Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Myanmar Part 7 - Flight to Bagan and Bagan Day 1

Lucky for us, we had set our own alarms as the hotel’s wake-up call never came. The flight was at 6, meaning we had to be there at about 5, which in turn meant we had to be up at four-ish. For me, that wasn’t an issue as I had been up and down most of the night after a disagreement with my tummy. So, my look waiting for the taxi to take us the kilometre or so to the terminal from the hotel was truly attractive.
Check in was a different experience. Men met you as you got out of your taxi trying to hustle you to the correct airline counter. Grabbing your bags, they just took off with them, leaving you to follow along, weaving through throngs of travellers and porters heading in every direction, trying to keep up. Once at the tiny Yangon Airline desk, you hand over your paper ticket to the check-in guy, who marks off your name on a printed list. Another guy puts stickers on your checked-in bags, and another sticker on each of us, then you’re handed your ticket and luggage receipt and you’re done – all in less than a minute. Many of the larger airlines around the world could learn a lot from how efficient and fast this process was despite having no computerised systems.
Rows of hard plastic seats lined the waiting area just over from the check in desk. A little stall sold newspapers and a small selection of sweets. Our hotel had packed us some breakfast and J and I nibbled our rolls and juice drink as we waited, watching more travellers check in via the same process we had. In the whole time we watched, there was never a time when there was more than two or three waiting to check in.
About half an hour later, we are called to pass through security to the gate lounge. Well, more like another large waiting area with the same hard seats The morning sun shone in through a wall of windows making the already stuffy room even hotter and uncomfortable. Outside, a thin line of bushes screened the tarmac and runway beyond. A few doors stood ajar and the fresh air was very welcome. Large, ancient-looking air-conditioning units stood making a lot of noise but not circulating much (if any) cool air.
Seeing an open door, a man who looked maybe Japanese or Korean stepped outside and lit a cigarette. A few other men from his group noticed him out there puffing away, so promptly joined him. Then another tourist went out. J looked at me and I could see he was thinking of joining them. I wasn’t convinced that it was strictly OK. They were taking photos and having a good old conversation and a laugh. Sure enough, a few guys in airport uniforms turned up and motioned for them to go back inside. But not before bumming a smoke from one of the group, making for a comical scene.
A bus rolled up and parked near one of the exits causing a mini stampede towards the door. Again, an airport worker came in and asked everyone to sit back down, “Not for you!” Just as everyone had sat back down, another bus pulled up. Another official looking guy walked in carrying a placard with ‘YH917’ printed faintly – our flight number. He walked around the front also calling out the details. Do you think anyone cared what flight number it was? Ah, no. Once again, everyone charged for the door. Seeing it was our flight, J and I walked over too. Sure enough, anyone not on that flight was asked to sit back down – again.
Packed to the rafters, the bus drove all of a few hundred metres from the terminal building to where the Yangon Airways aircraft was waiting. Locals and tourists alike all streamed off the bus and made for the plane’s rear door. There were no lines, or witches’ hats, or ropes marking a safety zone and people were just wondering around while some airline staff stood near the wing in hi-vis vests watching us all crowd on.
Single file, we all slowly funnelled onboard where we greeted by a smiling hostess handing out cool towelettes. The ATR turbo-prop had a long central aisle with rows of twin narrow seats either side. Our seats were about half way down, but for some unknown reason, J and I were in different rows across the aisle from each other. Ah, that manual check in process had a slightly randomised seat allocation algorithm i.e. the staff just see a free seat and allocate it. Looking around, a few other travellers had also been separated. Not to worry. J and I exchanged a few silly comments, joking around. Seeing we were together, the guy next to me offered to swap seats with J, which was lovely, and we were soon airborne and on our way to Bagan.

