Backpacking in Myanmar: Climbing Pagodas in Bagan

Dhammayangyi Pahto Bagan biggest
To the Dhammayangyi Pahto, the biggest Pahto in Bagan

We took a walk along the road at 730am in the morning. There were very little cars, and a few bicycles.

A cool breeze flutters my hair, my heart feels at peace. Like I was at the right place, and the right time.

We take a horse cart around the temples. It cost us USD10 a day.

The horse cart driver is a muscular dark 18-year-old guy, unlike most horse cart drivers which are skinny and wrinkly.

He tells us he is studying in Mandalay(another big city in Myanmar) and it is his holiday now.

His father is a horse-cart walla too. But he has retired.

He wears a white polo shirt and army print bermudas. He could fit right into the NTU (my university) crowd anytime.

He is studying Archology at a university in Mandalay. But he does not like it. He wants to go to Yangon to learn Spanish and German.

He chuckles to the horse, and taps it on its back on the left and right sides.

What is this chuckle for? I asked

It is a sign of aggression. To tell the horse to go faster, he said.
For humans, it is like a sign, like you want to fight?

The places he bring us to have a purpose. At one cave, he got off the horse cart and went to ride a motor bike. I saw him from high up the Pagoda.

At one old monastery, his friend try to sell us paintings.

He brings us to his uncle’s restaurant for lunch. We pay USD3 which is expensive. But after we sent him a bottle of Star Cola (they dont seem to have Coca Cola there) he is considerably nicer to us.

At one Pagoda, I remember it is the Madha Bodhi Paya, his friend makes Thandoor for us, and applies it on our faces. Making us feel really bad if we don’t buy anything.

Anyway, we didn’t like the touting. But we loved the old ruins. Where there was hardly anyone around. I can still remember. The adrenalin rush of climbing the rickety bricks. The Parents might faint to see the photos.

Each level you go, the view just seem more and more awesome. With brown pagodas sticking from the fields, to the sun lighting up the Ayerwaddy River at the sidelines, I feel so happy. Never mind I had to pay USD 250 to come here. Never mind, never mind. What mattered was that the place was so beautiful, I think I can never forget that moment.

I always thought nothing could replace India, but I am wrong. This place had a character of its own. That shone through like the sun that day. As I sat on the ledge of a Pagoda-I-dont-know-the-name-of.

Watching the world go by, like the Painting Lady.

When getting down, I felt that I might fall backwards, and that would be the end of Phebe Bay, an overly adventurous Singaporean girl tumbling down a ruin in Myanmar.

But lucky, such a tragedy was not to behold, as I shifted my feet and adjusted my weight.

I am happy Friend S was there. To share this beautiful scene with me.

We got sick of his painting/longyi(skirt)/thandoor selling friends, and tell him to bring us to a place where we can rest.

“Less people, and can climb.” Was our criteria.

As we entered that one, we met a Korean lady, who brought in a cushion from her horse cart to sleep on. Nearby, some locals were also having their midday siesta.

We tread carefully, afraid to wake the sleeping beauties.

And then, we climb.

I love the way you have to take out your shoes at the entrance of each pagoda. You can feel the ground beneath you, the bricks, the little stones and the dried leaves. It feels so real.

In other places, you feel the cold tile floor on your feet, or the smooth praying mat that lies before the great statues of Buddha.

Unlike the Ajanta and Ellora caves in India which I visited, these pagodas were not packed with tourists. I did not have to listen an overwhelming number of stories of Lord Siva and his wife Parvati.

I could walk around the four sides of the pagoda, with only some touts following you. In the “undiscovered” temples, it is calming, peaceful, and you can climb up without the entrances being blocked. And have the whole wondrous landscape to yourself.

At the sunset pagoda Shwesandaw Paya, it is a buzz of activity. Child touts age as young as ten selling postcards, paintings and other souvenirs. They can speak amazing spanish, english, japanese and chinese. I saw one boy consulting his guidebook.

