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Published: February 12th 2007
Lying on my back, on the floor of the small hut, the only sounds I'm aware of are the creaking of bamboo and the grating whine of mosquitos swarming closer. Two old ladies - in whose home we are about to enjoy our first Burmese massage - shuffle quietly around us in long, faded longyis
, carefully arranging a selection of herbal oils on the floor beside us. Noticing me slap at a mosquito which has settled on my arm, one of them smiles knowingly, kindly eyes shining in the candle-light, and holds up a reassuring hand. Wait, wait, I've got just the thing
she seems to be saying. Stepping stiffly away behind a discreet curtain, she returns moments later, proudly gripping one of those electrified mosquito swats, on the tennis racquet-like surface of which hapless insects may be netted from the air and instantly fried. Holding this marvel of modern weaponry before her like a sacred relic, she advances on me, kneels at my side and proceeds to pass it - as slowly as possible - along my entire body. I notice she has not switched it on; in fact, it doesn't even seem to contain batteries. Having thus blessed &
protected me, using the magic wand of technology, she pats my shoulder lightly, to reassure me all has been made well, and returns the wand to its hidden alcove. Finding myself moved by her trusting naivete, and even more by her gentle compassion, I try not to move at all when the mosquitos make their inevitable return.
Half an hour later, I totter out of the bamboo hut feeling slightly drunk - as often seems to be the case after a good massage. The 'tourist agent' we'd arranged the massage through is waiting for us already, a small man with quiet eyes and a sad smile. A dark mole eyes us suspiciously from his chin, as if determined to compensate for the man's trusting nature, and make sure noone takes advantage of him. Like many so-endowed men in Burma, (and indeed, most parts of South East Asia that I've visited), he is evidently quite proud of the wiry sprig of hair that sprouts from his mole. I've seen old men with 'mole-hair' that gets up to more than 10-15cm, groomed and sometimes oiled. And not just mole-hair, I've encountered equally impressive cultivations erupting from noses and ears as well.
From a bus in Yangon, I once saw a man with such impressively strange eyebrows, (thick & growing straight out from his brow), that I initially thought he was wearing a bristly grey sun-visor.
Trying not to glance too often at the healthily-haired mole before me now, (although the attention probably would have been enjoyed), I thank the man for organising a very good massage and ask if he's managed to find the bicycles he'd promised. Inclining his head graciously, he ushers us out into the dusty street and points them out proudly. Judging by the make & condition, it appears both have been borrowed from his grandmother. Eagerly - I haven't ridden a bike in ages! - Brian & I both hop on and take off for a test ride. One wheel slightly wonky, the brakes almost useless, no lights or gears - mine's perfect! We agree on a price and pedal happily away into the darkened streets, rolling blindly through puddles and rattling over potholes, calling out to everyone we pass. We are in Bagan after all, and the only way to see Bagan is by bike...
And the best time at which to appreciate Bagan
in all its far-flung glory is unquestionably sunrise. We manage to rise early this time - well before the sun - and cycle out to one of the higher temples, (the Shwesandaw Paya
). Settling down in the shadows near the top, we fall silent and barely move for the next two hours... On the plain of Bagan, outlined by a sweeping curve of the Ayerwaddy River (formerly known as the Irrawaddy), generations of Burmese royalty and merchants have built over 3000 pagodas, (expensive & impressive exercises in merit-earning). Spread all over, like the randomly strewn playthings of a giant's child, they are of various sizes, colours & styles. The temples are at their most beautiful just after the sun has risen; rich golden light gilds the mist that still clings to them, briefly awarding them halos. It is also around this time that the hot air balloons take off, to float serenely across the plain. It must be an incredible view from up there, but even to see the balloons from the ground - sliding lightly across the sun, seeming to weave in and out of the pagodas - is beautiful in itself.
