Monday, March 16, 2009

Bagan: A Shot to the Temple


Sunset at the ancient city of Bagan
(click on photo for full album)

"The roads are bad, the food is worse, and you'll get sick," said an NGO worker I knew who had worked in Myanmar.

Travel isn't travel unless things go wrong. So far, I'd managed to dodge food poisoning, tropical diseases, bad weather and political upheaval. But my luck finally ran out in Myanmar.

A cool Singaporean girl had invited me to take the "circle train" with her. It's a train that goes around the whole of Yangon at a snail's speed, a 3-hour trip. But I was eager to hang out with her.

Then on my last day in Yangon, I was racked by body cramps, aching bones and vomiting. The scary part was that I didn't know what I had. Talking to other travelers only made it worse, they said I could have had anything from malaria to dengue fever. Better to get an expert opinion.

The reception at my guesthouse recommended a local hospital, because it would be cheaper. Fearing a doctor would just cut out my kidneys to sell on the black market, I took a taxi to an international hospital instead. Sometimes it's wiser to spend the extra money. The peace of mind is priceless.

Gene, an American traveler, kindly offered to accompany me. I wrote out my mother's contact info for him, just in case I suddenly keeled over. He laughed and said I'd be fine.

The Burmese physician, who had gone to medical school in the United States, carefully examined me.

"Ah, you have the heat exhaustion," Dr. Zayyar said.

"You're sure it's not food poisoning?" I asked nervously.

He chuckled. "If you had the food poisoning, you still vomit and defecate." The doctor prescribed oral rehydration salts, electrolyte powder, lots of water and the standard "plenty of rest."

I hobbled back out to the street and grabbed a taxi to my guesthouse. Heatstroke was manageable, I thought. It's those mosquito-borne diseases and food poisoning that are really nasty.

"Where were you?!" Yingshi asked, when she saw me eating noodles in the dining hall. "I waited for you for like 20 minutes."

"I'm so sorry!" I babbled. "I got heatstroke and I was out in bed the whole day."
Fortunately, she understood and we chatted about her day for a while. Talking to fun girls is one of life's pleasures, but the heatstroke made it miserable. Just moving my mouth to form words was exhausting.

Having heatstroke was bad enough, but being forced to cancel a date was really humiliating. I've been left hanging by girls in the past, and I hated having to stand up someone as cool as Yingshi.

The worst part was that I had to go to Bagan the next day, I'd already booked my flight. An English friend had warned me about the terrible state of Myanmar's roads, and she said it was worth the higher expense to fly.

Heatstroke made me extremely irritable. I couldn't be bothered to do the smallest tasks, and it was like I hated the whole world. Have you ever been in so much misery that you were pissed off at anyone who was happy?

Nobody would leave me alone! Guys would constantly invite me to hang out, girls would smile and stop to chat. It was awful, I just wanted them all to go to hell. Maintaining my poise was difficult. Later, when they found out I had heatstroke, people said they were surprised that I could be so cheerful and energetic.

The smart thing to do was simply go back to Bangkok and recover in civilization. But I'd been wanting to visit Myanmar for 3 years, ever since I saw a photo of the Shwedagon Paya in a guidebook. And I'd invested so much in plane tickets, visas and vaccine shots that I couldn't just quit.

I'd like to think it's because I have supreme willpower, but it was more likely a combination of stubbornness, ego, and sheer male stupidity that I kept on going. At that point, I hated failure more than I hated heatstroke.

Somehow, I dragged my ass to the airport and got on the plane, even though I felt like I was on the verge of collapse. There was a very fashionable girl in the seat next to me. She could have been a really rich Burmese girl or a middle-class Thai. She had the dark sunglasses and white fur coat of the glitteratti. Normally, I'd try to strike up a conversation. Instead, I aimed for the more modest goal of not puking on her.

When I checked into my hotel in Nyaung U (the gateway city to Bagan), I bought a big bottle of water and went straight to my room. I drank the water with an electrolyte solution and slept the whole day. After 2 days of rest, I had fully recovered. But then I got diarrhoea, confining me to the room for a third day. Being sick sucks!

For transportation to the Bagan temples, I rented a horsecart and driver for the day. It cost 10,000 kyat (US$10). I got lucky that my driver wasn't a motormouth who constantly explained every temple to me. As we pulled up to a new one, he'd give a succinct introduction, like, "This is the only Indian temple in Bagan" or "This is the tallest temple in Bagan." I prefer to explore on my own and take photos, rather than listen to a verbal textbook all day.

