Bagan Part One – Kissing Spiritual Ass – Bagan, Myanmar

Bagan Part One - Kissing Spiritual Ass
Bagan, Myanmar

Since I was awake for the bulk of the train trip from Mandalay to Bagan - I don’t really count three second blink naps - I spent a great deal of my time pondering the only other Pinkie on the train. The guy was in full-on eccentric Elvis-mode, wearing jeans and long shirt, despite the fabulous heat, with a pompadour hairdo and thick sideburns, a handkerchief stuffed into his collar for what reason I couldn’t fathom, expensive watch, state trooper sunglasses and carrying nothing but a small duffel bag. He couldn’t have looked any more out of place if he’d had a date with him in full S & M regalia. The worst part was the bastard slept like a baby along with the snoozing Myanmars while I was reeling with so much pain in my back, neck and ass that at one point I actually considered standing for the remainder trip.

Bagan temple zone
Bagan temple zone
While disembarking in Bagan, a small slice of the Elvis mystery was solved. We ended up sharing a cab, me into Nyaung U, where budget travelers visiting Bagan cluster, and him right to the Bagan airport for a flight to Yangon. In the light of day, his appearance morphed slightly into an Elvis/Henry-Fonda-in-Easy-Rider look. He told me he was from Stuttgart, but I was too tired and quite frankly too creeped out to ask how someone so seemingly unsuited for travel had gotten so deep into Myanmar on his own accord.

I checked into the Eden Hotel, the least appealing, but cheapest place (US$4 a night) I’d stayed in all of Myanmar. The walls were peeling and the bathroom was nasty, but upon careful reflection, I realized that it wasn’t any worse than the average New York City apartment. I immediately passed out for a four hour nap, arising only marginally more refreshed at 1:00 p.m. so I could squeeze in a half-day of Bagan, under the height of the unremitting, mid-afternoon heat. My kyat-flow problems were becoming so dire that I couldn’t even spare the 500 kyat to rent a bike. I decided I would go hardcore and walk that mother. I knocked back an entire 1.5 liter bottle of water like Mean Joe Green in that Coke commercial in front of Eden’s awestruck lobby clerks and packed a second in anticipation of the copious fluids I was going to lose through sweating and set out.

Bagan has only one thing going for it, but it’s one hell of a thing. The region was where for centuries Myanmar’s powerful, but ethically dubious, aging social elite tried to atone for their regrettable actions in life - which everyone knows could result in unfavorable reincarnations - by trying to kiss spiritual ass in the form of a temple offering. Well, there were a lot of very naughty boys back in the day and so a lot of temples were built and now Bagan is the Disney World of pagodas. Over three thousand pagodas to be exact, varying in size from ice-fishing shacks to Egyptian pyramids. These frenzied contributions to holy charity are spread out over several square kilometers of wide open, dusty, scrub dotted plains, making for a surreal and unforgettable, stupa punctuated landscape. You can’t spit out the dust collected in your mouth in places for fear of hitting a religious artifact and the effect is like very few things you will see in your life.

While sparsely located temples start appearing just outside Nyaung U, the serious forested mass doesn’t kick off until you get near Old Bagan, nearly four miles to the southwest. Old Bagan is the nucleus of the area, sporting the highest concentration of pagodas and from there the temple offerings radiate out, becoming thinner in number over each passing kilometer, but not necessarily diminishing in quality. Thus, if you want to see all of the highlights, you have serious ground to cover. Many people opt to hire air conditioned cars/vans/buses to tackle this challenge. More thrifty people will take advantage of the army of horse-drawn carriages and trishaws. The hardcore, budget travelers will simply rent a bicycle. Then there was me, trying to make a pathetic dent in the action in a half day on foot. Even the sweating, slow roasting cyclists took pity on me, one guy even stopped to offer me his water.

