Sunday, November 28, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 2 of 3)

Tired from the half day of traveling, we immediately got rides to a hostel in town courtesy of cycling rickshaws that can be summed up as a seat attached to the side of a bicycle. For about a kilometer, my driver/cyclist was booking it, all for just 1000 kyat, yet once I got to my destination and paid the man, his face lit up displaying his overwhelming level of happiness for making the equivalent of $1.10. This was really a shock to get a feel for how the people of this country live on day by day basis making such little amounts of cash to show for their work. Anyway, we crashed at the hostel for the rest of the morning until waking up at 9:00 A.M. to enjoy breakfast on the roof. Soon thereafter, we were on bikes heading toward Old Bagan to see the many famous temples that carry on for what seemed like forever.

We reached the outskirts of this sacred land; I soon realized that wearing shoes was a mistake as every temple we entered required taking them off. Biking around from one structure to the next was very enjoyable with the great weather we had all week long. It actually became a problem with how many temples there were as we would ride around for two minutes before deciding we had to stop and see another ancient ruin up close. It was a good problem to have. At one point, a local took us up to the top of a temple to offer up a view of another kind; we got to see that these pagodas go on for as far as one can see.

Once we took advantage of the photo opportunity atop this temple, we came down and resumed our bike tour of Bagan. For the next couple of hours, we carried on seeing more temples, each with its own unique design varying in size, shape, and color. It was a one-of-a-kind experience to just go from one shrine to the next all made in the name of Buddha. Most of these temples were made between the 10th and 13th centuries, with minimal reconstruction, effectively standing against the test of time.

At one point, we made it to the biggest temple that one could find within the sixteen square miles of Old Bagan and were told of a less travelled temple nearby that would be a prime place to see sunset later on. We made the short bike ride to this less touristy place to find a completely empty temple with no one soliciting us to buy anything and no other people in sight. Even better was that we were able to navigate to the top of the edifice and get another great panoramic view of temples in every direction. We spent some time exploring the ruins and fully examining the landscape surrounding us. One temple that caught our eye was one with a golden top off in that distance that we thought would be nice to see up close. With some time before sunset, we biked towards the golden structure, which took about fifteen to twenty minutes.

When we arrived outside the walls of the ancient ruins, it was around dinner time so we decided to squeeze in a quick dinner before heading back to our secret temple. There were two little restaurants that were literally fighting over the ten of us to eat at their facility. It seemed like things could have escalated if we all went to one place so our group of ten played the role of mediator and split five and five at each eatery. It was funny yelling across the bike path about what our restaurant had compared to theirs; to no one's surprise they were pretty much identical. Before the food was ready, we explored the temple with the sun coming close to the horizon making for nice scenery. After having a delectable dinner made by the family-run restaurant, we made haste getting back to our lesser known temple to catch the sun setting. When we arrived back at the site, we saw many old French/Belgians tourists had occupied the premises. No matter, as they failed to reach the greater heights of the temple that us twenty-somethings were able to get to. The colors that came to fruition in the sky were a real treat with the many temples taking on a new look under the red and orange sky. Sunset came and went, meaning that we had to hustle back to the hostel before it got dark out.

We made it back to the hostel to clean up after a long yet exciting day of biking and touring the temples of Bagan (formerly known as Pagan). Later that night we enjoyed drinks and banana pancakes (two people in our group had an obsession for them the entire trip) for a few hours before heading back to base camp for the night.

The next morning, I got up early and wanted to see a gold temple that was close to where we living before leaving Bagan. I grabbed a cycling rickshaw and headed to the Shwezigon Pagoda. When I arrived, there was some sort of performance going on that included Burmese dancing and singing that attracted a huge crowd. I watched for a few minutes before going to the main attraction. Unfortunately, the site was more touristy than anywhere else I had been in the country meaning there were many beggars in the area. Having read the Lonely Planet guide thoroughly I knew not to give money to kids because they will waste the money, but it was advised it is better to give to their parents. I had not donated any money up to this point in the trip so I gave 1000 kyat to this woman who was begging, which is a lot for a local as evidenced from the rickshaw driver the day before. Instead of getting a "thank you," she said to me "That's not enough for food," I looked at her in disbelief and just walked away. Talk about ungrateful. I made my rounds moving through the Pagoda before catching a ride back to town.

Upon my return to the hostel, the ten of us bought a private bus for us to take to the Mount Popa and Inle Lake. Mount Popa is a volcano that hasn't erupted for centuries and sits an hour outside of Bagan. Its main feature is a volcanic plug on the side of the mountain that stands well above ground level. Similar to climbing the stairs at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, there were many monkeys running around the staircase to the top of the volcanic plug. The little guys were fun to watch as they scavenged for food in and around town.The Buddhist monastery at the top had nice views of the Burmese landscape, but otherwise nothing too special about the area. It was interesting to see the hill from afar because of how it stuck out like a sore thumb from the huge mountain.

Then came time for another dreaded bus ride from the mountain to Inle Lake. This nine hour bus ride was a harrowing experience as the minibus has zero suspension causing the passengers (aka the ten of us) to be tossed around like a salad in this thing. By the time we reached the town of Nyaung Shwe just near the lake, my ears were ringing like we had just been to a rock concert. It was nice that since it was our bus, we were able to stop whenever we wanted to, so we did at one point stop at this farm in the middle of no where. Some local children were staring at us as we walked around where some chiles were drying up to get a good view of sunset. The kids were looking at us as if they had never seen Westerners before. Once in Nyaung Shwe, we crashed at a very nice hostel to rest up for another long day that was to come.

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