Off the Grid in Burma, 2010 – Part 3

On to Bagan

      A bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan costs twelve bucks and took eight hours. For thirty-one dollars I could fly across the river valley, catch a glimpse of the Irrawaddy and the mountains to the west, sip on a soda, and arrive in Bagan in 25 minutes. Since there are no ATMs and acceptance of credit cards is extremely limited, even for airlines, I checked my stash of funds and concluded to risk the extra nineteen thousand kyat and fly.

      Midway through the flight, looking out the window for anything other than sand and dirt, a sharp pain shot through my body like a steel sword. Sweat popped out of my pores and my temperature rose as if I was in a pizza oven. A few days earlier on the bus to Mandalay I’d had some sneaky intestinal problem, but I thought it had all been flushed out. This must have been from Han Su’s local barbecue or the peanut and tamarind snacks served at the Moustache Brothers comedy show. It didn’t matter much what caused it, I needed a lavatory, and fast. Unfortunately, the flight attendant wouldn’t allow me to leave my seat during the descent, so a little mental and physical discipline was required to save myself from supreme embarrassment.

      I agonized through a line at the airport, paid an entry fee, reclaimed my bag and then hurried in a squirm to the toilet, I was three seconds too late. My trousers soiled and my spirit sank, but I was able to make a quick change of clothes. With sweat dripping from my face, in a fake nonchalance, I walked out to where my hotel driver waited. It was 24 hours later before I emerged from my room, pale, a bit weak, a bit lighter, but hungry and thirsty; a good sign.

    The Hotel Kaday Aung was wonderful, the property, constructed of bricks and rattan walls, was well manicured with lush landscaping. The pool was cool and inviting, and the staff treated me like family. After a meal of Mohinga, a Burmese dish of fish and noodle soup, I felt much better and was ready to see Bagan.  Along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is one of the preeminent ancient religious cities in Southeast Asia.

     Bagan covers 16 square miles and is home to hundreds or perhaps thousands of ancient stupas and temples. This is clearly a place of historical importance, but because of politics and poor management, it hasn’t qualified as a UNESCO world heritage site. In 1975, an earthquake destroyed many of the structures and many were replaced by chintzy replicas with modern materials that don’t honor the original architecture. Much to the chagrin of UNESCO, many new stupas have been erected that never existed prior to the quake, a bit of mockery to the integrity of Bagan. There remain many interesting and stunning structures though, and the awe of its size and importance to Buddhism is in evidence everywhere, but the preponderance of red brick replicas is another ghastly reminder of the incompetence and pettiness of its present day rulers.

        The best way to get around is by horse cart, and I was lucky to have a skinny little man named Kokyi Tun, “Call me Koko,” and his young pony Shiashi, show me around. When we shook hands he introduced me to his horse, spit a gob of red juice into the soft powdery dirt at his feet, then smiled that increasingly familiar Burmese red smile. Most men, and many women, chew betelnut leaves all day. It produces a slight buzz, passes away the time, and makes teeth look like a boxer’s mouth who’s on the wrong end of repeated power jabs. Everywhere you go in Myanmar the ground is covered in red splats. And if they’re not chewing betelnut, then they’re smoking cheroots. As far as I could tell they don’t drink much, so chewing and smoking is a source of pleasure the young, old, and all in between take part in.

        As we clopped our way through the 11th, 12th, and 13th-century grounds at Bagan, Koko told me his father had just bought the horse and this was its first trip with a guest into Bagan. He was very pleased when I would say “good job” and rub the pony’s long nose after returning from a temple. He and his wife and boy lived on a small property with his mother and father. The land, a 40 x 60 plot was given to them by the government when they were forced off their property in Old Bagan about 14 years ago and were commanded to move their belongings to a new settlement called New Bagan. I asked why they had to move, he said, “I don’t know, but we all had to move.” After a few minutes of silence he confessed, “I can’t tell you what I think about it or I might go to jail,” holding his wrists together as if handcuffed. Later, after several moments in silence I spit out a long stream of red juice and said,  “It must be nice to be your own boss.” He looked at me, shot his own red juice out at the shoes of the pony and said, “No, my father, my wife, and my horse are the bosses….. but, I keep a girlfriend, and to her I am the boss!” His red teeth quivered with laughter.

       Any restaurant with a view to the west boasts a “sunset view,” so I took a bike ride through New Bagan, heading for that perfect sunset. In town people were smiling and happy, helpful and friendly, sweeping porches, boiling rice, fixing rakes. Koko had recommended the Green Elephant on the high banks of the Irrawaddy. I rolled up on my rusty three speed and found a table on the edge, ordered a large Myanmar beer and a plate of pork with dried mango curry. It was indeed a sunset, but the red ball variety, where you can look straight into the sun, watch the little flares come off, and not hurt your eyes. White winged birds flew in small groups across the river and children slid down the slippery escarpment into a splash, swimming as the late afternoon heat was swallowed in shadows. Unlike the glare of a tropical sundown, it’s a soft, peaceful, and romantic kind of sunset here above the Irrawaddy, with the mystery and intrigue of a woman with beautiful eyes hidden behind a veil.

