It was 4 in the morning and I awoke to pack. I would need to grab a taxi and get to the domestic departure gate by 5:30 am. True to form, I was notably early so I grabbed a coffee and tried to get comfortable in the hard airport seats while working on another book on my beloved kindle. The flight was uneventful and upon arrival I quickly identified the taxi my hotel had arranged for me because he was proudly holding a sign that said: “Jeun Voghel: Party of One.” I smiled immediately as I have seen many strange variations of my name in Asian countries and on taxi signboards. The taxi driver caught my smile and grinned back proudly, clearly excited that he had found me pleased with his practical sign.
In the vicinity of Bagan exist some of the most amazing Pagodas, stuppas, temples and monasteries I have ever seen. They are sprinkled haphazardly across the rolling green country side. Rather than discovering one massive monument to a king or honorable Buddha, I found a paradise so unique its vista had never occurred to me before, not even in my dreams. Once upon a time Bagan, with its enchanted stories of sovereign love affairs and twilight air, was a thriving capital for royalty and a famous center for Buddhism and I felt like I had traveled back in time.
Having completed checking into my hotel, I took off on foot consciously aware I only had 71 hours left to conquer this enchanting city. I sauntered down the road stopping first at a temple that highlighted the seven stops Buddha made at a similar temple in India. There was a place for sitting meditation, standing meditation, walking meditation, rest in the shade and protection from rain. Next I read a randomly placed rock with a carved out story of a peasant and his undying love for a princess. I then continued on the main road until I reached the brick gates to Old Bagan.
My horrific sense of direction failed me once again and rather than taking a right, I went left. A few short paces later a couple of locals riding a motorbike did a double take and then awkwardly braked and backed up to chat with me. Apparently my dark hair had thrown them for a loop and they thought that it was possible that I was a Myanmar native returning from the Diaspora. Clearly I was too “healthy”, tall, and oddly dressed to truly be from around there, but my dark hair and universal features once again tricked a few natives (as they have done in Bosnia, Morocco, Egypt and the Czech Republic during prior travels).
Their names were Aung Aung and Ko Lat and although they were “off duty” they agreed to show me around, not as a tour guide per say, but as a “friend.” I was skeptical as this newly formed friendship had blossomed in less than 43 seconds and I could see dollar signs dancing in their eyes, but I liked their style and the way they laughed and I figured it was better than being lost and alone for the day.
Bagan has a savvy tourism industry full of registered government “approved” tour guides, locals with horse carts available to rent by the hour, racks of bikes for use for a small fee, and flocks of kids selling post cards, clothing and paintings. They all speak uncanny, albeit limited English, full of sales industry speak like; “hey! Where you from? I’ve got a great deal for you, just ten for a buck”, “I’ll take lipstick”, “you got pencil?” and, “Oh my Buddha!” Their ruthlessness to make the sale only accentuates the untamed beauty in and around Bagan. In many of the pagodas and stuppas old Pali inscriptions and Buddha images can be found. As sunset approached the quiet seemed to deepen and I had this strange feeling it might actually be possible to see a magical white elephant glide across the country side adorned in royal dress.
As the day came to an end Aung Aung had been a perfect gentleman and Ko Lat was his lingering shadow, secretly formulating how they could get the most out of their mark. Although I had yet to let my guard down and I feared the lingering up-sale, I was eventually talked into a two hour horse cart ride (which I will never regret) and I warmed to these two playful cousins who were willing to talk about the darker side of Bagan with a forthrightness that is rare to come by in a country of unspeakable truths. As soon as the sun set I agreed to meet them the following day for a bike ride to New Bagan. Aung Aung wanted me to meet his family and I was hoping to get off the grid.
The next morning I rose at four am once again because I wanted to see the sunrise and hoped to see a few monks start their day asking for alms and offering a way for locals to make merit. I had expected to be suffering from the after-effects of a day of travel and time spent in a simple horse cart, but, in fact, I had slept extremely well and suffered from no aches or pains.
When I stepped outside it was still dark. I have never ceased to be amazed by the sense of the world lying dormant and vulnerable, waiting to be awakened by the light of a new day lingering just beyond the horizon.
After breakfast and some time spent with my kindle, I started towards the front desk to rent a bike. After years of struggling to find ways to be still I have realized that stillness for me comes with a book in my hand and my imagination and mind in a world of words. Reading is my best form of meditation and after an hour with coffee and Wendell Berry’s The Art of Commonplace, I was ready for what the day had to offer.
