Sunday, October 7, 2012


The reason most tourists come to Bagan is to see the temples that cover the plain; there are between 3,000 and 4,000 temples, pagodas, and stupas covering the area around Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U, mostly built during a 230-year period ending around 1287. For a few years, a new structure was begun every two weeks – according to something I read, they were rather shoddily built, and the reconstruction efforts are done in just as shoddy a manner. There was a devastating earthquake here in 1975 that destroyed many of the old structures, and they’re being reconstructed. UNESCO was involved in restoring some of the old frescoes inside the temples and pagodas. It’s impossible to see them all, especially in a two-day period, but if you have $290 to spare for a 45-minute balloon ride, you can float over the plain in the morning and see the full sweep of them. We satisfied ourselves with a view from top of one of the higher structures.

click to enlarge this one -- just a tiny smidge of the structures on this large plain
But first we had to get here. The flight from Heho (pronounce hay-ho) was unremarkable, and after we got our luggage we headed out toward the taxi drivers. One came toward us and gave us a pretty good rate to the hotel, so we went to the taxi and were surprised when he got in the passenger seat up front, next to the driver. We’ve never had that happen before; usually the guy who approaches the tourists simply sends them off to the taxi. [And here’s a good point to say that the driver sits on the right, like in the British system, but also drives on the right-hand side of the street, like in the American system. I never thought about how strange that would be until the taxi driver wanted to pass a big truck, and he had to pull all the way out to see around. Very strange. Also, we’ve been surprised by how much English we’ve encountered; we were not expecting many people to speak English, as in Vietnam, but of course this was a British colony, and also many people have learned by speaking to tourists.]

Anyway. The taxi guy. All the way to our hotel, he talked nonstop. He had something to say about everything, and when Marc and I tried to talk to each other he usually kept talking. Once he stopped, but he seemed irritated and he jumped in as soon as there was a pause. There was something odd about him; I wondered if he was manic, or on drugs. He had something nasty to say about the Chinese, but I can’t remember the detail now. When we got to our hotel, he went into the lobby with us and grabbed our passports and voucher out of our hands, to go check us in, but Marc grabbed them from him. While he was gone, the taxi guy was pushing me hard, as he had been pushing Marc and me, to be our tour guide for the temples. We were kind of dazed and were already feeling assaulted by him, and we certainly weren’t ready to make that kind of decision and commitment before we’d even settled in, so I told him that we didn’t know what we wanted to do yet about tomorrow, so no thank you. He just stayed sitting there. The hotel brought us drinks and served him one, too, which was very weird. The guy just kept sitting there, pushing hard, and Marc finally leaned toward him and said forcefully, with a little sharp edge, NO, we are not interested. He still didn’t leave. He wrote down his name and telephone number and our room was ready so we stood up and walked away from him. We shook our heads in disbelief, and for the rest of the night kept talking about how intrusive he was, how rude, how much we felt assaulted by him. But we thought that was it, we were done with him. The next morning at 7am, our telephone rang and it was the front desk informing us that our guide was here! It could only have been him, and of course we hadn’t hired him. I'd missed the phone the first time it rang; a minute later it rang again and Marc said no, we did not hire him, send him away. A minute later it rang again and the woman at the front desk told me our guide was here, and asked if I’d like to speak to him. Unbelievable! I told her no, we didn’t hire him, he was harassing us, and hung up. We’ve felt assaulted by hawkers before – in India and at Angkor Wat – but this was a whole new level. I keep looking over my shoulder here in Bagan, expecting to see him haunting us, and I’m just a little anxious about the taxi ride back to the airport tomorrow.

here's our beautiful room

On our first night, we ate dinner at this really lovely little restaurant near our hotel, strangely named Star Beans (well, one sign says Beans, another says Beams). It’s a family-run place, apparently, and our food was amazing – delicately cooked, delicately seasoned, utterly delicious. We got a green papaya salad and a tomato salad (tomatoes from Inle Lake), and then we each got Irrawaddy butter fish in a delicate butter sauce. The fish was just perfect, and the service was sweet. The placed a mosquito coil under our table, and we were so eagerly tended to. They were like insecure kids, asking us constantly if it was good, was it good, is it ok? Every few minutes we reassured them that it was delicious, that it was wonderful, very good, and they seemed so pleased. The young women who served us were gracious and smiled a lot; one was harder to understand, but she was nearly giggling whenever she spoke English to us. I smile remembering her. The fantastic meal was about $14. We ate there again the second night, but they were overwhelmed – victims of their own success, I guess – because every table was filled and the service was slow. 

sweet, sweet little restaurant! i wish them every success.

they're very proud of being #1 on TripAdvisor (how we found them!), as well they should be.

making my mouth water, remembering this tomato salad, tomatoes from Inle Lake

and this very luscious green papaya salad, YUM.

and here, a grilled aubergine salad. Outstanding food there.

our sweet horsecart driver
On our first morning, we hired a horsecart and driver to take us to Nyaung U, a small town about 30 minutes away (by horsecart, would’ve probably taken us 5-10 minutes by car). Our driver was very sweet, not at all pushy – a huge relief, after mr. taxi jerk man – and glad to give us information but not to push us to do anything in particular. For an hour, we walked through the market, which was one of the biggest ones we’ve ever seen, and sat on a curb and watched people pass in their busy day. I think that was Saturday, so maybe it was a busier day than usual, I don’t know.  

lots of ways to get around in Bagan, bikes and tricycles and walking and horsecarts and motorcycles

lots of trees arching over lots of roads, and lots of crimson-robed monks walking along barefooted

here's the market -- a big, and busy one. notice the thanaka on the women's cheeks. men wear it too, but less often than the women

marc and a nun, in the market

at a busy little restaurant near the market -- near here, a monk walked up to us and very quietly, with small movements, pointed to his money. it was the only time a monk 'requested' a contribution.

it's always a beauty salOON in Myanmar, which made me laugh.

quite common -- see all those women lined up behind the already-crowded mini-bus? They all made it into the back. Every last one.

lots of oxcarts, with skinny oxen

and LOTS of people picking on guitars in Myanmar! this surprised me.

