Travels through Myanmar XI – Bagan

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos

…but honestly, that post linked above is mostly photos, so if your more interested in the story, as in actual text, I’ll start with the second to last line from The Almost Perfect Storm, which was the post before the link above – and I know, all you want to do is click a post and read it and be happy and say “that was easy …and nice”, but now your like “this is getting way too complicated” …so, sorry 😮

OK …second to last line from the post prior to the prior post in the story:

…as I step off the docks/gang-planks/dirt bank and right into THE biggest scorpion I have ever seen in my life (the big black holy crap and I’m in flip-flops so I could possibly die if I take another step because the stinger on that thing is over an inch long type).

     My first thoughts at this point – “Damn, I wish I had my camera out”, followed by “I’m way too tired to take my camera out to take a picture of this thing”, followed by “I’m only wearing flip-flops and this thing is about an inch away from my toes” …notice the importance of thoughts there with photography coming before a painful death by scorpion poison in a third world nation all the way across the world where the nearest hospital you would want to actually go to is about three or four countries over. Alrighty than, a quick, “HOLY CRAP, look at this thing”, with a skip and a jump, followed by screams of delight by the local children …followed by screams of fright by the passengers behind us (Hee,hee,hee) and we are off to find a taxi, or tuk-tuk, or horse cart, not exactly knowing what exists up here but hoping for anything but a boat.

     Success, a few seconds later and there are taxi drivers all over, as well as horse-carts. We already have a reservation made for the hotel, we haggle for about a second, getting the price down from around fifty cents to forty-eight and a half, throw our bags in the trunk that doesn’t really close but never really opens, hop in, and take off. Fifty feet down the road we come to screeching halt, or as screeching as you can get in a few inches of mud, so more of a mostly sliding, kind of bucking, more of a “I don’t think the car is strong enough to go through mud, especially with slicks on” kind of stop. Mud: 1, Taxi: 0. I feel it’s going to be a long game.

     Lo and behold, a reasoning behind the wreckage, so to speak. The driver informs us we need to buy “Bagan Archeological Site” tickets now, before going any further. Ahhh, com on’. “Can’t we do this tomorrow?”. No. “We just spent fifteen hours on the boat”. Have to do now. “Why?”. Rules. “You’re stuck in the mud, aren’t you?”. No. “OK”. So we head to the office, three walled shack, across the street, mud slick, pay for a few tickets, as other fellow boater tourists are also stopped and start to line up. A mild inconvenience unfortunately, but a necessary one we didn’t know about – if you go up there, just be aware of it and that the guys aren’t trying to rip you off or anything. Tickets bought, we hear a loud slurpy whirring type of noise across the street. Turn around to see our taxi doing its best impression of a chubby kid sliding down a slip and slide put on the side of a hill, diagonally. The taxi driver staring at us with full smile, as he guns it without a care in the world of what may be in front of him, or who or what is being covered in mud behind, because he is staring at us with that huge smile the entire time.  Clip-clop-clip-clop, the “most out of shape backpacker in the world” (see The Almost Perfect Storm, last paragraph) pulls up in a horse-cart, you gotta be kidding me, you just couldn’t take a taxi, could ya? We have to laugh. The chubby kid taxi is out, we hop back in, now we’re off!!!

     A short drive to the hotel, The Thiripyitsaya (fantastic hotel by the way), something to eat, and to bed. We get up the next morning to a beautiful, if not hot and humid day. Bagan here we come. A short walk out of the hotel, heck, on the hotel grounds, the temples begin. For those that don’t know much about Bagan, it’s sort of like a dry Angkor on crack-cocaine with about a million less tourists, which is a good thing. Small temples, large temples, colorful temples, drab temples. Mini temples, Massive temples, old ones and new ones, and ones in-between. Old Bagan, New Bagan, stupas, buddhas, kids, horse carts, cheroots, goat herders, monks, nuns, …and beer. It’s got it all.

     Bagan, once called Pagan, formally called Arimaddanapura or Arimaddana, also known as Tambadipa or Tassadessa, translated into “The City of the Enemy Crusher”, “The Land of Copper” and “The Parched Land”. …or “Angkor on Crack” of course. The “site” sits on a dry plain between the Irrawaddy River and the hills and mountains beyond. I put “site” in quotation marks because it really isn’t a site in the fact that it can be measured accurately with any kind of certainty, which I guess really confuses a lot of people. My reasoning: Old Bagan, the town, is actually newer than the actual Old Bagan. New Bagan was a new town where the people of Old Bagan were relocated too, the newer Old Bagan, not the Old Old Bagan. In the meantime there have been small towns popping up all over the place, and there are many who still live in Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Oldest Bagan. In Bagans heyday, there were over 5000 temples erected, today there are 2217, a lot of former ones destroyed from an earthquake in 1975. The only problem is that new temples are being built every day, and of the 2217 left, only a few hundred may be from the original 5000. The idea of Bagan is much more than its physical boundaries. There may be closer to 2500 or 3000 now since the earthquake of 75′, I don’t think anyone really knows, and the people don’t really care what the rest of the world thinks about physical boundaries, if they want a temple in their backyard, they’re gonna build it, whether it be in the “boundaries” or not, thus contracting and expanding the actual boundaries as each temple, stupa, or statue is destroyed or built.