Though I was less enthused about Myanmar’s relentless heat than ever, I was slowly starting to at least come to terms with it and tolerate it as a fact of traveling during the hot season. In Mandalay, and especially in Bagan, the environment is such that as soon as you walk out the door, you are pretty much instantly filthy. Nevermind the profuse sweating, dust and dirt combined with oily fumes and exhaust just hang in the air and it all just sticks to you like a thin spider web as you walk through it. When you factor in all of the barefoot walking required in the temples and monasteries and the low, constant hurricane of dust swirling below your knees, there’s just no staying clean for more than a few moments after you get out of the shower. Somehow psychologically surrendering to the fact that being soaked to the bone in sweat and coated in grime was inevitable, made it just a little easier to submit myself to those otherwise hellish conditions.

Moreover, even if I’d had kyat to burn, I still would have probably opted for walking on the first day because quite frankly, by that stage of the trip, I literally couldn’t sit down. After two pounding bus rides, two days of getting spanked by the bike in Mandalay and finally the ass grinding I got on the train, virtually any form of sitting was excruciating. I felt like a frat boy after a week of hazing; physically spent, mentally trashed with a deeply swollen, aching ass.

I walked for nearly an hour before I laid eyes on the first substantial pagoda, which despite its respectable size, like so many of its neighbors, sat unattended and nameless. Lonely Planet takes a half-hearted stab at plotting and labeling many of the prominent pagodas in the region and there was supposed to be a more in depth “DPS map” purportedly available all over Bagan and Nyaung U which I never laid eyes on, but really, a complete, detailed map of the region is hopelessly unfeasible. It would be like trying to make a comprehensive diagram of every apple in an orchard. Aside from the lofty, granddaddy pagodas which are hard to miss, much of the task of exploring Bagan’s pagodas is a simple matter of tossing the virtually useless map, letting go and allowing your eyes, curiosity and if you’re so endowed, the Force, to guide you to whatever seems interesting on the horizon.

I walked the four miles to the very edge of Old Bagan my first afternoon, which afforded me the opportunity to stop, gawk at and even enter and explore several anonymous, but impressive temples along the way. One temple was occupied by two men, one of whom had observed me taking pictures from a distance and summoned me over with wild gesturing. Although there were no signs, I was informed that I was standing in Thatejeryhlda Pahto (this spelling is most definitely wrong). The man who had waved me over, a one Myint Ko, kindly walked me through the pagoda, pointing out the four Buddhas and leading me up the stairs to take in the view from the upper level. Of course, hospitality like this in a tourist trap like Bagan is never free and I when I tried to leave I was cornered into looking at Myint Ko’s collection of original paintings. There were dozens of acrylics in color and black and white, as well as a second pile of deeply colored sand art pieces (US$30 each). He informed me that each painting took seven to 10 days to complete and that he was selling them for US$10 each. I told Myint Ko that I only had about 4,000 kyat to my name to cover me for three more days of eating and not dying of dehydration, but in typical living-in-denial, tout-money-grubber fashion, he insisted that I stay and see the whole collection and then mindlessly beseeched me to purchase something with what he must have imagined was my secret, emergency, just-for-Myint Ko stash of money. He came down in price to $8 a painting during this doomed attempt to make a deal. I finally had to whip out my wallet and show him that it was completely empty save for the aforementioned 4,000 kyat, and he finally let me go only after I lied and promised to return the next day with the bag of money he assumed I had squirreled away back in my hotel.

Ten minutes later I was at yet another unidentified pagoda (a non-English speaking bystander I interacted with earnestly tried to convey the name “Ti Lo Min Lo” which I assumed to be the name of the temple, but it could have just as easily been a solicitation for a cigarette), where I was shown the exact same acrylic paintings, though not surprisingly these were without Myint Ko’s signature. Over the next 24 hours I would have no less than 10 guys try to dazzle me with identical “paintings,” one guy even followed me on a scooter for 15 minutes, though none but Myint Ko had the jewels to sign their names at the bottom. Curiously, no one else had the same sand art he was selling. Though my growing pessimism at the time had me convinced that Myint Ko was full of shit, taking into account the seemingly unique array of sand art, I had to wonder if he was actually making his own paintings, using the universally available mass-produced acrylics as models, which I understand is a common exercise for painters. Since I didn’t want or have the capacity to buy anyone’s paintings anyway, I didn’t dwell on it for too long.

