2015
06.30

 

About the un-ceremonial departure from Bagan, a quick flight, and the unexpectedly wonderful welcome at my next destination. 

I arrived at 9:20 AM at the airport without a ticket or a reservation for a 9:35 AM departing flight to Inle Lake.  And guess, what: I got on!  Did we ever have those good old days in the prior 9-11 era when getting on an airplane was as easy as getting on a bus?  I don’t think so, but then perhaps I just don’t remember because I did not fly much within the country then?  All I needed was my passport and cash.  The biggest problem seemed to be that one of my $1 bills had a little stain on it.  I had to find a spotless, clean, flat, unfolded and pristine, post 2006 one.  That was the holdup, not by any chance, my expired visa, mind you!

At about 8 AM I had been wondering how to structure the day.  Reserving a seat on an afternoon flight out of Bagan seemed to be a good idea before walking to the market, perhaps and getting some last-minute trinkets.  My guidebook said that all the flights left between noon and 2 PM.  There was plenty of time.  For some reason I did not feel like taking another 10-hour bus.  That had gotten me sick the last time (or not).

The phone at the reception was down and the all-day whiskey drinking overweight owner of the run-down Eden Motel, after hearing my request simply said:  Follow me.  I followed him without question onto an old motorcycle with a broken foot pedal and no helmet.  And yes, come to think of it: most likely he already had had a shot of the brew and on top of that he was still dripping wet and only partially dressed from a shower he had just taken…  I did not know where we were going, but that’s how things happen around here.  The way he looked, we certainly were not heading for a ballroom party.

A few blocks down the road we stopped at a Travel Agent who sat in the dark — no electricity, system down.  But he had some good information: There is only one flight per day in this off-season and it leaves at 9:35 AM.  It was 8:40 AM.  He thought that most likely there would be seats.  I needed 15 minutes to pack and while I was throwing my stuff into the suitcase, the whiskey man was getting a taxi for me.  By now he had put a shirt on.  The driver had already been instructed to not just drop me off, but to wait and see if he needed to take me back.  Everything had been thought of.  Smooth sailing from here.  The flight attendants looked a bit surprised when I arrived at the airport, but it took one confirmation on a walkie-talkie and I and my suitcase were checked in, despite the fact my luggage was by now weighing more than it should.  Even my bottle of water made it onto the plane!

When I sat down somewhere (no seats were assigned) on the little propeller flight, I did not know if we had a stopover, I did not know how long the flight would be nor did I know what I would be doing once I got off.  Time to  get the guidebook out and read the appropriate section: what would a taxi cost to get to town, what looks like a nice guest house to stay at, what was there to do?  I had barely gotten through the first two items when the call for landing came.  Wow, that was fast!  35 minutes at the most.

I approached a young woman traveling by herself asking if she was interested in sharing a taxi.  She was rather standoffish and no, she was not.  She was going to be met by a guide.  Obviously, some people plan ahead a bit more than I do…

All other arriving people were couples or locals.  I got lucky with the next one:  a father-daughter team from Israel.  They were quite happy to share a taxi — win-win for all three of us.  And that’s how I found myself dropped off at the Aquatics Guest House in  Nyaung ShweIt had three descriptions in my guide book that caught my eye: family-owned, lovely garden and budget prices.  Nyaung Shwe is the poor man and woman’s alternative to staying at a fancy resort overlooking Inle Lake.  Yeah, I could splurge, but why?  I would rather buy a few more things…

There was a lovely garden.  It was small, but it had been ingeniously designed to house seating areas, beautiful flowering trees, a small lotus pond, garden chairs and all.  The son of the owner, Mr. Tut, welcomed me.  No reservation, no problem.  He had a room but I would have to wait for it to be cleaned.  And in the meantime, there were refreshments:  watermelon, banana with honey, a few pieces of pineapple.  I met Mr. Ju from South Korea, another new arrival who was also waiting for his room.   Within minutes we  teamed up for the standard boat ride every visitor to Inle Lake does.  Tomorrow morning at 7:30.  It’s a deal.  Smooth sailing, I am telling you.  It is amazing how things fall into place the less you plan (to a point, of course).

And then my room was ready and my jaw dropped: I have my own balcony, a huge room, TV and refrigerator, air conditioner, a fully tiled bath in which everything worked (I have lived without a seat on the toilet and a few other broken things for the last 5 days…).  And I have windows on three sides of the room overlooking the top of the trees in the garden.  I was at a resort after all!  Did Mr. Tut make a mistake?  No.  This was the $25 room.  Oh boy, am I going to have a vacation here!  And the internet worked in the middle of the day.  I have not had this since the Yangon days!  I immediately paid for 4 days (originally, I had said perhaps one or two) and I am going to rest up here.  After this, I will be in transit for a full three days to get back home.

A stroll through town revealed a small, quaint, nondescript place with a disproportionate number of restaurants, hotels, bars, and even antique shops.  During high season, I read in my guide book, this town and every other place in this area, even the $250 per night resort hotels are booked to capacity and beyond.  At times, people without reservation have to sleep on the floors of the nearby monastery…  But this is the low season.  It is good for something.

The clouds are ever present.  I look at them as my friends.  They provide shade and a few little sprinkles here and there and quite rarely a big but quick rain storm.  Inle Lake, like Mandalay and Bagan, are in a valley which is sheltered from the rainy season the way Yangon or Sittwe experience it.  I am not complaining.  I love the clouds and the sprinkles.  I hope this will continue for the next couple of days as the famous boat ride tomorrow will happen in a boat without a roof…  Heat stroke alert!  And perhaps I can even hike a bit or bike a bit if the clouds persist?  We shall see.  I still don’t have much of a plan beyond tomorrow.

For now it’s time to catch up with emails, blog posts, pictures, etc.  Perhaps, I can even open an attachment or two or look into Facebook?  All those prospects.  How exciting!

 

2015
06.29

LIQUOR

 

Final day in Bagan.  Some reflections about the overall impressions of the archaeological zone.  And about liquor and sweets made from palm trees.

Sitting at one of the temples in Bagan overlooking a site where up to the far horizon you can see nothing but fields dotted with an endless array of temples will likely rank among the most lasting impressions I will take home from Myanmar.  It is simply awesome.  The few times I had, early in the morning or late at night or a few minutes here and there, when the sun shone over these red brick structures I just wanted to freeze the moment and forever remember the glow of these colors and the serenity of this landscape.  There is no site in the world quite like this.

The architectural importance of these temples is widely recognized.  The sculptural program overall is limited and the interior statues often have been replaced.  Quite interesting are geometric motifs and gnome-like faces that line the terraces of the temples,  But I was very impressed with some of the interior fresco paintings, which came as a surprise to me.

In the west we have churches like Giotto’s Arena Chapel or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel from the Renaissance period or the breathtaking Baroque ceilings by Pozzo, just for starters.  In India I have seen amazing monastic cave sites like Ajanta from the 5th Century and from Ancient Rome, and there is of course, Pompeii.  Each of these sites is famous the world over for interior fresco decorations going back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Why is it that Myanmar’s frescoes do not have the same status in world recognition?

Is it that we do not have masters such as Giotto or Michelangelo associated with them?  In fact, many of the frescoes I saw seem to have been made by local artisans rather than world-class masters. I would perhaps even classify some of these paintings as folk art.  But some of them are magnificent!

