My skin was gritty with dust and dried sweat, my clothes damp and dirty. Matching blisters gnawed at each heel. As I climbed the last steps, though, I was in Heaven, as from on high, the ancient temple city spread out beneath me.
This was why I'd come to Myanmar, or Burma, as it is also known. The nearly thousand year old ruins of Bagan were worth the three days of travel and six legs of flights to get here. They made my two days of pedaling a bicycle from temple to temple across a hot, dusty plain a joy -- not a chore. Moments like these atop the temple-- when you can mutter only an inadequate "Wow" -- were worth feeling tired and dirty.
Besides not being easy to get to, Myanmar is a bit of a Forbidden Fruit for travelers. There is a controversy on whether travelers should even go there. It is a military dictatorship that annulled the free elections it allowed in 1990, when its pet party candidates lost overwhelmingly. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been in jail or under house arrest for a decade. She has urged tourists to boycott her country to starve the regime of foreign currency.
So, why was I going? Not everyone marches to Suu Kyi's drum beat. I am more in step with that of Lonely Planet guidebooks that say foreign visitors have a positive effect, rather than a negative one. My own feeling is that the more outside influences the Burmese are exposed to -- travelers, foreign broadcasts, publications and internet , the more difficult it will be to repress them. Travelers can be the soap that makes the grip of the Iron Fist slippery.
My nod to Suu Kyi was to let my dollars go to the ordinary Burmese as much as possible, rather than to government-owned business or organizations. Over the internet, I hired an independent Myanmar travel agency, Golden Rock Travel and Tours, to arrange an individual "guided" tour. I am normally not the tour type. I did this because, when I began my planning, independent travelers were forced to purchase $200 of government Foreign Exchange Certificates (which went directly to their coffers). Those on guided tours did not have to purchase them. A couple months later, this changed, and now no one is required to purchase them, but Golden Rock had already arranged my hotel rooms, flights to and from Bagan and airport transfers.
Golden Rock met me when I landed in Yangon and took me to my hotel. Looking around the Summit Parkview's ritzy interior, I felt guiltily like a rich, package tourist. Well, at least all my days on my itinerary were listed by Golden Rock as "Free Days." This would truly be a self-guided, Guided Tour.
My hotel was within walking distance of Yangon's number one attraction, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This gorgeous, gold-plated, gem-encrusted temple is Myanmar's holiest spot. As I walked up the entrance way, I slipped off my sandals in accordance with Burmese custom. I was approached by a Burmese man wearing a tag identifying him as a guide. On reflex, I began to shoo him away, when the price he quoted sunk in. Three dollars. I had flown to the opposite side of the world and I was hedging on $3? Sure, my guidebook had an excellent section on Shwedagon, but what about my pledge to see my dollars go to ordinary Burmese? I gave in.
As it turned out, not only did John give me a thorough tour at my own pace, we ended up hanging out together the rest of the day. He said business was slow and I could pay him whatever I wanted beyond the $3 for the rest of the afternoon. I figured that, if nothing else, his sharpness at negotiating cab fares around spread out, sticky, humid Yangon (average taxi fare = 1,000 kyat = $1) would pay for itself. John showed me around the Bogyoke Aung San Market (negotiating the price down on the souvenir I bought), walked me to central Yangon's colonial section and even took me on a cram packed city bus to let me see how the ordinary Burmese got around. He showed me the football field long Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple and pointed out scenic spots to take photos. We capped the afternoon off with a Myanmar Beer at a local spot, where he explained his ambition to start his own guide service and agency. He has a degree in English and speaks it quite well. I would recommend travelers to Yangon contact him.
Early the next morning, I flew to Bagan, where the staff of the Arthawka Hotel (owned by Golden Rock) met me. I checked in, unpacked and changed into my "bicycling clothes." Back home, I'd pondered over what to wear while biking in Bagan's heat and humidity. Shorts were a no-no in Buddhist temples I'd read, and the weather made jeans doubly so. I didn't have the guts to buy a longyi -- the national dress of Burmese men. It is basically a skirt, knotted at the front, which falls below the knees. Many also carry a shoulder bag, but you won't find me joking about Burmese men wearing skirts and carrying purses, no sirree! Besides, a longyi didn't seem practical for straddling a bicycle. I ended up buying a pair of "hospital scrubs" back home and packing the thinnest shirts I owned. Since I would be repeatedly taking off my shoes to enter the temples, I wore my sandals, which I felt would also be cooler. My heels protested this last choice, as it turned out. By the end of my first day in Myanmar, I was sporting blistered heels. I also discovered that wearing a longish pair of shorts (like Bermudas?) would have been fine, too.
All fashion tips aside, Bagan was the heart of my trip. There are more than 4,000 temples of various sizes and states of ruin in a 25 square mile area. I'd studied my Lonely Planet guidebook, which has an excellent section on Bagan, and made my plan of attack. On the first day, though, the plan went out the window. Bagan was too overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous red brick ruins rose up against the blue sky. How to organize them? How to order them when they were all so scenic and so dramatic looking? I ended up pedaling around in a daze, not knowing which temple was which, until I noticed one that had a sign: Thatbinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Its whitewashed silhouette was unmistakable, and I finally parked the bike and wandered through it.
I'd made photocopies of Lonely Planet's maps and I got them back out and looked around. With Thatbinnyu as my landmark, I was able to locate Ananda Temple, said to be Bagan's most beautiful and graceful. I was particularly struck by the richness of the decorations on the outside -- the half-lion, half-dragon statues guarding its corners, the nats or spirits carved on its walls, and the golden spire gleaming in the sun atop the temple. Inside, four golden Buddhas gazed placidly down at worshipers and sightseers alike.