As soon as I reached the gate with my classic cruiser loaded with a handy basket and bell I immediately recognized Aung Aung and Ko Lat waiting peacefully by their motorbike. The first thought that went through my head was that we had experienced a misunderstanding the day before and they hadn’t understood I had wished to rent a bicycle, not a motorbike. Upon inquiry they quickly shock their heads and said, “No, no, we understood but we have a motorbike so why would we ride a bike.” I had to laugh for the day ahead with me peddling hard on dusty paths alongside a modern day motorbike loaded with two locals was going to bring a few glances.
The first thing Aung Aung thought we should do was to go check out the local fishing village as his father was a fisherman and fishing was a large part of the local way of living. I agreed assuming this was another stop on the well traveled lonely planet travel book tour, but as soon as we arrived I quickly realized we were well off the usual path and today would indeed be an interesting adventure. The kids and mothers in the local houses looked strangely at me as I stopped to take a few pictures of adorable young puppies and fishing nets.
Upon reaching the waterside I realized there was much more to Bagan than meets the eye. The first thing that was striking was the poverty in the fishing villages, next came the large group of local men who appeared to be building a massive boat, welding it out of medal on the beach. Aung Aung quietly whispered, “no pictures of that” and pointed to a similar enormous craft floating in the middle of the Irrawaddy with a massive crane on it, proudly flying the new flag of Myanmar. I had no idea what it was for but it looked industrial and the flag indicated I shouldn’t ask any more questions. So we moved on.
We headed over to a small group of men, one was working on a fishing net and the other was cooking some tiny fish over a small fire. Aung Aung asked if I wanted to take a ride and I quickly agreed. He turned and asked the gentleman who was cooking and his eyes got huge and he asked, “is she sure she wants to ride in that,” pointing to his small wooden square framed canoe. I casually nodded in agreement and he giggled and said “let’s go.” The fisherman, Aung Aung, Ko Lat and I all carefully crawled on (me much more carefully than the others). We agreed to an hour long tour of the river with a quick stop at a hidden monastery in the woods that is known for its exceptional carpentry. About 45 minutes into the ride the fisherman briefly came ashore and indicated he needed to go chat with a friend. We agreed and about 5 minutes later he came back bearing gifts of fried fish cakes with onions and lettuce in it that was to be dipped in fish oil. I adored it and when I looked back after taking a large bite, I caught the old fisherman grinning a toothless smile. We sailed around for about 3 hours (2 hours more than the agreed upon hour for 3000 Kyat).
A seasonable cool had fallen in Bagan and I smiled when I caught myself shivering as I knew my cold blooded father and brother from Wisconsin would only shake their heads if they saw me suffering in 70 degree weather while they endured negative twenty back home. In recent years I have spent so much time in Asia and Africa that anything less than 75 degrees makes me run for sweaters and winter hats. On the trip to shore we discovered dozens of floating bamboo lanterns from a recent festival. Aung Aung carefully learned over and caught one that had a fragile blue shell and I secretly hoped we didn’t disrupt the wish that was likely made by the person who set this floating lantern adrift an evening or two prior.
Upon docking we grabbed our respective forms of transportation and started our hour long journey to New Bagan. Although New Bagan is indeed just that, a newly erected town outside Old Bagan with new hotels, gem shops and lacquer gift shops, it is also the home base of many monasteries and natives. Aung Aung and Ko Lat both live in New Bagan so we worked our way south through the active main streets towards old banyan trees and local tea shops. A few moments later we arrived at Aung Aung's house. A typical Burmese abode, it was sparsely furnished with a beautifully painted temple on the back wall and a TV set sitting on but unwatched on the other side of the room. The first thing I noticed was three large pictures hanging on the wall. The first, a picture of Aung Aung and his young wife; the second, a picture of Buddha; and, the third, a large portrait of a Japanese-Australian woman who had allegedly “adopted” Aung Aung a few years prior. Apparently, after spending a few days with Aung Aung, this woman agreed to buy him a horse so he could make a better income and adequately care for his family. He reverently spoke of her throughout the two days I spent with him and it was blaringly evident that this gesture of concern for a man this woman had briefly met on her own travel adventure had fundamentally changed this man’s life and the life of his family.
Aung Aung had apparently informed his wife of my pending visit and she had been cooking a modest but tasty meal all morning long. Because Aung Aung repeatedly expressed intense concern for not being able to offer me meat, I shyly bluffed and indicated it was OK because I was a vegetarian. After spending time with their daughter and buying what I will likely soon discover are fake gems from his neighbor, I sat down and enjoyed some rice and a spicy curry that was clearly cooked with generosity and care. I will always remember Aung Aung and his wife Ni Ni for this thoughtful gesture of kindness and I will never forget my two and a half day adventure in Bagan.