Nyaung U and the temples of Bagan, Myanmar
29.06.2010 - 02.07.2010 42 °C
Getting up at 4am is just wrong! My taxi driver thought so to. We seemed to have ran a red light or two on the way to Yangon airport and we were straddling lanes. I looked at the driver in the mirror and realised to my horror that he was ASLEEP!!! I wish I were kidding!!! Panic panic! I nudged him, tried to start a conversation, but his English was poor so had to resort to constantly nudging him. You wouldn’t believe how relieved I was to make it to the airport alive to check in with Yangon airways, with their rather catchy slogan ‘You are safe with us’. This is apparently a dig at the government-run airlines that have, shall we say, a dubious safety record. How many of my lives have i used up already now?
Surprised to find aircon at the airport and exceedingly cheesy TV, some kind of Burmese soap opera about a rock band BIG BIG hair *giggle giggle* but tragically no wifi. Actually, come to mention it, no wifi anywhere. Computer didn’t even bother saying no just laughed in my face. Not even a mobile phone signal in Myanmar. For the first time since about 1998 (pre-mobile) I am unable to be contacted, AWOL, MIA, OFFLINE (I hate being offline!) So, I was heading on a jet plane North of Yangon to the town of Nyaung U in central Myanmar plains. Here I would base myself for a few days to explore the ancient temples of Bagan. As the plane came into land safely (YAY!) the sight of over 4000 temples spreading as far as the eye could see is something I will not forget in a hurry. The scope and visual impact of this important archaeological zone is likened to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. I will comment after I go to Cambodia but lets say, I got very very excited just from that first glimpse from the plane...
Walking round Nyaung U that first afternoon felt like a dream, so very very different to the hustle and bustle of Yangon. I happened to be visiting Myanmar during the rainy season but it is always hot and dry in these central plains of the country. Being out of season meant very very few tourists. Actually other than shop workers, trishaw drivers, horse and cart drivers and the odd monk i seemed to be pretty much the only person there! Very strange feeling. Of the few locals that are there, most of them would stop and say hello or ‘you are beautiful’ how nice! I felt like a celebrity... I got sooooo hot walking round this little town then noticed a thermometer in one of the teashops 42 degrees celcius LORDY! No wonder! OK, best not be too hard on myself then, went for mango shake and slowed my walk right down.. Don’t think I have ever been anywhere so consistently hot before. Nyaung U had a beautiful calm atmosphere about it. Like elsewhere in Myanmar, the locals all wear traditional longyis and get about mostly on ancient bicycles that seem to be way too big for them. In the evening when the temperature cools slightly, there is the sound of laughter from the kids playing in the street, groups of young men playing guitar and having a sing song. A summer scent in the air as the locals tend to their plants.
Stepping inside a teashop-come-restaurant I am welcomed by... guess what? Bob Marley ‘don’t worry about a thing’. Even in deepest Burma, like just about everywhere else in SE Asia, the restaurateurs here have conspired to purchase a joblot of Bob’s greatest hits! When you go into any restaurant in Myanmar, doesn’t matter what type, you are greeted by spicy peanuts and a huge tefal flask of Chinese herbal tea. I didn’t like it at first but quickly developed a taste. Myanmar local food is quite interesting actually. It is more similar to Indian cuisine than anything else i guess, mostly curries, chicken or mutton, with rice, but there are also some interesting side salads that are more Chinese or Thai-like. My favourite salad was something called la-hpeq dhouq, basically green tea leaves mixed with sesame seeds, fried peas, shrimp, peanuts, coconut and ginger, delicious... After the main meal you always get presented with a tub of fudge-like brown sugar sweets that are rather nice but be careful with that sugar rush!! Brand-name drinks here are very expensive, about 1USD for a can of coke, significantly more for the diet version which was very difficult to come by, but i spent a lot of time trying to track it down! I did develop a taste for the local and much cheaper version, good ‘ol Star cola! Breakfast was exactly the same wherever I was in Myanmar, ALWAYS egg (scrambled or fried) toast, jam, coffee and fruit. No variation to be had anywhere! Also, I couldn’t work out the obsession with 3 in 1 coffee sachets? The 3 being coffee, milk powder and sugar in a single ready to use sachet, just add hot water. I am worried that I am starting to endear myself to them. I found these elsewhere in SE Asia but here in Myanmar they are advertised on huge billboards everywhere, just like skin whitening creams were in Philippines. Like they are the most desirable, must-have product. Will I need to wean myself off them once I leave Asia? Will I need some help? I already have a few in my backpack for emergencies! How will I adapt to having to choose whether to put milk and sugar in my coffee? ... There were even 3 in 1 sachets of tea in Myanmar actually. TEA!!!!
I actually used a Lonely planet here, for the first time during my travels. I am not a big fan of travel guides as I find it ruins the surprise factor and means most visitors end up going to exactly the same places. Prefer to do some research online and go with an open mind. Here though, we had very little internet due to government censorship (i will come back to this later) and is a mysterious country to visit so I felt it necessary to take a guide. My theory on Lonely Planets was sadly proved correct as I foolishly decided to go to an Indian restaurant based on recommendation of ‘the bible’. The owner there was the smuggest man I met in Burma, openly boasting about the endorsement by the Lonely Planet, charging about double of the other restaurants. It was the only place in town with actual customers and the food wasn’t all that. May be OK for the owners of such restaurants with their ‘gold star’ but what about all the others trying to make an honest living, in places like this just creates further wealth divide and I learnt my lesson, never again... I will take a risk in future and be surprised either way..
