A Travellerspoint blog

Saddle sores from too much Temple hopping

Exploring the Plains of Bagan

overcast 28 °C

Bagan, Myanmar

Myanmar’s greatest architectural site has as many red-brick temples on a plain the size of Manhattan island as Europe has medieval cathedrals. The Kings of Bagan, Pagan as was, who introduced central Myanmar to Theravada Buddhism, liked to make bold statements. Their building frenzy of a startling 4,400 temples lasted only 230 years, fading before the Mongols poured over the plains in 1287.

The morning market

The morning market

Yesterday's transport from the Ferry

Yesterday's transport from the Ferry

Our exploration of the Temples began at the morning market in New Bagan. Open for only a few hours each day a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish were available. From there we began our exploration of the vast plains of Bagan by bicycle. Whilst renting our bikes we had been acquainted with a Mandalay university student, happy to provide us with an unofficial tour of the temples. Phohtaoo (Foo-Tou) was to be our companion for the next few days showing us the oft visited temples and the quieter areas of Bagan, that see few tourists.

Our first striking gold stupa on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

Our first striking gold stupa on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

Trey makes an offering to Tuesday - her day of the week

Trey makes an offering to Tuesday - her day of the week

Hard life!

Hard life!

Ring that bell

Ring that bell

A wide loop through Old Bagan takes us to a plethora of domed red brick temples. Typically, filled with large golden buddhas some such as, the Ananda Pahto, with its shimmering gold, 170ft high, corncob-style hti shimmering across the plains, also house detailed 18th century murals bursting with bright red and green, showing details of everyday life from the Bagan period. Their vibrancy and visual style is simply stunning. Often only visible with the aid of a small electric bulb, on a long cable, we catch glimpses of the artistry and skills of ancient artists. Whilst prevalent in many of the temples the stucco walled murals were, unfortunately, significantly affected by the 1975 earthquake. Those examples that remain provide a saddening insight into what must have been quite glorious religious sites.

Our transport for visiting the Temples

Our transport for visiting the Temples

The Temples of Bagan

The Temples of Bagan

Exploring the temples

Exploring the temples

Over the years, neglect, looting, erosion, bat dung and, in particular, the massive 1975 earthquake have done their part to undermine a bit of the former majesty of Bagan. Many restorations projects, including several by Unesco, have rebuilt damaged temples from the 1975 earthquake yet all too often the result of this devastating earthquake that saw the total number of temples in Bagan reduced from over 4,400 to 2,250 are still visible.

Our trusty guide

Our trusty guide

Very few tourists to spoil our view

Very few tourists to spoil our view

As in Mandalay Burmese tourists are keen to have their picture taken with us

As in Mandalay Burmese tourists are keen to have their picture taken with us

Cycling through the red brick temple strewn landscape of the Plains provides a glorious visual feast of ancient architecture. With August heat and humidity ensuring minimal tourist visitors our tour of the key temples of Bagan are almost private. Few travelers impact on our tour. As an unofficial guide Phohtaoo does not enter many of the temples, as not having a guide license would cause problems. Yet his presence is both agreeable and helpful, especially when finding the small doors and passageways that lead to the upper floors of some temples.

Trey's pictures get 'arty'

Trey's pictures get 'arty'

Looking out over the Plains of Bagan

Looking out over the Plains of Bagan

2,500 temples lay around us

2,500 temples lay around us

Old and new Temples

Old and new Temples

Descending from the Temple

Descending from the Temple

Keen to see the process of making ‘new’ Bagan statues he takes us to a friend of his that manufacturers these items. Far from the usual tourist trail, clay still wet, Phohtaoo’s friend artistically carves images of Buddha into the red medium. The following day he promises to have them fired, finished and ready for purchase.

