Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oh Bagan, Set Me Free!

February 28, 2013

Another pretty restless night, but better than last night.  I think I'm so afraid to miss an early wake-up call that my brain keeps me just awake enough to avoid getting any rest.  At 4:22am, I finally decided to get up.  Our cab was coming at 5am, and we had ordered our breakfasts to go again.

We found our cab out front and headed for one of the tallest pagodas in Old Bagan.  There was a tower that had been built up at a nice resort to the West of Old Bagan, but our cab driver wouldn't take us there.  We've heard that people don't like giving the government money, so they do things to purposefully avoid allowing tourists to pay for things that are government funded.  I'm not sure if that resort is privately owned or what, but they refused to take us, so we just went with it.  Saved us all some money because the temple we climbed was a part of the archeological area that we had already paid to enter.

The driver was very nice and took us right to the bottom of the temple.  This one had four staircases on each side of it, and the taxi driver reminded us that we had to take off our shoes and socks to get on it.

It was dark, except for the moonlight, and the night sounds of roosters and far off chanting was mixed with the sound of the main road running by the temples.  It was a more developed sound than we heard yesterday morning at the U Bein Bridge, but it still offered us an enchanting atmosphere.

We removed our shoes and socks in the cool air and began our climb to the top.  The stone was still warm from the day before and the higher we climbed the warmer the air got.  The stairs were tall and steep and it was a little scary climbing it barefoot in the dark.  With each tier that we came to we peered into the darkness trying to see if it was high enough for a good shot.

We climbed as high as we could climb and met a young couple on the East corner.  They were looking through pictures on their iPhone and giggling.  What an odd world we live in.  There we are standing atop a 900-year-old structure with our iPhones and fancy film equipment.

We split tiers and Danny set up his motion control timelapse rig on the top tier, and Matt and I went down to the tier below to get more level with the next closest pagoda.  In the dark, it looked like we had chosen the wrong place to be.  It was a lot of flatness out to the sky, and we were sure that the locals had directed us to a poor location just to spite their government.

As the sky began to lighten, we prepared for a lame shot, and as soon as the orange and pink tones lit up the ground, we saw pagoda after pagoda pop into view through the mist.  A haze was hanging close to the ground and it obscured anything too far from us which gave a beautiful texture to this new world we were discovering for the first time in the light.

As the sun rose, we were blown away by our view.  Then, when we thought it couldn't get any better, we saw four round orbs raise up out of the spiky pagodas in the distance.  Hot air balloons took flight and floated about the spires raising out of the earth.  The silhouette of the balloons and the landscape with the pink sun was absolutely stunning.

Nearby, the music and chanting began from a loud speaker on one of the nearby monasteries, and we sat in awe as the sun rose.  We opened up our breakfast boxes to find a croissant, egg and piece of white bread with orange marmalade on it.  It was surprisingly delicious atop the pagoda, and Matt and I giggled at our situation.  There was no way that we were actually here.

I was thankful as the sun warmed the air and my bare skin because the cold had started to creep up on my bare feet and had given me a chill.

We sat like this, enjoying the scenery, for about three hours until our cab driver called us to go.  He had to get back to the hotel to pick up another group.  We wrapped up our gear and said good-bye to our tall oasis and headed back for the hotel.

We wanted to continue our exploration of the pagodas, and we were able to rent bikes from the hotel to get around.  It was about a twenty minute ride from our hotel back to Old Bagan, so we set off to see what we would find.  The morning was warm, but not too hot for bicycling yet, so we took our time and stopped at any place we found interesting.

We explored all kinds of pagodas.  We rode off the beaten path and found ourselves on sandy dirt roads where our bikes got stuck.  We found ourselves on the back of people's property and on land that people herded their goats and oxen on.

We peaked inside of large temples and small temples and found temples that didn't have a soul around them and temples that were covered with street vendors selling their crafts and little kids selling their paintings.  In one temple, we wandered around completely alone through the large hallway back to a giant Buddha.  He was at least 25 feet tall.  In another temple, we were each followed by a young painter who gave us a tour of the place and pointed out the "bat paintings" (or guano) on the walls.  We got out of there quick thinking we were all about to catch the hantavirus or a painting from one of the boys.

