Connect the dots

Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Bed in Bagan

No, it's not what you're thinking. I wish it were something racy but I finally got a bug the day we arrived in Bagan. Maybe it was all the in-and-out between hot and sticky Yangon streets and our no less than icy hotel and running around bringing my immune system to a halt. Nevertheless, it was just as stifling when we got to Bagan. After one day's rest, I didn't want to give up the opportunity to explore the 104 square kilometer plains full of temples, stupas and monasteries.

Bagan, formerly Pagan, was established in the late 9th century as the capital of the Pagan empire. From the 11th to 13th centuries it thrived as a center for religious as well as secular studies. For over 250 years, the rulers and subjects constructed over 10, 000 religious buildings, whereby a little over 2,000 currently remain. Repeated Mongol invasions in the late 13th century finally led to its collapse.

In the 1990's the Myanmar government made an effort to restore many of the earthquake damaged temples and stupas and make Bagan a major tourist destination. However, during the restoration process, they used modern materials and inaccurate architectural styles that appalled many art historians, and preservationists as well as keeping it on the tentative list of world heritage sites. To make matters worse, a modern palace was built directly across from the original palace ruins, still being excavated today and a 61 meter watchtower in the middle of the plains. Despite the inaccuracies, Bagan is still a wonder when you climb one of the temples and look out onto the 2,000 temples scattered throughout. 

Htilomino Paya
Stucco detail
There is no shortage of souvenir hawkers ready to sell you a carving, a marionette or paintings. Alex kept herself busy by the food carts and Myanmar's version of knock hockey. 

Ananda Pahto

Cool off with some water

Buddhas, buddhas, everywhere, from traditional gold ones with fading frescoes to flat screened modern ones. 

Flat screen Buddha

Could those lights be from the Bowery?

The old palace...

and the new one. 

They don't call this the golden land for nothing. Gold stupas are EVERYWHERE! 

Unfortunately, I was only able to see Old Bagan since I had to bow out the other 2 days due to a pretty bad virus. I did however, manage to finish The Piano Tuner, an atmospheric novel by Daniel Mason of an Englishman's journey to Burma in the early 20th century. Marc and Alex ventured out on horse cart to explore the central plains and Salay with its old colonial buildings and crumbling teak monasteries without me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stranded in Sittwe

Most people stop in Sittwe only briefly to or from Mrauk U, but if you stay at least one night you'll discover that this little port town has an interesting mix of people from the Rakhine to Muslim Rakhine to the non-recognized Rohingya (especially being so close to the Bangladesh border), a lively fish and rice market, fairly intact colonial architecture, and some delicious Muslim and Chinese tea houses for snacks from samosas to steamed buns. If your Burmese is good enough, you can even sit at the cinema for some good laughs. We had no choice but to stay here due to all the flights back to Yangon being fully booked (and no other way but a flight allowed) but glad that we got a chance to see it's charms.

Fried snacks
Don't know if I'd order a dozen of these...

Super light aluminum water cans from Bangladesh

Our new yellow house? Complete with tennis court!
Take your tea "chaw bawk"
Preparing the samosas
Fresh out of the steamer
Cinema with only a curtain separating it from the restaurant where we had dinner

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stupa-fied: Part 1

Getting from one place to another is a bit more complicated in Myanmar. Just because a plane flies in one direction from one city to another, doesn't mean that it makes the trip back. Also, in the case of getting to Mrauk U via Sittwe, transport by road is strictly forbidden to tourists (something about a military base on the horrendous roads).  Yes, a plane ride followed by what could be a long boat trip (as in our case, 7 hours). Not to mention, the hassle of hiring a private boat. The touts get you right as you land at the airport. We initially refused, but anxious to save time and just get there, we haggled him to a price that we thought was reasonable and left almost immediately. But before you give up, know that your efforts will be rewarded. The difficulty in getting to Mrauk U means that not many tourists venture here - approximately about 3,000 per year! 

Established as the capital of the Arakan kingdom in 1433, Mrauk U was an important trading hub for goods within Burma such as elephants and rice and Persia and India for textiles, spices and cotton. As the kingdom prospered, they were able to pay homage to their faith by building countless temples and stupas (or zedis) that dot the Rakhine hills. What makes Mrauk U even more charming is the fact that daily village life continues between these striking structures.

You can explore by bike, but in April, when the temperatures can hit 40deg C, a bike is an invitation for heat exhaustion. Take a horse cart instead! This served two-fold: one, we had a nice shady spot for Alex and two, she had twice the number of companions (human and animal) to amuse her when she had had enough of the temples. 

The big Buddha at Shittaung Paya

Spiral through the Buddhas in this massive temple

Acrobats at the Mahamuni Paya

The colorful tiles decorate the walls of the Laungbyanpauk Paya

Kothaung Paya's stupas lined up like pawns

The best place to eat is at Moe Cherry where side dishes, enough to feed an entire village, accompany your main as well as unlimited heaping spoonfuls of rice.

If you can, try to schedule the trip so that you can take the speed boat at least one way. Instead of 7 hours, it's a trim 2. Unfortunately, we had a breakdown on the way back which only added more time on the already painfully slow journey. A bamboo pole had gotten caught in the propeller of the boat, causing the engine to come to a complete stop. Lucky for us, a French couple, also on their way back, spotted us and invited us to continue with them to Sittwe. And as there were touts in the beginning, so shall they be in the end - we were asked by the French couple's boat "representative" to pay extra for riding in his boat! After explaining that we had already paid our boatman and that we were just being rescued by this couple, he still insisted that we pay extra for a boat that was already fully paid. We finally refused for the millionth time and headed into the tuk-tuk to make our message clear.