Or is it the fact that Myanmar and in particular Bagan is an earthquake zone?  The earthquake history of the region, ongoing into very recent times, is frightening.  Many ancient temples have been destroyed, much of the stucco work and the paintings have been irreparably lost.

Is it because many of these paintings exist and have existed literally in the dark rather than in the limelight?   This art was never there to impress anyone.  In many cases, the frescoes are hidden in dark aisles and on high ceilings, sparsely illuminated by small perforated brick windows. The purpose of these images was to gain merit for the patron, not to display artistic prowess or pride.

Or could it be due to the fact that overall the frescoes are derivative?  So many times I would think of Indian paintings, the famous flanking Bodhisattvas in one of the Ajanta caves in particular.  Clearly, there was an Indian influence.  In Bagan, the master artists from elsewhere were copied.  You can not find immediately apparent artistic inventions in Bagan other than the love for never-ending multiplications.  Other times, the art seemed an offshoot imported from Thailand, even Cambodia and China.

Or is it finally, that we evaluate this art by a western measuring stick?  Under such scrutiny it falls short in various aspects.  In its own right however, it has and must have had a huge impact.  Both the maker of the art and the patron must have been convinced of gaining substantial amounts of karma by executing the art and observers must have felt the spiritual power behind it. Perhaps in turn, they were encouraged to express their own spirituality in similar ways?  Perhaps, these paintings were just educational tools and enlightened the observers visually.

In many of the most beautiful caves photography is forbidden.  The images are kept completely in the dark, which renders most attempts of photography useless anyhow.  If you don’t bring your own flashlight, you will hardly see anything.  Strong artificial light would be necessary to fully display their splendor.  That is not happening.   But let’s not forget that this darkness is their original state!  How did the people back then appreciate this art?  Did anyone ever come to just look?  Did they come with torches?  I can only imagine what the flicker of torches would have done to some of the giant Buddhas, dragons, elephants, horses, angels, demons, thousands of small and large votive and guardian figures or the multiple registers of stories displaying the life of the Buddha past and present.  There are more questions than answers, as always.

Even after three days, I saw fewer than 20 temples.  I could have stopped at a lot more, but then this visit easily could have turned into a race, and that did not feel right.  I can understand the people who come back to Bagan again and again.  I can’t imagine I would ever tire of this site.

 

If I would casually ask what grows on palm trees, the answer would likely be coconuts.  For me, it took a trip to Egypt  to realize that dates also grow on palm trees.  And I had no idea until now that a lot more can grow on a variety of palm trees.  The Bagan area is known for a type that grows coconut-like round objects with a large pit on the male tree and tamarind-like long seed capsules on the female  tree.  A couple of days ago I made a stop at a roadside stall where both alcohol and candy were produced from those male and female palm trees, respectively.

The charming young man who explained the process spoke such a mumbled English — many Burmese have the habit of swallowing half the sounds of an English word leaving more than half of what they are saying to guesswork —  that I am not sure I could follow the details of the process.  I certainly did not catch the name of the tree.  But from what I observed, I gathered that the juice of the fruit is distilled in a long and painfully slow process — at one station large woks were hooked up to a pipe that produced the alcohol drop by drop.  The original juice is sweet and pleasant tasting.  The finished product…  Well, let’s say that I am not in a hurry to give up a good beer or red wine at any time soon.  It did not taste good, but it was powerful.  40 percent, the man claimed.

The sweets on the other hand, are extracted from the female plant by pounding its fruit and then cooking the mass into a sweet sap.  That in turn, after lots of stirring and heating, eventually crystallizes.  You then can mix it with coconut shards, tamarind, ginger or anything you want to experiment with, or just roll it into plain balls by themselves.  These little candies are delicious!   If they had not sold them in way too large packages, I would have brought home a sampling.

No day goes by where I don’t learn a little tidbit of something.  And every day with just one new thought, idea, or insight is a very good day.

This was another good day but now it is time to say good night.

 

2015
06.28

 

Another day cruising around in the Archaeological Zone.  About the production of lacquer Bagan style and about somebody who met Obama.

Just picture me cruising around Bagan for the second day, happy as a clam (no, my fall did not deter me from doing this again, I was already out yesterday afternoon, after the failed Mt. Popa trip).  Picture me going from yet another stupa to yet another pagoda to yet some more remote temples and the Archaeological Museum in between, marveling at brickwork, stucco decorations, frescoes and sculptures and negotiating with some local artists over some of their paintings.  I know the more I am going to write about this, the more it becomes clear that this could only be of interest to me.

So, how about this instead: I will write about a lacquer workshop I visited for some stupa relief — yes, I need that too, once in a while.  I find these art and crafty things most fascinating and I hope you will, too.

So much stuff comes from trees, other than fruits.  In the Yangon region there were the rubber trees.  In Michigan we have the maple trees.  Around here there are the lacquer trees and trees you get resin from.  It’s always the same process: you cut multiple V-shaped lines into the tree bark and make the tree “bleed”.  After catching the sap, you figure out what it is good for.  At least somebody did, likely hundreds of years ago.

The lacquer industry in Myanmar is an important and distinct one.  Bagan and Mandalay are centers of production and often families have worked in this craft over many recorded generations.  In Yangon I purchased a piece of lacquerware, an “antique” piece from the 1950’s (by that definition of antique, I would be antique too…) which has the signature of a workshop still in business today.  It is a multi-tiered, multi-colored lunch box with a handle.  I paid $85 for it.  I was told that it is a 10-layered piece.  The top and most expensive pieces are 12 layers.  But now that I know what went into making it, I feel quite bad for paying so little.  The making of a piece of lacquerware no matter how small, is not measured in hours but in months or even years!  I won’t describe the steps going into this process in too much detail as that is done much better online.  But I will mention a few basics and add a few specifics from the place I visited, the Ever Stand Lacquerware Workshop between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan.

The youngest son of the owner greeted me and even though I was a lone traveler (not a bus load of prospective buyers), he took lots of time explaining everything to me I wanted to know.  The process that starts here already presupposes the harvesting and cooking out of the lacquer sap into a thick, asphalt-like paste.  Everything I saw was done by hand.  The most sophisticated tool I saw was a burin, an engraving needle.  Not even a brush is used as that would leave brush marks!

A young boy formed the most intricate designs out of thin straps of bamboo.  No glue was used.  Nothing other than the shape itself held his designs together!  In fact, the guy took some of his work apart to demonstrate this to me.  Almost all of the workers —  and there were three groups:  the builders, the lacquerors, the designers — worked under a shady roof, which really means not that much in a climate where temperatures often reach 45 C/ 115 F!  But a small group of men had to work in the plain sun to apply the layers of lacquer.   They use their fingers and rub the tar-like substance into the bamboo, the horsehair, or the wood.  These are the three basic core materials.  They “only” have to do this in 1-2 hour shifts.  Then they get a break.  I would be dead.

After the first layer of lacquer, a person scrapes the edges of the bamboo strips off to make a smooth design.  I guess, this is the first instance in which a real tool is used.

Each layer of lacquer has to dry.  Lacquer does not dry in the sun but in cooler temperatures.  A storage room below ground had been dug out on the premises — a geo-thermal system, so to speak — that keeps the room cool. I was told that depending on the piece and the thickness of the layers, drying takes between 3 days and 3 years! Incredible!

