Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bagan: Temple Safari!

Last Sunday, we arrived at a pier on the banks of the Irrawaddy before sunrise.  Tickets in hand, we were ready for a daylong cruise south to the ancient city of Bagan (formerly Pagan).  As our boat slowly motored down the river, we had a lazy day watching the activity on the water as barges of logs and oil made their way in the opposite direction.  Local fishermen were busy on the sandy banks and distant pagodas glinted in the sun.

We were a bit confused when the boat decided to make a stop by the side of the river in the middle of nowhere to pick up a few new passengers.  As the crew placed a plank between the boat and the shore, hordes of villagers ran to the riverbank to sell bananas and deep fried snacks.  As soon as Stephanie went to the railing for a closer look, a volley of bananas and samosas was launched in our direction.  Steph immediately ducked given that she doesn't catch and Gio took over the negotiations.  Once he threw back the items we did not intend to purchase, we had to pay – and thus began a game where we floated currency off the side of the boat hoping it would reach the correct merchant.  This process, however, made negotiating much easier.  Another passenger refused to pay the asking price, tossed half the amount of kyat requested, and took his bunch of bananas back inside the boat.

We arrived in Bagan at sunset, so we had to wait until the following morning to begin our explorations.  Bagan is one of Myanmar’s ancient capitals and, more importantly for a modern-day visitor, is filled with temples built in the 12th century.  Thousands of brick temples of all shapes and sizes fill the dusty plains and visitors are free to wander through the archaeological zone to visit any or all of them.

We structured our visits to the temples of Bagan like a self-drive safari, with plans to stop at the must-see temples, just as we had made plans to stop at specific watering holes for the best animal sightings in Africa.  Each day, we plotted out a route in advance but left room to diverge from the predetermined course in case we encountered anything particularly interesting, like a secret temple that the guidebook had missed.  Given there are over 3,000 temples in the area, this was quite likely.  Only about 1% of the temples (if that) are indicated by name on tourist maps and most are simply labeled with a number.

The best time for viewing temples (just like wild animals) is in the early morning and late afternoon, as it is quite hot in Bagan.  With this in mind, we spent a great deal of time seeking out the best sunrise and sunset viewing locations.  Although the guidebook had various suggestions, we were constantly on the hunt for a “secret” location all to ourselves to avoid the crowds.

Giorgio took fabulous photos of the sun setting over the ruins from Pyathada and Buledi temples, both recommended by the Lonely Planet.

Of course, we weren’t the only ones there, as others had discovered these picture-perfect views as well.  Vendors selling t-shirts, bus loads of Chinese tourists, and several Asians with tripods set up camp on the upper terraces with us.  Even in the midst of so many visitors, though, the stunning views were more than worth it.  (We would also note that these two temples were the “less crowded” destinations; the hordes of tourists were actually at Shwesandaw Paya, packed in like sardines on its steep steps.)

We also found what we now refer to as Steph and Gio’s secret temples for a more solitary sunrise and sunset experience.  During our explorations, we came across a few temples set back from the dirt path.  None of them had names and they hadn’t attracted any vendors.  Regardless, they contained hidden stairways tucked into dark corners that led to terraces with spectacular views out over the plains. 

At one stop, we clambered through some of the thorny bushes (always mindful of snakes) and found a temple entrance that was gated and padlocked shut.  However, some previous intrepid visitor had pried open the metal at the bottom, leaving just enough space to crawl inside.  We found walls covered in ancient paintings, a large Buddha statute, and several small Buddhas in various niches.  This unnamed temple was more elaborately decorated than many of the larger, more famous sites.  iPhone flashlights in hand, we found a small entryway to the temple’s staircase and crouched down to climb the narrow steep steps.  We emerged onto the sunny terrace to see Bagan’s magnificent temples arrayed in front of us, including our favorite, Sulamani Pahto.  Taking out our map, we determined that we were at Archaeological Site #761.  Furthermore, we determined that this would be the perfect location to watch the sun set over the plains and river to our west.  Returning later that day, we clambered even higher up the temple’s brick terraces and settled in.  A few horse carts and bikes passed by below, but no one else stopped to join us on our hidden terrace.

Some of the best views of the temples came from above.  We had planned a balloon trip over the temples well before we had even left the US.  Although this was a bit of a splurge, we determined it would be a once in a lifetime experience.  Plus, Gio had never been on a hot air balloon before!  

On Tuesday morning, a pre-WWII Chevy CMP bus, which was partly made of teak, picked us up at 5:20 am sharp.  Along with the balloon’s other passengers, we piled into the unique vehicle.  We arrived at a large football field still enshrouded in darkness and found several uninflated balloons arrayed on the grass.  Our Chevy parked alongside one of these and we alighted to have coffee and meet our pilot.  Once it became a bit lighter out, we crowded around to watch the staff inflate the giant burgundy and gold balloons.

Following a brief safety presentation, we climbed into the basket and slowly ascended to over 2,000 feet.  As we floated over the temples, Giorgio conquered his fear of heights to take several amazing photos.  There were no crash landings and about an hour later, we touched down to celebratory champagne alongside a few rice paddies and peanut fields.

The following morning, we woke up early to catch the sunrise and watch the balloons float south over the temples.  In the dim light, we scooted back to another “secret” temple we had found while off-road exploring the previous day: Archaeological Site #854.  After a brief scare entering the temple when we stumbled upon a local sleeping in the corner, we climbed the narrow stairway to watch the sun rise over the mountains.  One other couple biked across the dirt road and spotted our secluded spot.  They eventually joined us on the terrace and we all settled on the temple’s northern patio for the real show: watching (instead of riding) the balloons over Bagan.  The winds had changed since the prior morning and the balloons were clustered much closer to the temples.  From afar, many appeared to come close to crashing into some of the taller spires.  Some of the balloons did, in fact, crash land alongside Dhammayangyi Pahto, missing the second half of their journey.  We have no idea what went wrong (a change in the wind?) but did see the Balloons over Bagan Chevys speeding back north to catch up with the pilots and passengers.

Balloons, of course, were not our primary means of transport to explore the thousands of temples dotting Bagan’s vast plains.

Many tourists rent electric bikes (you only need to pedal if you feel like it), but Steph’s biking skills are precarious at best and she wasn’t sure she could handle the responsibility of a bicycle with its own power source.  With this in mind, Giorgio rented a small electric scooter from the stand across from our hotel for our three days of explorations.  Unfortunately, there were no trustworthy Japanese products on offer, leaving us with a slightly less dependable Chinese scooter.

Noting that “Lefu” was emblazoned on the bike’s side amidst various Chinese characters, Steph christened our scooter “Le Chien Fu.”  Every time Gio turned the scooter on or off, it would speak to us in Chinese.  Was it telling us to stay safe and have a nice trip?  We aren’t really sure, but that’s what we like to think.  As we headed back to our hotel in the dusk following sunset on our first day of explorations, we discovered (the hard way) that our scooter had other things to tell us in Chinese.  As we became repeatedly mired in the sand, Le Chien Fu would startle us with three sharp beeps and a previously unheard stern warning.  It would then refuse to proceed unless Stephanie got off and walked.  Perhaps it was telling her she was too fat?  This process repeated itself several times, and at the same time we managed to become hopelessly lost in the growing darkness.

When we came upon a village and paused in the middle of an intersection to peer at our map, various children and adults appeared to direct us to the highway.  With their help, we were back on the tarred road in no time and driving back to the hotel.  Our scooter, however, was quickly running out of power and resumed her endless beeps and dire warnings.  One final hill was simply too much for her to handle, and we both had to get off and walk the rest of the way to the hotel.

As we explored the temples of Bagan on our marginally trusty scooter, we were able to discover the vast archaeological site on our own.  Even though Bagan is one of Myanmar’s busiest tourist sites, none of the temples were as busy as those of Angkor Wat and many others were devoid of visitors entirely.  We noticed a great deal of construction and are sure that Bagan won’t stay this way – go now!  The most popular temples can get a little crowded with tourists and hawkers repeatedly insisting, “you buy, good price for you; first sale, lucky money for me.”  But the vast majority of temples remain havens of peaceful solitude with no one else in sight.  Also, just like the Tsingy in Madagascar, we are convinced that many of the temples will have predetermined paths and areas will be closed in the future due to preservation (some upper terraces are already closed to the public).

We saw countless temples, so many that we can’t pick a favorite, let alone describe them all.  Each was unique in its own way – we found elaborate paintings hidden in dark corners, incredibly detailed stonework adorning entryways, and innumerable Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes.

Some temples had their own key keepers, meaning that a local who lives in the area or on site can open the temple gates for you and show you around.  We met one young key keeper who showed us all around and happily practiced her English with us, asking if Giorgio was from China and what our favorite colors and fruits were.  Fields of corn and peanuts surround the temples, and we found ourselves in multiple traffic jams caused by herds of goats and cows. 

After four days, we traded the magic of Bagan’s temples for the tranquility of mountain-ringed Inle Lake, in eastern Myanmar, followed by the endless white sand beaches of Ngpali.


No comments:

Post a Comment