Sunday, September 6, 2015


Our river ferry pulled into Bagan just after sunset, the sky and the water both brushed with pastel shades of purples and pinks, the water rippling as birds skimmed the surface; stupas on the cliffs stark black against the deepening sky.

The next morning, after a relaxed breakfast in the hotel garden (complete with my new favorite thing, mohinga) we met our tour guide, Koko, and headed off to start exploring the temples of Bagan.

Our first stop offered a view that allowed us to start getting an idea of the scope of the plains and their myriad of temples and stupas. To get to the view, we navigated zigzag passages and sandy staircases, all of crumbling brick and buddhas and hinting of former glory.

In the city of Nyaung U, we wandered the local market, a warren of covered walkways; tables covered in a cacophony of vegetables -  greens, herbs, tomatoes, eggplants. Stacks of dried fish. Shelves of lacquerware buddhas and other tourist trinkets. Flats of eggs hustled through the narrow aisles by girls gritting their teeth and maneuvering deftly. Baskets full of betel leaves are swirled in a beautiful pattern, waiting to be filled with lime juice and red-and-white betel nuts. Scales, both digital and old-school: two baskets and lead weights.

IThe main attraction in the city is Shwezigon Paya, at the center of which is a glittering golden zedi surrounded by the usual daily buddhas, jangling red-and-gold ornaments, flowers, candles, offerings (including bright orange Cheez Curls and other fake-bright crispy snacks).

 In the corner of the compound is a temporary building housing two squat nat statues, with bills tucked into their sashes, waistcoats and headbands, looking slightly mischievious. Koko fills us in that the woman standing nearby is a spirit medium, who can get in touch with the spirits.

 At Htilomino Paya, we walk round the temple under the remains of some fabulous artwork - painted buddhas and intricate designs.

 And on our way out, we meet this little guy, selling home-made postcards. Which I obviously had to buy.

After lunch we tour a lacquerware workshop, where we see all stages of the laborious, time-consuming process, from forming the shape with bamboo, to the thick black lacquer being applied and dried twelve to times over, to the lathes polishing, to the designs being etched and the colors being applied.



Our final temple of the day is the massive Ananda Pahto, it's concentric inner passages dotted with niches containing small golden Buddhas strung with dusty cobwebs. 


An evening boat cruise was a perfect way to end the day. The boat was rickety and the engine was loud, but we had it to ourselves and enjoyed an un-impeded view of the sun sliding down behind the hills on the far side of the river. 

We spent the next few days exploring on borrowed bicycles and relaxing by the hotel pool. A sunrise adventure (chilly stone and tourist cameras at the ready), temples large and small (and one a little creepy), knowing that it's impossible to see it all. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mandalay, Part 3

Jade Market
We hop out of our cab at a chaotic corner and head down a lane lined with tables laden with hunks of raw jade in various sizes and colors. Gradually, they shift to smaller fragments; flashlights shine into the stones to look for flaws. A row of spinning wheels captures our attention: on both sides of the narrow row, young men work treadles with bicycle pedals, turning the wheels they are using to shape and polish small pieces of jade.

We head inside the main market area, and it’s a chaotic crush of people, so we stick to the perimeter at first. There are restaurants, a few shops selling bracelets, and workshops with whirring belts. Venturing farther in, we find an area where jade bracelets are being examined, women with no-nonsense looks examining green circles with flashlights. Further on, the goods under scrutiny are small rounded gems, ready to be fitted into rings and bracelets. There are restaurants packed with people, pool tables, backgammon games, and lots of waiting around between transactions. It makes for a fascinating walk, but we have to be careful not to fall into the narrow gutters on the floor or step into any red betel spit, or get crushed in the busy crossroads.

Soon we are ready to leave the chaos and walk down the road to the quiet Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery, whose main hall is a stunning teak structure. It was serene and quiet, with monks going about their daily business and only a few other tourists about.  The exterior carvings have been work away by the elements, creating fascinating shapes.

This monastery was a perfect last stop on our tour of Mandalay. The next morning we rose before dawn and heading to the docks for our boat down the mighty Irawaddy, to the temples of Bagan. 

Mandalay, Part2

It’s a short hop across the river to the ancient capital of Ava, and when we approach the ferry dock we are immediately pounced on by adorable children selling jewelry. We trade names, complements, even jokes,* and I promise to buy necklaces only from them, when I want them upon my return. (Which, of course, I do).

*Girl 1: Where are you from?
Me: America. Where are you from?
Girls 1 and 2 (in unison): My mother!
(All): Laughing.

Across the river we meet another contingent of smiling young people; and one persistent teenage girl in particular, who trailed us on her bicycle as we bounced off down the dusty dirt road in our horse-drawn cart. We pass through a small village and out into an expanse of rice paddies and chickpea fields, stupas visible in the distance, horse hooves clopping in a steady cadence.

The main point of interest here is a wooden monastery, built entirely of teak and supported by massive tree trunks. the details are beautifully carved, the floorboards warping and full of holes, the main hall dim and dusty. In one corner, English=language signs hang on the wall, and small desks are scattered with notebooks filled with Burmese script and sketches: novice monks and village children receive free education here, and as our tour guide brings out a donation of school supplies from a previous visitor, small boys scamper into the room to receive their gifts, then disappear, laughing in the shadows.

At our lovely lunch place in the Sagaing hills, our sweet tour guide Nilar delicately applies the ever-present thanaka to our faces in a leaf design. We stop at two temples in the hills as the sun gains power, the first a ‘cave’ built into a hillside, and the second an important stop for many pilgrims, but also a place with a panoramic view of the stupa-dotted hillsides and the wide Irrawaddy river.

Our last stop for the day, across the river, is Mingun, which contains the beginnings of what would have been a very large stupa…. but alas, the king died while it was still only partially completed, and no one dared finish it…. so here it sits, large cracks running jaggedly through it as a result of earthquakes; the remains of two large lions guarding the entrance.

Mingun is also home to the world’s largest working bell (as opposed the the much larger, but decidedly broken, bell I recently saw in Moscow). It’s riddled with etching and graffiti on the inside, where we stand and listen as people outside ring it with sturdy wooden sticks.

We have one more stop for the day, and just as I am thinking I am too tired to handle anymore, we emerge from the backstreets of the village to see a giant white wedding-cake of a building, stark white against the blue sky. Seven wavy seas form the bottom layers, broken by statues in small nooks. The middle level is lined with dancing carvings and flower-draped figures, and the Buddha is enshrined at the top of a set of steep stone steps. Many of the statues are broken, leaning, missing, and it gives the place an intriguing impression in the golden light of late afternoon.