Where was I? Where am I? As we drove from the Bagan airport after landing at about 8 AM we began to see temples and stupas. Hollow pagodas with large Buddah statues are temples and solid stupas house Buddah artifacts. The structures are as small as 10 feet high and as high as 60 meters some sitting on mountain tops many just jammed in side by side. Even looking out of our room there are several in view. The “Oh wow” factor had not faded even after almost two days.
Many of the more than 2,500 temples in Bagan have been reconstructed. In the 11 th century the kings built over 5,000 in this area. Kublah Kahn destroyed all the wooden structures and damaged many brick and stone structures. An earthquake in 2006 damaged and destroyed many of those remaining. Kyaw (the closest I can come in English is Joe but sound “j” as ch and add a nasal “w”to the end) explains that Buddhists seeking merit in this life for their next turn on the wheel contribute large sums to restoring and beautifying the shrines. He is setting aside 10% (a familiar number) to do such a restoration himself.
Naturally we climbed the highest Pagoda to survey the countryside. We were assaulted by vendors at every turn; “I make very good price” “you want postcard” “maybe later” with whatever goods being offered thrust into our face or hand. When we got to that first Pagoda we had it to ourselves, plus vendors, for 10 minutes then the bike tours and busses began to arrive and the place was soon overrun and we worked our way down and out. We also visited the Golden Temple with its gold leaf dome and four grand entrance stairs passing through grand shrines from the four points of the compass. After lunch and a break we resumed touring with a temple with four huge Buddahs facing the cardinal points. The two originals from the 11 th century have a unique facial aspect when view from where the high and mighty would stand or kneel they are serene but unsmiling. When viewed from further back, where ordinary folk would stand they offer a broad smile. Draw your own conclusions. We finally stopped at a laquerware shop. Here we learned that this is a very different business than we saw in China. The bowls are made of bamboo or bamboo and horsehair and many coats of natural laquer, 24 in all, are applied with fingers to give the item strength and depth. Adornment is done by engraving filling with natural colors. We did buy a small momento. We concluded the touring day with a boat ride on the Irawaddy River. We stopped on a sandbar to view sunset which took place behind heavy clouds. We returned to the landing near our hotel, the Aye Yar River View, and the van took us to BBB for a Western dinner.
Today, Friday, we got up at 5 to catch our pickup for Balloons over Bagan. By 6:15 we were airborne in one of 8 16 passenger balloons to drift over the temple area and catch the highest overview perspective available, add some more oh wows! The hour flew by and soon we were landing in a cluster of balloons. Indeed we were so close that one balloon envelope collided with another on the ground reducing speeding enough in the process to make a perfect landing. Another had to leapfrog the landing zone and catch another with 2 other balloons. One other incident, a passenger in our balloon fainted shortly after lift off, her companions with guidance from the pilot revived her and we continued on without a hitch. We returned to the hotel for breakfast and shortly took off for further touring in horse carts. Carol was a bit under the weather so when I took the reins she complained about the speed and her seat in the back. I gave up the drivers seat and the reins. We made several stops finally shifting to the van for a final stop at a shop that harvests palm sap for sugar which is made into candy much like maple sugar and also encouraged to ferment and then distilled in the most primitive still I’ve ever seen. The ferment is placed in a jug on a fire, the jug has a side arm that has a metal deflector facing into it. A large metal bowl filed with cool water is placed on top and the distillate collects on the bowl and drops onto the deflector which leads it out the side arm into a bottle. It is surprisingly good given its lack of age.
We decided not to go out on the afternoon’s optional tour, museum, village, shopping and dinner did not appeal in any event. While Carol slept I wrote the above and did some reading. Late afternoon we both had head and shoulder massages. Carol really perked up so after a while we headed out to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant called Moon that had been recommended by our balloon pilot, Clive. This involved walking off the pretty stone driveway of the hotel to the city road that leads up to it and hiring a horse cart for the round trip. We had a bit of a wait while the driver harnessed his horse then a 10 minute ride to the restaurant also on a dirt road. The round trip cost $6.00 actually 6, 000 kyat (say chat). Dinner was a delight and the ride under a starry night sky with the top off the cart was very pleasant.
I am finishing this off in Mandalay at the Mandalay Hill Hotel. I do love to write that name. Mandalay for comparison, is a city of 7 million versus Bagan, a cluster of villages home to about 100,000,