Our hotel is amazing once more. The place is enormous and also dated in a delightful way, such as the chairs upholstered in purple velvet. We are on the shores of the Irrawaddy River, that flows south past the dining patio.
Margaret and I had a nice easy 9 am start this morning, but there was a problem. Margaret’s supper last night included an amazingly spicy salad and it did a number on her in the night. Despite feeling off, we met our driver for the day. Ansel (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong) met us at the airport last night and took us to our hotel. He offered to be our driver for today. At $35 for the whole day, split between the two of us, we quickly agreed to give up our motorbike rental idea for someone who knows the area and the traffic.
The first pagoda stop was very touristy with lots of bling! By bling I mean plenty of gold, many colors, vendors set up everywhere, gaudy in every direction. M was still feeling poorly and stayed in the car. I made a quick trip through and headed back to the car with a plan to give instructions: no more bling, less people. I wanted to see all the gorgeous pagodas we had been passing to get to this one. Luckily, that was Ansel’s plan all along. He got what he said was the most famous pagoda out of the way first, and all the rest were much better.
There are 2600 pagodas in Bagan. At the most, there were 4000 of them, but many were destroyed in the 1975 earthquake. Unfortunately, in 2016 another big one hit north of Mandalay, which isn’t too far from here. It was 6.9 on the Richter scale, and damaged 400 of the local pagodas. Ansel said that until that time, tourists were allowed to climb the stairs inside many of the pagodas, and thus get on top for a great view. But now, for safety reasons, there is only one pagoda safe enough to climb. (I climbed it!) They were all built from the 11th through the 13th centuries. As we drove through the region, the renovation work could easily be seen on many of the larger pagodas.
At the next pagoda, M tried walking around a little and that only made her feel worse, so we dropped her off back at the hotel and she had a down day. Then Ansel and I continued our pagoda tour.
It’s hard to convey just how incredible it is to have pagodas in every direction. Our driver said to close our eyes and point, and we would be pointing at a pagoda. I often walked past several smaller ones to get to the one Ansel wanted me to see. They are in unexpectedly good shape for their age and being in an earthquake zone. They are gorgeous: that orange red brick, particularly in the morning and evening light against a blue sky.
I am most struck by the outer architecture of the pagodas, but several caught my interest for other qualities. In particular, I loved the murals painted inside many of them. Once Ansel found out I loved the murals, he took me to a few more very good ones with exceptional paintings inside.
At lunchtime my driver took me to a lovely little café with delicious and affordable food. (Who am I kidding? Everything is affordable here.) Later in the day, after several pagodas in the hot sun, he found me a super tiny café so I could chill with a Myanmar beer. While I drank the beer I played with one of the cats lounging around. An older woman came out from the back and brought me some fried bread after I had been sitting there awhile, complimentary.
There are hopeful vendors at every big pagoda, hoping to catch your eye. The people selling handmade goods in Myanmar have been the most laid back I have ever known in a country I am visiting. Until Bagan, they barely called out to us. Here they may be the most aggressive in the country, because they will actually call out to you, and some will follow you. Compared to other countries, it’s still very manageable and they give up quickly and leave you alone.
At one pagoda, I stopped to watch a man work on his sand painting. He began explaining what he was doing, and how he made the sand paintings. It’s pretty cool: he glues river sand to cotton fabric, then paints over the top. It’s a neat look. He began explaining a few of his paintings, spending the most time explaining the days of the week calendar (includes Morning Wednesday – elephant with tusk, and Evening Wednesday – elephant without tusk). I decided I wanted to buy the week calendar. Unfortunately, I did not have enough money on me. He let me take the painting with me and pay only a part of the cost, and I came back a few hours later with the rest.
The artist had assured me that the sand painting can only be found in Bagan. When I got back to the car I asked my driver if that was true. He said it was. He said there are two crafts unique to Bagan. The other is lacquered bamboo. Ansel took me to a workshop where women were busy scratching designs into black lacquered bowls. A man explained what they were doing, and also how the lacquered crafts are made. They begin with bamboo. Then they are covered in layers of thick black sap from a tree I can’t remember the name of. If I remember correctly, the sap is baked on in layers. Then the patterns are either painted or etched onto the final layer. I really enjoyed the stop and when he ushered me into the showroom as I was expecting, I was happy to go look for what I wanted: a ramen bowl. I found one that looked the most like what the women had been working on. I also found a square box I liked and negotiated them down almost 30% on the price, since the original price was way over my budget.
Finally it was 40 minutes to sunset and Ansel took me to a mound of some sort to watch the sun go down. To my chagrin it was packed with people and more poured in after I arrived. *sigh* But the tourists were picking up the “love” vibe from the locals, and it was actually very pleasant with much chatter back and forth between people who didn’t know each other but were sharing a moment.
The sunset over the pagodas was spectacular.