After an un-eventful two hour flight, we landed at Nyaung U airport, the airport of the Bagan area. As we came in to land, I could see the amazing temple-strewn landscape from the plane’s port-hole window. A stewardess made an announcement instructing passengers travelling on to Mandalay and Heho to remain onboard, while the plane stopped to 20 minutes to let people on and off. As we were ferried to the terminal in busses, our luggage was quickly and efficiently unloaded from the forward door of the plane.
Inside the terminal, a small crowd of travellers were waiting to board the plane we just disembarked. Looking around, I noticed a non-descript table with government officials sitting at it. A missable sign said, “Bagan zone visitor fee $10”. While J looked out for our bags, I paid the fee and received the visitor passes that we’d been told to carry with us in case of spot inspections. After a short wait, our bags were brought in on a cart and then unceremoniously dumped on a cleared place in the arrivals area. J collected them and we were soon in a taxi and off to our hotel.
Hotel @ Tharabar Gate welcomed us with a cool orange mocktail ,which we enjoyed as the staff checked our passports and organised our room. Walking past guests still eating their breakfast, we were shown to our very spacious room and I plonked onto the comfy bed. Though it was only a short flight, I was exhausted from the early start and moody belly. It was not even 10am yet. Lying down, not moving much, and being close to the bathroom was the perfect plan for now. At least it gave us some down-time to study some maps and get a handle on the temples near by.
OK. Enough rest. A couple of hours later, and after a nibble on some of the buns we had left over from the flight, it was time to head out and see some temples. I had been looking forward to this part of our Myanmar trip immensely. My tummy was feeling better, and I had dosed myself with pro-biotics, washing them down with plenty of water. Moreover, I am hopeless at resting especially when travelling, so needed to get out - even if only for an hour.
Ananda temple was very close by, barely a few hundreds metres over the dusty road. Walking towards it, we were immediately approached by a horse cart offering to take us to see some temples. “Where you go?” he asked, “I take you, 1000 kyats”. J told him we were just walking over there. “After, I take you more temples”, he persisted. We indicated we didn’t know what we were going to do later and we weren’t interested. “OK. Later. You find me here”. He pointed to a large tree with a few other horses carts resting in the shade near the hotel’s walls. Until we took his card, he wasn’t willing to let us go.
Entering from the western side, a short corridor of vendors selling religious objects, books, lacquerware, paintings and wood carvings drew us into the central chamber. Awestruck by the massive, standing, gold Buddha that faced us, J and watched quietly as some locals made their offerings. Four, 32 foot Buddhas form the central shrine, facing the four cardinal directions of the compass. We wondered around the corridors that ring the temple, admiring the hundreds of small Buddha figures set in niches in the massive white-washed walls. Some looked ancient, some new-ish, and others were covered with a grate. 

A young teenage boy, dressed in smart khaki shirt wearing a duffle bag across his shoulder approached us. “Good day. How are you?” he enquired. We smiled and responded. He asked a few more questions about where we were from, and J and I responded, happy to meet locals, as we had already many times. But he wanted to tell us about the temple, and also to practise his English. He explained he was training to be a tour guide and hoped he could practise leading a tour with us. Of course, we were happy to obliged and welcomed the idea.

Times like these I wish two things: first that I carried a pen and notebook everywhere so I could have noted his name; and second that I took many more photos, not just of the typical things, but (as I may have said in a previous post) everyday life and people. So, I can’t tell you his name, or post a photo, but he was wonderful. He told us many facts about each of the huge Buddhas, the walls, the murals, and explained about the three vaulted corridors that encircle the central core. The outer was for the commoners and had a few platforms where priests would teach and lead prayers; the middle corridor was for nobles and the female royal family as well as other lesser royals, and the inner most corridors that was at the feet of the Buddhas was for the king and his male heirs, as well as high-ranking monks, where females were not permitted.
We spent a good half hour walking the corridors with our guide, talking about the temple, Bagan, Buddhism, his family and village life. Maybe the reason I didn’t take many photos was because I was actually too engrossed with the conversation. His English was fantastic, and he asked us whether he was pronouncing the words correctly. Paying great attention to the details, he told us dimensions, years, the king’s names and history, all the while keeping an eye on us and quick to explain anything that he noticed we seemed to be interested in.
My favourite was learning about each of the four Buddhas. The ones facing north and south are 900 year old originals each carved from a single log of wood. Amusingly, the Buddhas’ facial expressions seem to change depending on how close, or how far away, you stand; close up, their faces seem to be the usual benign gaze with that peaceful air, but as you back away, they seem to adopt a cheeky grin. Ah, it’s all but a trick of light. East and west facing Buddhas are replicas, but no less impressive.
At the end of our guided tour, our guy thanked us profusely for our time and helping him with his English, but didn’t seem to be interested in payment. But we knew that though he didn’t ask directly, he really was hoping for a few thousand kyats. He was so good and provided us with great service (really) so we were happy to pass on a few notes. J and I wondered around a little more, as well as the courtyard area outside. Temple number one of Bagan and I was blown away and keen to explore more.

