Perfectly Bagan: The Land of Childlike Wonder
I’m thinking of a title to best describe my first experience of Myanmar. Buddhist temples and hot air balloons were the original catalysts in mind, urging me to visit this ancient country. And before I knew it I found myself there. Inhaling the warm, dusty air and feeling a little like I was back in Cambodia, I felt awakened. Spiritual locations all seem to carry an essence of calm about them. They are more “silent” than usual, allowing a softening of one’s own spirit to reflect authentically in the experience.
I did fly in a hot air balloon over thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas, all varying in design, stone, textures, colour and ruin. It’s an experience one should never miss out on. Witnessing the rising sun’s warm glow soaking into the facades of dome-shaped structures was a sight to behold. But as the days passed and I became more deeply entrenched in the culture that is Burma, I encountered a delicious richness that was only accessible through spontaneity. I realised the more spontaneous I was, the more the magic unfolded.
Brad and I had a month to play with. Originally, we had planned on visiting Thailand for a week, and then travel around Myanmar for 3 weeks. I had flown into Phuket from the UK and Brad from Australia but we ended up choosing to miss our flight to Myanmar due to our soon apparent love of Muay Thai training. We had to rethink our itinerary to extract the best experience we could muster up from this country in just one week. Bagan. My newfound friend “intuition” told me it was Bagan. Brad agreed. And so off we went.
Every turn was inspirational. From my very first Binarue chicken curry accompanied by a puppet show performance, to the moment I drove my first ever e-bike, it all seemed quite surreal. Our mornings began on our hotel terrace, drinking steaming hot coffee whilst overlooking a vast array of burnt-sienna stupas. Once en route, it was within minutes that we pulled over to admire shepherds tending to their flocks and farmers ploughing fields with cow drawn carts. It felt as if I had gone back in time. The simplicity of life was at its most obvious. Although I must admit that when we reached Nyuang-U market, I was a little shell shocked by the absolute chaos of busyness. Perhaps it was the unintentional act of walking into some kind of arranged festival with an elephant ordained in jewels and ridden by children dressed in extravagant costumes. Or perhaps it was the “no rule” roundabout which, from an outsiders point of view, could be perceived as pedestrians and drivers all playing “chicken”. But strangely enough the flow somehow worked with traffic spilling out in all directions. Brad could see I was out of my comfort zone, returning my big Bambi-eyed expression with a gentle, reassuring smile. He has a natural affinity and love of this type of chaos, and so I just clung to him and his years of travelling experience.
One of the very first things I noticed about the Burmese people were their bright “red” teeth and lips. It was quite frightening at first glance greeting a perfect stranger only for them to respond with a great big smile of stained, oxblood red teeth! I later learned that it is quite normal and a common practise to chew Betel Nut, a stimulant equivalent to coffee, tobacco or the like. The market was similar to a maze. We ventured deeper into it, discovering charms, bronze sculptures and engraved bells, hand-woven cotton fabrics and two-toned silks, lungis (a traditional sarong for men), artworks in watercolour, food stalls, grains and spices. Vibrant colour surrounded us. Around nearly every corner was the sound of an antique Singer sewing machine being pedalled into motion by a seamstress, carefully constructing items of clothing created from handwoven fabrics. We were most drawn to the Burmese craft of Lacquer Ware, deciding it would be the perfect opportunity to do some Christmas Shopping. It was our first introduction to this longstanding tradition of “Thitsi”, meaning the black “sap” or resin extracted from the Thitsi tree and acting as a coating and varnish for kitchenware, jewellery boxes (imprinted with gold leaf) and household goods. It was days later that we learned from the Win Thiri family that 1 piece takes approximately 6 months to complete! Most of the design work depicts religious stories and myths all chiselled by hand, a skill requiring 3 years of practise to master. This art form has been performed over many a generation and is still kept alive in family run businesses.
We settled our appetite with a traditional “tea leaf salad” at a local restaurant. On the ride back, our sudden spontaneity led us off the beaten track to Min Nan Thu Village. We were met by Yo Yo, a young, sweet and well-spoken Burmese girl. She convinced us to allow her to walk us through her village of bamboo and tin roofed constructed huts. We respectfully greeted all who lived there, peeking into the lives of mothers, children, farmers, artists and livestock. Yo Yo introduced me to the local dish of Burmese tempura as well as Thanaka, a yellowish-white “sunscreen” ground from bark. She layered my cheeks and forehead with it, assuring me that this product had been used and trusted by the local women for more than 2000 years. But what moved me most during my visit was meeting the oldest woman in the village (93 years old). Her main focus was to create ivory white cotton reels from the cotton trees dispersed around the grounds. And better yet…to smoke home-made cigars! She lit up. Brad and I stared at each other in utter disbelief. Glancing over in my direction, she lifted her cigar slightly in gesture as if to invite me to join her on her mat. To my surprise, I did just that. She handed me the cigar she had been smoking accompanied by a small bowl to ash into. Looking into her eyes, I held it up and breathed in the smoke, careful not to inhale. I was taken aback by my own willingness to smoke a “Burmese cigar” not quite knowing its contents, but I figured she seemed pretty compos mentis, so why not try! I’m glad I did it. It was gifted with a moment of connection I’ll never forget. I knew nothing about this woman and she knew nothing of me, but there was a mutual respect between us and I so admired her carefree spirit.
Our remaining days were spent exploring whatever we could of the culture, allowing ourselves to get a bit lost in the process. We encountered beautifully decorated horse drawn carriages as a mode of transportation. During the heat of the day, the horses were left grazing under the shade of expansive trees, noticeably loved by their masters. An air of theatre graced the land as we stumbled across the art of puppetry. I strolled between hand-made puppets dangling from trees, slowly spinning around themselves and me, all revealing a unique character. Printed umbrellas lined the streets in what seemed like every shade on the colour wheel. I bought one, yellow in colour, and felt the urge to run with it through the golden grass of the setting sun. It took me to a place of childlike wonder and I found myself “still” and without a care in the world.
There were only so many temples and pagodas we could manage to visit during our limited time at this destination, some of which were closed and covered in bamboo scaffolding due to the 2016 earthquake. Quite often we would stop to quench our thirst from the heat of the midday sun with fresh coconuts or sweet sugar cane juice prepared before us. Many a monk would stroll past, dressed in either burnt orange, blood red or candy pink robes. My favourite temple was Gubyauk Nge Temple. Just the mere experience of crouching down and climbing up a tiny, pitch dark passageway of dishevelled steps felt like I was in an Indiana Jones film! It then opened up onto a rooftop of streaming warm light, igniting not only the surrounding stupas, but the very hearts of the spectators themselves. It felt as if we were all on the same page as we watched the sunset and the soft chitter chatter between foreigners of all nationalities was comprised of an appreciation for just being there.
Tasting the local cuisine was another adventure in itself. From Burmese style curries and clay pots (a traditional dish) to tea leaf salads and Shan noodles, I tasted flavours and textures I had not come across before. The spices and chili sometimes overwhelmed my palette to such a degree I could only manage a small taste. But the tranquillity of just sitting in the environment of family run restaurants, with beloved children running around in their pyjamas was enough to fill up my entire being.
If I were to comment on what I would do differently, it would be to allow for far more time. And not necessarily with the intention of visiting big cities such as Mandalay or Yangon. My next adventure will be to venture further out into the rural areas of Myanmar. Hpa An, Inle Lake, Kalaw, Hsipaw. That’s a story for another day. And I will write it. But for the time being, I remain in the memory of that very special gem in Myanmar. And it’s “perfectly” Bagan.