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Bagan Part Two – How to Stew Your Own Brain – Bagan, Myanmar

Bagan Part Two - How to Stew Your Own Brain
Bagan, Myanmar

I was up at 7:00 the next morning in an effort to get in the bulk of my Greater Bagan touring before the mid-day heat reached capacity. I ate breakfast on Eden’s second floor, open air balcony. Any other time of the day, this spot, which is directly over the pandemonium of Nyaung U’s main drag, would be fully objectionable, but at such an early hour, it was actually quite peaceful and enjoyable. The air was still cool and the building refrain of constant horn honking was just getting started and was largely easy to ignore. I ate every scrap of food that was offered to me, even downing two cups of the muddiest coffee I have ever had in order to stockpile the calories I would be needing for the extensive biking I would be doing that day. My plan was to be the first one at the bike shop when it opened, carefully inspect everything and sneak off with the best bike they had. From there I would zip down the same route I had taken the previous afternoon and pick up the trail at the Tharaba (Sarabha) Gateway on the edge of Old Bagan.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto
Thatbyinnyu Pahto
Despite a full, dedicated paragraph in LP, the all-brick, half-trashed Gateway was a bit of a disappointment, though I suppose I wouldn’t be looking so hot either after 11 centuries.

Just inside the Gateway was an incredibly huge, bizarrely out-of-place, nine story structure that was under constriction and looming over the rest of Old Bagan’s two story structures. I impulsively steered the bike onto the access road for a closer look and was immediately pounced on by two guards. They literally threw their bodies into front of the bike and seemed very nervous that I had taken an interest in the site. As they frantically waved me off, explaining that the site was going to be a “new palace” (for which royalty exactly?), I quickly realized that this project might be one of the rumored government, forced labor endeavors that were meticulously hidden from tourists. I complied and turned the bike around before someone decided I needed to be killed for national security.

My first temple stop of the day was a big one, the massive 12th century Thatbyinnyu Pahto, which among other things was one of the first temples to built in a two story configuration and boasts the highest point in Bagan (until they finish that “palace”). Unfortunately, for reasons of preservation, people can no longer climb to the second level to take in the view. This was a very popular pahto. Even though it was barely 8:30 a.m., there were several trucks and buses unloading Myanmar visitors and a handful of westerners as well. As always, I was a hit with the locals. The occupants of one particular bus took a special interest in me, with the guys and the girls (especially the girls) hanging out the window and engaging me in my routine Myanmar dialogue. After doing my act for a few minutes I left them and entered the pahto where I was predictably adopted by a kid selling postcards, this time a 13-year-old boy. Again, he kept the sales pitch to a minimum, probably because his English was limited to about seven words, so I let him hang around.

As I prepared to leave, he surprised me and instead of a last ditch attempt at begging for money, instead he begged for a pen. It took several moments for me to understand this request as I simply wasn’t expecting it. Yes, he definitely wanted a pen or pencil. As much as I wanted to give him something, I had nothing of the sort and left him empty-handed.

Next I let the Force guide me to a nearby temple that was relatively gigantic and pristine (that is, as pristine as red brick can get), with several smaller buildings in the compound, but the site totally unlabeled. A whole family seemed to have taken residence behind the compound in a crumbling outbuilding. A mother and two small children appeared immediately, but no one tried to sell me anything. The mother went to work tending some shrubs and the kids just shadowed me as I circled the grounds. Suddenly the older of the two kids, about four years old, got an idea into his head and raced off, returning in a few moments with a key. He dragged me into the pahto and the key turned out to open the stairway leading to the second level. The stairwell was almost impossibly cramped, even for someone of my modest size, but I managed squeeze through to the top and the view was sensational. After many photos, we returned to the ground floor where I was almost killed by a thick, foot-long lizard that had been scampering across the ceiling, when it lost its footing and plummeted to the floor, a distance of about twenty-five feet (eight meters), narrowly missing my head. Somehow it survive the fall and scampered away.

Again, though I expected a solicitation for some kind of handout for the effort of getting me to the second level, it wasn’t the usual. Through basic pantomime, the kid asked for, I shit you not, shampoo, like I might be carrying a bottle in my day bag for emergencies. Then he asked for writing utensils like the last kid. Obviously, people in certain areas could do better with donations of utilitarian items than the usual begging for money. These people in particular, who seemed to be permanently camped out behind the temple, probably didn’t get into town too much - I didn’t see any form of transportation on the premises. I made a mental note to inform everyone via the Internet that people coming into Myanmar should bring plenty of supplies and western crap to trade or give away (done).

I turned the bike around from there and backtracked down a side road to Shwesandaw Paya, a monstrous pyramid-like temple dating from 1057. There’s nothing stopping you from scaling to the top of this five terraced structure, except pure fear, of course. Shwesandaw provides the highest accessible vantage point in the entire Bagan archeological zone, with exterior steps leading directly up the side of the paya that get progressively more steep, shallow and all around terrifying as you climb. With a two-handed death-grip on the kindly provided railing, I slowly and carefully climbed the giant steps, planting both feet firmly on each step. Meanwhile two punk kids were racing up and down the steps and around me, no handed and carefree, having a pebble fight. Little crapheads.

