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Bagan

Asia, Destinations

Happy Brr Day

December 19, 2014 • By

It’s early in Bagan nearly 6:00 AM and I’m enjoying the lovely messages from those of my friends and family who remembered my birthday 14 hours ahead of time. A birthday is special no matter what age but it’s the only day I like to genuinely spoil myself and accept well wishes from across the globe. Last year, I celebrated my 40th birthday Vegas style surrounded by my closest friends and family. I wore an expensive dress, I fancied myself with make up and hair products and I sipped $14 cocktails and allowed people to toast (and roast) me. This year I settled for a 10- minute facetime conversation with my father who wondered why I was calling him and a little Asian adventure to Inle Lake, Myanmar. To most people, Inle Lake might not be as glamorous as Vegas but to me, Dora the Explorer, it’s a grand opportunity to taste food from the Shan state, learn about local village customs and to convince lots of Intha people to pay attention to me.

My early morning flight from Bagan stopped over in Mandalay and I arrived at roughly 10 AM in Heho, a village in the Shan State. With a population of 5.8 million, the Shan State borders China to the North, Laos to the East and Thailand to the South. There are nine primary ethnic groups and the state is known for its produce and vegetables evident by thousands of harvested and barren crops lining the only road in and out of Heho to Inle Lake.

Local fisherman

Local fisherman

The people live by farming. Their crops yield sugar cane, corn, tea leaves, rice, potatoes, avocado, lima beans, garlic, onions, tomato, long beans, bananas, papayas and teak wood to name a few. The state is rich by local standards and the economy relies on agriculture, as well as the trade of silver, lead, zinc, teak and rubies. The fancy British rail line likely not renovated since the 1940s transports agricultural products throughout the country.

There are 30+ ethnic tribes in the Shan state and it has it’s own military and distinct language. I like the Shan because they don’t allow the military government in Myanmar to take advantage of them. Their armies are heavily equipped with weapons many purchased with money from the illegal trade of opium and heroine with Thailand and China. (I am not condoning just saying they have some balls).

Far from the border regions sits the lovely Inle Lake, heavily trafficked by tourists wanting to sample a taste of rural mountainous central Myanmar. There are 70,000 village people known as Intha, a mix of many of the state’s ethnicities who live as self-sufficient farmers and fisherman.

The first stop on every tour is a visit to the market but this one is different in that it rotates around the lake. Today, the market was held in Nyaung Shwe, the only town of the Inle Lake region and the center of commerce for the surrounding villages. It’s a bustling place with abundant construction, many backpacker type hotels and restaurants and dusty roads leading to attached villages. People from all over the area will attend each of the “traveling” markets to sell their goods and services but the village people will stock up on enough supplies to last them five days. People filled their baskets with mostly vegetables and fruits but it was narrower and more chaotic especially as we inched toward closing time. Discarded products remained smashed on the paths and women made haste with old-fashioned scales to weigh the produce. Suddenly, amongst all the commotion, silence prevailed but for all the wrong reasons. I pointed my very dirty foot at some green looking vegetable and several women gasped in horror. I forgot the rules. “No pointing with your feet.” Oops! I issued several formal apologies by bowing and begged my guide to say sorry in the Burmese language. It’s time to tackle the lake.

Inle Lake is a freshwater lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar. It’s one of the highest with an elevation of 2,900 feet and it averages anywhere from 7-12 feet deep and 50 square miles surface area. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the lake are changing with less rainfall in recent years and the slash and burn farming practiced by many of the locals. The lake used to be fed with natural springs from the mountains but now with entire hillsides cleared of trees and bush, the silt is running off into the lake decreasing the water levels and introducing foreign plant species.

Stupas in Indein Village

Stupas in Indein Village

To the naked eye, the water is clean, colored a shade of summer’s finest ice tea. The sunlight pours through several layers to the roots of the reeds standing the depths of the water. Fishermen practice a unique rowing style to keep their hands free and their vision on the catch and floating plants. They take one leg and wrap it around the oar and push. It’s like an abductor machine meets a Pilates sitting one leg circle sweep. It’s mesmerizing yet complicated. The fishermen must feel like Dumbo at the circus because tourists glare incessantly at their legs trying to crack the technique.

