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Published: December 19th 2009
Sunrise as seen from Minyeingon temple.
Sunrise in Bagan is even more beautiful than sunset (if that is possible).
We woke up at 5:45am today and made our way to the nearby Mi Nyein Gon temple. Aung Shwe had recommended this temple for sunrise. It was perfect, as his suggestions always seem to be. The views of the sun rising over the mountains and the valley, with the temples poking up out of the morning mist, were magnificent.
After breakfast, we switched on the TV and were surprised to find President Obama giving a speech about his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. In Yangon we noted that CNN and BBC are available via satellite tv but we wondered if the government censored the broadcasts. President Obama's speech proceeded normally enough for about 10 minutes and then suddenly the screen froze and the words "signal scrambled" appeared. A few moments later, everything was back to normal. We are pretty sure we witnessed government censorship since the signal was lost just as President Obama began talking about human rights.
This morning we dutifully followed Aung Shwe's recommended temple tour. All were within walking distance of our hotel so we decided to go on foot.
As we quickly found out, walking is not the normal mode of transportation in Bagan. Most tourists explore via car, horse cart or, at the very least, bicycle.
Walking put us at a disadvantage. We were irresistible targets.
The sad reality of traveling in countries like Burma is that there is an enormous gap between the tourists and locals in terms of wealth/resources and opportunities for advancement. Both sides are keenly aware of this gap. While most of the locals in Bagan are extremely friendly (and a bit shy) there are also many aggressive hawkers/salesman who shadow tourists wherever they go.
This morning as we left the hotel for our sunrise viewing, a number of horse cart drivers approached us - did we want to book a horse cart for the day? For the morning? Just to take us to one temple? No? Well, maybe a ride at sunset. At some point we had five different horse cart operators following us. Finally, we told the driver who had followed us the longest, "OK, if we want to see sunset from a temple, we'll look for you - but we're not sure of our plans right now". The
Angelique at sunrise.
driver then told us his name, his cart number and where he'd be at 4:30pm. We thanked him and walked away. We thought we were free and clear of horse cart drivers for the morning, but alas the same gentleman followed us, on a bike, all the way to the Mi Nyein Gon temple, waited for us during the sunrise, and then followed us all the way back to the hotel, still reminding us that we should use him if we wanted a horse cart that day.
We were also introduced to Burma's black market for gem stones today. Several times today men walked up to Adrian (one time two men rode up on a motorcycle) glanced around quickly and covertly, and then open up their palms to reveal a small pile of rubies and other gemstones. Gemstone mining is one of Burma's most lucrative industries but it is a bad idea to buy gems on the street. Many of the gems sold on the street are fake (we certainly wouldn't be able to tell the difference between real rubies and fakes) and on top of that the government often requires tourists, upon exiting the country, to produce a
Our zedi/pagoda cheat sheet - a guide to the many different architectural styles used during the Bamar kingdom.
certificate proving that the diamonds/rubies, etc had been bought from an authorized government dealer. Not having the govenment certificate can result in confiscation of the stones and a fine. Needless to say we declined all offers from the gem husslers.
The trinket selling children are the most persistent of all the hawkers in Bagan and they are everywhere. Pretty much every time we arrived at a temple, a pack of children would approach us:
"Where are you from? You're beautiful. What's your name? Do you want to buy a postcard/lacquerware/oil painting? One dollar. Very good price. One dollar."
Several kids even followed us inside one of the temples hoping we would buy something from them. After about twenty minutes of endless questions and sales offers they abandoned us when they saw a large snake slithering a few feet away. We immediately backed away from the snake but they ran toward it. Snake is a delicacy in both Laos and Vietnam; perhaps it is here as well?
Seeing all of these children selling trinkets makes us sad (their parents probably pulled them out of school to sell trinkets to tourists all day) but at the same time the
Mahabodhi Paya in Old Bagan. Very close to our hotel.
constant barrage is exhausting. For the most part we were good sports and played along, gamely answering, "We're from America. Have you heard of California? My name is Adrian/Angelique. No, thank you. No, I don't want to buy an oil painting. No, we already have postcards. No, thank you. No, no thank you. No thank you. No thank you." before escaping into a temple.
However, as the day grew hotter and we grew more tired, our responses became a tad more creative:
"My name is Satan. I come from the Underworld. I don't want an oil painting. I would like to buy your soul. Will you sell me your soul for two dollars?".
OK, we are exagerrating a bit, but we certainly felt punchier as the day drew on.
We actually saw a ton today when we weren't running away from the various hawkers. Several temples stand out:
1. Mahabodi Pagoda. This design of this temple's stupa is based on a sister temple in India where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Its sikhara (a kind of corncob shaped tower on top) is studded with little alcoves containing small Buddha statues.
2. Shwegugyi Temple. This temple has
Thatbyinnyu Pahto in Old Bagan. The tallest temple in Bagan.
beautiful sandstone carvings of Buddhist stories. Two large stone slabs inside the temple describe the story behind the temple itself; The carvings on the stone slabs are in the ancient Pali language.
3. Thatbyinnyu Temple. This is the tallest temple in Bagan. The temple is all white and topped with a gold-tipped sikhara (corncob) that reaches 207 feet. There are some beautiful original (now faded) murals inside.
4. Ananda OK Kyaling. Remember the super beautiful temple that we saw yesterday (Ananda Pahto)? This is the monastery associated with that temple. It is famous for its outstanding murals. The murals date from the 1700s and depict daily life in Burma at that time. The monastery building itself was built in 1137. This was one of our favorite sights in Bagan.
5. Dhammayangyi Temple. This is one of the largest temples in Bagan. It looks a bit like a Mayan temple - large and square with many levels. Built in the 1100s, it's made entirely of brick but has not been well preserved. It's also one of the creepiest temples. It has extremely high ceilings, so high that you can't actually see much above your head but you can
certainly hear the hundreds of bats that have taken up residence. Squeak. Squeak. Needless to say, this temple smells a bit . . batty.
By early afternoon, the temperature had climbed into the upper 80s or low 90s, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a shower and some quality time by the pool. Feeling a bit lazy after our long walk, we decided to stay put for sunset. At 5pm we grabbed a few beers and headed to the shade of the large acacia tree near our bungalow. We had dinner yet again at our hotel's restaurant. The food is pretty good. We especially like the fish curries which are made with fresh butterfish from the Ayeyarwady river and a mixture of delicious spices, including tamarind.
Aung Shwe is one of the best guides that we've ever had - anywhere. We'll see him briefly tomorrow before our flight but we'll miss him. Tomorrow we're off to Inle Lake to see the famous floating villages.
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