The design for each of the colors is etched into a black layer of lacquer freehand, following a drawn sample.  The women I observed working on this had a design sitting somewhere in the back of them but hardly looked at it.  They knew where to draw and where to scratch.  Just like in an intaglio process, the etched lines are then filled with and rubbed clean of a particular color (typically red, green, blue, yellow) and sealed with a resin which is also harvested from local trees.  The next color is then etched in, filled in, sealed and dried; and then the next.  Each time a new color is added the overall design fills in.  Each time, the etching process has to be done with total precision since you cannot cut too deep into the piece, or you will destroy months of previous work…  Each layer of resin and lacquer has to dry independently and remember that takes from several days to years each!

The fine motor skills of these workers is incredible.  The women whom I observed scratching a design into a door panel, don’t even have adequate light conditions! They scratch into black lacquer and sit in a shady hut without illumination.  What will this do to their eyesight?!  They were the second group that used a “real”, metal tool, the burin.

Many of the workers there, men and women, started training around 13-15 years of age.  Depending on the years of experience they have and the quality of work they produce, they can earn between $7 and $10 per day.  That amounts to $160 to $240 per month, counting a 6 day week (better than the $150 average of a teacher and at least twice as much as the unskilled factory workers working in the textile industry under horrible conditions and much longer hours).

The artisans here had comparatively reasonable working conditions if I got the full picture: they only work from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM six days a week.  And if they still have energy left, they can work on a few pieces on the side at home for extra income…

Still, when I now look at the piece I bought, I know that the low price I paid comes about in two main ways.  It is the low wages, first and foremost then and now.  But because I bought an “old” piece, it is also not considered as valuable as a new one; most likely because it once had been paid for before.  The age of it seems secondary and not to add much to the value.  A much less detailed piece of comparable size in the workshop was over $200.  Some of the cabinets I saw sold for over $10,000. Those would have taken years to make and in the west would have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.   Once again my head was spinning from understanding a bit more about an age-old process I had never put much thought to.  And literally everything observed in this workshop could have been done this way 100, even 200 years ago.  Electricity did not play a role except in the nicely cooled showroom.  You don’t want to make your customers, sweat, right?

Sometimes there are the infamous six degrees of separation, sometimes, there are only two.  The illustrious owner of the workshop came out as it was closing time: 4:30 PM.  I snapped a picture of him and his son and when I left, I passed a photo framed in a gold frame proudly displaying the man in a line-up with Obama!  Obama had visited Myanmar a while ago, as we and the world hope that since the 2010 elections in Myanmar things will change for the better.  The owner of this lacquer workshop was among some distinct Myanmar citizens chosen to greet him.  He was obviously very proud of it, as his son made sure that I noticed the photo before leaving.

I stumbled on a beautifully secluded spot for a quiet sunset in Bagan, not like the one yesterday which I had to share with several busloads of tourists, dozens of other e-bikers and a few passengers from the picturesque horse-drawn carriages.  Today it was a girl from Italy and me.  And I only ended up there because once again it had gotten late fast.  On average it takes me 2 hours for one stupa, getting there and all the incidentals included.  I don’t think I will even make the list of 21 in my three days here.

But I have seen a lot already.

2015
06.27

MOUNT POPA

About trying to pay respect to the Nat of Myanmar and being rebuffed.   The mountain conspiracy.  Meeting the umbrella lady and a lot of rambunctious monkeys.

The gods are on to me.  I have no other explanation for the fact that both of my mountain pilgrimages in Myanmar were ruined by total downpours and two out of three falls in this country happened on those holy mountain precincts.  I am not talking  a little shower, mind you. I have enjoyed those over the last few weeks.  They clear the air, are finite, and they are part of this season, after all.  No, I am talking downpours, which make sightseeing frustratingly impossible, and moving around on the ever-present marble floors a slippery, dangerous endeavor.

Remember my pilgrimage to the Golden Rock at Mount Kyaiktiyo early on?  That was a first encounter with such a downpour.  It made me worry that my entire trip would be cursed like this.  I literally would have had to go home.  I still evidence the damage daily when picking up my warped Lonely Planet which I had to dry for hours with a hair dryer.  And I still l have trouble putting on my lens cap on my camera from the fall on the marble there…

What Mount Kyaiktiyo is to Buddhists, what Mount Olympus is to Pagans, what Mount Meru is to Hindus, Mount Popa is to the Nat Worshippers.  For me, a visit to Myanmar was not complete without a visit to Mount Popa, especially since I had chosen one of the minor Nat deities — the patron Nat of children, the “Little Lady” who was holding an umbrella, or Shin Nemi as she was  also known — as one of the protectors for this trip.  I had to pay my respect.

It’s just a day trip from Bagan and a good break from the Archaeological Zone if you are here for a few days.  It’s a popular enough destination that every hotel advertises it. Share-taxis are arranged daily.  Easy enough; I signed up.  The weather has been cloudy and there have been a few sprinkles every day.  But there was no storm or anything unusual in sight.  Not that I checked, I had only made my assumption.  But a few other people on this trip had checked.  They found out the same as I had assumed; and you see how much that got them.

We left with a cheerful, English speaking driver who the three of us in the car immediately bonded with.  But within ten minutes we were abandoned and dumped into another car, a station wagon with a grumpy driver who none of us cared for.  That’s how things go around here.  You think you sign up for one thing and then it’s another; usually “sort of” of what you expected but not quite.  The full price for such an excursion is $35.  With four paying customers each paying $10, the driver makes extra; why not.  But when it turned out that this driver packed not four but six passengers into his station wagon — two of them having to sit in the cargo area — then you get a bit annoyed.  Was that necessary?!  Greed is not part of Buddhist teaching…

You could feel the weight of the car now that we were fully loaded.  Thankfully, the two in the cargo area were lean young boys from Nepal.  The heavier and older of us, an Italian couple, a Dutch man and myself were sitting in the seats.

The trip took about 1.5 hours, first on flat land and then slowly winding ourselves up a mountainous region.  Mt. Popa consists of two holy areas.  One is an extinct volcanic crater named Taung Ma-gyi, a natural site that can be climbed in about four hours from a base camp.  We did not even get to see the crater nor did any of us have plans to climb it.  You need a full day to do so, you need a guide, you need gear.

But then, there is a small flat mountain plateau nearby, the religious site.  It has been completely built over with a steep, metal covered staircase leading up that is filled with vendors, and dozens of shrines and pagodas that crowd the very top.  It’s the typical Myanmar way.

By the time we serpentined up the mountain in our overloaded car, the downpour started.  As we got very silent in the car I knew that everyone prayed and hoped it would stop by the time we arrived.  But it did not…  We had two hours to explore the mountain.

Across the main entrance there is a shrine flanked by tigers, mainly obscured by vendors, which invites a first stop.  It was an important one for me: that’s where the “umbrella lady” was.  She is not one of the main 37 recognized Nat deities.  She is one of the countless ones that local folklore have produced.  But I found her: just as described, she was holding a green umbrella, and toys had been put in front of her as offerings, as she is the protectress and patron of children.  I added an offering to it.

But maybe she knows that I am not really superstitious?  What else could it be?  I had even followed protocol and made sure that I would not wear a single piece of black or red clothing!  My guidebook had pointed out that Nat don’t like these colors and can get quite upset with people who wear them on their holy mountain.  You don’t want to offend these guys, even if you don’t believe in them, right?

Or was it Lord Kyawswa who was upset with me?  He is the patron Nat of drunkards and gamblers.  Had I not partied enough in Myanmar?  Did I not drink enough beer?  Ever since the Australian couple had left (with whom I had plenty of beer every night), I have only had two (2!) beer since.  Was it him?  He seemed happy and jolly in this temple supplied with plenty of whiskey bottles as offerings.  Why would he do this to me?  I don’t like whiskey!