10,000 Kyat, or 10 finest US Dollars in Bagan gets you a horse and cart complete with a driver for the day to explore the 26 square miles containing 4,400 or so mostly red brick temples. How cute and what an absolute bargain for one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Out of season and in a country with a global tourism boycott meant I had most of these temples to myself. There was one major problem with all this though, in a single word VENDORS. Bloody hell! I lost my rag with them on a number of occasions, then felt guilty, then lost my rag again, I just couldn’t help it. It started at the very first temple i think. Took my shoes off, went up some steps, burnt my feet on the boiling hot tiles, just starting to enjoy the relief at the cooler temperature inside the temple when i am befriended by a Burmese lady. She seems really friendly, asking me about my travels and offering to show me around. She follows me barefoot up the little tiny steps, ‘mind your head’ ‘mind you don’t slip’ right to the top of the pagoda where i had my first jaw dropping view of the ocean of temples in the plain as far as I could see with mountains providing a stunning backdrop. Anyway, I thought she was an official guide and was just after a tip or something but when we got to the bottom she started trying to sell me paintings, carvings, bells, postcards, you name it. I declined, gave her a tip and left. Even if I wanted to buy stuff I really couldn’t, being on a 1 year trip there is no way i am lugging around junk with me.
This kind of harassment just got worse and worse. People following me around temples, trying to sell me some tat or another, trying to exchange English coins for Kyat. Most of them would start with the same lines, either ‘where are you from? Ahhhh England sorry about the football’ or ‘you are so beautiful’. Nice but when you have heard the same thing for the 50th time in a day and you know where it is going to lead next and just want to be left alone to admire and photograph the temples, it gets real tiring. I couldn’t help this feeling of guilt building up either though. These people rely on the tourist trade to make a living, to feed their families, but as I said I saw maybe two other horse-drawn carts that day exploring the temples. Politics and the resulting tourism boycott is really screwing it up for them. All these people trying to make a living selling their handicrafts to tourists, but particularly at this time of year there is no-one coming here. Me, one person, I couldn’t possibly make a difference, couldn’t possibly buy things off all these people anyway, but it did get to me. I started getting annoyed with myself for being grumpy with them, but they were just so annoying arrrgggghhhh!!!!! One sweet lady I was grumpy with for following me round a temple, i just turned around and asked her to leave me alone in peace and she did. When I saw her again she apologised and we started talking, she was really sweet. She wanted to paint my face and arms with Thanaka. When I first arrived in Myanmar I did wonder what this stuff was that many women and children painted onto their faces. I thought it might be a religious or cultural thing, wasn’t sure. Anyway, thanaka is basically a white creamy paint that is used in Myanmar as a sun protection and beauty treatment. I let her paint it on me, and I enjoyed her company and shared a Chinese tea. This was the problem throughout my time in Myanmar. So many people approached me all the time, I was never left alone for too long, but it was difficult to know when someone was trying to sell something or just genuinely interested to find out about me and talk to me. I was a foreigner on my own in a strange land, a walking ATM as well as an object of curiosity. Quite often it was children, maybe as young as five years old, trying to sell stuff. I gave one group of kids a laugh. Lets just say i hadn’t quite perfected the getting off a horse-drawn cart elegantly without flashing my knickers. At one of the temples before I had even got off the cart I was surrounded by kids so made a big effort not to give them an eyefall but ended up instead doing a kind of backflip off the back of the cart and landing on my ass in the road! Hehehehehehehe... At least it delayed their sales pitch for a few minutes while they laughed hysterically!
Anyway, back onto topic. The big event building up during a day exploring Bagan temples is sunset. Several times during the day the horseman asked me what kind of temple i wanted to watch the sunset from. I left it up to him and we got to the top on his chosen temple not only in perfect time for sunset but just in time to witness a rainbow over the sea of golden temples. MAGIC?? Can you believe it? I couldn’t.. Just as i settled down to watch the sun disapeer behind the mountains and the light over the temples change dramatically every few minutes, I hear some other people climbing MY temple grrrrrrr..... They get to the top, they look familiar, yes no mistaking the white socks and sandals, don’t really go with the longyis, yes the same longyis they were wearing when I saw them in yangon. It was the blimmin annoying Russian couple from the Shwedagon paya! Out of 4,400 temples they could have chosen, they chose this one to watch the sunset from! Made me laugh. They were followed, it seems, by some more vendors trying to sell paintings and Buddha carvings... Oh gawd, they found me. I struck up an interesting conversation though with a wee girl who was actually selling postcards but quickly realised I wasn’t interested. Anyway, she was 8 years old, her English was perfect, I was so impressed. She told me about her family, about her school and how she wanted to grow up to be a teacher. She told me she thought i was beautiful and i returned the compliment, as she was just adorable!
I would highly recommend a visit to see this unique place. Yes there was the hassle from vendors, but for half of the time I had the temples all to myself to really feel the atmosphere. I again think about how lucky I am to be seeing the world like this. I am living my dream I AM REALLY DOING IT! Every day I wake up I realise this all over and I certainly do not take this for granted. Appreciate this gift, this luck to have been born in the free world and the opportunity to explore this beautiful planet. Every day I am walking slightly slower, speaking slightly slower, feeling more myself in personality, spirit and humour. I am a world away from the corporate career-driven lifestyle back in England. Every day though I discover something new and every day I come across a new challenge. I have seen more beautiful sunsets these past three months than in my entire life. I miss my family and friends terribly. Some special moments like this I would really have loved to share with someone.....