Bagan, Myanmar Careening Through Pagodaland

Today didn’t turn out quite as planned. We left the hotel shortly before noon to grab an early lunch/late breakfast before heading out on our rented bicycles to pagodaland. That’s what Bagan is all about. It’s Pagoda National Park. There’s some 2000 of them dotting the open landscape along the Ayayerwady river, dating as far back as the 9th century AD.

We went to an Italian restaurant. Actually, it was more like an "Italian" restaurant. No, come to think of it, it was an "Italian" "restaurant," as real restaurants usually have walls, but at this point I’m not all that picky. After a few tight-budgeted days in Yangon, I came to the conclusion that Burmese cuisine isn’t really all that good. They use a pungent array of flavorings that are immediately revolting to the untrained nose. I’m done screwing around with trying to eat it. Like the English, I think they’re well aware that their food isn’t all that good, and have wisely looked abroad, when feeding tourists, for more suitable culinary options.

I ordered pasta, which was a mistake. Pizzas they can handle. Tortellini is a little too delicate.

Tom and I discussed our plan of attack over lunch. This being our second day, we were going to skip past all the pagodas in our immediate vicinity, having seen the best of them yesterday, and head inside the ancient brick walls of Old Bagan a few kilometers away, where we would engage in a non-stop pagodathon.

That was the plan.

See the thing is, Tom isn’t very good at riding a bike. To be fair, he gave me plenty of warning, but there really aren’t many other practical options for seeing the sights here, so I told him he was going to have to manage. "It’s easy," I told him. "It’s just like riding a bike."

I wanted to stop at the post office before we headed out so I could send a letter. I advised Tom that we were going to take a turn-off just ahead and ride down to the end of that street. I pulled out of the restaurant first. It took Tom a little longer. It’s sort of a slapstick routine the way he gets going; like watching a rodeo clown.

I got to the turn-off about 100 meters down the road, not realizing how far behind me Tom was. I stopped and waited for him, then watched him careen obliviously past me as I shouted his name.

That was the last I saw of him.

I wasn’t about to go chasing after him. He’d missed the turn and I assumed he’d figure it out eventually. I waited by the side of the road for twenty minutes, smiling at little kids as they rode past on bicycles, waving back at old men on horsedrawn carriages. This is a beautiful town. Anyway, no Tom.

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It’s hot here and I got sick of waiting, so I went to the post office. It was just past noon by then, and they’d closed up while I was waiting. At that point I decided the best thing to do would be to ride back to the hotel and wait beneath the cool breeze of my ceiling fan for Tom to show up.

That was four hours ago.

Incidentally, I have the map, the camera, and the guide book. I can’t imagine what he’s up to.

Yesterday was loads of fun. We spent the whole day pagoda-hopping. We’d show up at one pagoda, get blitzed, hit on some Buddha statues, get thrown out, then crawl on over to the next one.

Okay, it wasn’t like that at all. It was a quiet, somber experience. This is a fascinating place.

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Part of the marvel of it for me is that I’ve never heard of Bagan before. I had no idea it existed. And really, there’s not that much to be known about it. Much of the history has been lost. The people and their origins are largely a mystery. Even a lot of the names of these places have been forgotten. The British did a half-assed archeological study a hundred years ago, but their most significant contribution was plundering a lot of the best stuff and sticking it in their museums. Recent studies have yielded more, but really most of what’s known comes from the frescos and shrines. The Bagan Empire apparently didn’t bother to write much down.

Going inside the pagodas is exciting. It’s all dark and ancient-like and I get to play Indiana Jones. The giant wall paintings tell elaborate stories about Gods and kings, but they’re chipped, faded, and to me at least, entirely inscrutable.

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This temple was tricky cause there was a camper with a rocket launcher and quad damage up on one of the ledges. I picked him off with my railgun, so it wasn’t a problem.

Almost all the pagodas have a garrison of souvenir merchants stationed at the entrance, which seems ridiculous considering the bes t sites get maybe half a dozen visitors ea ch day. They follow you inside yelling "Souvenir! You look! You look! No money today! Give me sale!" I feel like a pinata filled with money and everyone’s standing around waiting for me to explode. It makes the whole experience a lot less pleasant.

