Bikes Across Bagan

Bikes Across Bagan

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While we could have continued our journey further up the Chindwin River to other small towns and villages we decided to instead enjoy our time in Mawlaik and then begin our journey back southward.  Myanmar is one of those funny countries where you aren’t quite sure what is right or wrong or what is allowed and not allowed.  In fact many of the local natives wouldn’t be able to tell you because at the moment so much is changing in regards to policy and life not just for the foreigners but for the locals as well.

Despite all the restrictions that are still in place (on accommodation options, on where we were allowed to travel, and on tourism infrastructure) supposedly overstaying your visa by a couple weeks didn’t hold any large consequences.  Even with the leeway of knowing we could linger around longer or venture even deeper into the lesser traveled lands of the northern Chindwin and Sagaing State  we decided to turn around at this point.  With limited roads (especially in these lesser traveled areas) and foreign travel restrictions still in place, doing loops usually wasn’t an option.  And even if it was, it was difficult logistically to work out and slow going.  Having to backtrack the path you already traveled was almost impossible to avoid in Myanmar.  To switch it up a little we choose to travel by boat this time instead of bus, which offered a bit of change in scenery and complete change in atmosphere.  Even with the expansion of paved roads and large increase of vehicles, travel in Myanmar was slow going unless you were traveling between major cities (much like Laos).  With Bagan as our next target destination we knew it would take a minimum 36 hours travel time to get there.

After saying goodbyes to all our new friends in the town we prepared ourselves for the 15 hour overnight boat ride we would be embarking on.  This boat ride would pass the town of Kalewa (where we had caught the boat only a few days ago to come up to Mawlaik) and continue on much further south to the town of Monywa (the final destination for the vessel).  Our hope was to connect there with a bus leaving to Bagan. The owner of the AKZ Guest House called ahead to reserve two seats for us on the boat that would be traveling down river that day. For this we were very grateful, knowing the condition of these cargo/passenger boats from our last ride. The English Teacher, U Thant Zin, had recommended we reserve a VIP seat which allowed us to sit in the rooms above the bow of the boat.  After some thought we instead decided to go full backpacker style (both for the adventure of it as well as for the cost saving part) and rough it in the normal seats that were in the bow of the boat (just as we had before) with a majority of the other passengers.  Only this time we would be sleeping in these seats over night.  We laughed with each other trying to mentally prepare ourselves for sitting upright like boards with our heads leaning in on each other shoulders for what would be a night of not so restful slumber.

Boatride duo - Bagan

 

The boat was almost the same going down as it was going up the river.  We lucked out by getting the seats that were in the very front with the skeletal expanse of the remainder of the narrowing bow in front of us.  We were pretty sure the crew of the boat had arranged this for us (since U Tin Ton from our guesthouse had called ahead).  We were grateful for the circumstance all the same.  Our legs dangled like before and we noted that other than our bags and a few others there was minimal cargo deposited on the beams of the boat in front of us.

The scenery was just as beautiful as the last trip.  This time we got the added benefit of being on the boat to watch the sunset as well. As the sun lowered in the sky the balanced blues were replaced by slivers of oranges and yellows, with the clouds making the sky seem like it was never ending. Ben spent a large amount of the daylight time up front, where a couple of the staff guys would break to drink beer or smoke cigarettes. Every time he went up to the front there was someone new up there, and the cargo was constantly being moved based on who would be offloading.  It ranged from motorbikes to grain to vegetables with intriguing caterpillars on them.  Amanda took note from the two children behind her and cozied herself half into the seat and half between two boards that run lengthways along the slanting bottom of the boat.  From here she propped her head into her arms and listened to music while watching everything float by her.  There was something cozy and satisfying about being in the crammed space below the boat with the 120 or so other passengers and loads of cargo.  It was like being in a womb of sorts.  Cramped at times but somehow comforting.