Our friendly statue making

Our friendly statue making

Typical transportation around the Temples

Typical transportation around the Temples

Inside one of the Temples

Inside one of the Temples

Overlooking Bagan

Overlooking Bagan

With lunch in Old Bagan and ample cycling between temples, along often sandy tracks, completed we finish our day at one of the many Lacquerware workshops that Bagan is famous for. With quality pieces made from bamboo, teak or horse hair and requiring at least twelve layers of lacquer, each taking over a week to dry a large piece can take up to eight months to produce. With a drying cellar in the basement the store we visit has a first floor where the lacquer is applied with fingers and a second where craftsmen hand carve the many and varied patterns. Each color of the pattern is applied individual, with natural dyes and acacia tree glue used to apply and maintain the color. The free hand drawing skills of these artisans is amazing. Unsurprisingly we arrange for a few choice items to be sent to our hotel in Yangon.

Inside the lacquerware cellar were the products are cured

Inside the lacquerware cellar were the products are cured

Lacquerware engravers working free hand

Lacquerware engravers working free hand

The result of eight months labor

The result of eight months labor

After a long, hot day visiting the temples we are happy to spend a quiet night at the hotel. Tomorrow will see more temples and more cycling. Saddle sores need to heal.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:27 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Cruising the fabled Ayeyarwady River

Taking the slow boat to Bagan

sunny 29 °C

Mandalay to Bagan, Myanmar

In the pre-dawn darkness the wide Ayeyarwady river shimmered black , like a sleeping eel, as it snaked through both the geographic centre and cultural soul of Myanmar. A nine hour cruise to Bagan would take us along this romantic river, so favored by poets and writers. Our companions on this journey would all be western tourists, mostly French and German. This was not a ferry for locals but a fast Express ferry offering the relative comfort of air conditioning below deck and wicker chairs to relax in upon the observation deck - the latter being our preferred seating area for the voyage.

A barge loaded with Teak logs passes up the river

A barge loaded with Teak logs passes up the river

As we cast off from the quayside at Mandalay, the sun beginning to rise, a wide variety of passenger ferries and cargo vessels could be seen moored against the shore line. Turning south the golden stupas, perched sporadically across a hilly backdrop , of Sagaing became readily visible. Cruising past, clearly not all of the towns 500 stupas were visible. Yet even their limited appearance provided great activity amongst the many photographers on board, with golden hill tops, their summits reached by covered walkways carved into the hillside, easy to observe. Crossing under the metal arched Ava bridge it was with some sadness that we would have to leave exploration of this fascinating area to another trip.

The golden stupas of Sagaing

The golden stupas of Sagaing

Sagaing

Sagaing

Passing Sagaing the remainder of our journey would see us pass low lying rice paddy fields and small scale cattle farms. Sporadically, small bamboo formed villages would appear with locals, adults and children shouting their hellos and those on our observation deck offering reciprocal waves. As with drivers in Mandalay every passing boat, whilst relatively few, would signal their friendship. Smaller canoes and sailing boats would pass by with waving passengers. On cargo vessels decks hands would offer two arm waves. When almost alone on our observation deck, at one point, I waved at the captain of a passing rice barge to have my greeting returned with a sharp, friendly blast on the ships horn. It was that sort of river.

The slow boat down the Ayeyarwady

The slow boat down the Ayeyarwady



Throughout our journey the hot equatorial sun beat down forcing many short term vacation passengers, without suntans, below. Those staying gradually turning pink in the heat of the sun. Fascinated by the picture of river life passing by we remained on deck, watching locals use the water of the river to wash themselves and their clothes, provide fish to cook and as a means of transportation. Adapted to this environment their simple lives were far distant from those we had experienced in Mandalay.

Village life on the river

Village life on the river

Our only brief stop en route to Bagan was at Myinmu, to pick up a couple of western tourists. Locals hurried into the river, waste deep, to sell their wares of fresh mango, papaya and melon. Thrown fruit being exchanged for similarly thrown paper money.

