Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Myanmar - A mystique ride to Bagan

If there's one thing which had become clear over the past days, then it must be that bikes and cars don't mix on a guided tour. The speed differences are too big for starters. Not that we are racing from A to B, we actually ride below the speed limit most of the time and certainly never above it, but overtaking and rough roads are far easier to do on a bike than a 4WD. Seeing the clunky 4WD campers wobble and waddle through sections where we can just hop-over made me once again very happy to be on a bike :-) The biggest issue arising however was the 'us and them' feeling created by the car drivers. They never even made the effort to make this a group and certainly had some 'chip on their shoulder' issues. While we were having a ball, they seemed to become unhappier by the day, judging by their behaviour anyway.

Phaung Daw U Pagoda, a floating temple in the shape of 
the mythical Karaweik bird
It manifested itself in silly remarks like 'it's unfair we have to pay $5,- to use the pool at the hotel...' or complaining that their wifi wasn't that good as they were too far away from the hotel... which might have something to do with the fact they weren't actually paying for their accommodation, but had chosen to sleep in their vehicles on the carpark instead...? Yet they still expected to have access to all the facilities...! At the same time they showed some pathetic behaviour like getting lost all the time as they couldn't be bothered to find the GPS coordinates from the hotels we were going to, like we had. Instead they expected the guides to do everything for them. Add to it that with their expensive so called 'go anywhere' vehicles they couldn't even keep up with the bog-standard Toyota van of our tour guides(!) which was also fitted with an automatic gearbox, and you can see where this is going... At some point Karen worded it beautifully when she sighed 'I'm so over babysitting that lot' when they got lost once again. 

As our spirits were high, as Myanmar is such a good place to be, it didn't even dent our experience in the slightest. We enjoyed what we saw, rode as we liked and stopped where we wanted. This country really had become a turning point in our Asia experience. Originally we hadn't even planned to go there. The idea had been to fly the bikes from Nepal to Thailand. We are so glad we hadn't done that! The riding here is great, even though the roads are at times best described as bone shaking. The things we saw along the way and the people we met made up for it big time though!

The ride to Bagan was a fine example of how much we enjoyed being here. The ride up to Inle Lake had been a beautiful winding road through the mountains with great views and little traffic. On the way back, taking partly the same road, we found ourselves in foggy conditions. Yet despite the diminished visibility it somehow enhanced this part of the world even more. It made it more special if you like. There was just enough visibility to see where we were going, with the haziness of the forests lining the roads creating a mystique atmosphere. We were riding with our visors open, feeling the damp misty air in our faces while slowly gliding down this winding mountain road... magic!

As we could ride on our own, we could also stop where we wanted and found this great little place just alongside the road to get some lunch. We prefer these places over the more fancy restaurants. We don't need slick waiters and fancy table settings. Instead we rather eat where the locals do and see our money being spend on their families. The so called language barrier only enhanced the experience even more. The outcomes may not always result in getting what you thought you'd ordered but again, it only enhances. The lovely ladies cooked up a storm, we have no idea what we ate but we enjoyed our lunch, as witnessed by half the village :-)

While we were taking in the scenery and kept to the speed limits, we are after all a guest to this country, we also saw how others were 'doing' it when a group of riders from Vietnam came past at wide open throttle... They were riding tricked up big adventure bikes with more spotlights than the average runway at an airport. They came barging through the small town we had stopped at for a drink, their loud exhausts drowning out everything. Kids were playing on the road, dogs roaming free, people walking around in an area where the average speed of vehicles is at best 60 km/hr... and then 6 motorcyclists, dressed up like Action man on huge adventure monsters roared through...! I looked at it in disbelief and then spotted their tour guides in a van flat out behind them. What is the point of riding like that? They had all their attention on the road, had no idea where they were actually riding. I must have had an expression on my face showing my disgust on how they apparently thought it was ok to behave like that, as a local woman next to me shook her head but gave me a smile when our eyes met. 

We had no idea where the guides or the 4WDs were at that stage, which didn't matter much as we had the GPS coordinates of the hotel but had also received instructions on where to stop for a permit and wait there for the guide. We waited for an hour or so at the checkpoint while having smoko and then asked the person there to contact our guide's mobile phone. As it turned out they were far behind us... The so-called tough off-road travellers apparently couldn't even change a tyre between the lot of them and also hadn't noticed one of them was no longer following... We organised the permit and continued on to the hotel as we had looked up the coordinates and put them in our GPS. When the cars finally arrived, we were already enjoying a cold Coca Cola, after having had a good shower of course... meanwhile the tour guides had to go out again and look for a replacement tyre for them...