 

 

Before the sunset, we opted to go sit on the roof and enjoy a bit of toddy beer we had left over. We had noticed from both this and the last trip that a bunch of people were hanging out on the very top of the boat in the open air next to some other loads of cargo. We both had already made plans way ahead of time to join these people and bask together in the beauty of the boat ride and nature of the riverside during sunset. Ben climbed up, and Amanda followed behind him. At that point the person next to Ben said “no no no!”  We were a bit confused at first.  Was this for the VIP tickets only? Maybe we weren’t allowed up there.  But then a kind woman who was standing near the railing (next to Amanda) and watching her small boy crawl around on the roof (next to Ben) smiled and helped us understand.  She pointed to Amanda and shook her head ‘no‘ then pointed to Ben and nodded ‘yes.’  Now we got it: women were not allowed up top. We had heard that women can’t do all of the things men are allowed to do in Myanmar, but so far we hadn’t seen any inequality, and had somewhat forgotten about what we had heard. Ben was slightly put off by this, but at this point in our travels Amanda accepted it for what it was.  It’s not to say she agreed with these restrictions or separations between men and women but part of being in and experiencing another culture is just that — experiencing it, not trying to fight it or change it.

Enjoying the sunset on the Chindwin River before our submarine-like sleep
Enjoying the sunset on the Chindwin River before our submarine-like sleep

Amanda decided to stand and hang out by the railing while we lighted a local hand-rolled cigar we had bought (for $0.10) and shared some of the toddy beer.  After a few minutes of enjoying the moment Amanda retreated back to her little cocoon she had created for herself while Ben stayed up top to attempt to chat with a couple locals as much as he could.  One of these locals took a liking to Ben quickly.  He was a young man who was a soldier in the army.  Some time after Ben had departed the rooftop area the young soldier kept finding Ben on the boat.  It didn’t matter where Ben went, soon his soldier friend would pop up out of no where.  The words “you… American…. me…. money…. gift” were repeated on more than one occasion.  Not excited to give money to this young man who had one of the better paying jobs in the country, we offered him cigars, sky beer, food, and a number of other items to try to share some of what we had.  It was pretty obvious he didn’t speak much English so trying to fully understand if he really wanted money wasn’t going to happen.  The young guy was harmless though and eventually he took some of our sky beer and disappeared as the sun did and the sky grew dark.

The seating section of the boat had no lights except for a small TV that was at the very front (just above our heads) playing whatever looped DVD they would have going (usually a Burmese TV program or music videos).  This one small light (the TV) would attract a million bugs to it throughout the night making it impossible to actually see whatever was on the television.  We prepared ourselves before it grew to dark by placing our headlamps in our pockets.  However we barely used them other than to situate ourselves into positions for attempted sleep.  We traded off throughout the night; one of us would wedge ourselves between the boards on the slanted hull (half out of the bench style seat) with the other laying into the lap of the person sleeping along the hull.  It was definitely one of the more challenging sleeping situations we have had and not the most restful night, but overall it worked out.  Each of us managed to catch a few hours of sleep between readjusting or being startled by the Burmese dubstep videos that would randomly come on in the middle of the night.

Local Cafe - Monwa

All throughout the night the boat would dock along banks of sand and people would either load into or off of the boat.  It was incredible that the crew was able to do this in such darkness but somehow they managed and they did it well.  At 6am we found ourselves at the last stop for the boat: Monywa. Us along with everyone else onboard shook ourselves awake and gathered our bags and belongings.  We walked for about a mile toward the downtown area as the sun slowly began to rise in the sky.  Once we reached what looked like a busy main street we applied our now-standing strategy of Amanda watching the heavy bags while Ben went out in search of information on busses and transport. Amanda sat with the bags on the street corner and watched as the businesses and town came to life.  Within an hour and a half Ben had the information we needed: the only ride to Bagan was leaving at 11am. This would be our bus.  With our bags on our backs once again we trekked toward the bus station Ben had now located.  With plenty of time to spare we stopped at a bustling tea shop for some delicious morning Burmese tea and youtiaou (like churros).  We seemed to be quite the celebrities while we ate and drank.  Apparently they weren’t used to backpackers stopping in.

 

Finding our way to the land of Pagodas

The bus to Bagan left on time and after a short and painless three hour ride we were dropped at the side of the road in Nyaung-U, the administrative seat for the Bagan region, which is about 6km from Ancient Bagan.  Immediately we felt the difference from the past week we had experienced.  The road was lined with guest houses and restaurants catering to the tastes of foreigners.  Every few minutes we would see at least one other foreigner passing us on the road or enjoying a tea at a tea shop.  There was no judgement attached to this observation of difference.  It didn’t necessarily feel right or wrong, or good or bad, it just was.