We all asked ourselves what we had done wrong to cause this misery as we climbed up the marble steps, extra carefully putting one bare foot before the other, holding on to any railing that was provided.  Step by step.  We all realized how dangerous this climb would be.  The only one to fly up like a gazelle, was the Dutch man.  He was an athlete and a surfer and quite surefooted.  How did he do that?!  The rest of us, as we inched upwards, were holding out hope that after the 30 minutes it would take us to reach the top, the clouds would have parted, but they did not.

Mount Popa is not only known for its Nat.  It is also a notorious gathering place for monkeys, who are held in high esteem for one or another good reason.  They are everywhere and every female seemed to have been blessed this season with at least one offspring!  The little ones were clutching to the mother’s bellies as the mothers and the mean looking fathers were searching out treats and trinkets they could snatch from the visitors.  Our Italian passenger put down her bottle of water to take a picture and you could not even look as fast as that bottle was gone!  It ended up in a female’s possession, who with a quick bite opened the side of the bottle and drank the water, dripping a good portion over her little one who did not seem to mind.  Wow!  These monkeys are not only annoying, they are smart, too.  You really had to watch out for everything.  Another girl walking up lost one of her shoes to the monkeys, never to be seen again!

Along the path vendors and small shrines interspersed.  At the top there was a walkway around the various shrines and pagodas with supposedly gorgeous views into the surrounding landscapes.  We could barely see the foot of the hill…  The downpour did not let go.  There was no point in lingering.  We might as well start the treacherous climb down, sooner rather than later.  It would have been a good idea to hire a guide to tell us all the fun and funny folk stories associated with this mountain. I am sure that would have brightened our experience.  But that was not possible with the share taxi.  Well, we missed out on that.

Mindful as ever we put step before step going down.  At one point — I even had two railings to hold on to, left and right — I lost traction with my feet and started to slip.  Instead of holding me in place, the railings turned into additional slides for my hands, and so I went down several steps slipping right into the people in front of me. They finally slowed my fall.  Thankfully, I did not knock them over, too.  But since I had been holding on to the slippery railing the whole time, it was only my butt that got bruised a bit.  My camera was still safe, nothing else got hurt.  It was a slap on the wrist.  But damn it if it wasn’t one of those Nat latching out.  Who else?!

Well, this is the end of holy mountains for me in Myanmar and I hope that means the end of falls and downpours.

Just to spite us, the downpour stopped precisely at the moment we had reached the bottom of the stairs.  It did not only stop, the sky was blue, some nice picturesque clouds were strewn across the sky for perfect photos — that is if you were on top of the mountain rather than at the bottom of it at that very moment…

It was not meant to be.

 

2015
06.26

About cruising the Archaeological Zone of Bagan from sunrise to sunset and the things that happen along the way.

What I did yesterday would have been considered a total waste by any casual visitor to Bagan.  But sometimes I just can’t get out of my “art history skin”.  I had to know a bit about the background of Bagan, its building phases, its main decoration themes, its sculptural programs, its architectural types.  It made me so happy today when I recognized most of everything I had read about yesterday.

There are basically three ways you can “do” Bagan: a standard way is to hire a vehicle and a guide and to see some of the highlights in a day or two or three (or however much time you designate) and have some local expert explain it all to you.  Most likely, it will be overload as you will not be able to remember all the details and all the different paintings and things you will have pointed out to you.

The opposite end of the spectrum of this approach is to just hop on your bike, or e-bike scooter, walk or ride around randomly and go into any temple that happens to put itself into your path or that captures your fancy, and enjoy what you see.  Don’t worry about what it might mean, it does not matter.  It’s awesome on any level.  It might be the peaceful setting, the amazingly weird Buddha with his “missing neck”, the gnome-like creatures used in the decorative garlands on temple exteriors or the awesome sunrise and sunset views you will experience each and every day.

Or you try what I did: a bit more of a systematic approach.  I left it to the experts David Raezer and Jennifer Raezer who wrote a book © 2014 by Approach Guides called Guide to Bagan.  I let them preselect some of the most typical temples of each type for me to make sure that after seeing about 15-20 of them, I got “the spectrum”.   And I followed “the program”.  I had marked their temples on my map and adjusted my route through this 26 square mile open-air museum accordingly.  That meant that I passed by some damn spectacular buildings without stopping.  It meant that at times I had to go great distances to reach the next dot on my map, etc.  It definitely is not for everyone to do it this way but I had a mission and a goal.  It worked for me.

The final deluxe version of “doing” Bagan is of course to come back again and again.  I met one of those guys on the slow boat.  He has been to Myanmar/Bagan 14 times by now!  That’s when you really can dive into things your way.  But how many of us have that luxury?

You might think that my approach would be a bit boring and rigid, but let me tell you this: no matter how much you map out your itinerary, there are a gazillion things that come your way unpredicted.  There are all the dogs, cows and goats you have to share the road with.  There is the slipping and sliding in inches of deep sand along the tiny side paths nobody told you about.  There are the awesome fragrances you come across when turning a corner and the pastoral scenes of men plowing their fields with their cows, oxen or buffaloes in absolutely straight lines without a ruler or a digital compass.  There are the birds chirping and the rainbow that spans the full horizon after that sudden rain.  There is the getting lost and there are all the bruises from the fall you were afraid of…

Yeah…  I was spared the flat tire and the running out of the battery that seems to afflict a lot of the e-bikers.  Thank goodness!  I would have been all by myself and without a phone if this had happened to me.  And there are some very remote areas!  But you hear some bikers warn about falling and you see a lot of bandages on foreigners’ legs, if you start paying attention.  I had put an extra prayer in with St. Christopher to prevent all of these nasties.  But I guess he needed to teach me a lesson: I had to fall.

I don’t know if you agree, but it’s usually three things that go wrong when an “accident” happens.  In my case they were this: during the sunset I connected with two Italians.  They were headed where I was going and from sunset to dark it is just a short period.  I felt good about riding with them in tandem in order not to be alone in the dark.  But the first thing that was different for me now was that I had to keep pace with somebody ahead of me instead of just minding my own pace…  Number two was that I was in the middle of going through a particularly sandy spot… And number three was that just at that moment (me trying to keep up, and to maneuver the sand) a horse-drawn carriage came around the corner towards me demanding the use of the road… And that’s when it happened.   Good for me and my camera, the sand gave us a soft landing.  But no matter how you fall, the bike is always going to be on top of you.   And it has areas that can poke.  And it is heavy.  And that is where the bruises come from…  Pelvis, knee, ankle and foot…  Autsch!  But it could have been worse.

No time to dwell on hurt or damage — it’s getting dark, we need to move.  About 15 minutes later, the Italians got stranded — no more battery.  It was pitch dark now.  I took off without them only to promptly get lost.  See, there is never a shortage of adventure, no matter how many art historical missions you try to accomplish.

But I made it home.  And tomorrow I will get the e-bike scooter again.  No way I will let things like this discourage me or even worse prevent me from completing my “mission”.  On with the show!

Really, I have not had this much fun in a long time!  Fall aside.  To scoot around this amazing site where at every corner a picturesque fairytale land from the 11th to the 13th Century unfolds in front of you is the unquestionable highlight of this trip.  And to cruise around on this e-bike scooter was just like letting a kid loose in a candy shop.  I could not have imagined me riding around like this had anyone told me just three days ago.  And here I was and it was a reality.  And I loved every bit of it!  The bruises will go.  The memories will remain.

