The ancient city of Bagan is surrounded by thousands of brick-red pagodas. It’s a dessert-like landscape, and up out of this inhospitable land they’re scattered as far as the eye can see. In the late 9th century the small settlement of Pagan (Bagan) was founded and gradually grew and absorbed other states until the mid 11th century when the Pagan empire was founded. The spread of Theravada Buddhism was well under way at this point. The Pagan Empire and Khmer Empire (Cambodia) were the two greatest powers in the 12th and 13th centuries. During this prosperous time the wealthy and rulers built well over ten thousand Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital and many more outside of it.
It’s much different, but the feeling reminds me of the Khmer style ruins, like Angkor Wat, except everything a dusty orange instead of dark and gray. Eventually Mongol invasions toppled the kingdom at the end of the 13th century. This was followed by political ruins and conflict. There were constant wars trying to achieve reunification, but it was hundreds of years away. In the mid 16th century a young king from tiny Toungoo (former state on AVA) went on a conquering spree and created the largest empire in SE Asian history.
It was short-lived though and fell apart after his death. The next four hundred years was very messy, which included British rule and wars against the British. Independence wasn’t gained until 1948. After all this, the ruins of Bagan still stand proud. After the first night in Bagan we had a day off to explore the area. The hotel Burma Senses hooked us up with was pretty sweet. The room was pretty average, but they had a big pool out back. This time of year is getting into the brutal sweaty in your face heat and a pool is the only cure. I got a bicycle (dollar for the day) to go ride around, but ended up at the pool until after three in the afternoon. After the tour I definitely won’t be living it up in such style so I have to take advantage while I have it. Despite the heat, some flowers still managed to put on a big bloom over out bikes.
Roaming around on a bicycle you’re constantly surrounded by pagodas at all angles. The best way to get a view over the area is find a big one that you can climb up. I found a couple small ones that gave me a taste, but I was on a mission to get up one of the large ones. There’s sandy/dusty tracks that lead all over the place off the main road. It’s doable on a bicycle, but can get pretty tough when you hit a deep patch of sand. My technique was to go as fast as possible and try to make it through. I’m so used to having a throttle to turn and get all the speed I want that a couple of times when I was getting bogged down I tried turning the grip like a throttle. The tough part about riding on the paths as sunset approached were the packs of colorfully decorated ox-carts carrying tourists around.
They were pretty cute all dressed up, but the plumes of dust were brutal. After getting lost a couple of times and sent in many directions, I found a big temple type spot to climb up into for sunset. There’s only a couple big ones that you can get on top of so they’re pretty busy. The colors of the landscape mixed with the setting sun gives an incredible feel to the place. At least for me. Everywhere lower has a smokey haze look to it from the dust kicked up by all the ox-carts, scooters, cars, and buses.
All the shapes of the pagodas reach up out of it in majestic form. I could imagine standing there in the 12th century. It would be a magical experience to look over it all in complete silence at sunset without all the vehicles and loud people. The area we stayed was just outside Bagan. We were only a short walk to the river and the little streets around us had some interesting spots and little workshops.
Guys carved amazing woodwork late into the night with giant mouthfuls of betel.
Myanmar has some pretty cheap beer and the best are the beer halls. Usually they have some food and ice-cold mugs of Myanmar Beer on drought for around sixty cents. Steve and I found a good one in Bagan, which sported a huge outdoor seating area. The beer was delicious, but I can’t say the same about the food. Unfortunately Myanmar has a serious love affair going on with oil and frying everything. Unless you’re looking for a soggy slab of grease oozing mess, don’t order omelets. Before we knew it we had gone through fourteen beers and wouldn’t have believed them if all the mugs weren’t still on the table. It felt like just a few, and I’m sure we would have just kept on going if it wasn’t for them kicking us out. Places never seem to stay open very late in Myanmar. We were pretty jolly at this point and went to a whole new level of jolly when the little bakery we found earlier was still open. They had some bomb cakes, but they captured my heart with the mini one bite chocolate eclairs. Thought of you dad while chowing on these. Made a stop along the way home to hook up our waiter from the beer garden with an eclair. If everyone in the world just calmed the hell down and ate some chocolate eclairs the wars would end. Next up was Mandalay. Along the way during a stop in a little village I had one very strange and one very pleasant encounter. As I was walking along the road, a lady came out very excited carrying her young son. She had the face of a Tibetan and wanted me to meet her son. He had little gold earrings and I touched one of them. Before I knew it she was pulling down the kids pants and showing me his junk.
I was a bit confused, but all I can guess is that she thought I was accusing him of being a girl because of the earings. This was the strange encounter in case you wondered. Then when I was exploring some back roads I stumbled on a family hand rolling traditional cigars They were amazingly fast and showed me the process. It was definitely the woman work. They sat around their basket trays of tobacco and labored away as the boys ran around having fun.
The man of the house was very excited to have me there, and was proud to show off his home. They sent me away with a few freshly rolled cigars and one lighted up in my mouth.
Those things are rough. Another stop along the road was a nice pick-me-up in the afternoon. They were cooking up palm sugar candy with plenty to sample. In another area they distilled fresh booze. An old lady served up shots like a pro. Nothing like a couple of shots before getting back on the bike.