We had three places for accommodation listed in a small notebook that our dear friend Sophia (from Dreamland in Mandalay) had suggested as budget options.  Together we checked out all three.  One thing was for sure, prices had gone up (like most other places in Myanmar) and they seemed to continue to be on the rise.  Our top pick had been Pann Cherry Guesthouse, having a number of rooms for two at only $14 (yes, that is super cheap for accommodation in Myanmar believe it or not).  However they sadly didn’t have any rooms available and so we ended up at May Kha Lar Guesthouse, which wasn’t a bad alternative.  The prices were slightly higher, $20 for a very small room with two twin beds in it (literally that was all that fit pretty much) and a shared bathroom with hot water.  The hot water was the first thing Amanda took advantage of.  Up north it wasn’t quite hot enough yet to fully enjoy the cold showers and it had been a few days now that we hadn’t had any hot water.

We spent the afternoon relaxing, picking up some maps, chatting with other guests that had been in town on what they recommended, and just decompressing from 24 hours of travel.  We managed to score a couple of tickets to enter the protected ‘open air park’ of Bagan off a couple that was leaving. We had read about this ticket, and like many of the policies in Myanmar around tourism, there was confusion, lack of clarity, and skepticism surrounding it. Technically, the rule is that you must buy a $15 ticket to explore the Bagan area as a foreigner. In reality, there is almost no enforcement on this and we aren’t even sure where you buy these tickets from.  Supposedly at some of the more popular pagodas they will randomly decided to enforce this rule making everyone present or purchase their ticket when entering.  Only a few years ago traveling as a backpacker in Myanmar was rare and most travel was organized through tour agencies and guides.  We could see how these mandatory tickets would then be easy to monitor as the tour agency would build them into the price of a visit to Bagan.  Today this is not the case. Perhaps the government and tourism board is now playing catch-up with the times.  Online forums are full of people suggesting you should avoid paying it by all means on account of the human rights violations the government has committed against its citizens.  We are both very sure that in another few years they will somehow find a way to monitor and enforce this fee.  But for now we took the tickets that were handed to us (which were valid for 5 days) as a gift and piece of mind if we were asked for a ticket later on (which we never were) we had some on hand.  We got an idea of how to explore the area over the next couple days. The consensus from the info we gathered was that Bagan is too hot during the middle of the day, and completely magical during dawn and dusk. With this in mind, we rented bikes at our guesthouse for the upcoming days, and requested them to be ready for us at 5am the following morning.

 

Getting to Know More about Bagan

Bagan is the former capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which was in place before current day Myanmar was overrun by the Mongolians. The former capital city had its own breed of Buddhism which incorporated elements from Hinduism as well. Between the years of 800 and 1200 AD, the people of Bagan filled the plains of the ancient capitol city with over 10,000 stupas (also known as pagodas) and 3,000 monasteries. While there are two main styles to the pagodas – one that is smaller and more of a shrine and another that is larger allowing you to walk into —every pagoda of the 10,000 is different in one way or another. Over the past 800 years many of the pagodas have disappeared over time or been destroyed by earthquakes or invading Mongols, but there are still over 2,200 in the valley, which runs along the major Ayerwaddy River that feeds to the Bay of Bengal.  But don’t let the thought of rivers and water fool you– it gets really hot in the central plains of Myanmar, and the temperatures were forecasted at around 100 degrees each day we were there.

What lies between the pagodas of Bagan?  A lot of dry dirt and bushes.
What lies between the pagodas of Bagan? A lot of dry dirt and bushes.

That being said, when you arrive to Bagan, there isn’t much to do as a tourist other than check out pagodas. But then again, with over 2,000 of them scattered over about 100 square kilometers, there is so much to see.  The plain and the pagodas are spread out within the triangle of three points: Nyaung-U where we were staying, 45 minutes southwest along the river in the ancient walled city of Old Bagan, and New Bagan set another 20 minutes by bike east of Old Bagan.  And in between was where most of the magic happened.  The three cities were connected by only a couple roads that circled the plain.  That meant that many of the pagodas did not have vehicle-accessible roads leading to them, much to our surprise.  But this also meant that many of the pagodas were not frequented by anyone unless they were willing to work to get there in the heat.

