Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Photographer's Dream: The Endless Temples of Bagan

The landscape changed drastically as we arrived in Bagan, the green, rolling hills of our path from Kalaw to Inle now replaced by long stretches of flat, arid scenery.  Upon arriving at the bus terminal, we joined forces with another pair to negotiate with a driver to ride in the back of his truck (sitting on the truck bed itself, rather than on benches as in northern parts of Thailand) into town to a guest house that had been recommended by a westerner we met briefly at the bus station.  The rooms were clean, the air con mostly kept the room cool, and the TV had a couple of English movie channels that proved quite handy during the heat of the days to come.  It was midafternoon when we arrived, and scorching, so we grabbed some food at a nearby restaurant and settled in for an early night in, planning to get up extra early to view the sunrise over the temples in the morning.

We awoke at 4:30, groggily getting ready and shuffling out the door to a pair of electronic bikes (a cross between a bike, a moped, and a hoverround) that we would be using to navigate the temple complex for the next few days.  We had gotten a bit of a slow start, and the sky was rapidly becoming lighter as we first started seeing pagodas and temples across the road.  We spotted a large brick pagoda to our left with a handful of people perched atop, so we swung in, climbing up for our own view of the rising sun and the fading moon, opposing orbs of red and white, as we lookout over the horizon to see dozens - hundreds, truthfully - of temples and pagodas as far as the eye could see.  

We stayed perched on the small pagoda until the sun had risen, then returned to our bikes and continued along the sandy path (somewhat difficult to navigate with our tiny wheels and limited power).  We first stopped by the Sulamani Pahto, a massive structure of red brick topped with a small, Angkor-like elongated dome.  We explored the interior, the walls painted with crumbling frescos of Buddha images, elephants, demon-looking images, and a long wall showing a line of monks seeking alms, as well as a number of ships being rowed at sea.  

From Sulamani, we snaked through winding dirt paths, stopping at a small temple where a woman was kneeling and chatting in front of a massive image of the Buddha.  The four primary images had been restored, making their features sharp and distinct as I tiptoed around the tiny building to see each version.  Back on the bikes, we continued to Pyathada Pagoda, another massive structure, though this one was more wide than necessarily tall, with a large, square-shaped base.  We walked around the structure, past massive images of Buddha, reaching a set of stairs that took us up to a huge open-air platform.  In the center of the platform was the top of the pagoda, which felt more like its own separate pagoda set atop the structure, the very top covered in gold.  We stayed for a while, taking in the amazing view as the only visitors at the moment, deciding to possibly return later for sunset.  

By then it was around 8am and already starting to become swelteringly hot, so we got back on the road and took the long route home, passing Dhammayangyi Temple and its long entryway lined with trees covered in orange blooms, then through a series of smaller temples called Shwenanyintaw Ahsu to reach the paved road.  From there, we looped through Old Bagan, passing massive temples, an architecture museum and the palace, watched a row of monks - in a long line from oldest to youngest carrying their alms bowls, and continued along until we reached the hotel around 9.  Our sweet hotel owners served us breakfast in the lobby (they typically finish at 9, but had saved us some breakfast after we departed so early), and then we retreated to the room to soak up the air con and rest a bit through the heat of the day.  Our only venture out during the day was to walk across the road and down a bit to what would become our favorite restaurant - Cheri Land - where we would work our way through the menu of chicken stir fries and enjoy draught beer and coffee over the next few days.

Around 5 pm, we decided it had cooled off enough to venture out for sunset, so we headed directly to Pyathada, returning to the massive platform to try and get a good view of the skies to the west.  Unfortunately, as soon as we arrived, the sun disappeared behind a massive cloud, so we didn't have much hope for a colorful sunset.  Instead, we chatted with a few other travelers and enjoyed the breeze, as most of the other tourists gave up, piling onto a small bus to leave.  Just after they left, the sun suddenly emerged from the bottom of a cloud, and the next few minutes were an absolute explosion of color and light, leaving us gasping at the scene and hurriedly taking dozens of photos.

Once the sun had completely disappeared and the light all but faded entirely, we rushed to our e-bikes for a long slog through the dust to the main road and back to the hotel.  Jimmy's bike was desperately low on power and sputtered along at a ridiculously slow pace with no headlight, leaving him pedaling furiously or running Flinstones-style to keep it going at various points!  I followed along as slowly as I possibly could to provide a bit of light, trying to keep from laughing too hard at the hilarity of the situation.  

We went to bed early to awake even earlier the following morning, up and running on our e-bikes (Jimmy on a fresh new one that was supposedly fully charged) by 4:45 am.  We headed for Shwesandaw Paya, a towering white structure that is definitely the most popular spot in Bagan for sunset, but also provided an incredible setting for sunrise, with an enormous amount of temples immediately surrounding the structure, providing both near and faraway silhouettes against the rising sun.  We bumped into some of the guys from the previous day's sunset up at the top, chatting with them as the small crowd cleared away and the sun slowly rose higher in the sky, passing through a set of clouds to provide a powerful blast of rays across the sky.  

As we descended the steep steps of the pagoda, we were bombarded by a troupe of small children, most of whom were attempting to sell us long sleeves of postcards.  One of them had actually hand-drawn his postcards, so in a moment of weakness for this kid after my own heart, I bought the postcards.  The kids wound up tagging along with us, climbing on the backs of the guys' bikes, one pedaling along side us on a bicycle of his own - far too big for him - as they led us towards the massive Dhammayangyi Temple, but stopping first at a much smaller set of twin pagodas.  We entered one of them (North Guni), following the boys as they giggled and climbed all over the structure.   