My guide and I traversed a large portion of the lake by a small boat with a diesel engine. The sun beamed down on us as the roar from the boat’s engine blocked out everything but the sound of splashing water and the howl of the wind smacking my face and drawing back my hair. We darted around water hyacinths, a plant not native to the lake and consuming much of its surface area, and veered through inlets taking us through small but contrasting villages.

At the far western part of the lake, we found Indein Village and feasted on avocado and eggplant salads and strawberry juice. Indein Village is home to the Pa-o Tribe and a cemetery of stupas. I made friends with a Polish woman and two Romanian men at lunch. We bonded over the love of local juices. I told them it was my birthday. They sang. We parted as friends.

Indein Village celebrating my birthday

Indein Village celebrating my birthday

 

My guide walked me though the stupa graveyard and commented on the archeological find. Many are made of limestone, dilapidated but historically beautiful while others have been haphazardly painted white and gold by the locals who could not possibly understand their significance. They want something shiny and new to pay homage to Buddha. They are farmers, workers and survivors. They use the lake as a source of their livelihood and also their existence. They bathe in the lake’s shallow waters, clean their laundry, transport their goods and farm on its surface and near its shores. Many of their “homes” consist of small huts made of bamboo sitting on stilts in the lake’s waters or along the lake’s shore. The villagers today have tanks of clean water but change is not easy. Waste water flows into the lake and many of the households use pits rather than toilets creating even more sanitation issues. I wanted to try the fish until I read there are unsafe levels of nitrates in most of the wildlife found in the lake.

Wandering the village grounds

Wandering the village grounds

Back at my posh hotel where cows roam in the fields adjacent and my bamboo covered “room” sits on four stilts in a pool of lake water, I awaited the sunset with a birthday mojito. My wifi not working, and no one to wish me a happy birthday I ordered a second mojito and snapped photos of myself on my fancy deck with my the sun sinking over the mountains giving way to smoke stacks and the night sky and the sound of insects coming alive.

A bit tipsy from the alcohol and determined to access my email and Facebook, I retreated to the lobby to interrogate the staff about the wifi. I learned, “the Internet no work today.” Feeling a bit defeated, I decided to eat my emotions. I selected a glass of local sauvignon blanc wine, a rich and savory entre of chickpea fried tofu with cauliflower, snow peas and peanuts and a goat cheese salad, which consisted of three bites of lettuce and toast with a slice of local melted cheese. For dessert, I really wanted cake but after several minutes studying the menu tears filled my eyes because I thought about my mom who always makes sure I have cake at home and Jill who plans elaborate birthday surprises when we travel. The waitress appeared. I stopped daydreaming and ordered a Bailey’s with coffee, my recent drink of choice. A few minutes later, a line of 20 staff filed out of a side doorway. The lights in the restaurant already dimmed to confuse the mosquitoes, the candles flickered brightly and before I could process all the activity, I heard the words, “Happy Brr Day to You, Happy Brr Day to You” echo across the room.

They delivered a fudge-coated cake with three glowing candles on an ornate lacquer platter. A little embarrassed at all the attention in the room, I inhaled and unsuccessfully blew out the candles. That pollution in China really crushed my lungs because it took me three attempts before the room went dark again. I sliced off a piece of cake, dry yet chocolaty and sipped my baileys now perfectly content and happy.

Several couples came up to me and wished me a happy birthday but one couple, an American and Australia mix pushed the conversation from dinner to late night. Their daughter is married and living in New York City and their son is heading east soon. Patti is originally from Grand Island near Buffalo but found herself looking for an adventure post university and moved to Melbourne to teach English. She never left. Her husband Ross, a former New Zealander, ventured to Australia after reading an advertisement for needed pharmacists. They met, married and raised a family near Brisbane. We delved into American politics, their children and daily life. We started in the restaurant and moved to the bar. It made for a great end to the day and indeed a happy birthday.

A special thank you to Joanne at Frosch for the lovely cake and Jill Straus and Steve Feldman for the surprise massage appointment and of course for everyone’s Facebook messages and emails….I eventually got them.

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Asia, Destinations

Bagan’s greatness and local life

December 15, 2014 • By

Alas, my travel company in the US (Frosch) worked some wonders for me and located my suitcase. Many of my friends and family members thought I lost my shoes as I’ve appeared bare foot in the pictures, while other thought I had gone native with all the pink longyi’s (the sarong skirt) I was wearing.

