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.