There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Bagan (2), Yet more Temples and a Drift down the Irrawaddy; Part 5 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

Early to bed, early to rise is the Myanmar way, and even being in a luxury hotel could not prevent us hearing the ‘get up and go’ music from the nearby village at 5.30.

Tin and his driver arrived at 9 and we set off to visit a market near New Bagan. ‘No tourists here,’ Tin said, and he was right; we were as much a curiosity to the shoppers and stallholders as they were to us. It was a simple affair - people had brought small quantities of fruit, vegetables, ginger, chillies and eggs to trade - but it seemed cleaner and better organised than the markets we had seen in Dala. A large sound system dominated the centre and Buddhist monks bombarded the shoppers with a never-ending sermon and requests for donations.

Market, New Bagan
If it was not Bagan’s warmest and brightest day, at least the mist and threat of rain had gone so it was now worth visiting Dhammayaziki Pagoda.

The Dhammayaziki Pagoda, Bagan
The main attraction is the steps and walkways giving access to the roof at the base of the gilded stupa. But for the weather it should have been our first port of call after arriving but now, having already been on our horse and cart ride and seen how temples and stupas are strewn about fields and villages, we were prepared for what we saw. For the new arrival the view must be stunning, for us it was merely breath-taking.

The Bagan Plain from the Dhammayaziki Pagoda

Several other things caught my eye at Dhammayaziki, among them the terra cotta tiles around the base. A number of temples have these, usually showing scenes from the Jataka, the previous incarnations of the Buddha.

Terra Cotta scene from the Jataka
Dhammayaziki Pagoda, Bagan
I was also interested in these earthenware water pots [later, in Sagaing we would see them being made.] Although mundane and crudely fashioned, we had observed in Yangon that they play an important role providing water, cooled by evaporation through the earthenware, to anyone who needs it. We had seen something very similar when living in Khartoum in 1987. It is a public spirited aid to life in a hot climate – even if Bagan was not living up to its billing.
Water pots
Dhammayaziki Pagoda, Bagan

Sitting near the entrance was a Kayan woman, a member of a small ethnic minority whose ancestral land lies along the Thai/Myanmar border. Sitting with some locals she was wearing the traditional neck rings that apparently elongate the neck - though they actually depress the collar bone. I vividly remember a late 50s/early 60s television documentary about the ‘giraffe necked women’, but I thought this tradition had died out. It seemed rude to stare and even ruder to stick a camera in her face, though now I wish I had a photograph.

We left Dhammayaziki and got stuck into our daily quota of temples in the strip between Old and New Bagan.

Abeyadana is named after the queen of King Kyansittha. She brought him food when he was hiding here from a rival and he later built the temple in her honour. It is early 12th century and the zedi on top is Ceylonese in style.

Abeyadana Temple, Bagan
The nearby Manhua Temple was built in 1067 by a Mon king of that name. He had been imprisoned, either here or in Mandalay - stories vary - and to celebrate his release he built several large Buddhas and constructed the temple to house them. It is very cramped and you have to push past the statues into the corridors. This may be in memory of his imprisonment – or perhaps they just built the temple too small.

Seated Buddha, Manhua Temple, Bagan
Nanpaya sounds like it should be in Cornwall, but is actually a short walk from Manhua.

Nanpaya Temple, Bagan

Probably built in the middle of the 12th century it would appear to be a Hindu temple, possibly serving Bagan’s resident Indian community. 

Hindu images
Nanpaya Temple, Bagan

‘Do you want to see another temple, or shall we walk round the village?’ Tin asked. How many temples can you see in a morning? We opted for a stroll through Myinkaba.

Not for the first time we were struck but the multiple uses to which bamboo can be put. We walked among the bamboo houses, impressed by the decorative weaving together of the stems. The houses were flimsy, which is perhaps best in an earthquake area, but they are only required to keep out the rain. The poor weather we had experienced was as cool as Bagan ever gets, and even so I had not once donned a pullover.

Bamboo houses, Myinkaba
There were only a few people in the streets, but the village was a hive of activity. A cart trundling by was the only traffic noise and we could hear people talking, children laughing, someone hammering, and even a woman pounding herbs in the yard outside her house. Tin invited us to go in and watch. We felt we were intruding, but she seemed happy enough.