Again, I took far too many almost identical looking pictures from the top of the paya, before inching down and stepping into a neighboring brick shed that snugly housed a reclining Buddha. With virtually no natural light inside and the fantastically cramped space, getting a decent picture was impossible.

From there it was time for the long haul. I needed to circumnavigate a giant open expanse of dusty, non-bike-friendly plain to get to my final objective, the Toe Recommended Dhammayazika Paya. To do this I needed to ride a total of 10 miles - if you believe the scale on the often questionable Lonely Planet maps - cutting through New Bagan and then turning back to intersect with Dhammayazika. I broke up the ride with a stop at Mingalazedi Paya (Blessing Stupa), circa 1277, which aside from being on the commendably massive side with three levels of terraces, also sports dozens of pieces of glazed Jataka ceramic tile art. While many of these pieces have been stolen or destroyed over the years, there are several that are still intact (do not touch!), though they all looked the worse for wear.

I was detained on my way out of Mingalazedi by the hardest selling souvenir vendors yet. Their persistence was infuriating, though at the same time it was plain that they were desperate for some business with low season being in full swing. When I gave the now well rehearsed speech that I was down to minimal kyat, one guy insisted that I trade something with him. He wanted all kinds of stuff that I didn’t happen to be packing in my day bag including American quarters, cheap watches, t-shirts, flashlights and pens. While I was being harassed, a bus full of Myanmar tourists arrived and the vendors didn’t even glance at them, knowing that trying to vend anything to them would be like trying to sell mosquitoes to Minnesotans. My philosophy was that if the Myanmars knew better than to buy that ca-ca, so did I. I departed, leaving a trail of anti-westerner grumbling in my wake.

Shwesandaw Paya
Shwesandaw Paya
The thing that killed me - well, truthfully it was only one of the many things that killed me that week - nearly all of the souvenir stands in Myanmar sell the exact same shit. Postcards, paintings, wood craved figurines, bronze figurines, cheap t-shirts, decorative dishes (bamboo and horse hair), chimes and hand fans. Even worse than having the same stuff shoved in your face 35 times a day was when the people would claim that they or a member of their family had handmade the stuff. While dumb ass Myint Ko was the most blatant offender, he was far from alone. People made the same claim about virtually every other type of knickknack with a perfectly straight face. Did they not realize that us tourists were seeing identical items and hearing the exact same lines every 20 minutes all day long? It was a strong illustration of how many Myanmars live their entire lives in their own little bubble, unaware that there is a whole world raging on around them, including like-minded vendors 100 meters away. And no amount of refusal would detour these people. If I’d lie and say that I already had 30 postcards and 10 shirts and only US$2 left to get me through three weeks of travel, they would never give up. Ultimately, I eventually realized that the best and most unique souvenirs were back at the Inle Lake artisan shops, where crafts really were handmade. If I was going to buy something, I should have bought it back there.

Finally I managed to removed myself from that scene and continued on to New Bagan where I had a lemon soda to replenish blood sugar and a large bottle of water to replenish everything else. As expected, by 11:00 a.m. it was inconceivably hot. My clothes were soaked in sweat and clinging to me. I took so much time replacing fluids, trying to dry off a bit and chatting with the girl selling the drinks that I completely forgot about paying her, and she forgot about making me pay, until I was a good kilometer down the road. I almost didn’t go back. That one kilometer had been an unpleasant uphill climb all the way and plus, I could use the extra kyat, but my conscious got the better of me and I turned around and paid like a good boy. At least I was able to coast downhill back to the stand in just over a minute.

After re-climbing that hill and cutting through New Bagan, I was back on the desolate, deep fried, open road, heading for Dhammayazika Paya. The sun was getting brutal for this last part of the journey. Even after having just refreshed myself with water and sugar, I felt the heat quickly wearing me down. Finally the huge golden stupa of Dhammayazika came into sight and I pedaled like mad to get there and get out of the sun for a while. Even with the suffering of the bike ride, Dhammayazika was totally worth it. Though it didn’t rate a mention in LP (probably because it was so freaking out of the way), it was probably the all-around best Paya I’d seen in Bagan. I spent a long time here, circling the gigantic main stupa, checking out the four Buddhas and loitering out of the sun’s reach. There were a few big-spender, van driven tourists hanging around while I was there and as I shied away from them I realized that I was still feeling very disconnected and alienated from other travelers. Not only because they were mostly clueless rubes, dumping huge amounts of money into government-run tour companies and staying walled up in resorts when not in the protective custody of their tour guide, but also because I had succeeded in removing myself from them even further with my decision to cycle out in that blasting heat, making me the next thing to a leper, bathed in sweat and filth, over-heated, red faced and actually having gone through the trouble to memorize and speak some Myanmar. We were polar opposites and I didn’t want anything to do with them as much as they wanted to pretend that I wasn’t there.

