Thursday, May 10, 2018

Day in Bagan Part 1: Parade, Market and Temples

As I was planning for my Myanmar trip, I decided to add on another stop other than Yangon when I realized it would be tricky to fit enough things to do/see for 5 days in the city. So I asked for assistance from a local travel agency to help make arrangement for a side trip to Bagan, the ancient capital of the country in the north with deep history and beautiful sights.

For a split second I did consider pulling an Anthony Bourdain-like itinerary by travelling on an overnight train, or by taking one of the long-distance bus like many backpackers do, but I came to my senses and took the more comfortable way by taking the domestic flights to and from Yangon, which was a lot shorter (10 hours plus vs 1.5) I am not a fan of propeller planes, but that’s all they got for domestic flights (ATR-72 is at least a decent-sized turboprop and after all, it’s still made by a subsidiary of Airbus), and my flight on the local airlines Air KBZ was smooth and arrived at the airport at Bagan safely and on time right at sunset.

My tour guide Mr B was waiting for me at the gate and brought me to the hotel, situated in between the townships of Nyaung U (where the airport was located) and the Old Bagan, right at the center of the archaeological zone where most temple sites were located. I was expecting something basic – I didn’t go for anything spectacular – but it turned out to be much nicer than I thought. The room was basic but clean with everything I need, and the ground was beautiful with lots of green space, a swimming pool (I wish I brought gear to take a dip), outdoor terrace for breakfast, and even an ancient temple right at the backyard which made great picture. Along the road where the hotel is there’s a row of restaurants and bars, so there’s no lack of choices in terms of food if one wanted to venture out other than hotel dining.

“There’s a bad news and a good news”, Mr B told me when he picked me up the next morning to start our full day of sightseeing. Turned out the day I was there fell into a day of full moon, which in Burmese calendar almost always mean celebration of some sorts, and to me that meant we wouldn’t be able to visit the morning market as originally planned because it was closed. That’s the bad news. But the good news? I got the unique opportunity to observe the religious event of Novitiation Ceremony, or Shinbyu, which usually happened on the last full moon day before Burmese New Year in April, which was the very day I was there.

We got into Old Bagan right on time to witness the event that was well underway in the early morning. In Burmese tradition, Novitiation is an important Buddhist ceremony when parents sent their kids to the monastery to become novice monks and nuns and to learn the teaching of Buddha, and this is considered to be good karma and blessing to the children and their family.  “One must become a monk before he became a man”, Mr B explained to me the significance of the ritual – so I suppose it’s somewhat similar to Bar Mitzvah in Jewish belief.

The ceremony began with a procession to the monastery or pagodas with the boys and girls with heavy make-up and dressed in traditional costume like princes and princesses riding on horseback or decorated carts led by cows or other animals with umbrella held over their head to shield them from the sun, and accompanied by their family and village elders following right behind, carrying the religious robes and alms. Women were dressed in traditional, colorful outfit and followed in the procession as well. Leading the parade was a clown dancing with a band riding on a truck with giant loudspeakers and music on, with more people dancing either on the street on at the back of a truck. It was an amazing with spectators (including us) lined on both sides of the street watching on and everyone in the procession well-dressed and in joyful mood. It was an interesting experience to be part of it.

It’s true that the main part of the market was closed for the celebration unfortunately, but part of it remained open so we managed to walk through the narrow aisles on that part to get a glimpse of the market action. Right outside the market we saw women selling barks of Thanakha on a truck. Thanakha is traditionally used by women and kids as natural sun-block and cosmetics after it’s soaked in water and grind into a white paste and applied on the face. "How about men? Do they use that too?" Mr B didn't give me an answer to that question, but from his facial expression I suppose that wouldn't have been the most socially acceptable thing to do. There were other stalls – some on the roadside, some in the shaded area - that sell all daily necessities from vegetables and spices, to fish and meat, and of course, rice which was their food staple and came from the southern provinces with more fertile land and humid weather.

For the rest of the day, with my longyi on (yeah I was trying to blend in like a local), I went on visiting the many pagodas in Old Bagan and the neighbourhood – after all the place is known to be "a land of thousand pagodas". We began with Shwezigon Pagoda in the north in Nyaung-U, with the grand stupa covered in shiny gold under the bright sun with temples and shrines of similar style standing on four surrounding sides.

Then tracking south on the main road we stopped by Gubyaukgyi and Htilominlo temples, both built over 1000 years ago. Inside Gubyaukgyi temple most of the original fresco still remains and in good condition, while Htilominlo was known for the elaborately carved stucco on the outside and the little marketplace at the entrance selling souvenirs and crafts. I met this lady from Kayan tribe near Inle Lake with her long neck rings selling hand-weaved clothes and scarves outside the temple – I was fascinated by the many such craftworks still done by hand with primitive tools in such fine quality.

By the way, I have nothing but praise for the local travel agency I used. I found them online and after exchanging a few emails about my requirement, they came up with the itinerary with a price quote, and they took care of the rest once I confirmed and arranged payment online. All the documents I need were sent to me by email before I flew into Yangon with the originals including the e-tickets for the domestic flights delivered to my hotel there after I arrived. The guide and driver were courteous and knowledgeable, always on time and made good recommendations of where to eat and shop without being pushy at all, and I had a great time with them. Wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to anyone planning on travelling there. Here's their link if you need:

More pictures from my Myanmar journey:

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