Myanmar is very different from the rest of South East Asia. Since the country only recently opened its borders fully to tourism, Western culture has yet to infiltrate the country. Here you will encounter men still wearing traditional skirt-like longyis and chewing a mixture of tobacco and betel nut, staining their teeth a bloody color of red. In the city and countryside alike, women and children paint beautiful designs on their faces with thanakha, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. This tradition goes back 2,000 years and provides protection from sunburn and promotes smooth skin.
After landing and spending the night in Mandalay, we caught a bus to Bagan. Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan is densely covered with Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins as far as the eye can see with many dating to the 11th and 12th centuries. The brick temples and stupas range in size to a few meters tall to over 100 meters and each one has its own unique style of architecture.
At first, it was overwhelming. Where do you even begin to start exploring with over 2,000+ temples and pagodas? Which direction do we start? Do we explore the biggest ones first? We eventually decided no plan was the best plan.
We noticed small, red, furry insects all over the ground in Bagan. After a google search, we discovered that they were red velvet mites. During our google search we also encountered this article by The Oatmeal titled “This is the red velvet mite and it’s here to teach you about love”. Please click the link below for a slightly salacious (you have been warned) and very funny description of the mating habits of the red velvet mite: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/red_velvet_mite
The traffic jams in Bagan were very different from the others we encountered in SE Asia. Here, instead of waiting for cars and motorbikes to move, we waited on goats and cows.
We rented electric “motor” bikes (apparently foreigners can’t rent anything with an internal combustion engine) to maximize the amount of area we could cover. I was stoked to have my own bike after riding as a passenger with Dan braving the roads in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos. After a very brief tutorial, I was ready to master the road.
And then I wasn’t. Looking back I’m not sure if I didn’t have enough coffee that morning or if I was just too excited to get going. Either way, I wasn’t thinking clearly. As I stood over the bike (yes, I was standing, not sitting), I for some unknown reason hit the gas and watched in horror as the bike accelerated forward and into a brick wall. Still for reasons unbeknownst to me, I kept holding the accelerator (as the bike owner was yelling at me to brake) and I again watched the bike ram into the wall.
When I finally released the accelerator, I turned to see Dan and the bike rental guy hysterically laughing (I would not be ready to laugh at the situation until hours later). Apparently this was not a common occurrence for the bike rental guy and he was rightly shocked. Surveying the damage, the bike now had busted plastic and a broken headlamp (we payed to for the damage later, but fortunately it only cost about $10 to fix the headlight and the rest of the cosmetic damage was wrapped in duct tape). Clearly, I was not going to be allowed to ride my own scooter now.
My hopes of riding my own scooter dashed and my pride badly damaged, I climbed on Dan’s bike. Fortunately, the day (but not the weather) got much better from that moment onward.
We picked a random direction and set off to explore. With so many temples and pagodas and hundreds of small dirt paths leading every which way, it’s easy to get lost. But that’s the fun part of Bagan. Many times we would see a temple in the distance and try and navigate ourselves over to it only to find several others to explore along the way.
On one random trail, we encountered the temple pictured below. As we peered inside, we found a herd of goats, seeking shelter from the rainy weather.
My favorite part of exploring the temples was finding the unexpected staircases hidden in the dark corners. We would peel back cobwebs and carefully ascend the narrow stairs to emerge on top of the temple with an unparalleled 360 degree view.
Sometimes we would encounter a temple that was locked. We would peer in at the beautifully painted frescos and turn away slightly disappointed only to then would see a young man running up with key in hand. One such man explained to us that some families are guardians of certain temples. This same man then gave us a tour and shared the history of his family’s temple.
The only downside to our three day adventure in Bagan was the weather. It rained, it poured, it thundered, and the wind nearly blew us off our electric bike. Before our trip, we knew that we were entering Myanmar during monsoon season, so we just assumed that this was the typical weather for the time of year.
Being Portlanders, we of course didn’t let the weather stop us from exploring. Several days later we would learn that, no, this is not typical weather. We were actually in the midst of a tropical cyclone. Previous heavy monsoon rains and tropical cyclone Komen, dumped over 1 meter (3 feet) of rain in parts of Myanmar causing widespread flooding and landslides.
To say that Bagan was beautiful would be a tremendous understatement. It was one of our favorite places thus far on our trip and was far more enjoyable (in a DIY sort of way) than even Angkor Wat. We were very sad to leave. Our three days were jam packed with visiting dozens of temples and we wish we could have explored more. In the midst of the Cyclone Komen, we boarded a rickety overnight train to Yangon, where more torrential rain awaited.