The main business of Myinkaba is lacquerware, and here it really is a cottage industry. People sit outside their houses making the bamboo templates, smearing on lacquer or scratching out the patterns. Layers of quick drying glue are used as a base rather than the multiple layers of lacquer we had seen in the factory. The resulting articles are of lower quality, but the decoration was to the same high standard so only an expert eye could spot the difference.

Lacquer worker, Myinkaba

But we had not finished with temples! Myinkaba’s Gubyaukgyi temple (not to be confused with yesterday’s different Gubyaukgyi Temple) is at the end of the village. Next door is the Myazedi (Emerald Stupa – but actually gilded) and in front of that is the Myazedi stone.

Gubyaukgyi Temple, Myinkaba

The stone has the same inscription on each side, but in four different languages. Burmese remains the local tongue, Mon is still spoken by a million people in Mon State to the south, Pali is the ancient liturgical language of Buddhism, and although a dead language it has been widely studied, but the fourth side is written in Pyu, the vernacular language of central Myanmar in the first millennium AD. It was from this stone that the long extinct Pyu language was deciphered in the 19th century. Perhaps I am weird, but I find this strangely exciting.
The Mayazedi Stone, Myinkaba

It was not, however, the excitement that caused me to break the arm of my sunglasses, the same ‘genuine’ Ray-bans I had bought 8 months earlier in Saigon, it was mere carelessness. I was ever so slightly devastated.

Lunchtime was approaching but we had to see one more temple before being allowed to eat. It was another Hindu temple with panels depicting the Hindu gods, but its best feature was the view out of the window…..
View through the Window

 …and from the door. Gawdawpalin is the largest temple in Bagan and one of the last built, but earthquake damage means it is currently off-limits (and we really wanted to see another temple!)

The Gawdawpalin Temple, Bagan
And now we could eat. Tin said we should eat the best Myanmar food in Bagan and perhaps we did; it was certainly good – and there were no other foreigners in the restaurant.

The deal here was different, they brought out all their dishes, but we only paid for what we ate. Resisting the temptation to taste miniscule amounts from every plate, we decided what to eat, and left the rest. Yesterday I found myself wondering what happened to the food we sent back, here it was obvious, it was served up to the next customer.

There were 25 dishes including pork, lamb, beef, chicken, tiger prawns, beansprouts, curried vegetables, pickled vegetables, lentils and rice. Our feast cost 12 000 Kyats (about £10) and half of that was for a couple of bottles of beer. Tin enjoyed his beer, given its cost relative to local salaries, it must have been a rare treat.

Lynne holds forth over a small lunch for three
We returned to the hotel for a little down time in what should have been the heat of the day and then strolled out to the Tharabar Gate.

As we reached the dusty open area outside the hotel we were besieged by children, some scooting over to us on bikes, others running to catch them up. They were all keen to ask us where we came from, tell us where we were (which we already knew) and offer their services as guides, which we declined.
The younger ones attempted to sell us postcard sized examples of their own artwork for 1000 Kyat each (80p). This had seemed cute the first time, but as we had been approached by children at every temple, each with half a dozen such pictures protected by clear plastic sheets and attached to a piece of string by clothes pegs, it became clear this was not a freelance operation. They may or may not have been their own drawings, but there was certainly an organisation behind it, using the children effectively as beggars and probably taking most of the money. Worse, Tin had told us that parents were taking their children out of school to do this. Two or three sales a week would be enough to make a significant difference to a poor family’s income. Ethical tourism presents a multitude of problems.

Lynne and the Old Bagan Wall
Gently shooing the children away we made our way to the gate. A wall built between the 10th and 12th centuries once surrounded Old Bagan, and the longest existing stretch is either side of the Tharabar Gate, which is now just a gap in the wall as there is nothing for it to be a gate to.

The Tharabar Gate, Old Bagan
A venerable monk sat on a bench near the gate, and many passers-by stopped to talk to him. An old woman brought some flowers for the gate’s guardian Nats who inhabit niches either side of the entrance.

A monk holds court by the Tharabar Gate, Old Bagan

Lord Handsome and Lady Golden Face were brother and sister. A rival of Lord Handsome suggested reconciliation and married Lady Golden Face, but his true motive was to lure Lord Handsome out of hiding. He captured him and burnt him at the stake. Lady Golden Face jumped in the fire and only her face survived the all-consuming flames. Who better to guard the gates to the city?

Lord Handsome in his niche by the Tharabar Gate
Old Bagan
Tin returned in late afternoon and we drove down to the river. The Irrawaddy, 2000km long and the original Road to Mandalay, is formed in northern Myanmar by the confluence of two smaller rivers and flows through the heart of the country. At Bagan its huge width and gentle flow make it look more like a lake than a river.