I left Tom at one point so he could hang around inside one of the pagodas and photograph the frescos. They don’t sustain my interest nearly as long as they do for him, which makes sense, seeing as he spent years studying Buddhist art history and all. I lay down out front near the souvenir stalls. The sellers pestered me for a while, but eventually realized it was useless and went back to entertaining themselves as if I wasn’t there. They pulled out a ball made of woven strands of wood and played a game that was immediately recognizable as monkey-in-the-middle. They invited me to play, and we had a gay old time for about half an hour.

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Tom joined in too.

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There was juggling and making faces and laughing and it was all really great.

When we got ready to leave, everyone instantly returned to their designated roles. The kids begged and pleaded for us to buy their postcards, the women thrust random handcrafts in front of us in the hopes that we’d thoughtlessly take one in our hands and then feel obliged to pay for it. It was a little disheartening cause, ya know, I thought we’d had something there. But I guess that’s just how it is.

Tom, having more of an appreciation for local art, was a lot more susceptible to the handcraft sirens than I was. Here he is getting lured away by their call.

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On the way to another pagoda, Tom put the map in the little container on the front of his bike. A gust of wind caught it and it flew up into his face, blinding him and causing him to ride into a brick wall.

I’m not the right guy to have around when things like that happen. I’m not one of those who rushes over to make sure everything’s okay before doubling over with laughter. But come to think of it, Tom wasn’t all that helpful when I fell in that pile of shit either.

Fortunately, everything was, in fact, fine. Nothing bruised or broken.

Later that night, after returning to the hotel and having dinner, I decided to make use of the full moon and take a ride on my own through the ancient city. There was no one for miles – just me and a couple thousand Buddhas. The massive spires lining the horizon; the skyline of a dead metropolis, and then the moon and the stars and the clouds. It was something. It was one of those moments.

There’s so much we can do on this planet. It’s all right there and there’s nothing stopping so many of us. I don’t know how to fix the things that are wrong about the world, and I’m rarely compelled to try, but one thing I can do is make use of the privileges I’m given. At the very least, I know how to do that.

The Burmese are great about lighting. The best of the structures here are boldly but tastefully illuminated throughout the night, for the benefit of no one in particular. You can ride right up to them and walk inside and it’s as bright as day. It’s pretty spooky, actually. Standing amidst floodlighting in the middle of nowhere, you feel like someone’s there, but you don’t know where. It makes the places seem haunted.

Here are some happy kids.

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I’m getting to the end of this entry, and still no sign of Tom.

So that’s pretty much all I have to say about Bagan. It’s not the most wildly exciting stop on my trip. I tend to go for places where the interesting stuff is happening now, rather than a thousand years ago. But if you’re looking for a relaxing, dare I say bucolic little archeological wonder, you can’t do much better than here.

You do need to know how to ride a bike, though.

6 Responses to Bagan, Myanmar Careening Through Pagodaland

  1. Andy

    ’bout time you managed to use the word “bucolic” on your website. hey, you never told us what happened to Tom when he rode off into the sunset…or did I miss something…?

  2. matt

    He showed up at the hotel in the evening. He spent the day touring Bagan on his own, assuming I’d catch up with him eventually or something like that.

  3. Rich Rossi

    “This temple was tricky cause there was a camper with a rocket launcher and quad damage
    up on one of the ledges. I picked him off with my railgun, so it wasn’t a problem.”

    LMAO! It took me a second to catch that one.

    Seeing the picture of you playing monkey in the middle with everyone was just awesome. I play volleyball myself and I’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of “locals” when I’ve traveled in the Carribbean and Mexico. I also played a lot of tennis with Italians when I was there for six weeks. There is just something special about playing competitive sports with people from other countries…. it’s more fun.

  4. T.S

    I am a fun of your blogs. I am originally from Myanmar and now live in Canada. I am happy to know that you think Myanmar is beautiful. I realized that there are problems in the country because of the political situation and people are poor although the country has a lot of natural resources. Traditionally, Burmese are kind and generous people.
    For history of Bagan, I understand that there were a lot of writings on the history. Unfortunately, a lot of them did not survive due to climate and political turmoil in the region.
    I like the fact that you wrote honestly about feelings on the places that you visit. You might not like certain places because you are tired from traveling or many other reasons. That shows that you are a real person not a pretentious snob. Keep up with the writing.

  5. Nice post!! I know something about this country. My friends visited and tell me about this country. If I have a chance, I also want to visit that place.

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