Judging by our limited map, there was a handicraft store not far from the hotel. Still feeling a little delicate, I thought that may be worth a browse. Walking down the street that I thought it was on, there were a few stalls, but either we walked right past it, or we were in the wrong spot. No matter. We were moving along the Old Bagan walls and found a path through to some interesting temples and stupas beyond the wall. Traipsing through brambles and grasses, we beat our way to a number of orange and red bricked temples. They had no name or signs, and looked neglected in an overgrown field. However, they must have been recently restored or repaired as they seemed to be in great condition, and there was a smell of fresh plaster around them.
Now, I am only taking a guess, but the temples that we explored were Saung Tan Paya, Mo Kyo Pyi Paya, So Hla Waing and U Hsauk Pan (based on the map on http://www.baganmyanmar.com/bagan-map.html). One had lovely frescos that looked like they were re-touched, another a newly installed gold-painted Buddha with crumbling plaster walls with remnants of old paintings. And another with white washed Buddhas with brown robes. Some were open, others barred with heavy gates (but we peaked in through the sides where there were patterns in the brickwork that left stylised holes in the walls). 

Across the way were a couple of ancient stupas, raw, bricks and mortar, with grass growing in tuffs along the ridges. It was unreal – surreal. No-one else was in sight; and here we were in this ancient landscape where kings and nobles raised their sacred temples. Another of my highlights of Myanmar.

Bashing through overgrowth, we came out onto a road, almost directly across from the Maha Bodhi Paya. By now, we were totally baked and parched so the sight of a little stand selling cold water was like seeing an oasis. Sure enough, the lady at the stall tried to sell us tee-shirts, and lacquerware, and if we needed a horse cart, her uncle was close and would take us anywhere. We sat on milk-crate type stools while we drank our drinks. She finally relaxed and stopped trying to sell us stuff, and just chatted with us. She told us how quiet it was after how busy it was during the previous tourist season. I guess it would be like going from feast to famine.
Refreshed (well at least re-hydrated), we checked out the Maha Bodhi temple. It is said to be a copy of its namesake temple in Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree (not the temple). Unlike any other temple in Bagan, it had a tall pyramid-like spire rising from a square base. Carved into the spire are hundreds of niches with Buddha status in different postures. Inside was quite modern with a large seated Buddha with a row of electric lights on the alter before it.
By now we were feeling tired, and sweaty, so walked on down the road towards the hotel. On the way, we saw the impressive That Byin Nyu and Swegu Gyi temples not far off the road on the right so decided to check them out along the way. As we approached, a few hawkers tried to sell us wood carvings, postcards, and paintings, but a friendly smile and a firm ‘No’ dismissed them without fuss. 
That Byin Nyu translated means ‘Omniscience ‘, a quality of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It is the highest temple in Bagan and had massive vaulted corridors which we walked around. On each side of the square base sat a different Buddha image. Around the windows and doorways were intricate cement features. Along our way around the passageway, we came across a number of local artists trying to sell their paintings. Most were of local temple scenes, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and other traditional Myanmar designs. Sure enough, as soon as you look more closely at one, you’re gone. The seller will haggle with you until you buy, and I soon found myself walking away with two lovely ‘sand’ paintings for a few thousand kyats each.

Well and truly worn out, we made a bee-line back to the hotel. However, the Sarabha restaurant looked far too inviting to pass and we stopped for a sandwich and delicious lemon juice. Seeing how hot and tired we looked, one of the staff brought over a electric fan, setting it up to blow air around us to help cool down. The snack and drink were just what the doctor ordered and we felt much better.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing. On arriving back at in our hotel room, we read, took a nap and had a refreshing cool shower, only venturing out later for dinner at the Sarabha II restaurant (which is directly next to the first Sarabha restaurant. Apart from one other small group of Chinese tourists, we were the only ones in there. With a few beers, and meals of delightful local style curries, we enjoyed the cooler night air after a long first day in mystical Bagan.

- K

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