My guide at Ananda Paya
My guide at Ananda Paya
The highlight of the first afternoon was my last stop before turning around, Ananda Paya. Ananda had the longest description in LP, so I knew it was probably going to rule and other than the sorely unbefitting neon sign over the entrance, it didn’t disappoint. The towering stupa and neighboring brick monastery, both dating from 1105 AD, take up a full city block of space and the paya is in especially good condition. A golden, slender stupa rises up out of the palatial paya, which houses four gold Buddhas standing in positions representing the attainment of nirvana. Like clockwork, within seconds of entering the grounds of Ananda, a young girl latched onto me and tailed me for the entire visit. For her age (10), her English was excellent. Of course she initially tried to sell me postcards, but after I told her “way-pi-pi” (“already bought”) she dropped the subject, so I let her tag along and engaged her in conversation. After a thorough walk through of the paya, she took me by the hand and led me to the locked and abandoned monastery. LP reported that a determined person could probably locate someone with a key for a look inside, and sure enough, the girl roused an ancient, jabbering old man who let me in and dutifully followed me around, turning lights on and off as we walked so I could absorb the fantastic religious murals inside. The girl did her best to explain the significance of a few paintings to me, but this quickly got beyond her English limitations.

After leading me out and locking up, the man requested a tip for his efforts. Again I was too money conscious to give him much, and I only had 1,000 kyat notes in my wallet, but I managed to fish out a couple half destroyed, small notes rolling around in my pocket, totaling a paltry 150 kyat (about 16 cents) and apologized for the feeble tip as he stood there in shock, or possibly suffering an embolism, I’m not sure. The girl for her part didn’t want anything and indeed continued in her selfless guiding, leading me out the back to an unpretentious reclining Buddha.

Finally, after nearly an hour, I took note of the dipping sun and decided I had better start heading back to Nyaung U. The girl, having apparently grown fond of me, told me that she wouldn’t be at the paya the following day - it was her day off and her eight year old sister would be handling postcard selling duties - but asked if I would come and visit her the day after. I told her that I would like to, but that it wasn’t possible as I was flying to Yangon the following evening. Visibly disappointed, she ventured that she might see me in Nyaung U and then headed back to the entrance to resume selling postcards.

As I started back to town at a brisk pace, I couldn’t help but reflect on what had just occurred. Though this particular instance was one of the more intense examples of attachment to me by young kids and a few older girls, I was struck at how often it was happening and tried to figure out why. The easy, self-righteous conclusion would have been to assume that the kids, perhaps at the urging of out-of-sight parents, were arbitrarily gluing themselves to tourists in the hopes of charming their way into a donation of some kind, or perhaps even entertaining wild fantasies of being rescued and whisked away to a better life in the west. Then again, perhaps they just wanted to break up their tedious days of pushing postcards with a little good company, working on their English and doing a little amateur Pinkie anthropology. I’ll never know.

Though it certainly wasn’t all roses, my day of walking had been surprisingly agreeable, in addition to making me wildly popular with the locals. With the heat and distances involved, I got the feeling that tourists don’t usually submit to walking around Bagan. Locals yelled and waved at me from passing cars and trucks. Horse and buggy and trishaw guys were constantly at my side, assuming that I had somehow lost my ride and was doubtlessly in need of their services. These constant solicitations and not being able to outrun the more aggressive touts pushed me to the breaking point repeatedly throughout the afternoon. Apparently the concept of a westerner being low on money is so completely foreign to them that they simply don’t internalize the words. I had guys on my ass every six minutes, even when I was hundreds of meters from prominent pagodas, for pretty much the entire afternoon.