When looking at the map it was hard to know where to start.  We were glad we had taken the afternoon to rest because we knew the next couple days would be full ones with lots of biking involved and land covered.  After getting set up for the upcoming days we went out to walk around a bit and find some dinner.  Since we were on foot we didn’t venture too far from the guesthouse, and found a small nearby cafe that had a group of ten locals eating soup. It looked good, and we knew it wouldn’t be too expensive, so we decided to eat here. This ended up being a ‘one stop shop’ that only served one item, and when it is gone, they close up shop.  It was a common business model for food stands or ‘restaurants’ in this part of the world and something we could appreciate.  We ended up sitting inside the kitchen area which was attached to the bedroom the family lived in. A local girl was sitting across from us, and was eager to help us practice our few Burmese words and make sure we were enjoying our soup, which we were, immensely. When we finished, we found out it was approximately 50 cents each.  With warm soup to nourish our souls and a bed to nourish our bodies we slept like babies that night.

 

Sunrise and Sunset over Bagan

Sunrise2 w Amanda - Bagan

 

The following morning we woke up with little difficulty despite being 4:45am. We prepped our bag, map and water and then one of the guesthouse workers brought out our rental bikes while in his 2-piece pajama set. When we headed out at 5:15am it was still pitch black out. We’d gotten recommendations for where to go to see the sunrise over Bagan, and it was estimated to be about a 35 minute bike ride. After about 20 minutes of biking in the darkness, we pulled over near a brightly lit pagoda to see if we could identify where we were on the map to see if we were still on track. We weren’t having too much luck when a couple French travelers approached on bikes.  “Sunrise?” they asked as they peddled by.  “Follow us!”  Sometimes you have to trust the universe will guide you to the right spot.  This was very much the case on this morning.  We followed the French duo who peddled fast flying down the street in the direction of the desired pagoda.  We would have never made it to the spot on our own.

 

By 6am we were climbing up the steep steps on the outside of the Dhammayangyi Pagoda, climbing it like an Aztec pyramid. The air was a little crisp still, but it was no longer dark, the sky had begun to softly lighten. When we got to the top tier of the pagoda there was a space wide enough for two people to walk side by side that went all the way around. On the northeastern end about a half dozen people with high end DSLR cameras were already prepped for sunrise with their tripods fixed into place to catch the magic moment. On the other corner, though, we had all the space we needed, and we sat next to the French girl with our legs dangling over the edge of the pagoda, 60 feet above the dry grass that was keeping a mystifying carpet of fog along the ground.

Riding our bikes out to the middle of the plain and climbing the exterior of an enormous pagoda to watch the sunrise, we already felt that Bagan had lived up to the hype. The views were breathtaking. Turning 360 degrees you could see pagodas in all directions, and rolling hills in the distance that looked like a fairytale thanks to the fog and smoke from small fires the locals set. As the sun came up, the shutters of a dozen cameras went off (including our own), but then we pulled back and took in the moment, untainted by the other people we were sharing it with. It was calm on the ledge, and in the distance you could hear small tufts of hot air as the hot air balloons were being filled and the bulb-shaped balloons were forming from nowhere and began to lift off among the pointed tips of the pagodas.  There were about a dozen hot air balloons that floated through the plain and they added to the peacefulness, as they are slow moving and appear graceful because of this.  It also reminded us of our sunrise trek up a hill in Cappadoccia back in August where we watched the hot air balloons over the valley’s natural rock formations.

One of our favorite sunrises of the trip!
One of our favorite sunrises of the trip!

By 6:30am it was bright out and the sun had risen.  We opted to go start our day of exploration before it got too hot.  Before descending we scoped out the valley from our birds eye view and tried to compare it to the map in our hands.  We spotted a very large pagoda that was under construction to our east and decided to cut over to it.  We figured we could just cut across the empty dirt fields and get there quickly, but we soon learned the folly of this plan.  While the price of the bikes rental was good at $1.50 per bike per day, they were cruising bikes, and we hadn’t realized that the valley contained many areas where the sand or soft dirt was think.  We stuck to the trails as much as we could (when we spotted them) but found we were still constantly getting sucked into the thick sand.  It was testing to go 40-50 feet, get stuck, walk 20 feet with the bike, then get back on the bike and repeat.  We were also cutting through bushes trying to work toward the pagoda since none of the trails seemed to lead there.  After a while we passed by a small hut, and seeing a bunch of terracotta bowls on the ground, realized this was a family living off toddy production, aka palm wine like we had seen a few days prior in Mawlaik.