Our bike ride took us through a dirt road to a quaint side of Bagan where there were shops and restaurants.  We saw a little restaurant that noted that they were a top pick on trip advisor via a hand-painted sign.  We felt like this had to be a legit claim, so we biked over and found some seats.  The women there were so accommodating and sweet, and they walked us over to a basin where they washed our hands with lemon soap and then poured water over them, bowl by bowl, until we were satisfied with the clean.  Bright red water poured off our hands because we were so dusty from being in the dry dirt and sand all day.

The woman brought us fresh baked bread and plate of butter.  That warm bread hit the spot on this hot day.  It tasted so good and reminded us all of home.  We ordered up items from the European and Chinese part of the menu and got cashew chicken and ham sandwiches with french fries.  A little bit of Western food was all I needed to complete this day.  I forget how much I miss the flavors I grew up with after eating Asian food for so many days, and I realized how people from Asia must feel when they come to America.  I heard some exchange students talking in college about how much they miss their food.  I couldn't understand what they meant until now.

While we dined we admired the large pagoda to our right.  How often do you get to have a baguette next to a millennium-old structure.  After we finished our lunch, we walked over to it and had a peek inside.  The stone around it was extremely hot, so after removing our shoes, we all sprinted across the stone to get to where Buddha was.

The tunnel leading to this Buddha was covered in small mirrored diamonds and triangles.  We called this temple "the disco Buddha."  I found it interesting how much personality each temple had, and tried to imagine the people that had designed it and why they chose what they chose.  Behind this Buddha were string lights and neon lines that flashed around its head.

We got back on our bikes and wished they had been in the shade.  The black seats were killer hot, but we rode on anyway.

Matt paused to get a shot of an old wooden sign that said Bagan, and then we headed back for some more temple exploration.  We found a large temple with a market on the inside of the walls where Matt and I bought a mask and a puppet as souvenirs.  We were excited to each have something we really wanted from the trip.

We laughed about a little handwritten sign on a tree next to where we parked our bikes that said, "Bike Repair."  We imagined that we would come out of the temple to find our bikes in disarray and the little man standing near happy to help us put them back together for a price.  People are so honest here, though, that we decided it would probably be okay.

It was time to head back to the hotel in order to pack up and catch our flight, so we set off on the open road and cycled back into town.  We got back to our hotel and caught a cab to the airport where we found that we had extra time again.  We bought some brownies and sodas and beer and passed the time people watching.

Our flight was about an hour long and brought us back to Yangon around 8:00pm.  The last bus to the ship left at 11:00pm, so we decided to go straight to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.  It's a giant pagoda in the middle of the big city which they say is made out of 60 tons of gold.  There's an enormous diamond at the very top of the temple which you can see glinting if you stand in the right place.

We took an elevator to the top of the temple which opened up to what I would describe as a Buddha shopping mall.  White and black marble floors led us around a circle of Buddha after Buddha.  Some were neon and flashing and others were very antique and classic looking.  Some were laying down and others in the teaching position.  There were giant bells and gongs everywhere that people were ringing and chanting over loud speakers.

I thought it would be a big place where we had to be respectful and silent, but there were families all over the place.  Kids were running and playing.  Teens were texting on their phones.  People were eating dinner on the floor and others were chanting and swaying.  Some were bowing and others meditating.  It was a place where people were just doing life together.  Very interesting to experience.

I got six more photo ops to add to my ongoing list of "Hey-look!-A-massive-white-blond-girl-we-should-take-a-photo-with-her" moments.  I'm up to 29 if you're wondering.

My favorite photo was a young girl who sat down in front of my on a small staircase.  I was sitting and waiting with our backpacks and watching all the people, and she shifted over to her right in front of me.  She looked back and snapped her head forward when she saw I was looking at her.  She got out her phone and put it in self-portrait mode and aimed the camera over her right shoulder to get her and me in the same photo.  I laughed out loud and she snapped the photo and ran away giggling.  It's official.  I'm a minority.  And a photogenic one at that.

Our feet were really sore from our day of barefooted temple exploring, so even the warm marble felt painful.  We stayed until closing time and got chased out by the nice security guards.  As the place emptied, huge cockroaches swarmed the place cleaning up the scraps and crawling over all the Buddhas.  It was like the beginning of a horror film the way they came out of the wood work.

We headed down the elevator to our shoes and caught a cab back to the bus which would take us home to the ship.  We all fell asleep on the bus, completely exhausted from our adventures around Myanmar and fell asleep in our bunk beds as very happy, but very sinky, campers.