The Action Men where there too and proudly claimed to be doing a Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam tour... in 2 weeks! They were also seemingly proud to be riding quite often until midnight (ie 6 hrs in the dark)... and the point of that is? All the bikes had accident damage, some quite substantial too. Later in the evening we walked up the street and found a good little restaurant, enjoyed a balmy summers' evening, even though we were approaching what is deemed to be winter here.

The next day was a good example of our trip being a good mix between riding and non-riding days. The guide didn't just take us from border to border but really went out of his way to show us his country. A country he was clearly proud of. Not only did it made our trip so much more memorable, as we were given so much insight about Myanmar, but also made it a true travel experience. While we were looking forward to seeing the amazing Bagan, the action men from yesterday were flying down the highway towards Yangon, without having seen a single thing of Bagan. What a waste...

Bagan is probably best known for its pagodas, they are hard to miss as even today there are 2200 remaining of them. They are literally everywhere you look. Bagan's history is a long one, which dates back to the 2nd century and became the capital of Pagan, the later Myanmar in the 10th century. Over a period of just 250 years 10,000 religious monuments like stupas, small temples and monasteries were created. Bagan was a prosperous city and became a cosmopolitan centre for religious studies. Even today, religion is a big part of Myanmar's culture. 

A very special moment. This young monk was totally oblivious of what happened around him (see also the video!)
Visiting a temple was another highlight but perhaps for a different reason than you might think. The building itself was worth a visit but two things made it even better. The first was a young monk deep in prayer, seemingly totally oblivious of the world around him. Mike took a striking photo of him (above). When I later asked our tour guide about monks in general, we learned he had been a monk himself until he was 17... I didn't ask him why he'd became a tour guide instead but fear he might have regretted that decision :-)
The second thing which stood out for me is a woman being photographed in one of the doorways of the temple (see photo left). The photographs obviously had nothing to do with religion and yet were done with so much sympathy to the building and respect that they stood out in a world where everyone seems to feel the need to pose in the most ridiculous ways to show how 'fantastic' they are. Mike captured both moments beautifully (and perhaps even more so in the video).

Something I had never seen before was pots which seemed to be made from porcelain but were in fact made from bamboo and lacquered in so many layers that they looked like perfect porcelain! It all starts with weaving bamboo... which in itself is already amazing to see. The finished pots, bowls or bracelets for example are then lacquered with a pure natural lacquer. It's a proces which originated in China and spread throughout south-east Asia. The lacquer is made from resin of the Thit-si tree, is very sticky and has a very high gloss. In total 7 or 8 layers of lacquer are applied, each with at least one week of drying in between. Each layer is carefully sanded before the next layer is applied. Then the decorating process starts and things become really interesting to see. The artisans are ladies, sitting on the floor or a mat, making the drawings freehand with scrapers... they are in effect scraping away the top layer to reveal the colour underneath. There is no room for error here, no 'undo' button... Once finished they can last for hundreds of years. For me the whole process was also amazing from another point of view. They were all using natural materials, materials which are available around them, and using the most basic of tools. The process is very time consuming but the end product also very beautiful to see. The level of gloss is unbelievable!    

The lady pictured above is scraping away the black layer, to reveal the blue underneath it. The black which remains is the actual drawing you see. Afterwards more lacquer layers are applied to create decorations in different colours. The men on the right are sanding in between the various lacquer stages of the process. Everything is done by hand. Not a machine in sight, no buzzing of electric motors, no computers... just hands at work doing unbelievable things.

Our Myanmar guide, a
great guy who loves his
country and made our
trip through Myanmar so
much more than a ride
I've written above that religion is deeply embedded into Myanmar history. The thousands of Buddha images are one of the testimonies of that. You could be forgiven to think that riding through Myanmar is a Buddha trip, and to be honest it can become a bit much at times. At the same time Buddhas are sort of friendly to look at, if you know what I mean. Looking at Christian and Catholic churches, there is always this overpowering imagery of being nailed to a cross complimented by the not too friendly images of the devil and hell. Compare that to the friendly, round and well fed Buddha, sitting there quietly... It's all so much more friendly and gentle and perhaps thereby much easier to take?    

At the end of the day we watched the sun go down from the Shwezigon San Daw pagoda. The surreal image of hundreds of pagodas against a backdrop of an orange sky unfolding before our very eyes was breathtaking. From the top of the pagoda we could see literally hundreds of pagodas where-ever we looked. There were quite a few people enjoying the moment, all quiet and respectful to each other. An amazing end to an amazing day.