Morning Meditation pagoda - Bagan

 

About a half mile before we reached  the Dhammayazika pagoda we found another grouping of stupas and decided to stop here and do our morning meditation.  This was the Kutha grouping, and it was beautiful and unique because it had a pond area carved out, and there were bright pink, orange, and white bougainvillea flowers growing over the sides of some of the ruins.  We were now several miles from our guesthouse, and a couple miles from the last people we had seen at sunrise.  We lingered in this aloneness, feeling the beauty and age of the land around us.  Eventually we continued on, passing the big Dhammayazika Pagoda that’d been our landmark on the horizon.  It was currently under construction and covered in bamboo scaffolding (which we thought was neat to see in itself).    From here we saw some of our first vendors, waiting for busloads of tourists to come in need of food or cold refreshments.  There was also a bigger dirt road.  While we preferred not to be on the tourist checklist road, we also came to appreciate the value of not getting stuck in the soft sand every 30 feet on the bikes, and thus went on this trail until it met with a paved road that would lead us back an hour and a half to our hostel in the Nyaung-U area.

The next few hours we took as down time, avoiding the midday heat.  This was a much appreciated break, as we had gotten up before 5am, and it felt good to relax and even though the guesthouse was not as cool as a big hotel may be, it was a drastic improvement over being outdoors.  We used the time to recharge our batteries (phone and personal batteries) enjoy some local food, and (slowly) check our email — something that wasn’t really an option just a year ago in most Burmese hotels.

 

When 4:30pm rolled around, we headed back out on our rental bikes to explore more now that the midday heat was past its peak.   We headed down the main road southwest  as we had before sunrise that morning, and it seemed totally different.  There were new pagodas we hadn’t been able to see all over as soon as we left the township of Nyaung-U.  We went first to the edge of the old city of Bagan walls, and it was near here that we chose to check out one of the more famous and largest pagodas, Ananda (not to be confused with Amanda). The Ananda Pagoda marked a significant difference from the pagodas we had spent the morning exploring.  This one was starred on all the maps, and we can’t really blame them for that.  It was larger, you could walk around inside, and of course it was very accessible on the main road, which meant that at all times there were at least two tour busses there.

After having such a wonderful and quiet morning, we ducked down the side of the building and avoided the cool, shaded hallway that was jam-packed with vendors.  Walking barefoot through the courtyard around the building we had to step lightly to avoid burning our toes, but we didn’t mind with our midday rest and since it meant we could avoid the crowds.  Going in a less busy entry, the pagoda was still very impressive right away.  Most of the smaller stupa/pagodas had a cross-legged buddha inside, but this one featured a 40 ft gilded, standing buddha.  The hallways were simple but appeared maze-like because of the changing depth of the exterior rooms, and there were small statues inlaid in the walls at all different heights that made you think there should be another walkway 15 feet and then again 30 feet above your head.

Once we had taken our time to appreciate the major Ananda pagoda, we decided to look for a place to watch the sunset.  We intended to go to another large pagoda, but as we were riding there a local burmese guy on a motorbike slowed next to Amanda (on her bicycle) and struck up a conversation.  It turned out he was going to the same pagoda and he was insistent he show us his lacquerware products.  We told him that we aren’t in the market for fragile pottery as we are backpacking, but he wasn’t determined.  Not being in much of a mood to shop we quickly changed our minds and opted not to watch the sunset from the pagoda where he was selling his souvenirs.  We rode into the dusty landscape until we found another large pagoda that had a few people that seemed to be sitting on top.  We parked our bikes here and found the stairs that climbed to the top of the pagoda.  Once again we were struck by the beauty of the scenery, made more impressive by the blood red sun that is a result of all the small fires people make to burn their trash and leaves.  This haze from the smoke also accentuated the hills in the distance and made the place appear like even more of a fairytale land, dotted in little palaces of prayer as far as the eye can see.