In another topic, I've never walked barefoot as often as I have in Myanmar. In Laos, sometimes I had to take off my shoes to enter temples and even shops. But in Myanmar, the entire temples and the surrounding grounds are off-limits to footwear. Flip-flops are a must. Otherwise, it's a hassle to always have to slip off your shoes.

This became a problem, because Myanmar is really hot and dry. In the middle of the day, the stone floors can be scorching. When I was walking around outside the Ananda Pahto, Bagan's most famous temple, I tried to stick to the shaded areas. Whenever I came across a wide space in the blazing sun, I'd run across as fast as I could, cursing the whole way: "Fuck fuck fuck! My feet are getting fried!"

Ananda Pahto
Ananda Pahto Temple

While I was wandering around the Ananda Pahto, a Burmese man came up to me and told me to stand in a certain position with the temple behind me. Confused, I thought I'd broken some rule about visiting temples. Once I was standing in the right place, he called to a group of Burmese girls. They excitedly took turns standing next to me, while the man took photos of us!

Acting like a star with a random Burmese girl

My white friends who've lived in China and Japan have told me this had happened to them. But I've never experienced it, because of my Asian appearance. It's the first time I had that celebrity treatment for just being a foreigner. Or did they mistake me for a Burmese film star?

Bagan is one of Myanmar's biggest attractions, so any tourist will face a gauntlet of people trying to sell them postcards, paintings, etc. It wasn't as bad for me, because I can pass for a local sometimes. But some of the white tourists I saw seemed harassed and weary of the constant haggling.

My favorite sight was the Dhammayangi Temple.


Unfortunately, it was the also the worst for dealing with touts and vendors. From the moment I stepped through the entrance, I was bombarded with offers to buy souvenirs. Young children would offer to give me "tours," but their only real service was carrying a flashlight to guide me through dark corners. I had brought my own flashlight, so I didn't need them.

Luckily, an Indian tour group came in after me, so the vendors abandoned me for riper pickings. Now I was free to wander without interference.

If you love to climb and explore, Bagan is paradise. There are lots of hidden stairways and tunnels all over the place. But the stairways are often really narrow. I'd have to squeeze my shoulders in and walk sideways to get through the stair entrance doors. I joked to my driver, "Were Burmese people really that small back then?" He laughed and nodded.

After a grueling day of walking in the hot sun and listening to endless sales pitches, I was ready to go home. I got into the horsecart and asked the driver how many temples I'd seen. He counted in his head, then said, "Thirteen!" When you've seen that many, even the Buddhas start to look the same.

Buddha in Thatbyinnyu Paya
Golden Buddha at Thatbyinnyu Paya

The sun was setting as my horsecart clip-clopped away from Bagan. Then I saw a cool temple in the distance.

Buledi Temple a.k.a. Temple 394

"Stop!" I said to the driver. Pointing, I said, "Take me there!"
He looked in that direction. "That temple not famous!" he protested.

"Never mind, just go," I ordered.

Later, I found out that it was called the Buledi Temple (a.k.a. Temple 394). Excitedly, I climbed up the steps toward the top.

Once at the peak, I walked around the corner to where the sun was setting. Awesome.


I saw down to appreciate the view. I overcame heatstroke, diarrhoea and every tout in Bagan for this. Totally worth it.

But I couldn't help feeling a bit sad. Sunsets are best when they're shared.

"Well, look who's here," said a feminine voice.

Surprised, I turned around. "Yingshi!"

"Hey! Good to see you," she said.

"When did you get in?" I asked.

"I just arrived on the bus from Bago," Yingshi said.
"Perfect timing," I said, smiling.

Yingshi from Singapore
Yingshi (Singapore)


Necrotike said...

Awesome photos!! Myanmar has moved up on my list of places to visit!

Colin said...

我刚刚看你的blog. 你的相片好看啊!
I have been traveling to every country in Asia except for North Korea and Burma. Now I think I want to go to Burma.

Yingshi said...

Thanks for making me sound so cool! Your blog makes me reminisce about my adventures in Myanmar. Myanmar was great, I'll definitely go back again.

Chris said...

Great to follow your travels man. Hope all's well and you've recovered fully! Have fun, Chris.

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