We’ve Only Just Bagan

One of my favorite things to do is walk around new places. I awoke early to explore Bagan. Again, it looked more like what I imagine Central America to look like, with some strange mix of 1880 and 1940. The wide, dirt, unkempt main street was buzzing with activity in both directions: bikes; horse-drawn carriages; motorbikes; varied trucks -engines exposed and often packed with people inside and on top; buses; and people -many pushing all sorts of heavy, wheeled contraptions. Red-robed male monks and pink-robed women monks, in groups or alone, going door to door with their rice bowls. Within a minute, a young woman stopped me and smeared a creamy paste on both my cheeks. It’s called Thanaka, and is made from ground bark. Most women and many men wear it daily, either with a casual smear or in an elaborate pattern, as a traditional beauty ritual.

I soon stumbled upon yet another goldmine of a market. Narrow dirt alleyways led away from the main street, and connected to other narrow alleyways, that exposed a hidden, bustling hub of commerce. It was typically fascinating, both similar and unique from other Asian markets we’ve seen. The wooden shops that lined both sides seemed right out of the early American west (except the people are tiny, and look Honduran!). Women sat on the ground, butchering chickens, or fronted by trays of fish or intestines, and (lots of) flies. Pungent and challenging smells wafted freely. Pots and pans dangled from shop ceilings. Eggs and vegetables of every kind were everywhere, alongside hardware shops, goldsmiths, and women hovering over sewing machines. This market was deceptively large, with an extended, covered area that included clothing and crafts. There were so many stalls and shops that I wondered how they could all survive. How many egg or shirt or puppet or lacquer shops can one market support? Name a food or item, and there were dozens of stalls that sold them, and each with a lot to sell.

We both really liked the town of Bagan. We biked most every day in different directions. There was a “restaurant row” that lived up to its name, and would -unbeknownst to us – then surpass everywhere else we’d be in Myanmar for variety, low cost, and tastiness. Off in another direction was the Shwezigon Paya, a fantastic temple complex close to town. We we thrilled by it, and felt it got short shrift. In the middle was an enormous, solid, golden Hershey’s kiss, which was surrounded by many smaller, unique temples and structures and nooks and crannies. At one point we looked up to see a group of locals in front of us, taking our picture and shaking our hands. Mothers’ extended their baby’s little fingers out to shake Jennifer’s -the tall beauty with golden hair!

One day there was a long electrical black out, and a big rain storm. Our room was pitch black, so we spent hours walking around in our ponchos, having fun. At night,  the tv channel played movies: The Bourne series, Life of Pi, and the Godfather. One night, I opted to sit in a crowded local restaurant and watch a soccer game, drink chai tea, and eat the traditional pastries. I was the lone non-local, and drew curious looks and friendly smiles.

But the big, main draw of Bagan is the collection of nearly 4,000 old stone temples, spread out over the plains, covering 26 square miles. It’s the reason people visit Bagan. We’d spend most days exploring them, and marveling. A paved road makes a long oval loop through the heart of them. It’s at least 12 miles around, and seemed like more on the old push bikes that we rented. Dirt trails appear from both sides and disappear off into the flat savannah-like landscape. Past the trees are the temples, near and far, spread out, everywhere you look. Some are close to the road, but most are off in the distance, as far as you can see. It’s an exciting vision.

The smallest ones were like 2 story homes, the larger ones were very large. Some were solid, but many had multiple entryways and arched chambers and mosaics and buddhas of all sorts and sizes and hidden stairways that climbed to higher levels. The views from up on these temples was extraordinary and thrilling. The landscape turned green with acres of crops, strewn with uniquely shaped stone temples in every direction, and as far as one could see. That first view for me was breath taking. I tried to imagine what this area looked like during the 11th through 13th centuries, while these temples -and many more made of wood- were being built simultaneously. What a frenzy that must have been.

There are a handful of temples that are especially popular, usually the big ones. We enjoyed many of them, but preferred to seek out the temples that were mostly free of tourist buses and other people -which was not hard to do. Half the fun was just aimlessly biking along the dirt paths, seeing one off in the distance, and finding a way to it. There are relatively few people doing that same thing. The rain made biking on the dirt trails impossible one day, so we rented electric bikes, with wide tires, which were really fun, though designed for tiny people.

Mid day, my electric bike got a flat tire, and we were in the middle of nowhere. But 3 young girls came out of that nowhere, and lead us to their shanty home nearby, alongside a temple. Theiry was 18, and the eldest of 6 girls. She was quite beautiful, and kind, and polite, and spoke English fairly well. The government gave her poor family their shanty in exchange for watching over the temple. We stayed about an hour as her uncle and a friend patched 3 holes (and then charged us $3). Theiry told Jennifer that her parents pulled her from school years earlier, and that she wished she had lighter skin and different eyes. We exchanged email addresses, and hope to keep in touch. This experience was one of those magical reversals of fortune, where something initially sour turns into something quite sweet.

Another time, while visiting a smaller, remote temple, we saw a maroon sign in front of it, describing the temple in beautiful, golden, circular Myanmar script. Below it, in the corner, was some similar -but smaller- writing, and a translation next to it: Obama. Nearby, a young entrepreneur charmed us into buying his homemade postcards, done in crayon.

Most people don’t spend 5 days in Bagan, but it was just right for us. We revisited the market, where we bought some shirts, and restaurant row, where we bought some jewelery -and met 2 San Franciscans. And we had time to think through our next destination, which would require catching an early bus out of town the next morning.


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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mary
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 15:19:10

    Wow…amazing …thanks for the stories and the photos:)


  2. Phil vanderToolen
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 18:50:58

    Hey Matt and Jennifer,

    Really enjoy the posts and thank you for sharing your travels, as if offers a unique firsthand account experience. Your personal writings are providing all of your armchair followers an opportunity to travel with the both of you, which sounds fabulous and daunting at the same time.

    You’re doing what most of us can only dream of by living life in-the-moment, and seeing corners of the world that most us of will never witness or experience.

    Keep writing, as I always enjoy reading your wonderful “National Geographic-ish” updates.

    Safe travels, PvT


  3. Matt Colonell
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 19:03:01

    Great pictures, Matt . . . what a special place to visit. Sounds like wonderful fun to bike around.


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