Finally, I returned to my bike. Even though I had carefully parked it in the shade, during the short time I had been in Dhammayazika, the sun had shifted enough so that my seat was exposed to the sun and it was hot enough to actually singe me. I poured some water on it and got moving. My touring day was done. I was going to head straight back to Nyaung U and the marginal comforts of Eden’s hard wood furnished lobby, but it was no small matter. Again, Dhammayazika was so far out of the way that I was now looking at another eight or so miles of biking through unrelenting heat, with my gears and freewheel becoming increasingly gummed up with invading dust.

While there was nothing in my immediate vicinity to break up the ride (or provide some precious shade), it was still a memorable ride, as I was treated to very deeply moving long views of the entire Bagan archeological zone. Thousands of temples, big and small, lit up by the high sun and seemingly right on top of each other from this great distance. I was intensely happy that Toe had convinced me to save Bagan for last. He was right, despite the unforgettable sight of a pagoda dotted landscape, probably one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, I was definitely pagodaed out. I was done. Finito. Seeing the comparably ho-hum offerings in Mandalay after Bagan would have been a massive letdown. I focused my energy on getting back to Nyaung U without succumbing to heat stroke and was in the marginally cooler lobby of the Eden Hotel by noon.

After waiting out the hottest part of the day in the lobby, watching terrible American movies on satellite TV, I left the protection of the building to seek out a huge meal that would serve as both lunch and dinner at an LP recommended restaurant called Myitzima. Whoever did the restaurant research for Bagan really earned their money that day. Myitzima, was way off the main road, down a very uninviting dirt alley. Half way up the alley I almost turned around thinking that no place serving decent food could possibly be down this derelict street, but sure enough, Myitzima appeared with its pleasingly designed courtyard and shaded, open air seating area decorated with startlingly gifted paintings, reportedly from local artists. All that and the food was fantastic. Possibly in an effort to impress me, one of the guys hanging around not doing much popped in a Robbie Williams CD into the small stereo. It occurred to me that this was the first western music that I had heard since I arrived in Myanmar. The guy was clearly proud of not only having this music, but that Robbie was name dropping a Myanmar city in one of his songs. The guy’s English was exceptional and we ended up talking music for quite some time. He said he only bought the Robbie Williams CD for one song, “Road to Mandalay” which he loved. He went on to describe how he enjoyed all types of western music, particularly Bob Marley, but just three months earlier the government had banned (or re-banned, it wasn’t clear) importation of western music and he was seriously bummed out about it. After a little more music talk, he asked if I would listen to and write down the lyrics to “Road to Mandalay” so he could better understand the song. I agreed, but trying to interpret the song was a disaster. Apparently Robbie was in a cryptic mood the day he slapped together the lyrics to that puppy, because it made virtually no logical sense. Few lines seemed to correspond to any others and I had to explain to the confused guy that I didn’t understand the song and that sometimes song writers just kind of go a little crazy with the metaphors, leaving the listeners to scratch their heads. He understood and accepted this, being happy to just have the precise lyrics on paper, transcribed by a native English speaker. I used the time that I had left at the restaurant to teach the guy a bunch of pertinent English slang like “kick ass!” and “this sucks!”

Bagan temples
Bagan temples
From there it was time to go to the airport. I returned my bike, collected my bags and jumped into a waiting taxi that I had arranged the day before. It became clear to me on the flight to Yangon that not only is Myanmar full with people who have no nerve endings in their asses, but they actually make a point of designing every chair to be as uncomfortable as hell. Impossibly, the seats on the airplane were the same, pathetic, cushion-free caliber as on the buses and only fractionally better than the train seats. I had no idea that passenger planes came with seat options that were this harsh, but there was no disputing the evidence.

The general flouting of safety in much of Southeast Asia extends to air travel as well. Everywhere else you go in the world, you are chastised if you unbuckle your seat belt even a second before the plane comes to a complete stop at the gate. Every flight I’d taken in Asia, people threw off their seatbelts as soon as the plane touch the ground. While the plane was still hurtling down the runway at 160 MPH, the distinctive sounds of latches being flung open filled the air. Fortunately, people usually wait until the plane is only going 30 MPH to get up and start pulling their things out of the overhead bins. Seeing as how seats aren’t assigned on most Asian airlines, I had started to make a point of sitting as far back in the plane as possible, so if the pilots ever had to perform a hard stop everyone and all of the bags they were throwing around while we were still in motion would fly forward and brain the less intuitive people sitting up front.

I shared a cab into the city with two locals, saving 1,000 kyat, checked into Motherland II and was in bed by 8:00 p.m.

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