Good night.

2015
06.25

About a magical arrival in Bagan last night.  About being overwhelmed today.  About making a plan.  About getting out slowly.  About superstitions and UFOs.

The approach toward Bagan last night on the slow ferry was nothing less than spectacular.  Pakokku was our last stop.  Several women had boarded the boat with beautiful handwoven blankets they wanted to sell.  But they were also offering trade for perfumes, lotions, shampoo and soaps — anything smelling good, anything of foreign origin.  I was so reminded of my life in East Germany where we had soaps, of course, but people and packages from the West always smelled so wonderfully different.  They smelled of freedom, of things beyond reach.  I would have loved to just give these women anything that smelled foreign, but I had parceled out only a tiny amount of perfume and lotion to take on this trip, both gone by now.

The sun set shortly after Pakokku and dark came fast.  For a while twilight illuminated the sky.   Dark, gloomy clouds had formed in the distance which soon were the backdrop of a fantastic thunderstorm.  Perfect, bright thunderbolts cut through the distant shapes but the thunder was swallowed by the sound of the ship’s engine and the swooshing of the water.  Two large planets had planted themselves right above us, and if I knew anything about the sky, I could tell you which… Soon, there was a full, starry night.  The captain turned on some lone, dangling light bulbs which added to the eeriness as much as they illuminated the ship.  All sounds of the day were gone.  The remaining foreigners on the ship and the few locals had fallen silent.  We were taking in the mood of the night, approaching within the hour our final destination:  Bagan.

The Ayeyarwady River is huge and at times the shore is so far away that from the boat you barely see anything.  In the dark it felt like we were riding an ocean instead of a river.  The captain pointed a beam from the boat  towards the shore waving it slowly from right to left to stay on course.  There were no street lights, no lights at all, except a few bright spots in the very far distance.  That must be our destination.

I had picked a budget option of a hotel in Nyaung U, a small village about 2 miles from the Archaeological Zone of Bagan and much cheaper than all the hotel options right on site or in New Bagan.  But before we could be taken by the various tuck-tucks, taxis, ox carts and motorcycles, all foreign arrivals first were ushered toward a ticket office. We have to purchase the obligatory “zone ticket” of $20 entitling us to roam around anywhere for a week.  Over 2200 pagodas, temples and shrines, old and new are part of this “zone”.

This morning I was simply overwhelmed.  I could have hired the usual taxi and have the driver drive me around all day from one place to the next following his estimation of what is worth seeing.  Obviously, only a fraction of all these sites can be visited even if I were to stay here for a week — which I doubt I will, but then, I might… For some reason I did not feel like that option.

But where to start, what to choose?  For starters, I bought a map that listed a mere 150 sites in alphabetical order.  I was still overwhelmed.  Trust the experts!  At home I had bought my first electronic Kindle book and downloaded it.  It covered 21 of the art-historically most important sites.  That seemed manageable.  Now I only had to match the local map with the book.  I went to work.  And I had to figure out how to get around…  And, since I am not just on vacation but actually am trying to learn, I put myself down for the day with that kindle book.  Yeah, a bit of knowledge can’t hurt, right?

Did I say I would never ride one of those scooters?  Well I did, but at times you have to change your mind…  I ventured out to one of the many stores renting bikes and scooters.  By now it was midday; too late to get going for today, but perfect to put all my ducks in a row for tomorrow.  It was not encouraging to observe first a Dutch girl and then a Chinese girl both giving up on these scooters.  But a French couple happily took off with two of them, and I decided to go on a test drive.  And I convinced myself, that early on tomorrow, around 5 AM — in time for the rising sun, I would dare and get one of those for the day.  Driving them is amazingly easy, too easy, really.  The most important thing is to understand that they get going at the mere turn of the handle!  That is surprising at first because you hardly do anything.  Stopping the thing is the trick and the brakse, really, are not that good!  Letting go of the handle won’t do.  You have to operate the breaks, just like on a bike and you have to brake hard.  That’s what scared the two girls.  They went into the street faster than they could fathom and within seconds nearly caused a collision as they could not get to operate the brakes properly.  I think I can do it.  I will get one of them tomorrow. If, that is, I won’t chicken out by then…

I explored the city on foot for a couple of hours to get myself oriented.  One of the most important stupas is right here in town, the Shwezigon Pagoda.  I paid it a visit.  Yes, it is similar to what you or I have seen before, but I have to say, this one had a glow to it which none of the others quite had.  Beneath the gilded layers of the stupa, red orche paint had been applied that shone through the fading gold.  The evening sun hit the monument just right and there was a velvety warmth to this stupa which made it very memorable.  Unusual double-sided lion figures (you see the full animals from each of the four sides and if you stand in front of it, it “doubles up”) were guarding the corners of the stupa and a number of ceramic donor plaques illustrated previous lives of the Buddha.  There were hardly any people there; the day was winding down.  I like it that way.  It makes for a very contemplative scene, which I took in at length.

I was ready to leave when several women chased after me.  I had not visited “The Lucky One” yet.  I think that’s what they said…  Before long I had been talked into making a substantial offering to the lucky one which to me looked more like a “Thing”.  A shapeless body or a blobby pillar which I was persuaded to pour water over, give food, a flower and a prayer — thankfully the priestess conducted that one for me, holding my hand.  All the while a whole group of women stood around me nodding approvingly.  This, I obviously had to do, especially as a woman.  They kept pointing to this poster nearby which showed a streak of light in the sky near the stupa.  A meteorite?  The “Thing” did not look like one.  The sighting of some flying monks? I had heard that story in Mawlamyine…  I might never know.  But I know this for sure: Missing “Thing” would have been a really bad oversight on my part.

After that, a quick bowl of noodles, a beer from the grocery store to take home, and back to the book.  And to some laundry, since I am apparently doing a “home evening”.

Good night.

2015
06.24

Washing the face of the Buddha — ritual at the Mahamuni Temple.  The river road from Mandalay to Bagan.  The relativity of time.  Even more heat.

The “speed” boat which can do this trip in about 8 hours runs only between October and March.  It mainly transports tourists.  Then, the river levels get too low and as it gets hot, the tourists stop coming.  But the slowpoke government ferry runs a couple of times every week year round and manages to reach its destination in about 15 hours or 20 or even 36, depending on how much loading and unloading has to be done and whatever else unforeseen might happen:  rain, storms, engine failure.  And it mainly transports the locals and cargo and during this time of the year, all the off-season tourists, too.  We were about 16 of us today occupying the “first class” area set up with plastic lawn chairs.  The locals had brought mats and were mainly spread out on the floor sleeping, nursing, eating, chatting.  The lower deck was reserved for cargo.  Very few of the locals went all the way.  It seemed in the end it was only “us foreigners” left who reached Bagan at the reasonable hour of 7 PM.  That was only 14 hours total.  It must have been a very good day and fast day for the ferry.

What’s another 7 hours or even 20, right?  It’s all about the experience, and time certainly takes on different shapes when you are on the road.  For the life of me, I could not tell you what day it is or what date.  I know that by now I have reached the end of my official visa — now I am overstaying and hope to get away with it.  It has been done before.  I have slept 12 hours in a row, something I can never do at home and last night, you may recall, I decided not to go to sleep at all since I had air-conditioning and internet and both worked.  There was no way I could let that go to waste.  Thanks to… whom?  There must by now be an internet deity, certainly!  Thanks, I-god.

