Temple Tantrums

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Yesterday we lazed about exploring our charming neighborhood of Nyang-U outside of Bagan proper enjoying the colonial buildings and sampling some of the local fare. Today however we headed out to see what we came here for: a bit of temple treking.

In the mid-tenth century in the town of Bagan over two thousand temples and stupas sprung up like wild mushrooms across the arid plains. The hamlet continued to flourish for little more than two centuries until the Mongols lead by Kublai Kahn sacked and laid bare the holy site. Today it is a UNESCO protected site and attracts more visitors than any other destination in Myanmar. While only a couple handfuls of temples are particularly aesthetically noteworthy it is the visual impact of thousands of temples blurring into the skyline from every vantage point that impresses.

Our horse cart with driver was waiting for us downstairs shortly after our leisurely breakfast on the communal guesthouse terrace. I climbed in the front seat next to the driver and Cameron splayed out on the padded cushions in the back as we slowly clacked our way toward the dusty plains. Though we had a few specific destinations in mind we decided to leave some of the other temples to our driver's discretion. To be fair it wasn't the wisest idea to see the crown jewel of Bagan first but seeing as it was the first one along the way we ventured in. It was astonishing and everything else paled in comparison though there were certainly other if lesser gems along the way. The Shezigon Temple's golden facade gleamed under a bright blue sky, the incense wafted and ravens the size of cats swooped and cawed in the light morning breeze. We found a shaded spot near a little shrine and sat with our feet cooling on the chilled white marble tile and gazed at the tinkling temple bells high atop the stupa. The novice monks in their pigeon blood robes played and banged bronze bells with logs half a foot thick. Once they had our attention they gesticulated toward our cameras suggesting we photograph them. We obliged and even though I knew this trick I thought surely monks, even novice monks wouldn't ply that old trick. I was wrong, no sooner had we snapped away than their mendicant bowls came out demanding money. Even though they were children the ploy was nonetheless not in keeping with the Buddhist faith -- one is supposed to give freely and not through deception. Calling their bluff I refused.

The walk down a covered pathway from the temple was filled with souvenir stalls of every kind and the salespeople can be quite aggressive. "Running the gauntlet" was the term that came to mind so I decided to take it literally and hiked up my skirt and ran like hell as though being chased much to the amusement of the salesgirls. Prior upon entering we had left our shoes with a young girl who offered to watch them for us if we promised to look at her shop on the return back. We agreed and went to see her. I am a seasoned bargainer and once I've made up my mind on the price of something or decided not to buy something it's virtual impossible to make me part with my dollars, bahts or kyats. This woman was brilliant however and I conceded to buy something from her for a dollar. "Lucky money, lucky money!" she chanted smiling. "First customer of the day - please you buy something." I bought a tiny ceramic dog incense holder that is so crude it's hilarious and makes me smile for around seventy cents.

Back in the horse cart we asked that our driver take us to the next one on our list but he suggested that we see another temple en route. We were open to suggestion and agreed and when he pulled down a sandy path our horse seemed to come alive and sped up rearing his head and champing at the bit. Prior to this I wondered if he were walking on bloody stumps or if he was ready for the glue factory but our driver said that he was only excited because of a nearby mare that he had the hots for. That was the only time throughout the entire day that the equine wonder went any faster than a trot. Once we'd pulled up in front of the small stupa there were two ladies standing outside and our driver told us, "They are my friends if you want to buy something from them you can." Already the second temple and the screws were tightening, I thought. They were pleasant enough however and up a narrow dark staircase a little boy shone a flashlight as we ascended for a spectacular view. The ladies paired off one with Cameron and one with me. Bless the heart of the one who got me because I barely budged when she showed me her beautiful painted fabrics. Then I thought I could have a pillow made out of one and bargained her down from seven dollars to two dollars. Cameron however bought several from her girl who by the way had superior merchandise. Back at cart I woke our driver from a deep slumber and cheerily told him, "That was terrific and thank you so much but now for the rest of the day no more shopping please -- only temples all right?" Later on in the day Cameron and I tried to figure out why he twisted on us so and were able to pinpoint it to that exact second. Previously he'd be downright delightful.

