them anything less than what I would want, I hit all the angles acting like I knew what I was doing. We left earlier than expected for her since, in my eyes, the show was not over, but I understand most people are not like me willing to sit there to watch the world take place as it unveils itself in a special way like only nature, art, or history can. On the way back to the hotel we stopped of at one of the especially artistic mural temples in Bagan for a brief time. Again, I was ready to sink my mind back into history as I did the other day in which I stood there trying to get behind the meaning and motivation of such a detailed piece. Who know I could be so interested in art? After eating the same old breakfast and planning out the Israeli woman’s day, I took her to visit mama Myanmar before hitting the road for my own personal day with the temples, hoping to dodge the crowds for ones that I could call my own. I cycled out to the far most temples towards the town of New Bagan but despite being seemingly out of the way, hawkers were still there selling their tourist items, namely postcards toted by children and the sand or stone carved drawings of the temples that they try to sell as rare when every Myanmar makes them. Early on when I was first approached with a hello and their pitch on the items they were trying to sell, I would say ‘hello but no thank you’ but after the continual monotony my sensibility went out the window with next to no reply on my part and a complete loss of eye contact. Like a Purell guarantee, 99.99% of the time they would ask where I am from and when I said America all they knew was that we are a wealthy country and most importantly we have Obama. It is as if they can smell my presence like a dog and then try to bark up my quote unquote tree, a tree that has barely enough leaves for itself let alone a spare few to shake those bills downwards as scraps. This tree is bare and clinging to its last leaves while shielding them like a mother bear would do for her young cubs. Don’t mess with me. I am like Clint Eastwood from any of his classic movies ala Dirty Harry. Sorry y’all I am not a sucker and certainly don’t have dollar signs tattoo across my body as they think I do. I simply don’t just break for anyone. When they ask for money, I have now gotten into the practice of saying ‘no thank you’ as if I don’t want any. They certainly try their hardest in the most sly, but by now for me, recognizable ways. They even asked for US currency as a souvenir. Now I just tell them that I left my money at the hotel so as hard as they try or as much as they think I must have what they are selling, I simply can’t buy it. Despite that claim they still think I have a few bills tucked away somewhere and will be a ‘tour guide’ for me when I never made such a request to point various parts of the temple that some may not notice or offer a viewpoint. After which they make their hawker pitch and come away with that same puppy dog face even though I warned them beforehand. Tough luck but I never enrolled in everyone’s human fund. Don’t get me wrong, I thank profusely for showing me around a temple and explaining certain parts of the Buddhist religion hidden in their drawings but it doesn’t change the facts. By now I was sick and tired of the web of commotion and persistence that spun itself around the larger temples but for some reason I tried my luck with one more on the map before heading off the grid. Once again, another hawker who spoke quite a bit of English was selling his sand stone drawings but after he knew I didn’t want to buy them he ended his pursuit and became willing to answer some of my basic questions. He first told me about the paintings themselves and how their colors are all natural: ochre, indigo for blue, copper, coal for black. We slowly transitioned to more serious subjects as our familiarity and dare I say it friendship grew. It went as far as his opinions about the government, which I told him to not feel obligated to respond. He began by saying that the Myanmar people are very afraid of the government. Even though the country is declared a democracy, he hinted that that status is far from the truth. His people do not have the freedom to say how they feel and declare their political views to which they would be imprisoned for speaking less favorably towards the current regime. He then explained that the government takes out so much from these tourist shops which fill the temples whether in full fledge stands or pop up style as he is doing by laying out his artwork. He told me he would like to sell his drawings at the main temples like Ananda but he can’t afford to buy those fairly small shops for the exorbitant amount of 8,000 USD plus the yearly $20 tax fee. Instead he sells his drawings once per week after paying the $15 fee in temples that don’t see nearly the same amount of foot traffic. No matter where the temple is or how small it is, they still charge at least that fee. His disgust for what the government taxes goes beyond himself. He doesn’t like how expensive the hotels cost (each have a 10% tax fee for all foreigner stays) and the rising costs to enter Bagan, not to mention the camera fees. He worries that it will turn away tourism when the country’s foreigner influx is booming and set to continue at a fast rate. Always a subject that I try to gauge interest in is Aung Sun Chu who has long been an activist against the military junta and the present government. Apparently the Myanmar people rally around but worries that corruption is in place that would result in the government not allowing a fair election this coming November 2015 when she has great favor to become president and make serious changes for the country. With his drawings in front of us we talked about the lucky numbers of three, five, seven, and nine in Buddhism. As I have seen in drawings and etched onto the soles of the feet of the reclining Buddha images, the Buddha foot has symbols showing the formers of the Lord Buddha totaling more than 500 as an elephant, peacock, human, and all the rest. In Buddhism, they believe that he was born as a regular person and over time gained salvation and peace in which time as Buddha himself he could teach his people how to live and gain happiness (maybe that is why the people are more content with