To make the best of a night without sleep I decided to squeeze one attraction into the schedule most tourists shy away from as it involves a 3:45 AM departure from wherever you are in town to reach the Mahamuni Buddha Temple by 4 AM for the ritual washing of the Buddha’s face.  The Mahamuni Buddha is the main image in town, transported here from Mrauk U in the olden days.  It is anyone’s guess what it really looks like as it sits on its pedestal as a pretty unshapely blob, disfigured from pounds and pounds of gold which has been put on over the centuries.  But its face is a golden shiny beauty and to watch the spectacle that unfolds to keep it that way at least once, was quite something.

The temple was already hopping when I arrived at 4:15 AM.  I had just missed a whole long file of monks walking out of the sanctuary with huge flower and gift pots in their hands — most likely the gifts from the preceding date.  Several attendants in white robes and funny hats were clearing the area around the Buddha image and putting three golden cloths around his neck, like a bib — presumably from preventing the face washing liquids to spill on his body.  A four-man live band was playing loudly off to the side and a three-man panel plus one woman were seated facing the image chanting scriptures without any particular organization and ringing gongs.  The area immediately in front of the image was crowded with men worshiping; the section beyond that, filled with women.  After that it was a mixed crowd.  Many people in the audience had trays of food in front of them, offerings for the monks that would first be offered to the Buddha before being whisked away to the monks who were lining up outside the temple for breakfast.  I saw them — not posing for me!  But as I said in a previous blog, there is always something:  I was moving in my taxi and it was still way too dark…

The music inside created an atmosphere of frenzy, and the multiple, uncoordinated voices, gongs, rings, chants, and claps were utterly chaotic.  Wow, what a spectacle!  Finally, the monk in charge of the washing appeared among the white-clad attendants and with a spray bottle wetted the face of the Buddha.  This was more than water, as for quite some time after this the face looked streaky and cloudy.  With multiple cloths the monk cleaned the image and then polished it with, I kid you not, at least ten different cloths, each of them a different color, each of them handed to him by one of the attendants.  At the end, the face was sparkly and shiny again with not a trace of anything, ready for another day.  I could not wait for the end of the ceremony, because I had to make my ferry, but things wound down when I left around 4:45 AM.  The musicians had disbanded, the worshipers were trickling out, even the scripture-chanting woman was done while the priest still polished the face.  I guess, that was it.

Now the day could begin.  A whole group of police officers filed in praying, offering flowers and bowing to the image.  I wonder if that has a positive effect on police brutality if the police force goes to the temple every morning…!?

In plenty of time to purchase my ticket, I reached the jetty.  The ferry was going, I was early enough to grab a middle, back-row seat at the very end — for the life of me I don’t like to sit in the middle of a crowd.  Just about as we were ready to depart, the sun rose.  St. Peter was merciful distributing a few clouds in the sky.  Every little bit helps, even this early in the day.

Over the next 14 hours we made about seven different stops loading and unloading people and cargo.  Each time, the ferry announced its coming by a succession of three long honks.  The signal for the villagers to get ready — after all, the schedule is only approximate.  Each stop had its character:  On one the boats lined up to take people to their homes, at another, the ox carts.  One stop was in the middle of nowhere but dozens of heavy bags had to be loaded.  The next one was just a narrow path for people one by one to appear in the thick of the grass.  Other than that, the river just flowed, the land was relatively flat and except for a few villages that lined the shore nothing much was going on.

To my right the foreigners’ section unfolded.  To my left a small cabin was equipped with three beds, a table, a few chairs and its own toilet.  That was the VIP section occupied by a family accompanying a very, very old and weak man.  Two of his sons administered fluids through an IV and moved his fragile body every couple of hours into a more comfortable position — if there was such a thing on the bare wood…  I guess, to transport this old man this way is a lot more humane than to put him into a car and onto a bumpy road.  I am sure flying was out of the question.  He was going home to his village to be with his family in his last few days or hours of his life.  It was very moving when he eventually was carried out by one of his sons, across the wooden planks onto an ox cart where another family member had made a small bed and sheltered him with an umbrella…

This reminded me of the flight from Sittwe to Yangon when we observed a mother-daughter team accompanying a foaming sick child…Here, too, they administered fluids by just holding the IV as high as they could, taking turns.  The child was barely breathing…  Scenes like this just break your heart.

I hope the old man will find a peaceful end in the circle of his family, home in his village.

2015
06.23

A day spent in two gardens.  A word about colonial architecture and the use of motorcycle helmets.  A Muslim community with a difference.  Internet!

I hope these guys in Pyin O Lwin know what they got!

This small mountain town is over 3200 feet above sea levels and a full 10 degrees C/18 degrees F cooler than Mandalay in the valley.  I almost forgot that I was in Myanmar during the hot season!  I needed no air-conditioning, I did not drip water within minutes of drying off after a shower, I did not feel fatigued by noon.   No wonder the British discovered this.

To date, you can drive around Pyin O Lwin and spot a few of the old colonial mansions.  Some of them still are owned by foreigners, others are upper middle class homes, a few have been converted into luxury hotels.  Dark red brick and exposed timbers seem to have been one of the preferred building styles.  Many of these mansions came with acres of property around them, now beautifully manicured with flower gardens, or used to grow fruit trees and vegetable gardens.  If ever I wanted to own property in Myanmar it would have to be here!

The town radiates prosperity in many ways:  an unusual number of well-maintained educational institutions are spread around town.  Upper class hotels, restaurants, and spas are advertised.  And several religious institutions other than Buddhist monasteries indicate wealth: several beautiful churches and the most impressive, well-kept mosque I have seen anywhere in Myanmar.

Last night at the night market — a local specialty where about two dozen men and women open stalls in a downtown street between 5:30 and 9 PM and bake, roast, cook and simmer the most delicious variety of local foods for very little money — I had met my scooter man, Aruna.  He met me as agreed at the hotel this morning and took me on a Circular Road Tour, sampling some of the old mansions.

The helmet he handed me was broken (the inside strip fell out and the strap used to fasten the helmet was missing).  Just wear it for pretend was his suggestion!  Excuse me?!  Helmets are not for show; they are not a joke, they are for safety!  His excuse: helmets are too expensive.  He has not earned enough money recently.  I fastened the strap as best as I could and said a prayer to St. Christopher before hopping on.  I had observed many people wearing helmets just for “pretend”.  One time, I saw a helmet fly off a driver in the middle of a busy road — there comes a great traffic hazard!  What gets me most, is to see young mothers who wear helmets, but drive with one hand, holding their babies with the other hand under their “free” arm!  Who is going to be dead here if anything happens?!  What are these people thinking?  Babies!!!!!!!

After circling town and looking at some of the mansions, I was heading to the recommended tourist spot:  The Botanical Garden. If you are into trees, butterflies, subspecies of bamboo, or exotic birds you could probably spend days in this beautifully maintained garden.  I simply enjoyed the feel of the beautiful spot, listened to the birds from the aviary making exotic sounds, and to the deafening cicadas, which were in rock-concert mode.  Except for the one small golden pagoda which was put smack in the middle of a small island, nothing reminded you of Myanmar.  A small Butterfly Museum held one of the most extensive butterfly collections from across the world I have ever seen.  If it were not for the very unpleasant thought that each of these beautiful critters displayed so elegantly in each of the many glass cases had to be killed to show off their beauty here, this was almost enjoyable.