While there, we meet 13-year-old Yulac
and his 15-year-old cousin Imho, who are trying to sell packets of mediocre postcards. Not interested in the postcards, but enjoying the boisterous and unaffected company of the two kids, we ask if they'll be our guides to Bagan instead. They're both amazing kids - confident, gracious, knowledgeable & a lot of fun, and we abandon the guidebook to follow them around instead.
Riding from temple to temple, (in which other kids invariably follow us around, monotonously chanting "Be careful, mind your head, watch your step" over & over again, and then try to claim a 'guide fee' afterwards or blackmail us into looking at their shop), we're soon tired and hot and in need of something different. When we decide to clamber down the riverbank for a refreshing dip in the brown waters of the Irrawaddy, Imho follows us all the way down the edge, trying to dissuade us in case 'something' goes wrong, (she can't specify exactly what it is that could go wrong). Assuring her that we'll be fine, we plunge in and splash around for a while in the deliciously cool water. We don't stay in long though, because Imho waits for us at the
Yet another sunrise shot...
I didn't take many shots in Bagan, as you can probably tell by now. =/
edge the whole time, bouncing on her toes in agitation. With a concerned hand over her mouth, she calls out over & over again, "Be careful - oh! - please be careful!" When we wade out soon after, black mud squelching up between our toes, she admonishes us with a rapid-fire chatter of Burmese, before breaking into a big, relieved grin. =P
The temples they took us to that day were certainly beautiful - but Bagan is unquestionably more impressive viewed in its entirety, (at sunrise or sunset), rather than in individual visits to the pagodas. We really enjoyed our day though - it was great just cycling around the plain and getting to know Imho & Yulac. We appreciated both of them more and more as the day wore on. At one point, as we rode on to yet another temple, my camera slipped out of my pocket and onto the dirt track, without my noticing it. Yulac, riding along a short distance behind me, could quite easily have pocketed it - or come back for it later - but I doubt it even crossed his mind. Calling out to me immediately, he stopped to pick it up
and handed it over with a concerned look on his face, waiting to see if it still worked before he rode on.
When we part at the end of the day, Imho insists on giving us a string of postcards to share, (the same ones she'd spent so long trying to sell to us in the morning), and point-blank refuses to accept anything for them, (asking only that we come back to Bagan one day and also tell our friends about it). Of course, Brian & I had paid both kids well for being such pleasant and easy-going guides, but I don't think this takes anything away from the generosity of Imho's gesture.
On our way up to our room that night, after returning our bikes to the tourist guy & admiring his mole one last time, we stop to chat with the hotel's night manager. After a while, explaining that we have a very early start - our bus leaves at 5am - we say goodnight and climb wearily upstairs to drop into our beds... Almost the next thing we know, (or so it seems), there's a knock at the door. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes,
Enjoying the breakfast spread at the Eden Motel
What I'm (so classily) pointing to is one of Burma's many 'Coffee Mixes', for which both Brian & I developed complete addictions.
I stumble across the still-dark room to the door, and find the night manager standing there. He looks as surprised to see me as I am to see him. "It's almost 5", he says urgently, eyes wide. "Your bus will be here in five minutes!" I shake Brian awake and we pack quickly, getting out the door and onto the street in under three minutes - another advantage to travelling light! =) Shouting our heart-felt thanks to the manager - without whom we would unquestionably have missed the bus, having slept soundly through our alarm - we cross the road just as the bus appears round the corner. Clambering aboard, we exchange a sheepish look and then settle in for the long bus ride ahead. So far, both of the buses we've caught in Burma have broken down and
suffered a blow-out during the trip - will the bus to Inle Lake be any different? Find out soon, in the final episode of this admittedly uneventful and extremely long-winded account of a short trip to Burma! More Words to Live By (courtesy of the SPDC)
A Little Out of Place: "Now her face is lined, because
making ends meet and bringing the children all up has been rather a struggle."
Overly Practical: "If you want somebody's wife spear her husband first."
Genuinely Interesting: "To be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves."
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