Bagan – An Ancient Kingdom (Day 1)

Day 2 – Myanmar

As I was beginning to learn on this trip of SE Asia, I would have to become accustom to rising at 4am every other day in order to make my transfer flights at 6 am.  While maximizing the use of the day, it was killing my nights. I doubt I have been so early to bed in 40 years.

My driver was there waiting in the lobby as I staggered half dazed out of the elevator ready to whisk me away to the airport.  Domestic check-in and flight procedures in Myanmar have to be participated in, in order to believe. For those of you old enough to remember, transport yourselves back to the 60’s and reminisce. Forget modern conveniences (they exist, you just don’t use them), you get all the help you need (you don’t have to do anything, in fact it complicates things if you do), chaos, confusion but it works! 🙂 Upon arrival someone snatches your bag & ticket, begs you to remain where you are (miles for the checkin desk), runs to a set of giant scales, weighs your bag, runs to the desk, gets a hand-written bag tag & ticket, runs back puts a sticker on your chest, shows you to the X-ray scanner & metal detector (which you pass while the operator checks their mobile for texts), the machines peeps but no-one reacts, you are ushered to a seat and told to wait, you scan the room for gate & flight numbers (nothing visible), sometime later a door bursts open and a person with a megaphone & little board on a pole starts yelling out a flight number which is indecipherable to the tourist’s ear, the little man who had shown you to your seat turns up from no where and ushers you to your gate, once through the gate you are sure you now have control of things by just walking down the gang plank to the plane. No! Instead you are taken through a side door out onto the tarmac (why use the gang plank when you can have a walk in the fresh air), you board the plane, and before you have buckled your seat belt the safe demonstration is completed and you are rolling. The fastest boarding, taxiing & take-off I have ever experience. From gate to air in less than 10 minutes. This scene was to be repeated at least 4 more times while in Myanmar and I now consider myself an expert in Myanmarian domestic air travel. Little side note: Being Valentines Day all passengers received a beautiful red rose as they boarded the plane. My only Valentine! 😦 🙂

This flight whisked me 1.5 hours north of Yangon to Bagan. As I was to learn, Bagan is the temple kingdom of Myanmar. Dating from the 9th & 10th century, it was the centre of Buddhism in the region for over a millennia.  Something you learn very quickly is to distinguish between a pagoda and a temple.  A pagoda being a monument which you can only go around and a temple which you can actually go inside.  Most pagodas or temples either have a holy relic enshrined at their centre or a casket of jewels buried deep within (shame I didn’t have a spade). A visit to a temple or Pagoda requires you are barefooted and as I was to learn I would spend a lot of my time in Myanmar barefooted. And so begun a wander through the 5000 odd temple ruins (of which some 2000 have been restored) in the desert along the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. The river is sometimes referred to as the “The Road to Mandaly” after Rudyard Kiplings’s poem, bisects the country north to south for over 2170 km. The density of the temples/pagodas means that most habitable buildings have to squeeze in around them. Not surprising the hotel gardens were full of them.

The day started with a visit to the Shwezigon Pagoda (b 1100), the first of what would be many temple/pagado visits in Bagan. The entire pagoda is cover in gold leaf and is believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha. Here I would learn all about Burmese Buddhist tradition. Because I was born on a Thursday, my animal was the rat. When visiting a temple I should go to the rat shrine and pray. On completion of praying I should take a cup and pour water over the rat statute once for ever year I have lived, 52 times!!!!! As you are ladling water over the statute, you arm begins to tell you that you have lived a long time. 🙂 I also learn Buddha statues usually adopt 3 positions: standing, sitting & lying with 10 different hand gestures. By the end of my visit here I would be an expert at spotting them.

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Next stop was the Gubyaukgyi Myinkaba temple (b. 1113) which is unusual as it is in the Indian style rather than the Burmese.  It has particularly well preserved stucco work and ceiling paintings from the time it was built. Here I was shown how they make the sand paintings (see pic).  The sand is embedded onto cotton with glue in several layers and then etched with graphite or coloured pigments. The result is a painting that will hold its colour and is even washable. It was here I also encountered the Kayan women folk for the first time.  They are known for their neck ring jewelery consisting of up to 20 turns in the spirals.  They begin to wear them at the age of 2 and the length of the spirals increases with age pushing their shoulders and ribs down creating the illusion of a long neck.  The neck ring is made of brass and is exceptionally heavy (1-2 kgs). they can loosen it when they sleep but can never take it off. They are known for their exceptionally fine hand-weaving.  Upon leaving the temple I encountered an odd sight, a police car specifically dedicated to tourists!ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

From there we made our way to the Ananda temple (b. 1105). Named after Buddha’s cousin Ananda, it is one of four surviving temples in Bagan and has also been titled the “Westminster Abbey of Burma.”  Inside you find 4 standing Buddhas facing the N, S, E & W.  If you look at the faces from a distance they are smiling but as you approach the smile begins to fade and disappear. The temple is also know know for its 1000 Buddhas tuck into wall crevices from floor to ceiling.

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After an early start to the day in Rangoon and all this templing it was time for lunch at a lovely restaurant on the overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy River or as Churchill called it “The Burma Road.”  It was here I got a chance for my 1st taste of Burmese food, a fusion between Asian & Indian food cultures, and a good curry always needs a good local beer to wash it down.  I had also become rather fond of fresh lime juice as an invigorating thirst quencher. From there it was back to the hotel for a swim and a rest. The hotel was amazing nestled among the temple ruins in the rural landscape (will bring you more details in another blog chapter). Having checked in I decided I would take a plunge in the pool to which I received a chilling shock. The temperature was barely above 20 degrees. Here they chill the pools!!!! No pool warmers here!!!!!

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Late in afternoon, I was collected by my driver and guide and headed down to Old Bagan to where they produced they famed lacquer wear unique to this region. It is constructed of a bamboo fame upon which cotton material is laid, then layer upon layer of black lacquer is applied over 4-6 months (18 layers in all) to produce the finished product which is supple and does not chip or break when dropped.  Then it is etched by hand and the etchings filled with mineral pigments to make the design before begin covered in the final clear lacquer.  Beautiful handcraft and artwork but terrible working conditions. Just the potent smell of lacquer solvent was enough to get me to leave after half an hour.

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New temple stop: Manuha temple (b. 1057) built by the captured Mon King Manuha during his captivity.  He built it with 4 massive Buddha colossuses (3 seating & one reclining) to mark “that wherever he may migrate, may he never be conquered by another.”  Manuha Temple is one of the oldest temples in Bagan.  When visiting a temple one should ring or should I say strike the bronze bell 3 times for luck!  From there I was picked by horse and cart and transported down windy tracks through the countryside among the temple ruins to the Shwesandaw pagoda.

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The Shwesandaw Pagoda is in the typical Burmese style. The pagoda contains a series of five terraces, topped with a cylindrical stupa, which has a bejewelled umbrella – hti. Enshrined within the pagoda are sacred hairs of Gautama Buddha.  Here we could climb the almost vertical steps to the top of the pagoda to enjoy spectacular views of the sunset over the Bagan plains & the Ayeyarwaddy River. This evening would be special as we could not only enjoy the sunset on the western side but on the eastern side we could enjoy the full moon rise. It was a spectacular view but somewhat dampened by the fact that there so many people at the top and almost no protection against the vertical drops over the side.

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With the sun well and truly put to bed, it was time for me to head in the same direction although not before having a local Myanmar beer to quench the days thirst.

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