They go to school in the morning, and come to the pagoda at 3 in the afternoon. Every morning says The Hurt One (there is a story which you shall hear later), they go to the guesthouse frequented by foreigners. They know who has arrived. Two Singaporeans, one French, one American.

By telling them how many days you have spent here, they can figure if you need souvenirs a not. If you have been here on the first day, you would need souvenirs, last day, not so much.

I enjoyed chatting with him, until we wanted to purchase a “paranormal” painting from another seller. That guy is not talking much, but he has really beautiful paintings of the scenery, the pagodas and the river.

I ask that The Hurt One to show me his “paranormal” paintings. But the sides were dirty and it was not so nice. I struggle internally, and decide I can’t buy it. I wish I did. I really wished so.

So in the end, we bought 3 paintings from the other guy, and The Hurt One was really quite hurt. and sad.

He tells me that the paintings are actually remakes from the paintings found in the pagodas. They are made by his family. I tell him honestly, using my knowledge of Economics and the laws of demand and supply, that if he wanted to sell more paintings, he should be selling the “paranormal” paintings instead. Paintings of the scenery would hit the heart of tourist more, because they have seen all these. But the paintings in the wall can hardly been recognised. And they look Buddhist like and I doubt any of my friends, Buddhist or not, would like them.

He looks some what hurt when I tell him this.
Like I don’t appreciate this art. Hope he will realise this soon.

The sun sets, turning the sky red. Tourists, including Friend S whipped out their DSLR and click away busily. Friend S seeks advice from someone on how to tweak her camera’s settings. They jostle in a polite way for space to place the camera.

The Hurt One sits near me, he looks sad.

I feel guilty, but I decide, that if he was genuinely nice, he would have understood.

After all friends, are still our friends even if we don’t give them anything in return.

When the sun is gone, the whole pagoda turns dark. Tourists leave. Friend S tries to take a last picture, but gives up.

We leave, and say bye to The Hurt One who continues to tell us he is hurt.

On the horse cart, he cycles behind us, and says goodbye.

My heart tweaks.

Friend S hands him an owl, which we were “forced” to purchase earlier this morning.

Good luck.

(We saw Horse cart driver the next day. He did not have a fare, and was clad in a teach and longyi, sitting on the swing in the guesthouse, watching the world go by. Like many other Burmese, he wants to come to Singapore to study too.)

Road to Shwezigon Paya
Road to the Shwezigon Paya, one of the pagodas in Bagan
Shwezigon Paya courtyard
Sweeping the courtyard of Shwezigon Paya
Shwezigon Paya sunrise
The Shwezigon Paya, in the morning
burmese kid bagan temples
Washing dishes at a young age
Burmese man bagan
The strong man of Bagan. He stopped for a while, and I wondered why he was slacking. After some adjustments he walked even faster than me.
burmese lady temples paintings
Painting Lady of Bagan
She sells paintings, 8am to 7pm everyday

bagan horse cart driver
The horse cart driver is 18 years old!
shooting Bagan pagodas photos
Photographer in action
Burmese kid bagan
She is cute, like Minnie Mouse
Bagan afternoon siesta temple
Afternoon Siestas, at the same temple

Bagan afternoon siesta temple

Bagan afternoon siesta temple
I want too!
Bagan pagodas photos
The lovely city, with pagodas that line the fields
bagan taking photos
On top of the world
Bagan temples photos
To go in? Or not?
Shwesandaw Paya
On the way to the Shwesandaw Paya
Shwesandaw Paya sunset photo
The Shwesandaw Paya
Bagan pagodas painting seller
The Hurt One, or maybe not?
burmese boy Shwesandaw Paya
Burmese boy who climbs up the stairs really fast!
burmese kid bagan temples
A nice boy by the pagoda

Shwesandaw Paya burmese boy

Proficient Well versed in five languages =)

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