Pyin O Lwinians know how to have fun!  Across the Botanical Gardens there were two more parks:  An Amusement Park — yes!  I am not sure what’s in it but judging by the number of motorcycles in front of it, it was the winner among young people.  And a National Landmark Garden which displayed about 20 distinct monuments and sights (including an oil well and a beach) representing the seven different states and various regions of Myanmar.  Not bad!

Walk long enough in any of these or in any other city park and you will find young people hanging out, smooching.  It’s a good sight to see especially after my ten years of travels in the Middle East where a sight like this could have gotten the youngsters into serious trouble.

I stayed at the Ruby Hotel, a Muslim-owned place, two blocks from the mosque and obviously in the middle of the Muslim quarter.  I asked the owner — as I have asked so many other Myanmarians — of his nationality.  His answer: Muslim.  No, I responded, I don’t mean what is your religion, I am asking about your ethnic background.  Many generations ago, his father came from Bangladesh, his mother from Pakistan.  He is a citizen of Myanmar with all rights of citizenship, including ownership of a lucrative downtown hotel.  He is an immigrant and a citizen as I am an immigrant and citizen in the U.S.  That seems to be one of the biggest differences between the Muslims in the Rakhine State and Muslims elsewhere:  Muslims elsewhere do not claim native origins and therefore by implication do not claim any right to any land.  They live as Muslims in the Shan or any other State among the Shan or any other people who are Buddhists.  They are not converts, they are immigrants.  I wonder if there are any internal converts in Myanmar?  I have not come across any yet.  I will keep looking.

A share-taxi took me back to hot, hot Mandalay.  One more night out with Mama/Sister, one more nice dinner, one more massage.  Nanbwe was very excited to see me and even more excited to hear that I was no longer sick.  This time, we went for Thai food and for an hour long foot massage — in contrast to the painful body massage, this turned out to be a very gentle affair.  $6 well spent!

Good night — or rather not.  I finally have internet again at the guesthouse and will work through the night posting pictures. Yeah, the sacrifices needed for the blog…  You have no idea. 🙂

Go Internet and please don’t let me down!

2015
06.22

Across the Gokteik Viaduct.  Trains, the measure of things?

Yippie, it’s the train today!  I have been waiting for this day.   I am looking forward to every minute of this 8 hour ride as it will not only be my first but likely also my last ride in Myanmar.  Some things, like climbing Mount Fuji, only need to be done once.

If trains can be considered the measure of things, then Japan must rank first in the world: comfort, punctuality, frequency, network of tracks, speed, cost.  By extension, Myanmar must be just about rock bottom.  Every guide book warns of delays and derailments.  But one train ride is a must for every visitor who can spare the time:  the stretch between Mandalay and Hsipaw, which crosses the Gokteik Viaduct.

Are there still countries in the world that have no trains at all?  Train construction, so often is associated with colonial occupation and with incredible death tolls.  Myanmar is no exception.  In Mrauk U where I traveled earlier, one of the government-proposed train tracks had been started.  The route had been mapped out, the earth mounds had been heaped up.  Construction was to begin.  But the locals protested and in a rare show of listening to the people the former military government abandoned the project late in 2010;  too many local sites would have been destroyed.  Too much local life would have had to change.

If you are a glutton for punishment, you can go the whole way from Hsipaw to Mandalay.  What took the air conditioned overland bus less than 5 hours will take the train a whopping 13 or more; no air-conditioning either. If you just want to see the bridge, you can get out in Pyin O Lwin after about 8 hours and enjoy some time in this mountain “resort” town and then go on — that’s what I will do.

If it happens to be a sunny day you might just as well consider yourself a bun in the oven ready to be baked on top of being transported  I did get lucky.  It was an overcast day; I was spared the baking part.  The thermometer had climbed to 28 C/82F by 9:30 AM but at least there was no additional roasting through the metal cars in store for us.  The windows opened all around in the Upper Class wagon and a nice breeze made this feel very comfortable.  At times you wondered if this was a train ride or an ocean liner at high sea.  Despite the slow speed at which the 6-car train traveled, we were thrown from left to right opposite the cars in front and behind us.  No wonder derailments are a common occurrence…

For the first hour, the train rode on top of the mountain ridge almost at the height of the rim across the valley.  Then the mountain widened into a plateau giving way to fields and villages.  You can almost forget that we are still in the mountains.  But we are.  The rolling hills are a beautiful mix of green and red.  The red is the natural color of the earth.  It must be what is used for coloring the monks’ robes.  And judging by the lush green everywhere, there must have been enough rain here already to give nature a head-start compared to Mandalay, for example.  There are not only rice fields up here, but many acres of corn, beans, potatoes.  Every inch of arable land has been tended to.  All by hand, of course.  You see people, one or a few at a time, tending to the fields with their hoes.  You see young men behind man-powered tilling machines.  Occasionally, small motors are attached to them or larger tilling machines may be ox-driven.  How they got to every one of these many fields is impressive.

There are a few brief stops along the way.  Vendors line the train station; people get out to get food and drinks.  We foreigners have no idea what the name of the town may be; there is no indication in western script.

Our Upper Class car is only 1/3 full.  Instead of 6 seats on wooden benches, 4 and 2, there are only three nicely upholstered recliner armchair seats, 2 and 1 with ample leg room.  My stretch of the trip could have cost me $1.20 in ordinary class and $2.75 in upper class.  That is more than double, but still hardly any money to speak of in the larger scope of things.  For example, riding a taxi from the bus station in any town to your hotel easily costs you $3 to $5.

2/3 of all the people in the Upper are foreigners.  There are three French girls — they sit by themselves.  And there is a couple from GB and a single traveling guy from Canada.  We sit in a group and have been chatting when the noise level permits.  For the most part though, I listen to the guys chat and make use of my transit time catching up with my writing.

Once I get to Pyin O Lwin time will be limited.

About 1/2 way into the trip the moment comes: the Gokteik is in sight.  We are about to cross a deep gorge.  The train slows down to a snail’s tempo.   Not for us, to make picture-taking more enjoyable, but to minimize the stress on this aging and precariously balanced stilt bridge.  I hope they occasionally do put it to the test in a more professional way, too…

What you see when you approach the bridge is the impressive upper half of about a dozen or so pylons.  Nothing quite prepared me for actually being above the gorge and realizing just how deep it was and that the pylons were actually twice as tall as I thought or as anyone could see from a distance. My stomach took a little jolt…  We were 1110 feet above the valley!! Unlike any bridge I have ever been on, I have never lost sight of the fact that I am on a bridge.  Usually, you are on something like a two lane highway — there is oncoming traffic.  Or you might be on a train bridge and there is another track going parallel to yours.  This bridge is a single track lane.  It is as wide as it needs to be for the wheels of a single train.  When you are on it, you see nothing but a narrow strip of metal below you.  Nothing!   The pylons are below you. That’s when you realize that this is more like flying.  You seem to be suspended in air as high as if you were on top of the Eiffel Tower!  My stomach took another jolt… As the train inches along — no more of that shaking left and right or up and down — you are grateful that there is no wind, no rain, and no heavy cargo which might, just might make the train tilt.  And you hope it will all be over safely.  And five minutes later it is and you are on the other side.  Whew!