     UNESCO, in all their infinite wisdom, doesn’t like this, and I was really surprised that this wasn’t one of their World Heritage Sites, because there isn’t anything in the world like it. Their excuse is the haphazard restoration of some of the temples and some buildings around them. Idiots. A bad government and the fact that it can’t be really measured physically doesn’t mean one of the last remaining cities full of thousands of stupas, temples and statues dating back to 107 AD doesn’t exist. Of all their reasons given, none of them are substantial and the only thing I can come up with is they don’t like the government. I’ve seen about a thousand UNESCO World Heritage Sites throughout the world, and many are literally shacks or mounds of dirt sitting in the middle of trash piles, yet they don’t think a few thousand temples are worthwhile. Again, idiots. Another example of political thinking over doing what is right. OK, rant over.

    Bagan is huge. You, or I, could walk it, ride it, climb it, as well as photograph it for weeks and not see all of it. There are a few paved roads, but not many, and cars aren’t allowed off them, giving most of the roads over to horse-carts, bicycles and pedestrians. Some of the temple roofs are accessible, some have fifty foot buddha statues in them, old, new, white-washed or gold-leafed. Little food stands and drink carts ply the trails and are placed around the temples. Kids are found throughout, selling postcards, harassing the non-wary – although not nearly as bad as most places. A number of towns are within riding distance and everything is relaxed. I think we went two days without seeing another tourist, except at the hotel.

     There isn’t much I can even say about Bagan, that could accurately describe it. It’s one of those places that has to be experienced to be understood. It’s out there, and not very accessible, which only makes it more desirable for me, but there also great places to stay, to eat and certainly to see. The people were fabulous, the “site” of Bagan itself was extraordinary, and the time and effort it took to get there was well worth the effort. The photo up above is a shot of the “Postcard Girls” working their magic …outside one of those multi-level, multi-thousand year old temples that isn’t worth saving according to UNESCO.

     We see the most out of shape backpacker in the world a few more times …still in the back of that friggin’ horse-cart. One day we see him with the most red sunburned tourist girl in the world. We see a few of the other people we took the boat with. We yell at the swiss couple one night from the back of our jeep as the driver whizzes by at around 40 mph. We meet a character named Bo-Bo at one of the temples, selling his masterpieces to the world… We sit at one of the nicest, as well as biggest, pools I’ve ever had the pleasure of dipping in, eating BLT’s and french fries, looking out over the Irrawaddy and watching the sun drop under the hills beyond. Mostly though, we walk, explore and look around in awe …as well as sweat. A fantastic ending, almost – still have a few days back in Yangon, to a fantastic country.

     Maybe a disappointing ending to an eleven part, close to twenty thousand word story, I know, but to try to explain Bagan is beyond me. I still have hundreds of photos to go through and put up, and will continue to do so, with stories for each, but for now, I’m going to have to say that this pretty much concludes my story of Myanmar, at least in continuous story form. From Bagan we headed back to Yangon for a few days, and from there off to Thailand. It is an amazing, amazing country full of absolutely amazing people. I would recommend Myanmar to anyone, from the experienced traveler to the timid unexperienced. Support the people as much as possible without supporting the government, read up before you go and remember to smile …as well as remembering “Mingalaba!!!”.

The End 🙂

A list of all the posts in the “series” – links opens to another page,
and also available anytime on my Index Page:

Travels through Myanmar I – Mingalaba!!!
Travels through Myanmar II – Before You Go
Travels through Myanmar III – Money Matters
Travels through Myanmar IV – Yangon
Travels through Myanmar V – Shwedagon Pagoda
Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress
Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay
Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates
Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm
Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos
“Travels through Myanmar XI – Bagan” …this post.


Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

Mandalay, Hmmm, what to say about Mandalay…

     A city that many travellers dream of visiting. A name that brings up thoughts of the exotic. Palm trees swaying in the breeze, bamboo stands lining the roads, Kipling, Buddhism. Sitting on the veranda, a slight breeze whispering through the air, sipping …some kind of exotic juice or drink (my preference would be Mandalay Beer)… George Orwell, elephants wandering around the streets, red robed monks wandering through the golden spired stupas throughout the city.

     My first impression to those thoughts would be Whhhhaaatttt? Reality: Hotter than …well, it’s hot, and humid. Dust everywhere, thrown up by the chaotic traffic of old trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and any other type of vehicle made before 1980. The sidewalks choked with those vehicles, used as parking. The air thick with smog and pollution. Horns blaring. Exhaust fumes being inhaled at every twist and turn. Central Mandalay …not a tree in sight. It’s all concrete and pavement. Not a very impressive first impression to say the least. The Mandalay in Vegas – don’t know where they got that idea from, but it certainly wasn’t from the real Mandalay, that’s for sure …thank god.

