Bagan – An Ancient Kingdom (Day 2)

Myanmar Day 2

As with all days on tour, it began early. I actually run into a group of 60-something Swedes over breakfast and exchanged pleasantries over the fact that we were all escaping the depths of the Swedish winter, before heading off to the Nyang U market in Old Bagan. A hive of bustling activity where the senses were bombarded by the colour, sights, sounds and smells. Half of what was on offer, I had no clue as to what it was. The market acts as the daily source of food products for most households as they lack refrigeration.

If you notice in some of the photos Burmese women are wearing a yellow substance on their cheeks.  This is called Thanaka, a natural sun screen produced by grinding the bark from the tree to a very fine power mixed with oil & water. It smells beautiful and is commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women & girls, and to a lesser extent, men and boys as decoration and a form of natural sun protection. The market was also the first time I encountered the squat toilet, an experience in itself and a brush with the seedier side of Burmese hygiene. An easy exercise if you are wearing a “longyi” as most Burmese men do (see below) but difficult when wearing western style apparel.

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From the markets it was off to the Sulaimani (small ruby) temple (b 1183). It is renowned for its fantastic frescoes decorating the walls from the 12th century depicting fantastic scenes of everyday life. The colours and drawings remain still very vivid today after 9 centuries. A feature of the temple is that the Buddha statues are clothed in red instead of the usual gold. It is renowned for its impressive brick-laying – mortar was not used. The bricks fit perfectly together. The king threatened that if he could pass a needle between the bricks, the builders would be executed.  Amazing handcraft, and something our brickies of today maybe could learn!

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From the Sulaimani temple it was just a hop, skip & a jump over to the Dhammayangyi temple (b. 1167).  It is the largest and widest temple in Bagan and was built by King Narathu to atone for his sins for killing his father and brother in order to gain the throne.  Upon the death of the king the temple was bricked up in 1170. Apart from the porches there is only one hole you can see through into the inner temple areas and it is rumoured there is a large collection of undiscovered treasures hidden within.  In July 1975, a devastating earthquake hit the Bagan region severely damaging a lot of the temples.  Most of them lost their towers but a large number have been restored.  Here they have not been able to restored the temple towers as the experts are reluctant to do so without being able to access the inner sanctum (which is bricked up) to assess if the structure can bear the load. So far, the state and the Buddhist leaders will not allow it.

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Time for lunch! Once again on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River near the Bupaya Pagoda.  The pagoda was probably the oldest in Bagan built around 246AD, however when the earthquake struck in July 1975, the pagoda collapsed into the river below. Apparently the reconstruction following the earthquake paid little adherence to the original style other than size.

During lunch I was able to observe the boat traffic shuttling backwards & forwards across the river shuttling goods and passengers.  The flood banks of the river during the winter season (Nov-Feb) are used to farm crops such as corn & rice but come the monsoon these river flats are under about 3 metres of water.

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After a refreshing dip in the hotel pool and afternoon rest at the hotel, it was off to the local village of Minnanthu to get a taste of the rural life in this region. We arrived into the village around 5pm, where we were met by the sight of a continuing stream of local women and children collecting water from the well and carrying it back to the village (some up to a kilometre away).  This theme was repeated all around the village, women sorting seed, carrying wares, cutting chaff, drying plums, weaving, harvesting the fields, cooking etc. Where were the men? Apparently, they were taking care of the important things according to the women! Hard to tell if the were being ironic.  From what I could see, they were either sitting on the ground, or on a bullock cart, following the animals around, or watching the bullocks pressing the rape seed oil. I did find one hard working man and he was the blacksmith making these fantastic handmade wooden wheels for the bullock carts.

One elderly lady insisted on making me a Burmese cigar.  Her version did not require the rolling of tobacco leaves on sweaty thighs, thank goodness!  The Burmese version is a mixture of chopped tobacco & betel nuts wrapped in corn leaves with tightly packed corn leaves as a filter.  Apparently, it takes a whole day to smoke one.  It was mild, sweetish and very pleasant but you tend to get quick buzz from the betel nuts so understand why it takes all day to smoke one.

In this slight betel nut induced haze, she persuaded me to try on a Burmese Longyi worn by all men & boys. It is a cylindrical sheet of cloth worn around the waist and running to the feet.  The diameter of the cylinder is about 1 m and requires making a fold on either side in front and tucking them together at the waist in the form of a knot. With expert assistance of a local male, I managed, with patient instruction, to achieve this. It is harder than you think! It is an extremely convenient & versatile piece of clothing allowing for good air-conditioning of the nether regions on hot days, easy use of the squat toilet and with a couple of extra folds converts from full length to a pair of shorts.

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The day ended with a visit once again to the top of a temple to enjoy the sunset over the Ayeryarwaddy River. This time it was much more peaceful – fewer people & less stressful without the risk of potentially going over the side if you weren’t watching your footing or the crowd.

Tomorrow – Mandalay here I come!

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