The scenery is breathtaking and as you now serpentine your way up to the rim of the mountain on that side of the gorge, you can catch a few more glimpses of the viaduct.  But never again will you see its true height.  That is reserved for when it is too late to change your mind, for the moment of mid-air suspension.  This truly is a remarkable and unique leg in world train travels.  Lucky me.  If bandwidth would not be such an issue, I would post a video clip.  But so far I had no luck with this, so don’t hold your breath.

For a few more hours we are going to rattle and shake along.  A pleasant change of pace from the bus travels and a most pleasant day to do so.  Well done, St. Christopher!

Strange, that there is no train-specific wish for a good journey like there is for ships.  I wonder why that is?  Train travel once must have been nearly as dangerous as travel by ship.  In Myanmar it almost still is…

Train ahoy!

2015
06.21

A slow day spent in the laid-back Shan town of Hsipaw.   Looking at old ruins, eating the freshest noodles ever, and stumbling on the palace of the last prince of the Shan.  

Two big afternoon rainstorms had cleared the air yesterday and the temperatures had cooled down to a breezy 25C/77F; temperatures I had not seen this low in weeks!  I slept without air conditioning and with an open window.  After 12 hours (5 PM to 5 AM) I woke up to a concert by the roosters in town.  It set the tone for the day.

There is no immediate evidence indicating that Hsipaw was a royal capital throughout its history more than once.  It is as sleepy and slow of a small city as any.  Hsipaw is a Shan town.  After the Mon in Mawlamyine, the Arakan in Sittwe, the Chin in Mrauk U, the Burmese in Yangon and Mandalay, I was happy to add yet another one of the major ethnic groups to the people I met.  Hsipaw is not a mixed town as so many others but a nearly pure Shan town.  That means Shan is spoken as the first language here, a language distinctly different from Burmese.   But since I have not made it beyond two words of Burmese yet, I won’t even try.

Hsipaw as you see it today is a town of the 20th century.  There is nothing old left except in the northern part of it: two teak monasteries and a dozen or so ruined brick pagodas.  That’s where I was heading today.  It felt good, after all these days of driving around in a taxi to be up and about again like in the good old days:  walking.

At the outskirt of town the Sao Pu Sao Nai temple is dedicated to the Nat of Hsipaw and as it was still barely 7 AM, many locals were busy lighting candles and incense and saying prayers.

The area of the ruined pagodas is referred to locally as “Little Bagan”, a gross overstatement but an endearing way of referring to the overgrown, dilapidated brick pagodas which are nestled between two teak-wood monasteries.  A water buffalo was grazing between some of them and decided to have a little standoff with me.  He won.  The first monastery, the Maha Nanda Kantha, has a famous Bamboo Buddha — I have now seen a couple of them.  This one is 150 years old and the bamboo has long been covered by gold, but it was a particularly serene image which actually made me sit down and contemplate it for quite some time (something none of the “plaster” Buddhas has managed).

It is nice to see how old authentic images in monastic halls exist side by side with contemporary life.  Particularly in the second monastery, the Madahya Monastery, part of the hall surrounding the main Buddha image was partitioned off for about 10 monks as sleeping area.  The opposite was reserved as dining hall, and the area across the image was equipped with a flat-screen TV on which an older monk watched a boxing match!  At other times, that area seemed to serve for schooling.

I still had energy left, the day was cloudy and the heat merciful, so I turned to another point of interest indicated on my map:  a Noodle Factory.  I hiked through little neighborhoods of bamboo huts along the river.  This village had more vegetable gardens than I had seen anywhere.  Perhaps, I just did not see any so far, because I was always racing through the land in my taxi — today I could observe, appreciate and take it all in.  The laundry, the satellite dish on a teak hut, the bamboo chicken coop.  I reached the factory around 11:30 AM and was told to come back by 1.  That’s when production would start again.  🙁  Darn.  I had missed the morning shift.

But I had a look anyhow and found three children age 8-10, squatting on the ground spooning ground cheese into small little packages, two spoons full at a time.  When about 50 of the packages were lined up, the kids lit a candle and in three skillful moves sealed the plastic bags applying just enough heat; one at a time.  I bet you, these little packages will be sold alongside the spaghetti for seasoning.  Another one of those incidents where I could not have imagined how these little cheese packages came about…

A woman at the entrance of the factory had a concession stand selling noodles to the locals who stopped by on their motorbikes.  The smell of fresh tomato sauce was just too tempting for me to pass.  I ordered a helping of noodles.  Right out of a bucket full of freshly produced thick noodles she grabbed a hand full (yes, bare hands) of noodles, seasoned them with some oil, cheese, chili and sauce and served them to me.  You have absolutely no idea how good this tasted!

But the biggest surprise of the day was still in store for me:  the Shan Palace.  I had expected a ramshackle remain of a former palace or a museum but instead, after walking for another 1/2 hour found myself in front of a garden gate.  It was closed but not locked, and since opening hours were posted, I entered.  A long driveway lead to an impressive 1924 colonial mansion, a private residence, which was obviously lived in.

While I was still inspecting the grounds, a young couple on bikes from GB had caught up with me and together we discovered a side door which invited visitors to enter.  We stood in the reception hall of the last prince of the Shan and were greeted by Fern, the wife of the prince’s uncle Mr. Donald, who unfortunately had to leave on an errand for town that morning.  The Shan heiress, a well-educated English speaking Shan woman, welcomed us in, invited us to inspect the dozens of photographs lining window sills, mantles, tables and walls and started to tell us about the recent history of the Shan kings.  

Not being familiar with this history, it boiled down to a bewildering number of names and events, but a few general themes stood out to me:  An impressive number of the recent kings had been educated in the west with the distinct goal of modernizing their state and  improving their populations’ lot.  The last and most important one had gotten his engineering degree in Boulder, Colorado in the early 1950’s!  There, he met an Austrian exchange student named Inge, married her and took her home to a royal welcome.  It was supposedly only then, that she realized that her engineering husband was also a crown prince!    But within ten years, the military took over in Burma in the 1962 coup, and arrested her husband and various other members of the ruling family, including Mr. Donald himself.  Inge and her two children found themselves under house arrest and eventually managed to flee.

To this date, there is no acknowledgment of the arrest and of the secretly confirmed death of this last heir to the Shan throne, not even under the newly elected government since 2011!   The family is waiting and in the meantime is telling the story and taking care of the house and the belongings that were left by the prince and his wife.   Inge, now in her 80’s is writing annually to the Burmese government demanding an official closure to the story, to no avail.  In the meantime, she has returned to Boulder where she lives with her second husband, an American, and under her current name Inge SargentShe has published a book:  Twilight over Burma. My life as a Shan Princess that is available in English, German, and Burmese.  What a story!  You can’t make this up.  I wonder, if ever, under the new regime in Myanmar now or in the future, justice will be done to the many minorities who have been side-lined, wronged, imprisoned, and killed, ever since colonial  and certainly since military junta times.

By mid-afternoon I returned to my hotel, the 6 story brand-new Red Dragon in Hsipan.  The mist was hanging over the mountains and the views across town from the roof top terrace were great.  The hotel is so new, it’s barely on anyone’s list.  I am one of only six guests judging by the table settings for breakfast this morning.

The noodles will last me through the night but just to get a bit more exercise, I went out for an early evening walk and my first beer since my night out with mama/sister.  It tasted as good as ever, overlooking the Dokhtawadi River from a riverside terrace.

Hsipan is my kind of town.  Low key, yet full of little surprises.  If the weather were cooler and if I had not just come out of being sick, I would schedule a trek into the mountains, visiting one of many remote Shan villages…  Next time.

Prost!