My cheap backpacker self liked the idea of an overnight bus because I could make some distance and save on accommodation. Unfortunately, as my sojourn in Burma continued the quality of the buses declined as did the quality of my sleep. I arrived in Bagan, one of Southeast Asia’s great historic cities, yet my primary motivation was to take a nap. To fight my desire for sleep I went in search of a bicycle for rent.
I rode off jerkily. Oh, it was slow going. It had been ages since I had been on a bicycle. Old Burmese men smoking cigarettes cycled speedily past me. Yet after just a few minutes I began to happily enjoy the ride. Over a small crest the first of the Bagan temples came into sight and it was breathtaking. I went down a side road toward the temple. The day was lovely and the sun was high, and against the blue sky the hundreds of brick temples stood out in the dry yellow grass fields. At the first temple I bought a painting for myself. Most of the paintings were copies of carvings in the temples or other Buddhist texts, but the one I bought was in the artist’s words “from his own mind.” Let’s just say, I liked the way he thought.
I met one of the Korean students from the cargo bus – he and his friends are students at a Pusan language university studying Burmese. He invited me to join them riding and sightseeing. We rode and visited a few temples together until my lack of sleep catching up with me. I went into a tourist office to ask for some information, though the men had no idea how to answer my question, they invited me to sit down and have tea with them. We talked for a while and then I began to ride back Nyang Oo, where I was staying. The cooling breeze, the mid-afternoon sun and the lovely ride invigorated me so decided to ride down to the ferry point and find out about the ferry to Pyay. Since I had missed the opportunity to take the boat from Mandalay, I thought I could then take the boat down river to Pyay. I learned the boat left in two days’ time but the journey would take three days, which sounded rather long. I would need to buy food, but also a blanket. I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, and worried about the chill sleeping on the deck. Yet it was December 30 and my intel told me there were no buses south from Bagan until January 6. I went home to sleep on it.
I did not sleep well–and thus the decision was made, I would leave Bagan by bus. The night had been cold and though I had a blanket and wore a lot of clothes, it was not enough. I had a lie in then spent half the day exploring Bagan on bicycle. Many of the temples in Bagan cannot be climbed for preservation efforts, but I could climb the largest. Towards the east there is a lovely view of the river, and to the west a stunning view of the plains filled with other temples, large and small. I sat there for some time. I ran into JJ, my friend from Mandalay. We sat and talked for a while, then watched three hot air balloons float over the ancient city of Bagan.
The following day I sat out on the bench in front of the hotel waiting for JJ. I was writing in my journal and watching life go by on the street. There was a race with most of the runners barefoot. Then nuns came to collect alms. I had seen a nun here and there in Burma, but not more than one or two at a time. There are many, many monks, but not as many nuns. This time there were perhaps 20 walking single file. I thought of the differences I had seen between the young monks and young nuns. The nuns wear pink or orange robes, and shave their heads, but I am told mostly orphan girls become nuns. Monks on the other hand are not without families. Families receive lots of merit if their son becomes a novice monk, even if he does it for just a month or two during the school holidays. I saw monks receiving alms on many occasions and often it was hot, cooked food. Yet the nuns were receiving uncooked rice.
I spent a day just relaxing with medicine and a book. Then another day JJ and I arranged a share taxi with two Japanese to visit Mount Popa, about 90 minutes from Bagan. Mount Popa is something akin to the Mount Olympus of Burma, the supposed home of the country’s nats, the Burmese animist spirits. Mount Popa reminded me of the monasteries perched on huge limestone rocks in northern Greece. From afar the temple on Mount Popa seemed inaccessible; the rock stands out from the plains. To climb one has to remove their shoes and walk up 777 steps. Once up there I found the temple to be a bit ordinary, not what I would expect of the abode of gods, but the view was quite nice. It was terribly windy at the top and my ears turned red and my hair blew about me like mad. I stayed up there only about 30 minutes, though it turned out I was the last of our group to descend.
On the last half day in Bagan, JJ and I hired a horse cart to take us to some of the less accessible ruins. Off we went to see the ruins. In my opinion these were the most impressive in Bagan. Maybe because there were fewer tourists and they were off the beaten track, but the carvings on the outside and paintings on the inside of these stupas were more intact than in the others I had seen. They were also on a slight hill which gave a fabulous view of all the temples large and small down to the river. There was even part of what was a city wall intact along the road, which I had not expected at all. The last temple we visited was quite large and unlike any of the others as it had been renovated and the grounds landscaped. It also had a large gold stupa on the top. It afforded wonderful views of the surrounding temples as well.
There I am in one of the most historical and cultural sites of Burma and Southeast Asia. Yet, have only vague memories of the temples and atmosphere. I know I loved my time in Bagan; riding a bicycle down dusty, dirt pathways, seeing stupas rising out of the plain; hot air balloons picturesquely floating across the sky. I spent a lot of time thinking, sometimes sitting among the temples, other times in the guesthouse or in restaurants. But my diary focused on the upcoming new year; my email stories focused on the tedious, though often hilarious (in retrospect) hiccups of traveling – such as the struggles to get a decent shower, a decent night sleep, or to change money.
Before setting off on our final Bagan adventure, JJ wanted to exchange traveler’s checks. He was down to only enough money to pay the driver of our horse cart, but without money to pay his hotel bill. There is only one bank in Bagan. We asked the driver to stop on the way to the ruins, but the driver informed us the bank was closed because of the holiday. Therefore, after the ruins we planned to head to the city of New Bagan, in hopes they would have an open bank. In New Bagan we tried first with the employees at an airline office, who offered us no help. Then to a tourist information center, who reluctantly agree, but at 20% commission. We found another exchange shop, but they too were closed. A man at the shop next door said his brother-in-law might exchange the check. The first man closed up his shop and joined us in the horse cart to direct the driver to his brother-in-law’s shop. Ten minutes later we arrive and observe a negotiation in Burmese. The end result though is that they will exchange with only a “small commission” of 25%. Back at JJ’s guesthouse he tells the manager he cannot pay the bill because the bank is closed. She says, of course it is open, but only until 2 PM. The clock reads 1:45 PM (our bus to Pyay is to pick us up at 3 PM). The manager tells JJ her friend will drive us to the bank– we drive like maniacs through the crowded streets, horn blowing, to the bank. But it IS closed. The driver parks anyway and honks the horn. Turns out the bank manager lives in the house behind the bank. He comes out and there is much discussion, but the manager refuses the change the traveler’s checks. JJ is still without money. But there is still a happy ending to the story. A friend of JJ’s guesthouse manager is a long-distance taxi driver from Rangoon. He agrees to loan JJ 75 FECs to pay his hotel bill and other expenses until he arrives in Rangoon. The taxi driver hangs on to the unsigned traveler checks. JJ will meet him in Rangoon, exchange the checks, and pay the man back. Only in Burma.