     From there, yes, it did get better, at least a bit. Mandalay is more of a city that needs to be delved into, absorbed and explored to really appreciate. A small corner restaurant that doesn’t look too promising turns out to be one of the best, as well as cheapest meals of the trip. The morning markets, lively and fun, with tanaka covered faces smiling at you from every angle. A pagoda here, a pagoda there. As you wander the city, you start to notice the smaller things, the underlying thought that this is the “most exotic” city in the world. It’s not the city itself, it’s the people, the location, the mentality and history. Sitting on the Irrawaddy River, overlooked by stupa covered hills, parts of the city seemingly overrun by red robed monks, ancient teak monasteries filled with even older relics and furniture. A smile here, a smile there. An ice-cold soda, or beer, served by a ten-year old smiling waiter. A dinner prepared, cooked and served by a ninety year old woman, always smiling.

     Yes, it did get better. Maybe not the exotic city of legends, but an exotic and interesting city none the less. Get out of the “city center”, and the roads turn to dirt, the kitchens are all relocated outside, the rush hour traffic turns from diesel fumes and noise to bicycles and sandals, and things only get better.

     As for sights to see, Mandalay has way too many to list here. Head up to Mandalay Hill. Take a winding stroll up the stupa and pagoda studded hill to take in the views over the city. Stroll around Mandalay Palace in the morning …six miles around (gulp) … the “tourist” entrance is the eastern entrance, trying to get into any other will only get you an appointment and conversation with one or more AK wielding guards. I actually recommend this by the way. I had some great conversations playing stupid. Nothing to stupid, but just a walk up to the group of military, asking the ubiquitous question “Go In Here?’. It always started with a grinning military man in full uniform politely saying no as he waved his AK around. A question here, a question there, and more times than not I would end up talking about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, drinking tea, exchanging laughs. Gotta go …another mile and a half to the next entrance.

     Break…the REAL crab cake up above there. Head to Amarapura and U Bein Bridge for those…Back to Mandalay Palace…If you do go into Mandalay Palace, realize a few things. The palace grounds encompass a huge area but your only allowed on the road into the very center where the actual palace is located. Guards line the road from the entrance to the palace. You would think they are testing nuclear weapons in there. The palace itself, it’s a rebuilt shell of its original self. A shame really. It gets worst. The palace was rebuilt by forced labor in the late nineties… I know, you’re in Mandalay. A once in a lifetime opportunity here. That is one reason I don’t say “don’t do it”. If you go in, just be aware, and don’t have too high expectations. It’s rebuilt, yes, it may not be right, I know, but hey, the original palace ruled this area of the world for hundreds of years and was the center of Indochina for a period, so your walking through history and the center of an empire, no matter what the present government has mutated it into. If you do go in, don’t miss climbing the “Tower” at the southern end of the compound, where you can look over Mandalay to the mountains beyond and enjoy the cool breeze up above it all.

     Done with the Palace and hills. Looking for a little comedy – The Moustache Brothers are world-renowned. Dinner on the sidewalk for people watching – the Chapati Stand on 82nd and 27th street …maybe people watching at its finest, and cheap too! A large and clean pool in a quiet lush garden setting in the city centre, the Mandalay City Hotel. Don’t miss the Jade Market. I am serious about this one. Situated in the south-western section of the city, right next to the Monk District, this market is crazy. Every and any form of jade can be seen or bought here. From raw rock jade to intricately carved masterpieces, I have never, ever seen anything like this market. This is almost its own city inside the city. Not because of its size, but just how it is. Intertwined with pool “halls”, bars, restaurants and everything else, jade dealers can actually spend a lifetime here living, trading and hawking. Some shady characters here. It can be intimidating. Child labor running rampant. You wanna check your ego and attitude at the “door” (chain link fence is more like it). This place is serious, with serious dealers dealing with serious money sporting serious protection and serious firepower. Some shady, heck, all out rough-looking characters can be found in the middle of the market here. Again though, hey, everyone is nice enough. Smiling and accommodating. The outskirts of the market mainly family type businesses, with children running around and a great market atmosphere. Just like any other travel destination, know where you are. No BS here. Right around the corner …streets full of monks. Thousands. Red robes everywhere. Monasteries. Ancient teak buildings. Houses of wicker. Teak bridges crossing meandering streams. An all around great and interesting part of Mandalay. This is where things can get “caught in time”. Walk into an 800 year old monastery and right into an open air type room filled with 1000 year old relics. Nothing behind glass or anything like that. Open to the elements. Still in use …built to last. Gotta love it.

     Tired of Mandalay. Head out. Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun. All capitals of centuries past within a few kilometers of Mandalay. The longest Teak bridge in the world, U-Bein Bridge, Amapurma. 500 temples overlooking the Irrawaddy, Sagaing. An earthquake cracked, photogenically endowed, Paya, Mingon. An ancient city that ruled the Burmese Kingdom for four hundred years, accessible by horse cart …Inwa. It seems there is no end to the history, as well as fascinating sites around Mandalay. It’s an area that needs to be explored, still. Thats it. At first sight, a dust bowl of crap. Delve a bit deeper, and it’s a city of legends, imagination and fascination. But you have to leave sometime, and all too often, as was my case, too soon…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates