Friday, January 29, 2010

Inle & Bagan

Yes, these two do probably deserve a post each, but I'm feeling lazy and tired, and the internet access speeds here in Burma are nothing short of infuriating, so it'll be a one post summary for both... Now to see if I can actually upload 15 pictures.

Besides, Inle Lake, while certainly being beautiful and interesting, wasn't quite the awe-inspiring, can't miss sort of destination, in my mind. The biggest attraction of Inle is, of course, the lake, which is beautiful, a little reminiscent of Bolivia's Titikaka, with the mountains rising up just beyond it. It also has the unique distinction of lacking any actual shoreline - the water slowly morphs into reeds, and tall grass, and marsh-like areas, and eventually, voila, dry land! Beyond the lake though, you get to just see everyday Burmese life (in a very pretty setting, and with a little too much of tourist point-of-sale thrown in), which I didn't find quite as interesting. But equipped with a 300mm zoom lens, I set off documenting said every day life, with the long zoom allowing me to feel mildly less intrusive

The definitive view of Inle - the lake, the mountains, and a lone fisherman paddling a canoe along, with his leg(!)

This fisherman choosing to use his arms to paddle - so much less picturesque!

A lady piloting her boat along, hidden beneath the wide brims of her hat

Not really sure what this was all about, but these guys were all rowing their boats along in the morning. Monks? Students?

Well, I may have lied a bit when I said (only implied, technically) that there were no temples at Inle. There are, but now that I'm in Bagan, unless you built your temples by the thousand, you might as well not have bothered building at all!

Well, Inn Dein, a short canal ride away from Inle, actually comes pretty close, supposedly sporting 1054 Zedi (the pointy-things behind me) on top of a hill. Bagan still scoffs at you, Inn Dein!

So, if Inle Lake can be descibed as 'interesting,' the word that comes to mind for the Bagan Plain is 'jaw dropping' (ok, so, it's two words). The bus ride from Inle to Bagan can, incidentally, be best described as jaw-shattering. During that bumpy ride, I did, however, manage to read a bit of my guide book, learning that the old Bamar Kings had built over 4,400 temples in Bagan over the course of about 230 years (before getting properly beaten down by the Mongols, of course...) to remind the population that they were all Buddhists now, I suppose. Upon reading that, I figured I'd see a few dozen restored temples, and the rest would be piles of rock, sort of like the Inca ruins in Peru, where some archaeologist has authoritatively stated that every single rock you come across is actually an integral part of an Inca Temple... Well, I was wrong:

The plain of Bagan is quite literally filled with thousands of temples - still standing, restored, it's hard to tell the difference, but all unmistakably amazing

Golden domes hiding behind brick domes, as far as the eye can see

So, naturally, the first thing I did upon arriving in Bagan was ... leave. Well, I didn't really live, I just ran into Heinrich and Martina, a Norwegian couple, on my first morning in Bagan, and decided to go with them to Mt. Popa. I'd been hoping to see Mt. Popa anyway, but it's about 50km away, so you have to go with a taxi of some sorts, and having people there already to share the costs with was enough to convince me, so off we went

Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano, rising in the background.

We made a little detour on the way too, stopping to see the locals harvest palm trees and make palm juice, beer, and distill a spirit, which is 45% alcohol by volume... Not the most awful moonshine I've ever tasted either. The mountain itself was highlighted by the monkeys, who inhabit the stairwells leading up, and the nats, who inhabit the temples on and around the mountain. The nats are basically guardian spirits - pre-Buddhist era deities, which were kept around just in case. My favorite was the patron saint of gamblers (who gets whiskey bottles as offerings) - clearly, if you're going to get started in cock fighting, you might as well have your bases covered, since I'm not sure Buddha himself has ever revealed his true feelings on the subject.

Bagan, Day 2: Bring on the temples in full force! I got up, rented a bike, picked up a detailed map, and headed off, camera at the ready. I only returned after the sun had set. Along the way...

The beautiful Ananda Phaya, sporting a Golden Peak

Maha-Bodi Pagoda, closely resembling the one in Bohdgaya, India, at the spot where Buddha achieved enlightenment.

If you have a minor fortune, and remembered to bring most of it with you, in crisp new American dollar bills, to Myanmar, you can afford to take in sunrise over Bagan from a balloon. I was happy to settle for taking pictures of the balloons floating over the Gaw-daw-palin Temple

And then, of course, there is the small matter of the sun - setting and rising, creating a spectacular sight over the temple-filled plains. There is a few temples that you can scale and join a couple dozen other tourists gazing away at the spectacle of the sun coming up and down over the horizon. Snapping away lots of pictures, of course, as was I:

Sunset view from atop the Buledi Temple. That-byin-nyu Temple featuring prominently in the middle

The temples leaving nothing but silhouettes behind as the sun descends

And a little before seven the following morning, the sun comes back up into the sky, basking everything around in a deep red colour.

By the middle of my third (and last) day in Bagan, I was getting a little tired, after spending the previous day and a half on a bike, temple-hopping, and dodging the crowds of souvenir trinket salesmen (sales-children?), not to mention the whole getting up in time to see the sunrise thing. But it's the crowds of souvenir hawkers that really start to wear on you (the locals are clearly keenly aware that Bagan is the prime tourist attraction of their country). So, at about 2 in the afternoon, feeling like I had dodged the crowds enough to see all the temples I had wanted to see, I felt ready to head back and relax for an afternoon. But then I spotted this guy, while at Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi

I was intrigued...

The temple was clearly huge, and I was making a point to hit most of the big ones, but they were generally specially marked on my map, and attracted throngs of tourists. This one I was having trouble identifying and couldn't see anyone there. So, I hopped back on the bike and headed in the general direction trying to navigate the sandy goat paths, and remaining glad that I had chosen to pay extra for a proper mountain bike, with its thick spiky tires, and 7 gears. After 15 minutes of traversing the worst goat-paths yet, I arrived, and was greeted by the glorious sounds of ... silence! I had the place (Pya-tha-da Pagoda, as I later identified it by triangulating my position relative to the other big temples I could see) all to myself. No tourists, no salespeople, no shady ruby dealers, no kids following you around the whole temple, offering some postcards (or a copy of Orwell's Burma Days), just Buddha sitting there, in glorious, serene, meditative silence. I was starting to feel like I could relate to Buddha... After making a circle through the temple's interior, I emerged, ready to head home, but now I finally saw somebody stir in the nearby shade - ahh, I wasn't alone after all... I was ready to ignore the man, but instead of coming up to ask "Where you come from?" (the de facto tourist greeting around these parts), he just called out "You want to go?" I had to think about this for a moment, but soon enough the image of the closed off staircase popped into my head
- go up?
- yes
- yes, definitely!
So, in summary, Pya-tha-da actually got better at this point, when the gatekeeper let me up onto the roof. Not showing any desire to sell me anything in the process, nor to find out where I come from... In fact, the only desire I was able to discern was to lock the staircase back up after I was done, head back to his spot in the shade, and go back to napping. I liked the guy, and his temple!

1 comment:

Lin said...

Hi, I am Burmese. I might have an idea why that pagoda is totally desserted.. "Pya-tha-da" in Burmese means bad luck. Pya-tha-da Day in Burmese Calendar is sorta like Friday the 13th. I wonder why someone named a pagoda "Bad luck".... :)