Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Lost Land of Bagan

While Bagan is only a (horrifyingly turbulent) brisk 25 minute flight from Mandalay, it looks and feels like an entirely different world.  I likened the experience to Lost in my mind.  There was lots of shaking, and before I knew it we had a proper civilized crash landing in Bagan.  Once landed, it seemed we only saw those that we came with.  This old capital from a millennia ago is covered with reddish stupas and pagodas of all sizes, mainly built from the 11th to 13th century.  There are thousands upon thousands of them.  And no people.  A 24 hour Walmart at 3am is more crowded than this absolute stunner of a destination.  This is part of the appeal.  You are free to muck about without that awful feeling of sharing the experience.

The first stupa was built by the King of Bagan when he saw a Buddhist monk and liked their clean cut look compared to the long bearded and long haired monks that surrounded him.  He built a golden stupa and changed the religion to Buddhism.  Over the centuries more stupas were built, and the religion spread like wildfire.  Today, Myanmar is one of the most Buddhist countries on the planet.

Upon arrival at the quaint airport, we just happened to have a driver, Khin, that had recently done work for Unesco chronicling the many crubling stupas that dot this desertesque countryside.  He knew the entire area like the back of his hand, and was vital piece of our Bagan experience.  We spent our first evening exploring empty stupas and enjoying the sunset before returning to our oasis hotel, Kaday Aung, where we would again sleep 3 bears style in our own individual beds.    

Our first full day in Bagan took us an hour or two out towards the middle of nowhere.  This is kind of an understatement.  Bear with me on the forthcoming redundancy.  Myanmar is kind of a middle of nowhere country.  Bagan is in the middle of nowhere in Myanmar.  We were going an hour or so into the middle of nowhere outside of the middle of nowhere.  These things generally sound better in my mind.

Off we went in Khin's ride, blaring Myanmar pop music and watching the landscape slowly turn greener.  Mt.  Popa was our destination.  Popa means flowers, and the whole area is very green and floral due due the eruption of Mt. Popa a very long time ago.  These days, the mountain looks like a complete anomaly. It towers over the surrounding countryside wearing a distinctive temple like an uncomfortably small crown.  The place is filled with monkeys, and monkey poo.  I think I appreciated it more from afar.  Like everywhere else in Myanmar, we had to take our shoes off to enter.  This is fine and good, but making a game of dodging monkey feces is not my idea of fun.  My feet were tired and disgusting by the end of the 777 step ascent.

After our adventures at Popa, we were just kind of heading home, when I asked the driver to stop for a picture.  I wanted to take some shots of a roadside rural village.  Khin went one further, insisting that we go explore.  He said country people are very nice.  The four of us disembarked from the car to see how the rural live in Myanmar.

Khin told us that rural people have a problem with reproduction and too much of it.  He cited 3 primary reasons: no tv, no literacy, and too much time.  The government hired some people to go to villages and give contraceptive training.  The trainers illustrated how to use a condom by putting one on a banana and explaining that this prevents kids as well as disease.  After this disbursement of knowledge, birth rates in the countryside actually increased a little.  Why?  It turned out that villagers were just putting a condom on a banana and hanging it outside of their huts.  I think they missed the point.

The village was very interesting, and we met a little troublemaker monk kid that followed us around with his gang.  We were offered peanuts, and they were by far, way far, the best peanuts of my life.  We saw a rural school held in a backyard, where a teacher from Bagan comes on Saturday to teach rural kids that lack formal schooling.  It was a very authentic experience, and felt like stepping back in time hundreds of years.  

After the village, we stopped off at this odd little palm wine and liquor distillery.  They served us some pickled tea leaf salad for free, and the tastes were so different and great.  We had the old man version because it is softer and easier to eat than whatever the non-old man version is.  I am not sure on ingredients, but it included sesame, tea leaves, peanuts, garlic, and other stuff.

We spent the evening attempting to take engagement photos and we watched a beautiful sunset from an interesting vantage point.  For our photos, we had to literally climb up a stupa for some good shots.

I will post more tomorrow. 

Ghost Temple.  Our first experience with Bagan 

details, it is common to find a faceless statue and the face nearby on the ground 

Ascending a temple 

Looks like something from Star Wars

Most temples have Buddhas facing the 4 cardinal directions 


Ryan mentally preparing for the exhausting process of changing money

The road to Mt. Popa 

Mt. Popa 

These guys harass you the whole way up, we saw lots of monkey theft 

Not happy to have a picture 

These things are everywhere, baby nats (spirits)

View from high 

Some dragon action 

Sharp stairs covered in monkey poop, barefoot, gross

the road 

Some nats (spirits), people give them offerings for help in their lives, each one served a different purpose, and requires different types of offerings 

This guy is the nat for gambling, He likes horse racing, booze, women, cockfighting, and people leave him whisky as an offering before betting on something.  At left is his follower. 

a shy kid 

Fruit stand for Meagan 

very large jackfruit 

gorgeous dragonfruit 


The village 

Preparing feed for cattle 


Little monk troublemaker 


water source 

This was our entourage 


That cow did not like us and made us leave 

Trying on my shades 

Guy in tree getting some nuts 

sesame and palm sugar, yum 

Khin and some kind of liquor operation 

Old man tea leaf salad 

mix it up, so good 

a typical spoonful 

eating salad

Trying to find a spot for our engagement photos.  Ryan brought a book. 

Kristin posing 

Higher ground 

Great scene 

even at abandoned stupas, no shoes 

Kristin, stuck 

A herd rolls in 

A larger stupa 

I like this one, these probably are beginning to look the same 

We tried some pictures in this field.  Kristin put heels on (!)

Not a bad sunset 

I like this one 

Fun with kids 

For dinner, we ordered 3 family portions, and each could have literally fed an entire family.  It was an accident.


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