I left the humidity and city life for a calmer more cultural experience in Bagan, formerly known as Pagan. It served as the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th centuries. It’s a countryside spattered with temples. During the 11th and 13th century, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in Bagan and 2,200 remain today. I visited more than 100 of them, which is not hard to do by boat, bike, e-bike, horse cart, car or two feet. Bagan is Myanmar’s number one tourist destination but to Buddhists it’s a type of pilgrimage. Practicing Buddhists from Korea, Thailand, China and Japan flock here. It goes without staying that this area has significant meaning to the country’s history both for religious reasons and historic. Many stupas (solid) and temples (hollow may enter) have endured several hundred earthquakes and remain as ruins, while others through conservation efforts are as impressive now as they stood 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, UNESCO has expressed dismay that the military government restored many of the region’s most important temples with little concern for materials used or historical reference.  For those who have visited Cambodia, Bagan will give you a similar feeling to Ankgor Wat and there is talk that the natives in this area are likely descendants of the Khmer (the inhabitants of Cambodia).

I haven’t converted to Buddhism yet but that’s primarily because I like wine, food, my hair, shoes, and talking. In order to become a monk, you must meditate 16+ hours a day, shave your hair (no wigs), eat meager meals and consume nothing after noon. The first six weeks to nine months monks can’t even talk. I appreciate the idea of meditation and giving oneself to a higher being but there must be some limits.

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The region of Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U comprise about 150,000 people. It’s a “city” of small villages. My guide “Owen” picked me up at the airport and we got right to work visiting the market. The market is my least favorite and most desired place to visit because it’s the best way to get a sense of the people. Locals peddle their fruits, vegetables and products daily. In Nyaung-U, you can find cauliflower, green eggplant, peanuts, potatoes, corn, bananas, eggs, bamboo woven baskets, longyi’s, etc. Locals bat away flies and cry out for bystanders to purchase their goods. This is how they live. They are awake before sunrise, walking for hours to get to the market to sell their products day in and day out. They milk the cows, skin the catfish, and pull out the animal organs, in hopes of a sell. I despise the wretched smell of warm meat and fish and focus on the faces of people. In Myanmar and in Bagan, a fine coating of thatnatkhar lines local faces. It’s a moisturizer, sunblock and likely an ancient remedy that spans the lifetime of these people. It derives from a tree in the citrus family and every household has a wooden stone to make thatnatkhar. I purchased a container. That was my contribution to the market.

Bagan, Myanmar, Myanmar Tourism, Bagan Temples, Bagan balloon ride, Myanmar Temples

Nuns collecting daily alms at the market

From the market, we wove through Nyuang-U to Old Bagan and the home of many of Bagan’s ancient temples. Locals lined every entrance with handicrafts.  Woodcarvings, longyi’s and fake and real lacquer bowls are the rage in Bagan. Bring back those precious gemstones please! Sometimes it’s hard for me to decide between shopping the rows of goods or going inside to hear more about Buddha especially when the guides push you toward their friends, “oh he is best. He give you good price.” I like good prices but when I consider how little these people have compared to me it’s hard to even haggle over $5. It’s really important when visiting Bagan to spread out the temple hopping with other activities hence the reason my eyes veer toward “sand” art, watercolor paintings and the occasional longyi.

It’s dry and hot in Bagan but this is winter and locals wear sweaters in the early morning and evening when the temperatures dip into the 60s and 70s. During the day, many of the guides take breaks, as it’s too hot for tourists to temple hop with the intense sun and heat. Most locals do have air conditioner but it’s really only necessary during the rainy season from  June to October when temperatures soar above 100. This is a dusty but somewhat baron area. Adjacent to the temples, sit a few high end hotels overlooking the Irrawaddy River, restaurants that resemble old-fashioned farm stands and villages that mirror the people’s trade. Families farm sesame seed oil, roasted peanuts, cauliflower, eggplant, bananas, watermelon, onions and a few other goods, while other families make lacquer products or another craft. There is one industry here and it’s tourism.