When the sun had set, we took our time heading down, and found that someone had lit candles before the buddha statue in the center of the hollowed-out pagoda as well as in the stairway– a nice, romantic touch.

Our sunset pagoda duo - Bagan

Geocaching and the Full Bagan Experience

The following day we decided to maximize our time in Bagan and take off via overnight bus that evening for our next destination.  We chose to get a bit more rest this morning and forego the sunrise.  Instead we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast and then headed out at about 8:15am to explore for the entire day.  We started out heading inland first and essentially going the opposite direction as we had the day before; trying to make as much headway on our bikes as possible before it got too hot.  Our first stop on the road was to check out the only other white pagoda besides Ananda: the Leimyetha Pagoda.  This one was interesting because it had an active monastery attached to it, so we were greeted by a couple monks, and we could tell by the worn carpets in front of the buddha image that people were coming to this pagoda regularly to pray still.  It also had an interesting fresco on the walls inside which looked like a print of the buddha inside the center of the stupa, in a repeating pattern.  We were the only foreigners there during our visit.  A local offered to show us his souvenirs, but we said we’re not interested and he did not pursue it anymore, which we appreciated.

Ben and Bikes in Bagan

We had come to discover that Bagan is one of those areas that sometimes is best to just get lost in.  While it can seem overwhelming and the urge to see it all will easily overcome anyone who first arrives to the land of thousands of pagodas, trying to stick to a map (especially when off the main roads) can be near impossible.  Some of the most spectacular pagodas we had come across were off small trails and we could never really explain to anyone how to get to them.  To deepen this exploration and also to add a little spice to our usual mindless wandering we welcomed the fact that there were geocaches in the area.  We were a bit surprised at first that there were any geocaches at all because of the regulations within the country, but happy all the same.  We prepped our little notebook with the details, coordinates, and clues we needed before heading out that day ready to be led to places we probably would never have found on our own.

The very first cache we did was by far the best geocache we have done yet.  It was appropriately titled Hsin Pyushin Monastic Complex -The hidden chamber.  As usual, we didn’t take the easiest way to get there.  We ended up parking our bikes and hiking across dry fields and through brush.  As we were leaving we saw there was an actual trail the led to the entrance of the cropping of pagodas.  But that was all part of the fun.  The cropping of pagodas was a forgotten one with absolutely no one around.  Once we identified which pagoda it was in we found our way up to the top level via the staircases that are somewhat hidden and built into the walls.  From here we took a moment to sit in the sun and take in the amazing views and complete silence that surrounded us.  Already we were loving this spot.  And now to find the cache.  Amanda followed the photo clue of “broken white buddhas” which were in toward the middle of the pagoda in what seemed to be a shrine area.  As we approached them we saw a small entrance to the right that led into complete darkness.  Amanda grabbed the headlamp and headed into the winding, musty, rat scat covered passageway.  It took everything in her to continue on.  Her bravery paid off.  At the dead end she spotted a space in the wall with a small painted box.  We had found it! She squealed (both from finding the cache and from being grossed out) as she ran back into the sunlight and drew a large deep breath of fresh air.  We opened the box to sign the log and exchange a little gift inside.  We took some time after to sit and enjoy the views before returning the cache to it’s home.  Amanda told Ben there was no way she was going to put it back on her own.  He would be joining her to see just how gross it was.  Together we went back into the musty darkness and replaced the box before we headed back out into the sunlight and toward our parked bikes about a half kilometer away.

Geocaching Bagan

We let the GPS and the coordinates to two more geocaches be our guide for the afternoon.  Each location was somewhere unique and a place that we would had not gone to on our own.   After our stop in New Bagan and finding another geocache there (and disturbing teenage lovers in the meanwhile), we continued on to explore the walled city of Old Bagan for the first time.  Old Bagan is now just shops, pagodas, shrines, a museum, and a palace now, as people are no longer allowed to live in the old city.  This has directly contributed to the expansion of New Bagan and Nyaung-U.  In the old city there is one main drag that passes through, curving when the Ayerwaddy River curves.  At this curve there is a junction, and we chose to follow it, where we found the Bu Phaya Stupa.  This one was neat because it was not a pagoda like the rest, but a gourd-shaped stupa that was painted gold, right on the edge of the Ayerwaddy. According to legend, it was originally built in the 2nd century AD and King Pyusawhti built it after destroying the menace of vines and gourds that were plaguing the city, and this was a tribute to his triumph.  While we can’t be sure this is true, what we do know is that Bu Phaya literally translate to “gourd pagoda” and that the original one was destroyed by an earthquake in 1975.  It was a refreshing change of pace from the traditional pagodas, and it was neat to see mostly Burmese tourists at this site.

