CURRENT LOCATION: Mandalay, Myanmar
Bagan answered one important question for us: after 5.5 months in South East Asia, do we still care about temples? Answer: sort of.
The ancient city of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Bagan from the 9th-13th centuries, the first Kingdom to unite the regions that would later become modern Myanmar. During its peak, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed, and today, over 2200 temples and pagodas remain. The result is a countryside dotted with crumbling ruins as far as the eye can see. Sadly, in the 1990s the military government decided to restore many of the sites in an attempt to encourage tourism, but did so with no input from anyone win any real knowledge. As a result, many of the temples are semi-restored with modern materials, in many cases destroying precious original details in the process.
We started our first day by hiring an e-bike. For those of you unfamiliar, this is basically an electric scooter equipped with pedals, which you can use to recharge your battery if it goes flat. As we set off down the road, we quickly realised that this was going to be an uncomfortable ride. The tiny wheels made the ride very unstable, and the sand covered roads didn't help. The seat was uncomfortable, the grips were painful, and the pedals were right at shin smashing height. Zev's feet didn't fit in the foot well either. Still, it was more enjoyable than the other option for touring the area - a horse and cart.
Off we puttered, at a top speed of 20km/hr. We drove past countless smaller temples, searching for the bigger, better known ones to make sure we didn't miss anything important. We pulled in to the Archaeology Museum to find it was closed on Mondays, so we couldn't go in - although it was Sunday, so I'm not sure what was going on there. Unperturbed, we carried on, pulling in to our first major temple: Gawdawpalin Temple.
Gawdawpalin Temple is the second largest temple in Bagan, and contains several huge Buddha statues. It was really cool to see so many locals visiting the temples as well. Apparently there is a local saying that suggests you're not really from Myanmar until you've been to Bagan.
We hopped back in our bikes and carried on down the road until the next temple caught our eye: Shwegugyi Temple. Sadly the entryway was lined with aggressive hawkers, something we hadn't really encountered in Myanmar until Bagan, but we got used to them again as the day wore on. A young boy befriended Zev not long after we climbed up the stairs to the pagoda, so I left them to it - grumpy mouse likes to see temples without a running commentary from a 7 year old trying to sell us postcards. We climbed up onto the roof of the temple and were treated to some incredible views out over the plains. Honestly, so many temples. Of particular note was the nearby Ananda Temple. Eventually Zev freed himself from his new shadow (without even having to buy a postcard), and we followed our noses to Ananda.
Ananda is the most famous of Bagan's temples, and it didn't disappoint. The temple was damaged in an earthquake in 1975, but is one of the few temples that has been well restored. The inside was a little worse for wear, with bats and birds nesting in the ceiling, creating a... lingering aroma...
By now, we were ready for lunch, so pulled over not far down the road at a vegetarian restaurant that blew our socks off! We enjoyed delicious pumpkin curry, stuffed dhal, coconut milkshakes, and tasty tasty tamarind candy. Fat and happy, we hit the road again, our poor little e-bikes struggling to carry us.
Our next stop was Shwezigon Paya, where some 'friendly' ladies insisted we enter through their stall, then tried to pin badge things to our chests as we walked through. I managed to fight them off, but Zev left the encounter with a butterfly pinned to his chest. A huge gold-leaf gilded stupa rises up from many smaller stupas around it, and is a pretty breathtaking sight. When you can find a corner where people aren't trying to sell you stuff, or staring at you, or taking your photo, or asking where you're from, it's actually pretty peaceful sitting and listening to the bells at the top of the stupa blow in the wind on a beautiful sunny day.
We managed to avoid the women on our way out, and saddled up for another ride to two smaller temples on the road home. The first was locked, but the second was looked after by two brothers who were napping inside. They invited us in (well, one did, the other slept through the entire exchange), then told us to climb up onto the roof. We did, and it was stunning, with yet another view out over the plains. We were the only people there and it was magnificent.
It had reached the point in the afternoon where we were hot and tired, so we headed back to the hotel for some air conditioning, with a plan to head out again for sunset. We managed to get good enough internet to stream some coverage of the NZ U23 women's team playing Germany at the Ultimate Frisbee junior world champs in London. The ladies did us proud, and while they didn't come away with a win, they played great.
As we headed out to collect our laundry before going in search of sunset, we were greeted with a surprise - our friends from the night before (the kid and his uncle we played frisbee with) were back, and they'd brought the uncle's art! The boy insisted that they'd been waiting for us because Zev had promised to buy a painting from them the night before. We explained that that was not the case, and headed off to collect our clothes. Thankfully they were gone when we got back.
We dropped off our clothes and headed off, stopping first at Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan. Just as we were pulling up, it started to pour with rain, so we sheltered in the temple. Yet again Zev found himself with a friend, this time another artist (surprise surprise), so I left them to it. Sadly, the staircases which allow you to explore the upper levels were shut off, but the lower level had some impressive Buddhas. By the time we were done, the rain had eased, so we went in search of North Guni, a less popular and therefore less crowded temple for sunset.
