The Ancient City - Bagan

Trip Start Jan 14, 2008
Trip End Jan 13, 2009

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bagan, a world heritage site, is the number one stop on the tourist circuit in Myanmar. Even so, there was barely anyone there.  We saw a few other westerners, met up with a few Hawaiian professors that we had run into earlier at the hotel, and struggled just to find a restaurant that was open. Perfect for exploring these wonderful mostly unrestored ruins in various states of decay.

The aesthetics of Bagan are excellent set along the banks of the Irrawaddy, the transportation, spiritual, and irrigation center of ancient and modern Burma. Which is strategic for a number of reasons. The most apparent being is that it is HOT here. So hot, that the hotel pool needed a pool cooler rather than a heater as it was too hot for it's intended refreshment purpose. The heat and lack of rain here means that the ruins are in the midst of a what is today a fairly arid region rather than the jungle, which makes it a lot easier to get around and to see them from a distance. This is especially important as there are 5000 of them! Brenda and George's never-ending travel energy and penchant for creating full schedules originally had us visiting most of them but we cut it down (just kidding). Actually we visited a bunch of them, I'm guessing twenty including: (note this spelling is purely but partially phonetic and would bare no resemblance to what would be in a guidebook or what anyone knowledgeable would write):

nat long john - one of the very oldest temples from the tenth century that is so old it is of Hindu design and features Vishnu, a Hindu god abandoned by the people who dwelled here after the rise of Buddhism - it's one of only two such temples of the 5000;

pyat da da gee - this lovely multi storied temple is also ancient and out in the midst of the masses of old ruins, it's one of the few that you are allowed to climb and it's multi-storied terraces connected by tiny dark stare wells afford great panoramas - especially for sunset - which we utilized for a beautiful first evening sunset visit complete with ipod classical music accompaniment; chok ku emee - one of the few temples that utilize natural features - it's built into a pretty long and winding cave network that's a favorite of meditating Buddhists - it was a favorite of ours as we visited it in the hottest part of the afternoon and were enchanted by the venue, giant Buddha, but most of all the cool;

ananda - one of the most famous s temples here is in town and is definitely not a ruin as it is very painted and maintained - it's famous for having four giant Buddhas facing each of the cardinal points and stretching up to sixty feet high as well as having what is reported to be the biggest rice (devotional not eating) bowl in the world -it's a heck of a lot of rice;

nanpaya - which features by far the most intricate carvings of any temple here - most are not ornate on the exterior or interior - this one utilizes a harder building material, sandstone, and its interior is filled with excellent relief carvings;

gaya thung tzu - situated outside of the main archaeological area on the way to Mt. Popa this temple is famous for having the most intricate original paintings still mostly intact from the thirteenth century, very detailed, and of course depicting the life of Buddha, these paintings are quite beautiful and much imitated by local artists whose touts pedal them mercilessly at all the major temples;

obb yahn gee is another temple famous for paintings, some of which are actually original painted cloth that was glued to the interior and somehow parts of which still survive; shwee see gon which is probably the most famous of all the temples and features a massive festival as it is the temple of nats (nats are a strange animistic feature of the religion here where statues are thought to embody local spirits who must be acknowledged or appeased in order to stay on their good side and not get bad luck) - in fact it's famous for being the home of the original most famous 37 nat statues gathered by one of the ancient kings in a clever attempt at converting nat worshipers to Buddhists that seems to have worked here as this country is very Buddhist (although they still like their nats - we even gave some cigarette offerings to two big ass nats).

As mentioned before, with some 5000 recorded temples, this place is really amazing. Between the four of us we've been to most of the major ruins in the world and in terms of volume, nothing compares. Although others are bigger, or more famous, or more ornate, the combination of the place, the people, and the fact that we were just about the only ones there, really makes these stand out as a ruin experience.  The standout experience in Jeff's opinion was shwee sup daw, another one of the big multi-terraced ones that you are allowed to climb and hence, a very popular sunset option. Very popular indeed as it was somewhat filled with Burmese tourists and young girls selling postcards who greet you as you step out of your car and accompany you up the long and steep stairs, and then prance around on the walls oblivious to the height. Jeff could have done without the tourists, but the postcard girls were actually a highlight of the visit as these were the cutest and most charming touts he'd ever encountered. The best was when they had to invent some sort of lottery method to see who would make the sale. Either that or their very sweet goodbye. Anyway, the local contact was a lot of fun and added to the sunset which was even more incredible than the pictures with the fading heat and light and the panorama of ancient red structures standing like sentinels for an army of gods.