It was at the next temple, Shwegugyi, that I happened upon the best way to orient yourself in Bagan. It was one of the temples that you are permitted to climb to the roof platform, an unforgettable panorama. I was shown the way by one of the ever-present, souvenir-selling Burmese kids. She pointed out each of the neighboring temples, along with their accolade, "Thatbinnyu -- the tallest...Ananda -- most beautiful." I dug out my map, looked around, and began to pointed to the other ones visible, guessing each's name. She corrected any mistakes. The map and the landscape fell into place in my head, almost with an audible click. From that point on, I was able to visit the temples I'd picked out in my notes beforehand. It was a blast, reading the guidebook's descriptions, examining the temples and beginning to recognized the Early Period ones from the Later ones.
It is atop the temples, though, that the landscape of Bagan really shines. From the ground, scrub brush and slight hills hide many of the temples, and you can see perhaps three or four at once. From the rooftops, though, row upon row of temples rise up, their silhouettes looking for all the world like giant red tea bells. Some are small, brick shrines. Others are massive, sprawling temple complexes with walls and multiple towers. Most are made of brick or sandstone, while others are covered in whitewashed stucco. Here and there, a gold leaf spire reflects the sun. Late that afternoon, I followed my book's advice and climbed Mingalazedi Temple to enjoy the colors evoked by the sinking sun. Its warm red glow was thrown back by hundreds of temples all across the landscape. It was a stunning sight whose beauty caused a hush among those of us atop Mingalazedi. The occasional click of a camera seemed to be the only sound besides our peaceful, contented breathing.
It got a bit noisier at my last stop of the day, Shwesandaw Temple, to watch the actual sunset. In a more accessible country, Bagan would likely be crawling with tour buses. I saw a few, but most travelers to Bagan get around either like me by bicycle or by hiring out one of the colorful, horse-drawn carriages. A few are shuttled to the major temples by car and guide, but tour groups are a rare sight here. It is easy to lose the crowd, too, in the 4,000 plus temples. Most of the time, it seemed the only ones I saw along the road or pathways were the ordinary Burmese, walking, bicycling or riding a moped. You begin to recognize the handful of visitors you do see -- the half dozen French on bicycles, the Italians in their tour bus, or the English couple in the horse cart. Of course, it seemed like ALL of the travelers to Bagan were atop Shwesandaw Temple that evening, angling for a good view of the sunset. It was the most bustling I'd seen Bagan. We were all disappointed by the clouds which marred the sunset, but in a landscape so amazing, it is hard to be TOO let down.
My luck with sunsets and sunrises has never been particularly good. I've gotten up extra early all over the world to see clouds hide a sunrise, but I never seem to give up. So, naturally, I was pedaling through the predawn gloom the next morning back towards Mingalazedi. I clambered back up the rough, stone steps, turned around, to see...clouds. Of course. I'd been foiled, again, but it was peaceful and thrilling to watch the light come up and the temples transform from black silhouettes against a dark indigo sky to pale fingers of rock and brick stretching towards the gray of the morning haze. I returned to my hotel for a shower, breakfast and to get ready for the day.
Armed with yesterday's knowledge, I would be able to do a much more thorough exploration of Bagan. While writing post cards and enjoying a couple Myanmar beers the night before, I'd made a list of the temples I wanted to visit that day. And what a day it was! I went out early and stayed out all day long (my first day I had returned to the hotel for a mid-day break). I paced myself, pedaled slowly, stopped often to take photos or visit temples. It was glorious. The sun had burst out, the views were spectacular, and I was definitely in my element. It is strange, but when I am at an incredible historic sight, I enjoy being alone. I feel like a I can lose myself in the enchantment of the place much easier. Guides are a distraction. Companions bring me back to "reality." And Bagan is a wonderful place to escape from reality.
I felt much closer to the Burmese people that day, too. I ate both lunch and dinner at local "dives," enjoying the feeling of connecting with a different culture. I talked to them often throughout the day (thankfully, most speak some English) -- souvenir sellers, restaurant owners, policemen, monks, farmers and curious children. They are all very friendly, and happy to talk. I took pictures of them doing their daily activities -- pulling weeds out of garden plots, carrying bowls of supplies atop their heads, piling aboard their pickup truck "buses" or working on restoration of the temples. It was a wonderful day, memories of it will warm my heart for years to come.
The rest of the trip would be unable to compare with those days in Bagan. I flew back to Yangon the next day, and basically just nosed around, exploring the city. I found a street of booksellers and dug up a rare history of Burma, that doubtless I'd be unable to find back home. I browsed through the market, again, but had bought my souvenirs in Bagan, so nothing enticed me. I even checked out the Defense Services Museum (being a military history buff), but it seemed to concentrate on recent events and propaganda more than, say, the Bagan (Medieval) time period, which is what I'm interested in. At Golden Rock's urging, that evening I took in a Dinner Show and watched traditional dances and performances aboard a giant replica of a royal Burmese barge. Later, I found this to be one of the "official government businesses" I'd pledged to avoid -- oops!
A small slip like that was unable to spoil anything, though. And though the next day I began the arduous, multi-day journey back home, I did it in fresh and invigorated. Part of seeing Myanmar is sweat, struggle and fatigue, but the rewards resonate inside like the pleasant, tingly glow as you relax after a hard work out.