Bagan: Thursday 21st February 2008

Today was a very early start, up at 4:00am. We had a quick breakfast at 4:45 then met Tun at 6:15 for the early morning drive to the airport. A bus took us out to our Air Bagan flight, a Fokker 100. We were welcomed onboard and were soon in high in the air flying above the clouds.

As we approached Bagan, we could see multitudes of temples from the air scattered around the fields as well as on the mountains across the river. This was the dry season and many of the streams and smaller rivers were dry. The river also was very low with large sand banks exposed.

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The plane landed onto a wet tarmac; a light rain had been falling earlier at 6:30am. Our new guide, Soe welcomed us and organised our baggage collection for us and we were soon in our car. After a short drive from the airport we stopped at our first temple. We got our first lesson in Bagan history and temples as we walked around Izza Gona temple. For example you can estimate the era of the Buddha statues: if the ears were touching the shoulders then it was likely built after 1100AD.

It started to rain lightly so we sheltered with the Buddha for a few moments until the rain eased up. Soe told us of the nearby Watchtower, and how the people weren’t happy with it’s construction as it wasn’t built in the style of Bagan. It did look like an eyesore sticking up amongst the other beautiful temples.

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There were much fewer people than normal at Nyuang U Market due to the rain. We walked through the laneways between stalls, ducking low under the tarps obviously set at a height for the locals that were keeping the storeholders dry. There was no fresh meat today, as it was a full moon, and it is not good to be killing animals on the full moon. We bought some silk longyis and tops for US$17 and I also bought some postcards from the young girls. They were quite persistent, offering presents of golden butterfly claps and thangkhana. We moved on from the market to Shwezigon Paya.

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Soe was excellent in explaining the various statues and figures, such as the nat, Buddha and priest as well as the four Buddhas: healthy, old, sick and dead. The Buddha statues here are bronze and in the style of gupta. They were holdinjg their hands in the pose of ‘no fear’. This is used often to also represent stop and give (offerings). The King Kyanzitha wanted Buddhism to be the 1st religion of Myanmar and was frustrated by the people still worshipping the nats. So he gathered all the nat statues and housed them nearby in a separate building so that the people would come and worship the Buddha first before seeking friendship with the nats. Nats are in purgatory. They died suddenly by accident before achieving Nirvana.

Our next stop was a ‘cave’, Kyin Zit Thar, where we saw 800 year old paintings on the walls. The Gubyauhgyi temple has well restored stucco work. Similar to fresco, but the plaster dries too quickly in the tropical heat for the paintings to absorb into the plaster. UNESCO has done a lot of work here to restore and preserve the paintings.

Soe told us of the story of the crocodile’s wife wanting the heart of the monkey to eat, but the monkey was Buddha in disguise. The crocodile tried to trick Buddha out of the tree and onto his back with the promise of the good fruit on the other side of the river. As the crocodile was taking the Buddha across the river, the crocodile explained his intentions of taking his heart, but the Buddha was too clever. Buddha told the crocodile that as monkeys jumped around a lot, they kept their hearts on the treetops so that they wouldn’t get broken. The crocodile, seeing the ripened mangoes in the trees believed the Buddha and dropped him off safely on the river bank.

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At Htiti Min Lo temple we bought some lovely paintings which were done on sand glued onto canvas. The river sand is ground fine in a mortar and pestle, then the sand and glue is applied 5 times to make a strong uncrackable painting surface.

Next stop was Eden BBB Restaurant for lunch. We had a very nice soup followed by a number of dishes; butter fish, chicken, green tomato salad, fried vegetables and rice. A Myanmar Beer and a lime juice almost left no room for the fresh fruit platter and Bagan cake (a sweet rice and cane sugar treat).

After lunch we checked into our hotel, the Myanmar Treasure Resort. Glorious verdant gardens with fluoro pink bougainvilleas and a lovely swimming pool which we never got the time to use.

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After a 2 hour rest we visited a lacquer ware workshop. We saw the intricately involved process of producing the lacquer ware: splitting the bamboo into thin strips, weaving the split cane into a bowl. Smoothing the bowl with an ‘L’ shaped knife, applying the lacquer, drying the bowl in a humid underground room for a week, then repeating the lacquering and drying process to achieve at least 8 layers of lacquer. Then the intricate carving, colouring and polishing was completed. We were shown the special room out the back which housed the most expensive and intricate pieces, they must have thought we were rich! We bought many pieces for ourselves and gifts from the normal shop, including bowls, little boxes and owls.

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We then visited Manahu Paya, built by the Mon King whilst he was under house arrest. The prison-like exterior and the tight constricted interior were a symbol of his displeasure with his detainment. The 1975 earthquake allowed the government to replace one of the Buddha’s heads which was damaged with a happier looking Buddha.

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We next went to Nan Paya, a sandstone temple with Brahmas carved on the four pillars inside. This temple reminded me of the temples I had visited in India previously. The heads of the Brahmas had all been raided of their enshrined valuables by treasure hunters long ago.

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Next stop was Ananda Pahto a beautiful carved temple. Michelle experienced the pleasures of a local toilet whilst I watched chickens walking through the village street, with some local boys asking me for candy.

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Our last temple of the day was Shre San Daw to watch the sunset; the steep stepped temple offering sweeping views across the plains and over the river, hundreds of temples as far as we could see dotting the landscape.

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We had dinner at a restaurant on the riverside, which also included live traditional dance, puppet show and music. Back at the hotel the power went out for a few hours, but no dramas as we were pretty much off to sleep straightaway for our 5:00am start tomorrow.