We arrived at an open area where a dozen boats were moored, their prows resting on the muddy shingle. Again we were besieged by children selling trinkets, ‘artwork’ and general tat. Again we shooed them away and followed Tin down to one of the boats.

The boatman cast off and set about heaving us off the shingle. He put his back into the job, but the boat stubbornly refused to move.
The boatman put his back into it

I was photographing the boatman so could not see the problem, but Lynne spotted it, as did the lad on the adjacent boat. He hopped over to our boat, untied the rope attaching our boat to his and hopped back. Suddenly we shot out into the channel, the boatman on the roof entirely unaware of why his strenuous efforts had suddenly been rewarded with success.

We slide out into the stream

We pottered upstream rounding sandbanks and passing houses and temples. A rugged range of hills patrolled the western horizon. 

I stood at the bow, surveyed the scene and decided I should claim all this land for my Queen and Country. Then I realised that had been done before and it had not proved a good idea. Instead, I stood with my arms out in the gentle breeze like Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic - though without shouting ‘I’m flying, I’m flying.’

At the bow, but no longer doing an extraordinarily poor imitation Kate Winslet

Our boat was, of course, much smaller than the Titanic and the chances of meeting an iceberg in the Irrawaddy are much the same as anyone confusing me with Kate Winslet, so I gave up such childishness and joined Lynne and Tin. They were having a grown-up discussion about the saintliness of Aung San Suu Kyi - always the first topic of conversation in Myanmar - the likely effects of the dams being built upriver, life under the military regime and the problems of corruption. Tin said he owned a car, unusual in Myanmar, which had once belonged to an army officer. ‘Now,’ he said ‘whenever I approach a road block I am waved through and saluted, and I no longer have to stop at toll gates.’

Lynne and Tin having a grown-up conversation

After a while the boatman turned off the engine and we drifted. The plan had been to watch the sun set over the distant hills, but although the weather was improving and the clouds had cracked enough to allow streaks of red and orange to leak through, we were never going to see a sunset.

The sun sets unseen over the Irrawaddy
Still, it was peaceful bobbing about on the huge river, floating gently downstream. We hardly seemed to be moving so I was surprised how quickly we returned to our starting point. We had seen few boats out on the river, but as we ran up onto the beach there seemed a sudden rush to catch the last of the light, ferries set out to cross the river while boats carrying sacks of food or earthenware pots chugged past.

In the evening we walked to one of the Rough Guide’s recommended restaurants. The impression given by the guide was that it would be basic, but tourism in Myanmar moves an apace. In a substantial bamboo building there were tables with white table clothes, a small army of waiters and a stage for a puppet show.

Faced with a full menu and a full bar, we decided to start with a gin and tonic. Two good slugs of Mandalay gin arrived along with a can labelled ‘soda water’. We pointed this out to the waiter and said we wanted tonic. The waiter looked mystified but we persisted so he fetched the manager. ‘It is tonic water,’ he said. We looked at him, looked at the words ‘soda water’ on the can and remained unconvinced. He opened the can, ‘If it is not tonic water you do not pay.’ It was, despite the label, tonic water.

The food was expensive - by local standards - and not particularly good. Warned that my Thai red curry would be ‘spicy’ I was disappointed to find it on the bland side of mild. The puppet show was amusing and full of energy, but difficult to see, partly because it was at the other end of the restaurant, and partly because our view was blocked by the waiters, who all stopped work to watch. It was not as bad as trying to get served in a Cairo restaurant with a big screen showing a vital Egypt v Algeria World Cup qualifier, but the waiters certainly seemed to enjoy the show.

Our bill came to 14 000 Kyats and I counted out 14 bank notes into the folder. The waiter snapped it shut and wandered off, only to return moments later apologising and saying there had been ‘some sort of error’, the bill had been 14 000 but I had only paid 9. I opened the folder, picked up the 9 bank notes, counted them out, then picked up the bill and ‘found’ the other five hiding underneath. It was an inept attempt at a scam and the waiter looked so embarrassed I almost felt sorry for him, but he lost his tip along with his dignity.

As we walked back to the hotel, I was assailed by feelings of guilt; it is, after all, a rich man’s duty to be ripped off by the desperately poor, but they have to do it with a little more skill than that!

Myanmar, Land of Gold


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