It was already lunchtime so we asked him to take us to a place nearby. He suggested Golden Mandalay but we'd already eaten there the day before. I could see him mentally building higher the wall of hate as he squinted and smirked and whipped the reigns on the horse that barely lifted his head much less his hooves and headed to another place. We enjoyed a long lunch and later climbed back in and pointed to a rendering in our guidebook and asked to be taken there. Heading in that direction he insisted that we see another tiny temple on the way that was swarming with sellers. We refused to get out and asked nicely pointing to the picture to be taken to the temple we'd already mentioned. He slathered on the mortar and layered on a few more bricks on the wall of hate as we creaked in the sandy dunes towards a two story ramshackle temple. "Here, this is the one -you get out now." I showed him the rendering again and read him the description, "It is one of the tallest in Bagan at 61 meters." I told him it was clearly not the same temple but he obstinately insisted and bellowed, "You get out and see it!" We refused. Cameron rightly said that there was no arguing with him and just to choose another temple and we'd get a different less hateful guide the next day. All right, I thought and pointed to another temple in the book. He spun the cart around and as we were heading toward the exact same temple that we'd just passed with the swarming sellers I chuckled, "I swear to God if you take us to that damn temple again I am going to loose my damn mind." He took us there and reared the horse to a stop. I almost lost my mind. Cameron soothed me, "Oh who cares let's just go run through it." We did and to my astonishment based on the description in the book we believe it was the actual temple in the book that we asked to see. Tourists=1. Belligerent Horse Cart Man=1. "Fine," I muttered, "We're even."

Hours passed as we rode past hundreds of stupas and temples guzzling gallons of water and our new favourite drink, the Lemon Sparkling (like a cross between lemonade and sprite) under the blaze of mid-day sun. We darted into so many temples we began to loose track and were winding down in the stifling heat. When Mr. Jackass asked if we wanted to see something that we couldn't understand but figured it involved buying something we consented, "All right but we're not going to buy anything." Unbelievably it was a something that was actually delightful and didn't involve buying anything at all! It was a beautiful procession of child nun and monk novitiates dressed in their finery on horseback as they made their way to the monastery on their last days before taking up the robes. Pulling up the rear were decorated oxcarts and a sound system trailed by a brass band. It was truly spectacular and while were grateful to our driver for letting us be privy to the celebration we realized it was really only because he wanted to get some more shut eye. He was out cold when we made our way back to the cart.

Sunset was fast approaching and asked the Surly One to take us to a place that would afford a great view. We were specific, "We'd like a climb up a little temple that affords a great view of a large temple where the sun will set behind it." I may have well been talking to plate of Ramen Noodles because he asked me, "What about a mountain view?" I said that we really didn't care about a mountain view and that we wanted a large temple in front of us. "All right?" I asked. The sun was beginning to set when he pulled up to a little temple. We got out and climbed up only to lay eyes on a vista of mountains and tiny little brick stupas in the foreground. I almost cried. We waited for the sun to dip below the skyline while we complained that it was possibly the most pathetic view in all of Bagan. We didn't wait and climbed back down and into the carriage while daylight was still slipping away. Tomorrow we thought will be different because we'll be calling the shots and seeing exactly what we want to see. Well, more or less.

The next morning we decided to head out and enjoy breakfast out in the misty air at the child-height tables and chairs at the local tea shop. We had piping hot fresh roasted coffee and sweet coconut filled hot doughnuts and twisted sugared fried dough for a total of seventy cents while watching a parade of monks with their mendicant bowls collect alms from across the street. We sat and planned out our day cross-referencing two guidebooks and came up with a list of five temples that we had to see. With our list in hand we went and booked our bus tickets to Inle Lake tomorrow and then found a nice carriage driver to take us around for our last day on the plains of Bagan.

He was a far affable yet older man and his horse was spry. He had a peculiar way about him but was endearing the way he spoke to his horse, which sounded as though he were imitating a mule singing "O Sole Mio" as he hee'd and haw'd and flicked the reins. The first temple on our list was one that we were very excited to see. The description in the books sounded fascinating when we were reading them to each other over breakfast that we decided that we'd have to see that one first. We did. Yesterday. Bowing my head I swallowed, "Um, I'm so sorry sir but we've already seen this one yesterday -how about we see this one instead." Undaunted and smiling he hee'd and haw'd again and off we went to the temples with the swarming sellers that our driver took us to twice yesterday. I mumbled to Cameron as we headed in that direction, "If it's that damn temple from yesterday maybe we should just pretend that we didn't see it and go in anyway." It was the same temple. I couldn't bring myself to go back inside. The next two temples we were excited to say were new to us and terrific, as well. One of them had weird little painted concrete weeble people outside of them that amused us to no end. Now, we thought the piece de resistance: one of the largest temples that we'd saved for last. We hopped inside the carriage and clacked down a dusty trail to the largest temple that we already saw yesterday. Ashamed I hung my head and confessed that we'd already seen that one, as well. We couldn't tell them apart anymore and frankly I was dying for a shower and a gin and tonic so we cut our losses and headed back since we have to turn in early this evening. Tomorrow is a 4 a.m. wake up call

In the morning we will venture on to the Inle Lake region where we'll stay for at least a week. I am not looking forward to the journey however, which has been described as taking 6 hours from one person and 10 from another on a "Japanese minibus" whatever the hell that's supposed to mean. I've also been warned that Myanmar has some of the worst roads in all of Southeast Asia. I personally don't see how the bus ride can be any worse that the odyssey I endured from Siem Reap to Bangkok last month but we'll see.

Onward! And Cheers - I think we'll need it.
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