       When the horizon closed the curtains on the red ball, lights in the trees and around the grassy restaurant lit up and transformed it into a quaint, private stage. An old man began playing a xylophone, singing folk songs. One of the waiters came over and explained the lyrics; a man was meditating in the forest as the heat of the day was melting away and turning to evening, it was his favorite time of day and he was thankful for evenings.  Another tune takes place on a cloudy day when two lovers plan to meet in a private place. It begins to rain and the rain gives them comfort and protection from being discovered. They make love in the rain together, then make homage to Buddha. These are traditional Burmese folk songs. By listening to folk songs one can learn a lot about the uniquenesses of a culture, and also discover the commonalities of people from all around the world. After a few more tunes, the xylophonist walked behind the stage set and, with some recorded music, danced marionettes for about twenty minutes. It was a great day and evening in Bagan. After riding my bike back to the hotel, I slipped onto my padded floor mattress and slept like a baby.

       Most of the tourists here carry large cameras, constantly clicking, clicking, as if they might miss something if they don’t get it on film. Behind the lens of a camera you sometimes miss something very important, and sometimes, if you click too much, you miss everything. Tonight, at a table near mine is a tall man, a big man, a man with 100 pounds of excess beneath his belt. His head is shaved, his Tommy Bahama shirt is XXL. He has a mini CD player on his dinner table – beside it are 4 cans of Coke and a bottle of Johnnie Walker. He’s finished with his family-sized plate of fried rice and two mutton kebabs. Now he’s waving over the staff to show them a slideshow he’s put together of today’s “adventure.” His stylish eyeglasses are fitting so tightly to his skull he pulls them off every few minutes to rub the creases. He blabs on in a louder and louder voice describing the pictures…. “red onions”…. “boat on river”…. “pagoda” …. “me and monk.” His accent is odd. He tells the wait staff, courteously standing around but bored stiff, that the picture gizmo cost “…only $300 U.S.!” I know now he’s American, disguising himself with an odd European accent. His slide show ends, but he keeps going, explaining the next set of photos he puts on the screen…. “Am-a-zo-nia. Sout-a-mar-eeka. You know?” The wait staff earns maybe $1,000 per year, they probably don’t own any electronic gear or have ever traveled beyond their village – they all glaze over and drift away. Telly Savalas grabs his bottle, his picture toy, and careens off into the shadows of darkness. I finish my beer and writing then head to bed.

       On my final day in Bagan, Koko and I visited a market and a few more of the original, magnificent temples. We had lunch in a friend’s house – the floors were tamped down dirt, the walls bamboo uprights and rattan siding, all handmade. There was running water from a hose, and a small generator provided electricity. We ate lentil soup and tamarind crackers. The woman spoke decent English and wanted to know if I could help start a school in New Bagan. They wanted a private school because the government education was terrible. Some people who had connections or money could send their kids to a so-called medical school, but there was very little other education on offer. Her daughter was one of the graduates of medical school, but she had not been assigned a job yet, and she was afraid she would lose her knowledge if she didn’t get a job soon. She thought it would be good to have a business school that taught English and math and accounting. They were very gracious and respectful and hoped I might return someday, but they acknowledged it would be difficult to offer any help.

       In a lacquerware shop, where they craft wonderful bowls and plates and cups, some shop workers asked me if I could order large quantities of product to ship back to America and sell for a profit. “Business is slow,” they said, “And we need work.” I asked, “Do you have email?” Sadly, one young girl said, “No, it is impossible.”

“Well, how can I contact you?” I asked.

“You must come back,” she said with a very cute but helpless smile sandwiched between swatches of a tan colored goop spread over each side of her face. It was a mixture of bark from acacia trees, called teneca, and most all women in the country put this on their faces everyday for sun protection. It also provides a soft aroma and makes a girl feel like a lady. Before we trotted off behind Shiashi, I thanked them for their time, wished them good luck, and offered a couple of bags of tamarind crackers that I’d purchased from Koko’s friends.

      Riding back to the hotel, Koko told me the people are looking for ways to improve their lives, but nothing seems to happen, so they ask for help from everyone but do not expect anything. I asked him about the folk songs I’d heard at the Green Elephant… he smiled and said, “These bring joy to all of us, they are better than lacquerware or education.”

Link to next article in this series: Part 4