We then proceeded on to Dhammayangyi, an enormous structure - the largest in Bagan - set up much like the others, with four entrances, each with its own massive icon of Buddha.  Inside, the floor was covered in bat droppings, and we could hear bats and pigeons fluttering around the temple.  Some of the icons were indeed impressive, and there were faint remnants of frescos painted on the walls.  In one of the rooms, we chatted with a man selling sand paintings, who happily shared with us a collection of bills that he had gotten from all over the world from various travelers.  He had in his collection some pre-Euro currency from various European countries, and even a bill from Afghanistan.  I gave him one of my smaller bills leftover from Chile and traded with him for a very old 5 kyat note with Aung San's portrait on it, inscribed with "Union of Burma Bank".  Finally, we exited the temple and said farewell to the kids who had been our tour guides, heading back into town to catch breakfast at our hotel. 

Later that afternoon, I met back up with our new friends to check out the impressive Ananda Pagoda, another massive temple filled with thousands of tiny recessed spaces in the walls, each filled with a small Buddha statue.  The pagoda was thankfully cool inside, a welcome respite from the heat outside.    The guys hired a guide (though he didn't seem to know all that much), and we wandered around the temple, checking out the walls of Buddhas and the four gigantic Buddha statues - one on each side.  Just as we were about to leave, we were interrupted by a procession of locals filing in, with three children dressed up in shiny traditional costumes and makeup, a long ceremonial procession complete with drums.  They marched around the inside of the temple, kneeling at each of the four primary statues before marching out, the children being picked up at the temple's edge and carried to a waiting bus.  

After observing this procession, we made our way to nearby Thatbyinnya Temple, the tallest in Bagan, a beautiful white structure with a very simple interior.  A local family paused to take a group photo with the guys just as we entered, and we found ourselves chatting with another sand painting artist as yet another small procession (just drums and people, no children in costume this time!) wound their way through the temple halls.  

Finally we exited and I bid the guys farewell to catch their buses, crossing the road back to Shwesandaw Paya to meet Jimmy for sunset.  We were again bombarded by the same kids from earlier, but we escaped by climbing up the temple steps as a large crowd was amassing, everyone staking out spots to watch the sunset.  There weren't any clouds to make it particularly interesting, but the sky lit up in brilliant oranges and pinks, the temples and pagodas a beautiful silhouette, was still an astounding sight.  Three monks of various ages and robe colors stood near me, taking photos of their own.  I chatted briefly with the youngest, wearing a deep crimson robe, who was visiting from Bangkok, and they graciously allowed me to take their portrait.

The next morning, we arose for one final sunrise, returning to Shwesandaw after being undecided on any other location.  There was a much bigger crowd than the previous day, including a very tall Italian we had chatted with the night before named Vincenzo, who had an expansive camera set up and a sleeve full of filters, and who invited us to join him at his hotel's pool later on!  

Jimmy and I made a slow return to our hotel, swinging through a few spots in Old Bagan en route to breakfast.  First, we stopped at Mingalazedi, just outside the old city walls, which had a row of carvings depicting scenes in the life of the Buddha, many of which were damaged or had been removed entirely.  We peeked at a newish looking garden and stupa inside the grounds, then hopped back on our bikes to zip through the old town.  We pulled off at a few small groupings of stupas, then exited the main road towards the river, winding through Taungbi Village, eliciting a few stares and smiles from the locals as we went cruising by.  

Our final stop was Hillominlo, a large temple set back from the road, where we immediately bumped into the trio of monks from the previous day, who requested a photo with me this time!  As we slowly made our way through the temple, I could hear a musical chiming of bells filling the air outside, and I stepped out of the temple to find a vendor selling lovely old windchimes.  The soft notes of the chimes reminded me of the many temples I had visited, the peaceful aura of the places, and I purchased a small set to send to my parents back home.  

We bumped into Vincenzo again on the way out, this time confirming a time and location to hang out at his pool.  Jimmy passed on the invitation, but I was happy to escape the heat of the day somewhere other than our tiny hotel room!  The hotel grounds turned out to be gorgeous - little bungalows tucked away under trees in lush, green grass, and we were the only people brave enough to even be outside in the middle of the day, even at the pool.  Thoroughly refreshed and getting hungry, I thanked my host for his hospitality and headed back to my side of town, grabbing another quick meal at Cheri Land and spending a few hours relaxing in the hotel room with the aircon and some wonderful / terrible movies in English.  

Our final night in Bagan, Jimmy and I decided to forego the sunset, instead setting our to the restaurant street for dinner, breaking up our usual routine!  We stopped at a place called Weather Spoon that had been recommended to us, and almost immediately started chatting with an Australian family sitting nearby.  We wound up moving tables to better continue our conversation, learning that the couple had met when working as tour guides in Vietnam, and after a number of years in Sydney with their two kids (now aged 9 and 13), they decided to start traveling as a family indefinitely.  It was pretty amazing to hear their story and see them out traveling as a family of nomads, hearing first hand about their experiences.  Finally we said farewell, returning to our hotel to drop off the e-bikes for the last time, packing our bags, and getting in one last sleep before heading to Mandalay the next morning.