We ended up lost (most of the roads are sand paths, so maps aren't terribly accurate), but by a happy coincidence found ourselves at Sulamani Temple, one we'd looked for earlier in the day, but couldn't find on our map. While the temple itself was much the same as many of the others we'd seen that day, the outside was amazing. There were SO MANY SQUIRRELS! They were running all over the place and climbing all over the temple. Super cute.
From there we consulted another map, and found our way to North Guni. Who should we pass as we pulled up to the temple? Our frisbee playing friends! They made a prompt u turn and came back to ask us one more time if we wanted a painting. We explained that we did not, then explained to the girl making her way towards us that we also didn't want any trousers. We climbed the stairs inside the temple. There were probably about 20 people there, but compared to a temple we'd driven past to get there which was COVERED in people, this was pretty quiet. We sat for about 20 minutes soaking in the atmosphere and admiring the view, before abandoning what was shaping up to be a rather average sunset.
About 2/3 of the way home, the unthinkable happened - Zev's e-bike ran out of juice. He had no choice but to pedal on a bike that was about 6 sizes too small for him, with pedals that were almost too far back to reach. I found it hilarious, as I smugly rode along beside him. We dropped off our bikes and had a delicious dinner (also topped off with tamarind candy) before heading back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning was more of a struggle. That's kind of where we're at in the trip too - knowing we're heading home is making us think about home in a way we haven't before. I don't think either of us have really suffered any homesickness on this trip, but we're so close now we can almost taste it. And yes, we are starting to get South East Asia-ed out. I read an interesting article recently written by a couple who have been travelling around Asia for 10 months so far by motorbike. They wrote two articles, one called "The joys of log term travel", and one called "The hardships of long term travel". We have had (and, for the next week, are still having) an amazing trip. While travelling for 6 months is hardly revolutionary, and some hardened 'road warriors' would scoff at our mere half-year, this is the longest we've ever travelled for in one go, and it has been a huge learning experience. If we did this trip again, there are certainly things we'd do differently, but overall, I think we've done well! We've had the opportunity to see and do more than we ever could have on a string of two week vacations, and we've seen countries in a way we just couldn't with short term travel. That said, there are down sides. We are now very difficult to impress. Things that would have blown our minds six months ago barely even warrant a photo now. Even as we're in the middle of experiencing something incredible, I'll be mentally planning the next big adventure. You struggle to appreciate experiences, because before you've had a chance to fully absorb it, the next crazy thing comes along. I actually think it will be really nice to head home and actually have some time to absorb the incredible things we've done. We were talking today about how, if we'd been in a position to keep going on this trip, we would've really had to change it up with our next destination, making it somewhere completely different to keep the experience fresh and make sure we didn't get burnt out.
Anyway, so that's how we were feeling on the morning of day 2. After choking down what felt like our millionth average breakfast, we ventured out into the already sweltering day. We collected our e-bikes again, and stopped off at the first temple. It was lovely, but we were over it. To us, it looked exactly the same as the 10 we saw yesterday. We made an executive decision - no more temples. Instead, we headed to the Bagan look out tower controversially built by a resort reasonably recently. On our speed machines, it took us about 45 minutes to get there.
We finally found the entrance, and paid our $10 to get up the tower. A staff member escorted us to the elevator and rode with us up to the eleventh floor, where we were given a welcome drink of delicious juice. From there, we took the elevator up to the 12th floor, then walked up the stairs to the 13th floor, which was an open air observation deck.
We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was staggering. We had a 360° view out over all of Bagan. We could see temples dotted everywhere. It was definitely worth the ride. We spent about an hour up there taking photos, enjoying the view, and relaxing in the sun.
We spent the afternoon in the hotel again, having seen our fill of temples. Later, we returned our e-bikes and booked onward bus tickets from Bagan to Mandalay the following morning.
Our bus trip the next day was... Interesting. We were excited to be in seats 1 & 2, not shoved down the back of the bus. Until we saw the bus. It was a small bus, about half the size of a normal bus. Seat 1 was next to the driver, and seat 2 was directly behind it. Neither had any leg room, and there was nowhere to put our bags. I climbed into the front seat. For the first few minutes, the driver was more worried about whether his lunch box was in the right place than whether we were on the correct side of the road. I politely informed him that I'd watch his lunch, if he'd watch the road. Then, I got to experience something completely unfamiliar to me - driving in South East Asia while I could see where we were going. It was terrifying. More often in the wrong side of the road than the right, and usually dangerously close to other cars, we flew down the roads. I tried to go to sleep, but even more than usual, this driver drove exclusively with his horn.
5 very long hours later, we pulled into Mandalay, and were dropped at our hotel. Within 10 minutes I was half naked in front of the air conditioning eating donuts from the Donut King across the road. A good start to our last new stop on the trip!
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 23rd July 2015)