Jeff and SG had gone solo for that excursion, and a second attempt was made at finding an even better venue the next night with George added to the mix. We were on a specific quest to find the ultimate sunset picture. It proved harder than it looked as finding one temple to climb up, with an unobstructed view of a temple more to the west, was not easy. We had to settle for some fields that had little vegetation to interfere, but the sun didn't cooperate fully either - so there's a few pictures here, but not the ultimate one. However, much fun was had in the quest and George even let out a hardy whoop when we found the best angle - so mission accomplished.

In between all the temple-ing we spent time luxuriating at our hotel, which was quite a bonus. The Bagan Thande is set right on the banks of the Irrawaddy and our corner units at the very edge of the hotel offered unbelievable views from the porch tch, or better yet from t he air conditioned comfort though the giant window ws. Although not quite up to the ambiance of Inle Resort, this was amazing setting and a great place to hide out from the sea ring heat. It was almost a private hotel, with only a few other guests, so few that they weren't even serving dinner., which required us to find a restaurant that actually was open as there were almost no tourists in the whole town. SG of course came through and found some excellent vittles - two of the nights even featured excellent traditional entertainment: a marionette show one night and a classical dancer the next.

We were in Bagan a few days and had been told that a visit to Mt. Popa some two hours distant was a necessity. The Hawaiian professors had even insisted that we spend not one but two nights there, but as SG had correctly read our wanderlust preferences we did it as a day trip. On the way there we stopped at a toddy palm sugar plantation where they make sugar and wine by climbing up palm trees and taking the sap. They showed us the whole process and then made us a bunch of gifts of palm leaves while we drank tea. They must not get much business as they were absolutely thrilled by our meager presence and us buying a few baskets of incredibly sweet candy called jaggery that is basically like squares of compressed brown sugar. It was quite charming. The next stop was supposed to be a bathroom break but turned into a photofest as the entire town was quite mesmerized by our presence. Part of this might have been due to Jen wearing the local tanaka makeup which was a big hit. The cameras were also a big hit - so bit it was as if they had never seen them or white people before. Anyways after being mobbed by friendly children and adults for twenty minutes we took our leave - but what a pit stop - only in Myanmar. Mt. Popa itself was not much to look at, as it was covered by clouds which is apparently normal. However, part way up its flanks is situated the Mt. Popa Hotel which is a beautiful piece of bungalow architecture with views out over the flat expanse of the Bagan area that you could look at for days, and many do.

The centerpiece to the view is Taunkalat which is perched up on a high but tiny pinnacle of granite rock. It is so perched, it looks as if it is man made, but this jutting spire is indeed natural. As it require a climb up 770 stairs to reach, and it is apparently a "standard temple" which at this point we've seen a few, we decided to admire it from the veranda of the hotel while we had an excellent Burmese lunch. On the way back to Bagan town we stopped at this building with a huge ruckus of bells and wailing instruments of unknown type and a sort of yelling-singing. Inside a woman and a man in long flowing costumes were jumping around and waving swords at each other . The whole thing had a sort of unreal and dreamlike (or perhaps nightmarish) quality to it, which is its intention as it is a "nat ceremony, during ng this ceremony the actors will act out the 37 nats in order to appease them and bring good luck. It's somewhat hard to tell which one is which, as it's the same guy jumping around. The one that stood out was the local and unofficial kitchen nat which is apparently known for chewing with its mouth open, throwing food, and making loud complaints while eating - sort of like a three year old. It was quite a spectacle and gave us a rare and totally unplanned glimpse into real Myanmar life - we have the magnificent SG of course to thank for finding this ad hoc unplanned event.

Bagan is truly a world class experience without world class crowds. We had never heard of this site before and can't figure out why - it should be a stop on everyone's list (although this would ruin a big part of its charm so don't tell anyone).
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