My guide Owen is originally from a town a few hours from here where his parents are manufacturers and distributors of longyis. I might add he is very well dressed. When I asked him how many longyis he owned, he admitted 20. My hunch is most people have two – three if that. He studied tourism and has lived in Bagan for a couple of years. He is 27 and married with a son. He met his wife in his hometown but they did not grow up together. While some marriages are arranged in the countryside, Owen’s is what I will call a love marriage. He dated his wife for a year, proposed and then after a meeting of both families he married just a week later with more than 1,000 guests. Talk about efficiency!

What strikes me about the people I have met here in Myanmar is their sincerity. They are loving, warm and kind people. I feel at ease around them even when I am being pestered to buy something. They are eager to please and a little naive. They talk about the need for better education and healthcare yet they are paralyzed by their government. They are simple. They are religious. They are hopeful.

My guide Owen lives in a village in New Bagan with his uncle and uncle’s family. He is saving to build a house on the land he recently purchased. It will cost him $10,000 USD for a one-story brick home (the second story will come in time). This will take a few years since he makes about $10,000 a year. His sandy plot of land is probably about 12×12 and the entire village constitutes less than an acre. The village does not have underground plumbing and the residents all share a tank of water. His wife must walk to the “well” daily to fill up buckets to last her for the cooking, cleaning and laundry. They are lucky. Other places I visited, the people must walk hours for water especially during the dry season when reservoirs of rainwater sit empty. I imagine that Owen is middle class for Bagan. He is educated, has a good paying job and will hopefully soon be a homeowner. That is his goal. That is his role as a father and husband especially since his wife does not work (she did before the baby).

Sunset from Ywahaunggyi Temple

Sunset from Ywahaunggyi Temple

Bagan is known for its sunsets and I enjoyed one atop a temple with panoramic views of the temples and the other on the river with the sun illuminating the sky in orange and yellow beams on both occasions. I highly recommend taking in the sunset from both angles. Watching the sun dust the temples in haze and color is spectacular but I also appreciated the sun’s diminishing rays glistening on the water before ducking behind the mountains. There is something absolutely magical about a clear sky and a sunrise and a sunset and better yet it’s free.

To top off my Bagan experience and to celebrate my 41st birthday a day early, I treated myself to a balloon ride over the area, “Balloons over Bagan.” This is my second ballooning experience and it did not disappoint. The balloon took to the skies moments before sunrise and my fellow passengers and I were treated to breathtaking views of the temples, river and countryside. Imagine soaring above tree tops and gazing at historic treasures, locals farming the land, monks moving from their monasteries to the villages and watching every detail of daily life progress as time stands still from above. A medley of 20 green and red balloons filled the sky and provided as much entertainment as the ground below.

 

Bagan, Myanmar, Myanmar Tourism, Bagan Temples, Bagan balloon ride, Myanmar Temples

Floating peacefully, I sensed the sky and earth would never meet but could co-exist. I reflected on the local people. They worship, stand, live and work beside these relics. Do they remind them of a time of greatness or do they symbolize weakness? Their smiles reflect their sensitivity and their faces determination. I am in the balloon because I am privileged. I will never know their plight but when my feet can’t touch the ground, the wind is blowing in a different direction and there is cause for concern then maybe for a split second I can gain some insight (metaphorically of course).

Ananda Temple built in 1105, it’s being restored with the help of Indian archeologists – probably the most famous temple in Bagan.

Ananda Temple built in 1105, it’s being restored with the help of Indian archeologists – probably the most famous temple in Bagan.

Bloopers and more from Bagan

I swatted a mosquito and nailed my face hitting my newly fixed readers, which are now crooked (again). Back to the market for me or maybe I should invest in a second pair

A pseudo colleague and I are both in Bagan and we had dinner with three Germans. It took me two hours to explain campaign fundraising and two minutes for them to squeal once the translation kicked in

I bought two kitchen towels from a woman who hand makes them in a local village. She wanted $10 for 1. I bought two for $10 and I will gladly pay someone $10 to take them off my hands

After thinking the sand artwork was stupid, I am now the owner of two Buddhist designs. I couldn’t decide and I have dreams of living in a two-bedroom apartment one day. It will most definitely go nicely next to Nefertiti from Egypt or the Bali girl from Indonesia

Own after asking why I am not married informed me he has plenty of eligible suitors when I am ready

When trying to sort out whether I actually new said co-worker, I yelled over to a table, “Are any of you Michael?” A very handsome British guy responded, “No but I can be Michael if you want.”

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