When we got back to our hotel, we arranged for the horsecart driver to pick us up at 7am the next day to drive us through the area for 3 hours so we could see some of the temples, stupas, and pagodas. We spent the afternoon lounging in and around the pool, which was really great in the heat.

cool and shady in the heat of a Bagan(ian?) afternoon

One thing we’d planned to do was hire a boat at the river to see the sunset; we walked through the Tharabar Gate and down to the jetty to hire a boat. A young man came out of a monastery (that had a little restaurant, he must’ve actually come from the restaurant) and we made our arrangements, one hour for ~$12. Since we had time to kill, we wandered down to the river and were stopped by another man, and when we told him we’d already made arrangements, he told us that he was the other man’s uncle, and he’d be driving us. We were swarmed by women and children trying to sell us postcards, little drawings, lacquerware, bracelets, puppets, and random jewelry. A tiny little girl stole my heart; I imagined my little granddaughter Grace, and loved this little Myanmarese girl who was wanting so much to sell me a drawing she’d made. She’d say “just looking maybe later.” She’d say “1000 kyats only.” And then she said “see you later alligator” and I said “in a while crocodile” and we laughed. Marc and I went to a nearby hotel to get something to drink, and when it was time to go to the boat, another man tried to sell us a boat ride and then said he was the original young man’s father.  I think they really were all related, but it’s hard to know for sure.

We climbed into our boat, which could’ve easily held 20 people, and Marc, the driver and I rode out into the Irrawaddy River. The engine was loud, and the driver had tamarind flakes and Chinese tea for us. We rode up the river, watching fishermen, other boats, families in the river bathing and doing laundry and playing. We watched red brick stupas and gold-topped pagodas pass. We saw dogs running down ancient steps to the river. We saw enormous trees with their roots grabbing the bank. And then we saw the sun start to dip down to the horizon, shooting beams through the clouds, lighting up the water, and coloring the sky. The driver cut the engine and we sat in the quiet, in the middle of the river. He pointed to the far bank and told us it was an island, and when the rainy season comes the island is covered in water so all the people who live there move to the other bank until the rainy season ends.  We sat a few minutes more, and then he drove us back to the jetty. I saw the same little girl again, and said “see you later alligator” and she returned the crocodile line.

the boat jetty

a couple of stupas seen from the river

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River

more sunset over the Irrawaddy

giant trees along the riverbank
This morning we met our driver at 7 and were ready to see a number of nearby structures during our three hours (which was only ~$9); after the first temple, my camera battery died. I was able to click off one or two extra photos before it died for good. It was very hot, and while there were some temples and stupas we visited where we were left alone, we were also quite aggressively hounded by hawkers at others – “we like money, you give money.” Postcards, sand paintings, lacquerware bracelets, too-gold Buddhas, make-up, glasses, anything we want. Cold drinks. Tour guides. We saw the following places this morning, which I’ll say more about later:

  • Nan Paya
  • Manuha Paya
  • Gubyaukgyi
  • Mingalazedi Paya
  • Gawdawpalin Pahto
  • Mahabodhi Paya
  • Shwegugyi
  • Thatbyinnyu Pahto
  • Ananda Pahto

Partly because my camera battery died, and partly because we have the bulk of the day here again tomorrow, we arranged to meet our horsecart driver again at 7am tomorrow, so I will have my battery charged and hope to get some really good photos. Tonight we hope to climb one of the nearby pagodas to watch the sunset, but it rained pretty hard all afternoon so I don’t know what it might be like, getting out there.

It’s very hard to deal with the hawkers, because I dearly want to talk to the young man who wants to practice English, which he has learned by talking to tourists and by listening to BBC – I want to talk with him. We laughed until we nearly cried when he was showing me the obelisk – the “Rosetta Stone” – and he said he couldn’t read it…..but then came the hard sell for his sand paintings. I know he needs to make money, and I also don’t need or want a dozen sand paintings. If I have to say no a thousand times to the young girl who tries to sell me postcards, I don’t want her walking with me through the pagoda, but she will not leave us alone. It’s enormously difficult saying no, I do not want to part with $1, over and over and over. It’s just $1, so very little to me, and much more to them. It’s the essential tension of being a Western very rich traveler who is not at all very rich at home. Nowhere else in Myanmar have we encountered anyone pushing things on us, not in Yangon, or Nyaung Shwe, or Kalaw. I hope that as time passes, what I think about when I remember Bagan is the beautiful scenery, the rich and fascinating history, and the warm people. I hope the kind horsecart driver and the laughing women at the restaurant are the ones I remember, not the hawkers and the first taxi jerk man. The smiling young man at the pool, who seems eager to practice his careful English. The beautiful nod of the head and warm ‘Mingalaba’ offered by everyone we pass.

I have a lot of photos of the stupas, from the second day, but I need to process them so I'll come back and do that later. For now, here are some that are ready:

another view of the plain -- more stupas than you can imagine

beautiful beautiful beautiful.

this reclining Buddha was built in a too-small room, to signify the king's feeling of being trapped and held prisoner

a temple we didn't actually see -- but look at the Burmese script! So beautiful.

standard -- stupas in a field, everywhere

random road, covered by trees, with stupas alongside. stunning.

coming into Old Bagan

more of the turquoise, i never got enough of it

and here's the Tharabar Gate, into the old city
my camera battery was dying so I was anxious about this shot;
not our best, but it's the only one we got of us together!

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