Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Temples of Bagan

Anyone offended by explicit conversations about sex should skip the middle section of this post.

We arrived in Bagan, in central Myanmar, after a surprisingly comfortable 10-hour overnight bus ride. We had splashed out on a VIP bus, which meant huge reclining seats and soft blankets, but what really made the journey was the smooth divided highway that covered most of the distance between Yangon and our destination. I know Myanmar's infrastructure is often appalling, but this was so much better than any bus journey I've taken in Vietnam.

Bagan is one of Myanmar's premier tourism attractions, and for good reason. The area was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which ruled from the 9th to the 13th centuries and brought much of what constitutes modern Myanmar together for the first time. During the kingdom's peak, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, its leaders built roughly 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries across Bagan's plains. Roughly 2,000 remain today, spread across a 26 square mile area crisscrossed by dirt paths on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River. It is considered one of the greatest religious sites in the world.

In an effort to beat the heat we immediately hired a couple of bicycles from our guesthouse and headed out to explore. As we turned onto one path a young Burmese guy pulled up on a motorbike and said not to go that way, since there wasn't much to see. He offered to take us to a nearby temple that offered great views and was usually empty. I was hesitant, since my interactions with people involved in tourism in Vietnam have left me extremely jaded, but we agreed to follow the young man, who called himself Coco and had blond highlights in his faux hawk.

We were soon on the second level of a temple just off the main paved road through the area, with a sprawling view stretched in front of us. The hills surrounding the plan were visible in the distance, and countless temples of various shapes and sizes dotted the dusty sprawl. Coco then began explaining some of what we were looking at. In 1975 an earthquake destroyed and damaged many temples, but the government immediately began repairs with the help of UNESCO. Unfortunately the tops of the tallest temples are now closed since two tourists fell and died a few years ago (though a government employee later told us more diplomatically that they were closed to help preserve the temples).
The conversation then moved into more entertaining territory. Coco lamented that the roads in Myanmar are very dangerous, that he hadn't heard of another country where it could be worse. "Well," I said, "they are worse in Vietnam. At least worse than the highway that comes here."

"Really?" Coco asked, surprised. "But Vietnam is a rich country!" Now it was our turn to be surprised, as that is a phrase you won't hear very often. In comparison, though, Vietnam is richer than Myanmar, where the per capita income isn't even $1,000.

He then asked which women were more beautiful, Vietnamese or Burmese. It hadn't taken Anthony and I long to notice that Burmese women are absolutely gorgeous, and nearly every one of them has perfectly straight, white teeth - which seemed odd in a country with such a rudimentary healthcare system.
"We think Burmese women are more beautiful." And this is where things got good.

"Ah yes," Coco said. "Many Western men want to date Burmese girls, but the girls are afraid of their big cocks. They think, 'How can I take it?!' Burmese only have little cocks." We were now rolling around laughing, and Coco went on to talk about Burmese princesses (though I'm not exactly sure what he meant, since there are no princesses). Anthony asked, "Are the princesses beautiful?"

"Oh yes, they are all very beautiful. But they aren't virgins," he said, crestfallen. "They sleep with many rich men." We acted morally outraged by the fact that they weren't virgins, amused that someone who would so openly talk about cocks cared about whether a woman was a virgin or not.

Weather was the next topic, and we mentioned that it had rained a lot when we were in Yangon. "Do you know what that weather is good for?", Coco asked. "Fucking and drinking," was his reply. He then told us we could get Burmese girlfriends in Yangon's nightclubs, before pulling several paintings he had "made" out from a bag and beginning a sales pitch. I had a feeling Coco was going to try to sell us something, but he had been so damn hilarious I didn't care. $10 later we parted ways with this raunchy example of Burmese youth and carried on.

That evening we returned to Coco's temple to get a view of the plains at sunset, when the lighting turns the temples burnt orange.




The next day meant more exploring by bike, including a stop at the largest temple in Bagan. The architecture of the temples and some of the artwork in their interiors were amazing, but it was hard to tell what was original and what was restored, given how much time has passed since these were built. Still, the area is an incredible place, and even though Bagan is a popular destination it never felt crowded. For the most part we were able to cycle along, choose a path at random, and find a temple with no one else around.









We went to a different temple for this sunset, with the sky over the Irrawaddy gradually turning orange. As stunning as Bagan is, it can be easy to overdose on temples, as they begin to run together when the structures don't mean anything to you religiously. Tack on the fact that we had just seen the Shwedagon in Yangon, and we were pretty much over temples. That being said, I still highly recommend a visit to Bagan if you get the chance. Two days allows you to see a lot, and you may even run into Coco. The following morning we were taking a bus to Mandalay, the second-biggest city in Myanmar, smack in the middle of the country.



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