Excited villagers looked on

Excited villagers looked on

Villagers waist deep in the river eager to sell their wares

Villagers waist deep in the river eager to sell their wares

An island of cattle in the rising river

An island of cattle in the rising river

This interaction with locals over we returned to our gentle downstream cruise. A makeshift lunch partaken, reminiscent of our time on the Trans-Siberian, the plain of Bagan, soon hove into view. The first sight of the red brick temples of Bagan broke the general malaise that had transcended the ship. A near desolate observation deck awoke to the familiar click of digital cameras. Returning to Bagan I knew from previous experience how much camera time the photogenic Temples of Bagan can illicit. With some temples balanced on the very edge of the high cliffs that now marked the edge of the river we were soon docking at Old Bagan.

Trey's first view of the Bagan temples

Trey's first view of the Bagan temples

Windswept on the Ayeryarwady

Windswept on the Ayeryarwady

Bags collected a veritable throng of taxi, trishaw and horse cart drivers descended demanding their quickly augmented fares for journeys across the plains. Using the usually successful technique of ignoring their entreaties and heading towards the main road, on foot, we were soon approached by a horse cart driver demanding a much more reasonable fare. Bags loaded it would take some thirty minutes, bouncing and jerking once again, to reach our hotel. Passing many of the more famous temples this simple journey provided a visual taste of the spectacle that we were to explore tomorrow.

Working hard

Working hard

Riding to the hotel in uncomfortable style

Riding to the hotel in uncomfortable style

After a dust removing swim supper was found on the edge of the mighty river that transported us from Mandalay. With darkness now once again descended, moonlight casting a slivery glow across the water, it is easy to imagine why this fabled river projects the very soul of this often troubled land.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:00 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Gladiola sword fights whilst trying to avoid being possessed

A typical day at the seven day Taungbyone nat pwe (Spirit Festival)

overcast 31 °C

Mandalay, Myanmar

Initially, our excuse for visiting Mandalay had been the seven day long Taungbyone nat pwe spirit festival some twelve miles north of Mandalay. Every year in August, the Nat (Spirit) festival related to two of Burma’s most famous spirit brothers, Min Gyi and Min Galay ( Elder Prince and Younger Prince ), ritually takes place. These two strong, handsome and brave brothers, although notorious for their bad habits, cockfighting, womanizing and drunkenness, were favorites of King Anawrahta but viewed with disdain by other members of the court.
On his return from a journey to China, King Anawrahta stopped at Taungbyone village, deciding to build a pagoda (as one does!) ordering that everyone must contribute a brick for the construction. But the sloppy two brothers were busy with drinks and girls and failed to provide their share to the pagoda construction. When King Anawrahta inspected the pagoda he saw two unfilled places and queried the culprits. The courtiers happily accused the two brothers. The King commanded them to be mildly disciplined. The jealous members of the court took the King’s command broadly and executed the two brothers and they became Nats (Spirits).

Crowds flock to the festival

Crowds flock to the festival

As the regretful King Anawrahta’s made his way home downstream, the spirits of the two brothers held onto his raft and would not let go. When the King enquired upon this event the two brothers appeared as spirits to the King and told him the whole story, requesting an abode of their own. The King granted Taungbyone village to be theirs. From that time onwards the festival has been held annually with each of the eight days of the festival encompassing its own special program of events.

Sweets for sale

Sweets for sale

Arriving on the fifth day we looked out for the ceremony offering roasted rabbits to the spirits, commemorating the time when the two brothers visited the toddy plantations for a drink with roasted rabbit before their tragic deaths. It is believed that through meditation and participation in the festival the two Nat brothers can fulfill their wishes, protect them from misfortune and jeopardy, and bring good luck, health, wealth and success.

Bananas for both eating for offering

Bananas for both eating for offering

With heavy pilgrim traffic and those asking for donations on both sides of the street it was clear that our destination was to be popular. A sense of great excitement and anticipation could be felt as we neared the festival monastery complex. A carnival atmosphere transpired. Arriving to shouts, bangs and loud noises a sizeable market of local clothes, coconut and sugar sweets, brightly colored hats and all manner of ‘objet d’art’ that a Burmese local on pilgrimage to the spirit festival might require. Progressing through the crowds was slow. As on the roads no give or take is given in a Burmese crowd. Yet pushing and shoving is carried out with humor and good grace. These were not the intensely irritating crowds of China.

