Sunday, February 3, 2013


From my vantage point, perched on a high corner atop a pyramidal temple, scaled with steps steeper than they are long, I could watch the sun sink into the mountains over the Ayeyarwady River, Burma’s largest and most vital waterway.  Evening mist from the river and dust kicked up from the dirt roads mingle together and float low through the valley, lapping at the feet of giants: innumerable temples of every size and shape, but in mutual solidarity in their composition, made from dry red bricks and worn down by the centuries to austerity.  In every direction, the line of the horizon is pierced by sky reaching spires, mesmerizing in their repetition.  Any one of these mammoth monuments could be the proud emblem of any city, but here in Bagan even great temples are in such supply that many aren’t even afforded symbols on a map; it’s as if a whole nation was rearranging its furniture and had consolidated its architectural treasures in one place for inventory.  I’ve seen this sight before, months ago, but this vision had faded from memory until I had taken my seat on the temple ledge.  It was a double page spread depicting the Bagan sunset in a travel magazine, and I was so captivated by what I saw I knew I was going to be there even before I read any of the words or even understood what I was looking at or where it was. 

The vantages from the magazine, however, were from a considerably higher vantage point; from the basket of a hot air balloon that I couldn’t wait to take myself … until I found out I’d have to shell out $250 for the privilege.

Much like my searching in Inle Lake, it took me at least 90 minutes before I could find a room with even a vacancy, but my health was better this time and I was better able to keep despair at a manageable distance, despite being so repeatedly turned away.  The room I finally found only cost me eight dollars.  A Chinese backpacker I had met on the overnight train spent over two hours on her hunt and inconsolably settled on a room she found for forty.  It was all the more discouraging for me that my hunt was hindered by the deceit of a trishaw driver.  When I was about to cross the line in the tourist village of Nyaung U where the hotels began to have vacancies, he told me that there weren’t any hotels in that direction.  He had been tailing me for a few blocks hoping I’d give up my hunt to become a fare and let myself be taken to an overpriced hotel where he could fleece me for a couple extra dollars as a kickback, and his lie cost me the better part of a sweaty hour and some of the faith I had invested in the Burmese.  The cynicism I forged in India had to come back, and it saddened me to apply it to the people here, who had been nothing but warm, almost excessively friendly, before I arrived at their most tourist drawing treasure, but tourism begets scam artistry and I then braced myself for the possibility of scams and the certainty of obnoxious souvenir hawkers (no, I didn’t want any lacquerware from the sixty three other vendors who assailed me in the last two hours, and I don’t want any from you, sorry).

You might have noticed I switched to referring to the country as Burma.  While I like the progressive quality of non-ethnicity specific Myanmar I’ve found Burmese dissidents are reluctant to use the government mandated moniker, and I’ve decided that until the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is indeed a republic and the people are led by the elected, I’m going to stick to Burma myself.

Exploring the imposing facades and deep Buddha dwelling caverns of Bagan’s great temples was a unique thrill, but it required more effort than I had been anticipating.  The 42 square kilometers of Bagan’s cultural zone are networked mostly by unpaved dirt trails navigated most typically by taxi, horse buggy, or bicycle.  Foreigners are forbidden from renting motorbikes.  Hoping to relive the independent exploration I enjoyed in Hampi, and unable to afford drivers all on my own, bicycle was the most obvious and practical option for me.  But the bicycle proved to bring along its own impositions.  The dirt paths were alternately rocky and then so sandy the wheels would sink too deep for pedaling, conditions that required constant dismounting and plowing through the sand on foot.  This made the thickening heat unbearable and the comfort I briefly enjoyed from cool breezes against my shirtless skin was replaced by the sharp mandibles of giant flies.  And as soon as I reached the farthest point I had hoped to reach on my first day, planning to then about face and enjoy the sights on the way back to the hotel with the sun at my back, I stepped right onto the sharp point of a narrow hacked down tree.  In seeming slow motion I could feel the probing tendril peel through the plastic of my sandal, feeling exaggerated and cartoon like as if piercing a second husk-like and nerveless elephant hide, before the momentum of my step and gravity pulled my actual flesh into and around the twig.  Grumbling curses while tumbling onto my ass, I MacGyvered a bandage from toilet paper and tape and limped through the next few temple grounds until the pain numbed.

By the time I had creaked into the temple where I’d enjoy my first sunset, a flat wheel had made bicycling nearly impossible, and I was counting on having to lug the damn thing to the nearby resort village and hope I could throw it in the back of a pickup headed for Nyaung U.  I was spared the effort ultimately, because somehow during the sunset (which was gorgeous), I had lost the key to the bicycle’s lock, and after a pathetic and empty handed search I found myself laughing at my bad luck and ineptitude and how perfectly stupid my geographic progress had been that day.  Good fortune saved me unexpectedly when I heard an excited “Matthew!” from behind me in the parking lot.  The pair of families that had adopted me in Yangon were bundled into a large van in departure from their own sunset, and after hearty pleading with the nearly resolute driver, we convinced him to let me wiggle the bicycle and myself into the van.  I was brought back to my hotel where I paid a very fair fee for the lost key, and after tipping the driver who was very tickled by my measly three dollars, all was right.  I joined the families for dinner where we swapped Burmese war stories of navigational and intestinal woes we had suffered since Yangon.