By this time we were getting hungry again, so we pulled into a little cafe nearby for some tasty food.  There were a few locals hanging out, who appeared to be friends of the owners, but we were having trouble communicating with the family.  Eventually we went into the kitchen with them and pointed to dishes we wanted that they had ready to heat up and serve.  After ten minutes or so, they asked us again what we wanted.  Somehow we were all having major a major communication breakdown.  Twenty minutes later they served us stir fried veggies on a bed of rice, not very interesting.  I guess they may have been scared to serve us the typical Burmese dishes (which was what we wanted) since we were foreigners.  We managed to find some hot peppers and garlic (in the kitchen) to spice up the dish.  At this point we were just hungry and it was food, so we ate.

We opted to finish the trek back to Nyaung-U where our guesthouse was and complete the bicycle loop that we’d started that morning.  On our way in we stopped once more for tea and ice water.  Here Amanda made friends with the owners son.  He seemed to be about four and was dancing like a possessed child when we arrived — seemingly happy out of his mind for no particular reason.  It was exhausting just watching the child, but it made for good entertainment, right up there with Gangs of New York that they had playing in the back of the tea house.

Shwezigon Pagoda Bagan

At the edge of Nyaung-U is another famous pagoda, which is well known because it acted as the model for the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda we had seen in Yangon.  This one, while not as large, is known as the Shwezigon Pagoda and has the same central stupa that we’d seen in Yangon.  The grounds here aren’t nearly as expansive as those in Yangon but we still loved it and would add this to the list of the larger Bagan pagodas we recommend stopping in at.  With this as our last pagoda of our stay we took some extra time to sit in the shade, meditate a bit, and just take in all the amazing energy that existed here.  We also stumbled across a very strange image of Buddha that was different from any other we had seen yet in SE Asia.  When we approached them an older woman (she seemed to be almost 90 years old) smiled and came toward us quickly.  “Buddha” she pointed at one, “Buddha son” she pointed at the smaller one.  “Give to buddha for luck” she said.  We could see the folded bills in the buddha sashay and when we took a bill out she showed us how to fold it and offer it.  She really wanted us to keep giving but we drew our limit at two small bills.  Then as we were leaving this little corner of the Shwezigon Pagoda grounds she made a funny request.  “Un stylo? Ummm, pen” she said.  We shrugged our shoulders and handed her a pen we had in our backpack.  She beamed with happiness and we smiled and thanked her as we moved on.  Sometimes the smallest things can bring so much joy when you least expect it.

Different Buddhas Bagan

At about 5:30pm we arrived back at our hotel, having completed a full loop around the Bagan area for the day.  There was no doubt that Bagan is a magical place.  It is regarded by many as one of the top places to visit both in SE Asia and the world.  After only a couple of days we can safely say we agree that out of all the places in the world this cultural spot is not only full of history but also an energy unlike any other we had experienced.  Even with the increased number of tourists and changing times, today it remains ancient and still uncorrupt from overpopulation or over visitation.  Bagan manages to balance the simple with the magnificent.  It captures much of what people dream of when they see photos or hear of Burma.

We were now back on the ‘easy trail’ (the path traveled by many tourists between the top 4-5 towns/cities in the country) and happy to be there at this point in our journey.  Just like so many things in life: there are times when it feels right and is best to create your own trail, and there are times when it is best to travel the trail already made by others.  We happily accepted the ease in which we got a ticket (from our hotel) for a bus to Inle Lake.  We waited along with about seven other travelers in the lobby for the bus to pick us up directly and then settled into the fairly comfy seats for the night journey ahead of us.

For more photos of us biking through the desert from one Pagoda exploration to the next, click HERE.

 

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