Colorful, hand painted paper hats were popular with the children

Colorful, hand painted paper hats were popular with the children

Colorful hats for sale

Colorful hats for sale

Crowds push to enter the temple

Crowds push to enter the temple

Rejecting offers of fruit, sour salads and bunches of Gladiola’s we finally reached the main spirit temple. It was here that the invocation of spirits was underway. The nat enjoy loud and colorful music, so musicians at a nat pwe bang away at full volume on their gongs, drums and xylophones, producing what might be considered some ancient precursor to Rock ‘n Roll. Given the cacophony of noise that greeted us a number of nats must have been awoken from their slumber. Struggling to talk above the noise we watched what can only be described as a group of teenage Burmese boys jumping around a temple floor waving and beating each other with bunches of brightly colored Gladiolas. Surreal sights on this trip have been aplenty but this has to rank up there.

Jump around...with your Gladiola's!

Jump around...with your Gladiola's!

Never too young for the spirit festival

Never too young for the spirit festival

Dancing in the temple

Dancing in the temple

Every nat pwe is accompanied by a risk that the invited spirit may enter the body of not only the festival participant but one of the spectators. While this festival focused on summoning the spirits of the two brothers we suspected that another spirit had already been summoned Ko Gyi Kyaw (Big Brother Kyaw). A drunkard nat who responds to offerings of liquor imbibed by the nat gadaw. Once possessed, he’s given to lascivious dancing, so an unexpected possession by Ko Gyi Kyaw can be especially embarrassing. Worse once possessed only exorcism by an elderly monk – a process that can take days if not weeks – can displace the naughty nat. Failure to undertake such a operation may result in the possessed carrying the nat stigma for the rest of their lives.

The pickled salad cart

The pickled salad cart

Whilst early in the morning it seemed very clear that Ko Gyi Kyaw had been invoked by many of the dancing boys in the temple. With the music briefly ceasing a brief prayer is made at the altar before the now slightly limp gladiolas are thrown high into a golden coffin representing the final resting place of the brothers. Yet whilst clearly this was a time of merriment other, particularly elderly participants, appeared genuinely overcome by the spirits requiring help down the steps of the temple, muttering a stream of unintelligible ramblings.

Betel nut production line

Betel nut production line

Filling the space

Filling the space

Eager to capture pictures of a passing train I soon departed the temple for the edge of the festival. There a passenger train, similar to that we had travelled on earlier in the week, meandered by laden down with passengers. Videoing and taking pictures of locals hanging from carriage doors, windows and very available ledger it was only as I turned round that I realized, in my haste to capture the pictures that I had run into one of the communal showers areas, like we had seen in Mandalay. Unfortunately, this was a ladies only shower. The sight of a dapper (!) Western tourist replete with a variety of cameras staring wide eyed at ladies in varying stages of modesty I am sure elicited comment. Fortunately, I could neither understand nor hear as I raced out and back to the relative scrum of the temple.

Getting the Ferris wheel moving was hard work...

Getting the Ferris wheel moving was hard work...

...as was stopping it

...as was stopping it

Mass transit Burmese style

Mass transit Burmese style

Happy to sold Trey some Tanaka - sunblock

Happy to sold Trey some Tanaka - sunblock

Fortunately few trains travelled these tracks

Fortunately few trains travelled these tracks

As with all good nat pwe entertainment was not limited to the temple. A makeshift carnival was being kept busy. With a diesel engine operated pirate ship that rocked and swayed at each pendulum swing it was the manually operated Ferris wheel that was of greatest interest. With participants sitting in their swaying metal boxes young men climbed the metal structure using only their body weight and athleticism to cause the wheel to turn. At a rapid speed the wheel turned whilst a series of boys rode high with the chairs during their ascent and then swung out on the descent to create motion. It was a dizzying and dangerous feat that mesmerized. For the want of fun, death or serious injury was but moments away for those without their impressive aerial skills.