Their hassling ran the gamut from selling those goddamn mass produced paintings, trying to insert themselves as my official tour guides without asking or detaining me to look at pictures of their families in a desperate bid for sympathy, all the while never taking to heart the words “I don’t have any money to spare you sniveling putz! Nothing! Not even fifty kyat, all right??!!” And then after fifteen excruciating minutes of this back and forth they would walk away muttering nasty things about me. About me!! Mother *&^%@$#&^# assholes!!! The now constant physical discomfort and the insufferable harassment during every waking moment was causing the Ugly Tourist in me to bubble closer and closer to the surface of my demeanor with each passing day in Myanmar. But every time I was about to detonate a screaming, cursing hissy fit some old lady passing on a bike with a giant surprised smile would call out to me and renew my serenity. Focusing on a lighter approach, I decided that the next time someone rode me hard, trying to sell me something, I’d simply respond by trying to sell them my water bottle. Tee hee!

My walk back to Eden Hotel was momentarily enlivened when I stumbled onto the Bagan chapter of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Forgetting briefly that all offices had been closed and the workers imprisoned when Aung San Suu Kyi was re-arrested in 2003, I thought I’d stop in and say hello, but when I got closer it was plain that the place was locked up and had been abandoned for quite some time. Looking through the locked gate, I noted that the compound was overgrown and in a shambles. As I stood back to take a picture, I suddenly realized how conspicuously sympathetic to the NLD I must have looked to the people on the street. Having developed a recent paranoia about the government’s undercover rats being on every street corner and their penchant for unceremoniously jailing and forgetting about anyone who looks like they might have the potential for dissident behavior, I retreated and made a quick turn down an unmarked dirt street.

After awkwardly cutting through the grounds of a monastery, I found myself in the middle of a dirt covered residential area. It was all bamboo/straw huts and property fences, literally dirt poor. While I could hear action going on behind the fences and in the huts, I was the only one on the street, aside from a couple kids playing soccer with a half deflated ball. It was pretty much dark by now and I had no choice but to just wander. The area turned out to be huge, without a single permanent dwelling. Every structure had just been lashed together from available material and light weight, woven bamboo, yet clearly the settlement had been there for a long time. Apparently the overall weather in Myanmar isn’t quite so punishing and lightweight shelters like this can endure for long periods of time.

After lengthy staggering through full darkness down countless identical dirt “streets,” I finally found myself on an encouragingly paved road. After getting my bearings I realized that I had gotten turned around somewhere in the hut village and had been walking in the opposite direction of where I needed to be. Thirty minutes of backtracking later and I was finally on my hotel’s street, tired, bathed in dried sweat and filth and covered to the knees in a layer of dirt and dust. My sandals looked like I had fished them out of a dumpster. I had long since stopped trying to rinse the grime them off of them at the end of each day, opting to just let them be until I got back to Bangkok, where I’d hose them down and soak them in bleach if necessary.

Ananda Paya
Ananda Paya
I dined at a nearby Chinese “restaurant” being run out of the front porch of a private home. I had an intense relapse of my germophobia as I sat waiting for my food, watching two guys at the next table eating their meals. Like much of Asia, people in Myanmar often eat with their hands, even sloppy, low-consistency food such as rice and curry like these guys were digging into now. There have been precious few moment in my life where I felt that my hands were clean enough to eat something as absorbent as rice and curry without being terrified with what the food was pulling off my fingers and carrying into my gullet. These feelings were incalculably magnified in Myanmar where it’s a good bet that you’re eating a micro-universe of nasty gems and organisms picked up from random contact with the street, money, vehicles, toilets, dogs, etc. Ew, I’m getting the willies just writing about it. Needless to say my appetite at the time was flagging like I’d just been served a plate of raw sewage. After dinner I scrubbed myself down and was in bed by 8:00 p.m.

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