My ebook: Journeys with the caterpillar

My ebook
Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores
and Sumba, Indonesia
" is available at
this link

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Myanmar Travels: Bagan

For the last leg of my journey, I headed to Bagan. Bagan is the mesmerizing assortment of temples, and more temples, and some more temples, and just a little bit more temples. It is the result of some crazy architectural vision, an attempt to pierce the sky with thousands of needles, 13,000 at one time, probably around 2000 presently. The temples were built during the 11th and 12th century and the complex was subsequently sacked by the Mongols. While the temples are not spectacular, it is the audacity of numbers that mesmerizes the visitor, especially when viewing from the top. As Stalin said, Quantity has a Quality of its own.
When I reached this sleepy town, the taxi driver having patiently shown me around a few Lonely Planet guesthouses, dropped me at Inn-Wa, a 8$ a night hotel with air-conditioning, towels, hot water and private bathroom. The place, as seems typical of Myanmar, was run by a mama-sita who was in control of everything. As I had arrived at evening, there was not much to do to kill time besides having dinner. I chanced upon a restaurant called “Wonderfully Tasty” along a street called “Restaurant Row” that was lined with about twenty open air restaurants with twinkling lights and candles. Wonderfully Tasty’s sales pitch was that “all our vegetables are washed in mineral water” and who can resist that?
Early next day, I headed to the temple complex with a grandfather bicycle and soon the sandy trails gripped my tires like an Amazon snake. As real snakes slithered by, I realize why 3 falls mean “Game Over” in Need for Speed. As there are many more temples than tourists, visiting the lesser known ones can be delightful as you can soak in the ancient atmosphere. One does feel surprised at the audacity of the builders of the smaller temples. Were they hoping that 1000 years later, the world will be full of Schumpeter clones touting “small is beautiful”?
Each temple has a few hawkers, quietly hoping to sell their wares. The sand painters are the most common. With very lovable smiles, they all try to explain how their style is so much more innovative than the others even though their paintings all look the same. The hawkers are not very numerate and often increase the price by mistake when I bargain for discounts. Some even ask me for my t-shirt instead of any payment. At one temple, a few ladies from all ages grab my bike, insisting that I negotiate for the pajamas they were selling. When I refuse a thousand times, they let me go with sad eyes. After some introspection, I head back to them to buy the pajamas just to lift their spirits and I am greeted with wild applause and genuine relief. It’s their first sale after 3 days, a sum of $3 for a family of five.
After a long day of cycling, I decided to have some deep fried snacks at a dilapidated shack. The matriarch of the shop took me for a famished person as I finished the whole flask of complementary tea to rehydrate and greedily munched down the snacks. She took pity and offered me some boiled peanuts mixed with salt, lemon and a piece of omelet. The lady and her daughter laughed whole heartedly as I gulped down the whole thing. They probably just intended me to taste what was their meal. This probably was my happiest moment in Myanmar as I hoped that I had given some occasion for humor for my desperately poor hosts.
As dusk approaches, the tourists herd towards the few odd temples that have viewing platforms for tourists love sunsets. I headed the other way imagining the dread if I was to cycle through this Dante trail in the dark. The cattle are also heading back and at all crossing points, the right of way belongs to the cattle with their jovial masters. While most tourists travel by horse cart or vans, a few daring ones have opted for the cheap cycle option and whenever we meet, encouraging nods are exchanged with each other. The horse carts have a unique contraption in the form of a bag just behind the tail of the horse to grab all its poo. After hours of cycling, I realize my face has turned into a sand painting as well.
Next day, at the town of Nyang U where I was staying, the morning market is the centre of all activity. Among all the crowded squat shops, suddenly I spot a seven feet tall Caucasian pointing a two feet long camera at a mother holding her baby. I wish Michael Moore was there to capture this. A long row of young monks walk through the middle of the road as the faithful fill their begging bowls with rice in swift assembly line movements. As noon sets in, and tourists having left for the temples, the town yawns and young boys head indoors to watch tele-novellas. At the local book shop, the young girl managing the shop is embarrassed and smiles shyly with her braced teeth when I complain that the 20$ she is charging for three old dilapidated Russian books is atrocious. At sunset, I head for the Ayeyarwaddy River. And I encounter that primeval river scene, ladies bathing, fisherman tugging in their nets, kids splashing, and the sun retreating behind this ancient land, sprinkling the great horizon with dazzling colors, its parting gift to mankind.

P.S. Pictures of Myanmar can be found in this link

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