Curry for lunch

Curry for lunch

Trey gave the nuns a token offering

Trey gave the nuns a token offering

The moat of the Royal Palace

The moat of the Royal Palace

Our delightful 'home' in Mandalay

Our delightful 'home' in Mandalay

Back in Mandalay, apparently without being possessed by any rogue nat spirits we rented bikes, once again, for a leisurely ride around the city that we now knew so well. An early morning called tomorrow when we would leave this city for another major Myanmar tourist site. With the smell of Durian fruit that now pervaded much of our hotel and certainly our room this departure would be sad but at least the smell of this odor rich fruit would no longer linger.

Riding home after supper

Riding home after supper

Posted by jamesh1066 14:44 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Crashing cars on the ‘Road to Mandalay’

Chaotic taxi driving delivers not unexpected results

overcast 30 °C

Pyin Oo Lwin to Mandalay, Myanmar

Determined to complete our rain curtailed exploration of the town of Pyin Oo Lwin we once again spend some forty minutes walking into town, passing a number of old colonial buildings, many of which are now Government run hotels. Yet once again nature contrives against us. Reaching the market an early rain shower commences. Sheltering once again in our now familiar bakery we await a respite. Yet, it does not come and once again we find ourselves with horse and carriage, returning to our hotel. Yet, history repeats for as we ascend the rain ceases. Clearly an exploration of the city is not in our interest. Returning to the hotel we await our shared taxi back to Mandalay.

This time we are joined not only by another Burmese girl but also a mother and her two small children, residing in the more expensive but now rather crushed front seat. As the previous day our driver is a man in a hurry. Hurtling down from the high plateau we screech past other vehicles travelling at a more lugubrious pace. Overtaking where other drivers might consider such actions folly we bounce on the surfaced road and dirt edges with Mandalay a destination that clearly does not like to be kept waiting.

With our driver no other driver is safe on the roads as one other taxi was to find out. Overtaking a slow moving lorry at what our driver clearly thought was too slow a pace we ram the other taxi. Nothing serious but enough to break our indicator lights and require a conversation with ‘the other party’ at the side of the road. With our driver resigned to looking at the damage a good natured, smiling and joking conversation followed. With neither driver apparently concerned with the new bumps and scratches that had been added to their admittedly already ‘aged’ vehicles we are soon back to our usual formula one driving style with no exchange of names, insurance details (!) or the like necessary or apparently expected.

Looking out to Mandalay Hill

Looking out to Mandalay Hill

A mass of white stupas

A mass of white stupas

Returning to our previous hotel in Mandalay we are greeted as almost long lost friends. Chilled lemongrass tea and soft face towels conclude our brief journey. With little time before the afternoon monsoon a gentle walk takes us to some of the temples found at the base of Mandalay Hill. Refusing to purchase the governments temple ticket some we can visit freely, others we can only look at over walls.

Taking the temples picture

Taking the temples picture

The remarkable Atumashi Kyanug

The remarkable Atumashi Kyanug

At Atumashi Kyanug, built by King Mindon in 1857, we could see traditional Burmese monastic construction – a masonary base topped by a wooden building. Kuthodaw Paya frequently dubbed ‘the world’s largest book’ includes 729 marble slabs, each carved with part of the entire fifteen books of the Tripitaka, and individually housed within their own white stupa. Whilst Kyauktawgyi Paya houses a 26ft, 900-tonne Buddha, carved from a single block of marble.

A sea of white Stupas in the lea of Mandalay Hill

A sea of white Stupas in the lea of Mandalay Hill

The Kuthodaw Paya. Each of the 729 white stupas house  a part of the Tripitaka

The Kuthodaw Paya. Each of the 729 white stupas house a part of the Tripitaka

A paya at Kuthodaw Paya

A paya at Kuthodaw Paya

Comfortable in our now familiar surroundings a cold beer and supper of spring rolls and fried noodles were easy to locate. Sadly, tomorrow would be our last full day in Mandalay but we expected to go out with a bang.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:08 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

In residence at former British Military Intelligence HQ's

Retreating to the colonial hill top station of Pyin Oo Lwin

overcast 30 °C

Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

With heat and humidity affected Mandalay we decide to do as the colonial government did, over 100 years ago, and retire to the summer Hill Station of Pyin Oo Lwin for cool exploration. Departing by shared taxi proved the most efficient and economical method of transport. Shared with two Burmese locals the taxi collected us from our hotel and delivered us to our new hotel some hour and a half later for a cost that was approximately 1/10th that of a private taxi – a revenue model that made no sense at all to us.

