Escape from Bagan - Both Sides of Paradise - CycleBlaze

November 7, 2014

Escape from Bagan

Unlocking the gates

Dear little friends,

We have spent the last four days in the Bagan area, riding our bikes around here and there, drinking tea, and even evading the tourist hordes by finding a little road by the jetty here in Nyaung-u and finding a quiet temple complex with some sweet murals inside to photograph. As we arrived there the old monk gestured at some people who had also just arrived, three Brits and their guide, who had a key to the gate that keeps people from climbing up the interior stairs to the top. So up we climbed and looked out at the wide, flat Irrawaddy valley, and in the other direction, tiny temple tops poking up out of the vegetation for a hundred square miles. We have been grieving the loss of freedom we used to have here, to just find a temple with nobody at it and climb up and watch the sunrise or sunset with an incredible view.

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A view of the Irrawaddy River from east of Nyaung-U, Bagan. To escape the busloads, take the road past the jetty in Nyaung-U and wind along the quiet back streets and you will find quiet, beautiful temples. Shh, don't tell anybody else.
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I'm afraid those days are gone, and I get it, I guess. These are architectural treasures and they don't need more feet on them. But I won't elaborate on the architectural terrorism already visited on these temples, it's just too sad. I'm glad I saw it before, and I think if you look hard enough you can still find a temple to sit and listen to the birds in. There seem to be a lot more trees and brush than before, it's nice, but a little hard to locate the temples from the road and many of the signs are only in Burmese. Places we remember fondly as tumbleweed quiet are now full of zipping teenagers on motorbikes, with phones of course.

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Two things Bagan does well: Temples and skies.
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Did we find him or did he find us?
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The rain has been a bummer, and the full moon festival kept things absolutely hopping with both foreign and Burmese tourists, we attended an alms-giving ceremony at Shwezigon pagoda which is basically Burmese Halloween for monks, they are in a procession and people on both sides of them ply them with money and food and gifts. Folks pray at the various shrines and leave styrofoam containers of prepared food which are picked up by the very poor people, who tuck it under their arms and walk off with it. Two little girls sat down in front of us with their containers and opened them, delightedly exclaiming over what was inside, the rice and the chicken, but instead of tucking in, they closed them up again and blasted back home to share with the family.

Monks lining up to receive alms, which brings merit to those who donate.
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It was time to leave Bagan. For our first day we chose an easy 20 mile ride to Pakokku, an old river town with many monasteries that used to be only accessible by boat but now had a new huge bridge. We packed our panniers, then repacked them, then went out for another unloaded ride to see if we could find an old friend but she had moved to Yangon. We did find a quiet temple to watch the sunset from, though. There is something dynamic and beautiful about the sky in Bagan, it's not just that you have all these temples glowing just like the photos you've seen, it's that it always seems to have dramatic cloud formations. Last night's formations definitely had a dark rain line included, and in the middle of dinner it struck and the lane was five inches deep in warm, filthy runoff.

All night we heard rain, and it was still pouring when we got up. So this wasn't how I had envisioned our first day of riding. Yes, it was only 20 miles but rain? We dithered around a bit and suddenly the rain had stopped and it was cooler than it had been since we arrived and the roads were drying up nicely. It was time to launch.

Everybody who watches us pack our bikes wants to help.
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After a lot of awkward loading, and much observation and help from the guesthouse staff, we were off. Yes, my handlebars were were a bit off after my bike took a dive instead of leaning nicely against the wall, but there was no going back now. My bike felt like a tank, I could not believe how much weight I was pushing down the brick driveway, and there was that sinking feeling again: what have we done?

But it really could not have gone any better. We made it up the first hill, not a big hill by any means, but it was still a hill. My mind tried to tell me I could not do this thing. My lungs said something along the same lines, but I geared down and thought "We in Life Lucky". This is a phrase I trot out to make Bruce laugh because we saw it on some Chinese-made sheets on a bed in Laos once. I realize laughing at Chinese English is pretty much low-hanging fruit but I found those sheets encouraging and it always cracks me up to hear that phrase. There was something else I was thinking, though.

The day before we were at a teahouse and next door at the motorcycle repair shop two people were playing a game of checkers with bottle caps. As we leaned our bikes near them I got a glimpse of an awful ulceration on the younger man's foot. Some kind of powder had been applied to the foot but it certainly was not enough to stop an infection like that. After the game was over he hobbled very slowly and painfully to the back of the shop.

When you ask people about their families, you hear a lot about death. They toss it out there with a smile and dismissive gesture, "How's your husband?" "Oh, he died." The baby died, the other baby died, nobody knows why, or else they gesture to the heart, inside troubles, who knows? Where did auntie go? They wave off to the side, "Oh, she died." I'm sitting at a teahouse and what I know of infection and the state of health care in Myanmar and the probability that anybody in his family has the money to take him to the hospital for IV antibiotics even if they are available, well. That man was going to die.

We in Life Lucky. A short, minor hill was nothing.

The rest of the way was everything I had hoped it would be. The road was not terribly trafficked, the goats and rice fields and birds were terrific, and my face is weary from all the smiles and "Hello!"s and "Mingalaba!"s I returned. We crossed the awesome new bridge and are now in an even more modest guesthouse. We had an incredible lunch and had a little stroll through Pakokku, with its quiet, friendly streets and many monasteries and pagodas.

Okay, let's do this thing.
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We are 20 miles and 20 years from one of the Big Four tourist attractions in Burma and yet, apart from an increase in motorcycles, it seems pretty untouched.

Tomorrow we push on to Monywa, but it's much farther than I've ever cycled in one day so we'll see how that all works out. Wish us luck.

Our humble guesthouse in Pakokku.
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Pretty low rent even for us.
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Today's ride: 20 miles (32 km)
Total: 20 miles (32 km)

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