I wish I could say that’s where by bicycle issues ended, but the next day I found myself once again far away from home, but this time with two flats.  Deflated myself, I whimpered into a village where a young woman immediately noticed how crippled my bike was and led me behind a barn where a thick armed Burmese woman attempted to fix them.  I leaned on a wooden porch, looked lazily about my rural setting, and joined in listless chatter in the limited English my temporary hosts knew.  Humped white cows chewed on cud and little boys watched a Korean soap opera on the television inside their shack.  Another woman led in a curious young Chinese tourist, showing him how to spin cotton and weave fabric.  An 86 year old grandmother came out to the porch to suck on a truly gigantic cigar made form a corn husk, one of the two she’s enjoyed every day for decades.  I left just in time for the next day’s sunset, but of course just as soon as I had departed from the village the front wheel went flat again and simultaneously the steering bars went limp from the front wheel, making turning even slightly a difficult and even dangerous thing to do.  With some trial, error, and copious sweat, I discovered I could still plod along if I hunched over and held the bicycle’s mounted basket in place, which would keep the wheel steady while I nurtured the brake with my other arm.  By the day’s end, I probably spent between three and four hours en route to a place I wouldn’t find or just plain lost.

In a shady courtyard, I happened upon a young girl next to a shrine, a circle of cross legged Buddhas around a tree.  They were seven in number and behind them was a trough of water.  The little girl was on the tips of her toes scooping cups full of water and pouring them on one of the golden Buddhas, again and again.  I had read about this; Burmese astrology is based not on the month or year you are born, but rather the day of the week.  I’m not sure what the aim of the ritual is, but one is supposed to wash the Buddha once for every year they’ve been alive, and then once more for good luck.  Watching her pour down on Buddha got me so curious as to the day of the week I was born was.  It then occurred to me there was a calendar on my iPod and I got to clicking back in time to find the April from 25 years ago.  308 times I clicked the back button on the iPod’s wheel until I finally arrived to the day of my birth … which happened to be a Wednesday.  The Buddhas around the tree were invitingly marked in English as well as Burmese, and before getting back onto my bike to continue exploring I drowned my Buddha 26 times.  For good luck.

The temples of Bagan were as awesome as they were numerous, and all the more so in the photographer’s golden hour.  As old as they are, there are even a few remaining nods to ancient Burmese Hindu worship, as the temples were built before all Hinduism was all squashed out by Theravada Buddhism – and learning this gave me an unexpected thrill.  It seems India and Hinduism has taken a lingering hold on me and I was terribly excited to find three headed Brahmas etched into some of the walls in this land of Buddhas.

On the way to the Hindu temple, I bumped into a trio of men who worked for the zone’s conservation team as they were conducting a survey.  Pleased by my curiosity, the leader of the three would include me by repeating some of his conversation in English.  Some of the temples have lovely but badly scarred murals running from top to bottom of the temple’s interiors.  To battle deterioration many murals had decades ago been hastily and unattractively covered up in white stucco that was now slowly being revealed and preserved by professional restoration crews.  The restoration efforts have been guided by Indian consultants with decades of experience in monument preservation.  Restoration project were occurring everywhere in the cultural zone, in and outside the temples.  Roads were being built and many of the courtyards were crawling with workers building walking paths and planting gardens, and will one day show off the benefits of beautification.  Bagan is truly the jewel in Burma’s crown, and now that the doors have been widened to the world, the government is investing in it with great effort.

Lady monks wear pink because they are girls, duh
I saved Bagan for last, the climactic event of my excursion into Burma, and it very much cemented my relationship with the country.  Burma’s full of wonder, but it’s somehow always been just a little out of reach.  I felt somewhat excluded and constantly beset with obstacles.  In many ways Burma works against the backpacker, especially one going it alone.  The scarcity of permits granted by the government to hotels and the steep amount the government skims from hotel transactions diminishes the incentive for new hoteliers to create budget accommodations, and the disproportionate amount of tourists to the availability of rooms drives prices up well beyond reason.  The state of public transit is atrociously inefficient and difficult to navigate.  Most bus stations, train stations, and airports are an absurd distance from city centers and each other, and there are rarely direct connections to and from any of these, making taxis almost requisite for the traveler.  The numbering on busses and trains is usually in Burmese and getting straight directions from anyone is a challenge in itself.  Foreigners aren’t permitted to rent cars or scooters either.  The cash situation, as I had earlier described, is absurd and can be utterly frustrating.  Now that I’ve hit the biggest sights on the main tourist circuit, I’m left feeling that anything I might want to do in Burma, I could probably do elsewhere for less, and while India and Nepal had left hooks in me ensuring my return, I wonder if Burma and I will soon or ever meet again – which is a shame, particularly because the people are perhaps the warmest and most accommodating I’ve ever met.

Addendum since penning this entry:

My blog posts are now about a month behind my journaling and actual experiences – time for editing photos and transcribing and editing text is fairly scarce on the road, but I’m making an effort to keep anyone interested in the know.  I’ve since spent some time in Cambodia and Thailand, and can say Burma’s not really any more (or at least much more) expensive than any of the other countries in the region – I was just dismayed with costs after spending so much time in dirt cheap Indian and Nepal.  My troubles with traveling in Burma remain grievances, but were certainly exacerbated by the fact that I went during their two busiest tourist weeks of the year, during westerners’ winter break.  I highly recommend visiting Burma, but not without researching the heck out of it first, getting away from the tourist circuit, and I think the getting around would be easier with a partner.

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