Mandalay was a lot of fun. It’s the last royal capital and cultural center on Myanmar. In 1857 King Mindon founded it with a goal of developing a home of Buddhism. We got there in the mid-afternoon and the rest of the group went way off somewhere to see the longest teak wood bridge in the world and sunset. It didn’t interest me so I took a bike from the hotel and went off exploring. There are a lot of “biggest in the world” things I’d like to see, but it’s not one of them. The old royal palace is in the center of the city surrounded by a huge moat all the way around. The palace is surrounded by four 6,666 ft long walls. Life hums around it and I just took it all in.
I was ambushed by all the little kids who sell flower necklaces at the intersections. For sunset I ended up at Mandalay Hill, which is what the city is named after. A ridiculous amount of steps leads all the way to the top. The views over the city, many pagodas, the moat, and the Irrawaddy River are nice, but it was pretty smokey.
At the base of the hill is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which is known as the worlds biggest book. There’s 729 stupas, which each house an upright stone slab. The entire Buddhist Scriptures are inscribed on them. It’s a pretty neat spot and better than some wooden bridge. It’s an amazing amount of intricate work and just looks like a whole bunch of circles and circley shapes. The Burmese writing is really unique and has a cool look to it.
The view from the hill over these stupas was really good. At night the royal palace walls glow like gold and cast beautiful reflections off the moat. If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for (there’s actually a ton) it’s taking pictures of reflections.
That night I had found a local place to grab dinner and grabbed a seat with an old man. He was really friendly and spoke descent english. We shared small talk and he helped me order some food. After a cup of tea he got up to leave and told me not to worry about paying because he had already settled it. My bill was probably only a few bucks with everything I had, but it was such a heart warming thing for him to do.
He didn’t look like he was well off and just wanted to do something nice for a visitor to his country. It’s moments like this that give you such a happy feeling. I would’ve loved to had more time to get to know the city and wander down it’s small streets, but we had to take off the next day to Monywa, which was only a short 135 km ride. In the morning everyone else went to go see the things I had already been to and Aung didn’t have a problem with me leaving for Monywa. He gave me the name of the hotel and I was off. It’s such a fun country to ride in. I loved being free to do it in my style.
When I saw some interesting guys with their horse carts on the side of the road I stopped. When I felt like stopping at a little row of stands and chewing on some betel I stopped. When I saw huge fruit stands along the side of the road I stopped and ate some. Also, instead of stopping at some big restaurant for lunch I could pull over at any tiny little spot along a sidewalk. I found the friendliest group of giggly ladies cooking some delicious food up on the edge of town. They brought me dish after dish and for desert a big plate of cakes with milk tea. It was really hot and the spices were getting the sweat going so one of the ladies spent a lot of time fanning me off.
If all this wasn’t enough, when it was all said and done I owed them a dollar. I stopped by the hotel and dropped off some of the stuff from my bike and headed back out. About 20 km outside of town I had passed a place that was getting ready for some ox-cart racing, but wasn’t starting for a bit. I went back there and got in on the action. It was scorching hot and the popsicle man was my best friend. They were having best two out of three races down a long track.
It was a lot of fun just mingling with all the people. The races were cool, but not the most exciting since ox aren’t bred for speed. I kind of felt bad for them running in that heat carrying all the heavy weight on their necks, but at least they got fed some nice bottled water at the finish line and received a nice neck message. There was a guy there who was wearing a helmet that stuck out to me. I know the buddhists use the symbol pointing the opposite way, but it just had the look of a nazi helmet.
The guy probably has no idea why I wanted a picture or what it means. Before heading back to Monywa I made my way up to the massive Buddha statues on the hillside. On the way towards them, there are wooded fields completely full of Buddhas facing the massive ones.
There has to be thousands of them. They keep going and going, and you can’t even see where they end. The standing one is close to 500 feet and the reclining one is the second largest in Myanmar. These combined with the giant gold pagoda were quite the trifecta on the hillside.
You can climb the stairs inside the Buddha all the way up. I only made it to the fifth level before it was closing time, but something was looking very familiar. Ever since seeing the Buddhist hell garden in Thailand, I’d been wanting to see another one. The inside walls of this enormous man are painted with scenes from different realms of hell. At least that’s what I was told they’re depictions of.
Some of them really make you sit there staring, thinking, and wondering what the meaning could be. It doesn’t look like the future of this baby is too bright. These guys are just making a nice soup. It looked like one theme was important. If you do certain things you will be stuck halfway into the ground and then bad things will follow. These things could include getting drunk and partying in front of Buddha while drooling all over yourself or shooting arrows at poor crying monkeys in a tree.
They don’t want you to have any fun. Monywa is on a major river that’s full of activity. Big wooden boats similar to the ones plying the Mekong line the banks. Crowds load and unload everything imaginable. Some serious trading is going on up and down the river. A guy told me what some of the different barrels were, which included local booze and gasoline.
After a couple of minutes watching the sunset I looked back to see a crowd gathering around my bike. They were a friendly bunch and we shared some laughs. I had another arm rubbing episode where the old man just wanted to feel my skin.
There was one guy who had a big long chain made out of the tabs off cans. I told him it was cool and then when I began leaving he stopped me and gave it to me. It’s a bit big for a key chain, but it goes perfect around my mirror. I’m starting to get a collection of knickknacks all over the motorcycle. I like decorating it.