Departing the city for the relatively short forty mile journey we soon traded the familiar city landscape for one of paddy fields and bamboo dwellings. Rising from the dusty plains of Mandalay the road to Pyin Oo Lwin climbs steeply into the green hills of the Shan Plateau. We continue to pass quiet, ramshackle country villages, which offer a taste of rural life without any of vestige of the commercialism we have become familiar with, in Mandalay. Replete with scooters, pickup trucks and buses, ferrying undoubtedly like minded individuals to cooler climates, our journey passes quickly.

Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin

At 3,500ft above sea level Pyin Oo Lwin readily offered the cool, dry climate we expected. Whereas the British generally left a relatively small cultural mark on their colonial processions in Burma, Pyin Oo Lwin is a notable exception. Founded in 1896, the hill station became the destination of the colonial government, eager to escape the oppressive heat of a Mandalay summer, a role it held until the end of British rule in 1948. Whilst the name of the British summer capitol changed from Maymyo, when the British departed, the colonial buildings remain.

Once British Intelligence Military HQ but now our accommodation

Once British Intelligence Military HQ but now our accommodation

Curiously, our hotel overlooking the Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens and resembling a English Lake District guesthouse, formerly housed British Military Intelligence – providing an almost complete set of intelligence headquarters having visited both former KGB and Gestapo offices earlier in our trip.

The botanic garden of Kandawgyi

The botanic garden of Kandawgyi

Orchids growing in the botanical gardens

Orchids growing in the botanical gardens

Founded in 1915 by English botanist Alex Rodgers, the 100 acre botanic garden of Kandawgyi is clearly still lovingly maintained. With Swamp walkways, a rather sparse orchid garden but some lovely ornamental flowerbeds reminiscent of the best that a Harrogate or Bournemouth might offer in the summer months we are immediately transported to a lazy summers afternoon back in England. With the preponderance of plant nurseries outside the park it is clear that the British penchant for gardening, something we have not seen anywhere else in Myanmar was transplanted here along with a similar Climate, scenery and architecture.

The botanic garden of Kandawgyi

The botanic garden of Kandawgyi

The Nan Myint Tower

The Nan Myint Tower

Looking out over Pyin Oo Lwin

Looking out over Pyin Oo Lwin

Trey takes a rest

Trey takes a rest

In the gardens we are able to ascend the Nan Myint Tower for panoramic views of Pyin OO Lwin before walking the mile or so into the town, simultaneously arriving with the afternoon monsoon. Sheltering in a promising but ultimately disappointing Burmese bakery we head to the local vaguely covered market with the hope that the rain will soon desist. With little sign of a change in the weather and relatively few tourist sites, after the Purcell Tower – donated by Queen Victoria – we return to our hotel by way of horse and carriage. Lavishly decorated and highly photogenic our carriage bumps and jerks along the bumpy, generally surfaced roads. In typical fashion no sooner than we ascend into our carriage but the rain halts. No matter. A brief respite before supper is now too appealing.

Market stalls in Pyin Oo Lwin

Market stalls in Pyin Oo Lwin

Our taxi

Our taxi

Riding through town

Riding through town

Horse carriage ride through the town

Horse carriage ride through the town

Supper is found at an up market Thai restaurant, housed in a old colonial building with an outdoor, lantern lit, terrace for evening dining. With a good forty minute walk to the restaurant down unlit pot hole filled roads, with the potential for erratic scooter drivers – often with no lights themselves – at every corner a taxi returns us to our accommodation, having enjoyed an excellent supper in cool no air conditioning surroundings.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:24 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

(Entries 31 - 35 of 94) « Page .. 2 3 4 5 6 [7] 8 9 10 11 12 .. »