the status of their lives since they try continue to try to do goodwill so that they may gain favor). Continuing to show his wealth of knowledge about Buddhist religion and know how of the English language he pointed out that the difference between a pagoda (bell shape on top) and a temple (can walk in), which has three or five levels (rationale to follow). I kept taking advantage of my sheer luck of finding such a man as him to explain things I had always seen yet continued to wonder. We touched on the ways to worship. In a kneeling posture, together we raised our hands in the prayer position before placing our palmed hands directly on the floor before following them with the forehead that touched the ground as well. These motions were for a total of three to five times with each representing Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha or monk, parents, and teacher in succession. Knowing I had already taken up much of his time which he was only too glad to do, I began easing myself out of the temple entrance way. Before doing so, I told him how informative he was and that I learned so much from, more than all the many individual days and moments I experienced thus far. Also, I encouraged him to become a tour guide, which could bring he and his family a good life and living. I just hope that this doesn’t turn into an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry convinces Babat that he needs to change his Indian restaurant into a new American one. Coincidentally, he is already taking the steps to make it happen but needs to get his license and pay that fees that are expensive and go to the government. This summer when the tourism season dies down he plans to continue learning back in Yangon. I wished him all the best in his future and thanked him knowing my trip in Myanmar has been left that much more rewarding and fulfilling after meeting such an incredible person as he. I even got his contact information so that maybe some day I may see him or help him out in a way that has not yet been envisioned. When saying goodbye, he told me about the curious art of handshaking and how Myanmar people exchange and offer money. Each act is done so with the right hand while the left hand sort of supports the right elbow. When giving alms to a monk you should hand over the money or offering with both hands and a slight bow. Needing to dodge the heat, I ate once again at the vegetarian restaurant The Moon: Be Kind to Animals near Ananda Temple and consumed the same meal as the first time since a deal like that could not be beaten. After finishing my meal, I asked the owner how they make their chickpea tofu, a culinary delight that I have only ever experienced in Myanmar. Another dish and DIY project can now be added to the list once I arrive home into the kitchen. With the dead period of the afternoon slowing down business, the owner of the restaurant sat down and chatted with me as he looked through my recent pictures taken of at the pictures of Bagan. He chuckled when he saw the photos I had taken of his menu so that I can remember what goes in some of his memorable dishes. He even commented on the one sweet and sour chicken dish I had eaten from another restaurant saying it was too oily as it was amongst other mishaps. Speaking the truth, I told him that he has the best food in Myanmar. Further along he was impressed by the panoramas and surprised me by saying that he was friends with the man I spoke to earlier (thanks to my selfie photo of the two of us). What I small world this can be. After another selfie to commemorate another souvenir, I moved along in pursuit of a temple that I could call my own for the afternoon. I had been given advice the day prior from the Minnesotan that there was hidden temple in the area in which you could climb to the top for a great sunset viewpoint. Past a landfill strip scattered amongst the many pagodas and temples (places of worship that had been forgotten from the heaps of rubbish consuming its foothills) I searched through in pursuit of the infamous temple, I found my chosen spot. With the exception of a few napping Burmese, I was the only one around or even within view and what a view did it offer. The temple rested near the river and had numerous small temples baking in the overbearing heat intermingled with the somehow potently green trees and teetering palm trees while the main colossal temples stood within sight. Peace and quiet with some much needed shade and wind blowing past (not to mention the lack of persistent hawkers watching my every step) helped evade whatever worries that beckoned from afar. Taking advantage of my privacy I of course took selfies before napping on the shady side of the red brick at a point I wouldn’t tumble to my death mid-dream. Living out the truth that some good things come to an end, a troupe of kids spotted from the distance and raced towards me to climb the steps to where I was. With the time I had to spare, I sported all the battle gear I had to spare knowing a cruel, grueling war awaited. The children flanked from every which with their postcards both commercialized and hand drawn but my impenetrable cloak was too strong for their pleas as I passed on their offers time and again saying that I had no money. The one really cute girl maybe seven or eight in her bright yellow dress to match her thanakha sun cream was especially cheeky as she offered to exchange her drawings for my camera. Eventually wounded from defeat by the U.S. defense they backed down surrendering whatever stronghold they thought they may have had. Sunset was about to near when I thought I might actually have a shot at having the temple to myself for the penultimate moment. Alas, a French girl showed up deny me of my wish. We chatted while the sun died before reaching the horizon but still not a bad one to end my time in Bagan. The two of us eventually agreed to meet for dinner at an Indian restaurant near Nyaung Oo. With a flat rear tire I raced in time for the always delicious Indian fare, chomping down on some Chicken tikka masala. Back at the hotel, the night commenced after the Israeli woman thanked for such a nice day that I planned for her. For once in the last several days I would actually be getting a genuine night’s sleep.

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