You can read the first part of the story – Burma part 1, from Yangon to Mandalay – here.
Bagan from above and from below
Finally, we reached Bagan, or the former Kingdom of Pagan. The rulers of Pagan erected within the capital and in its close surroundings over 10 000 Buddhist temples, and about 2000 of them remain till today. The kingdom began to decay in the middle of the 13th century, and as a result of tax exemptions for temple possessions the king couldn’t keep the loyalty of his courtiers and army. And so the Kingdom fell, leaving behind 2000 temples. They are scattered around quite a big area, and you can see them from a balloon, you can travel between them on a bike (there are many daredevils not minding the 40-degree heat), on a scooter (electric one, called e-bike here) or in a horse-drawn carriage. I tested the horse option when searching a cash machine with cash in it, and since I found it only in the sixth one, we already had enough of the journey and haven’t returned to that option. Cash machines are available here basically only at better hotels (but they’re airconditioned), and they rarely have cash inside. Huge amounts are taken out of them. 100 dollars is as much as 135 000 kyats, which takes up a lot of space (a wad is 1 cm thick), so cash machines run out of money quickly. After the sixth cash machine, I was ready to walk on foot and leave the poor horse behind. So we rented scooters and started visiting the temples. Bagan (the new name for Pagan), the jewel of Burma, is not inscribed on the UNESCO list. The military junta was restoring historic buildings not following archaeological rules, added elements to temples in the wrong way, based on guesses and general ideas, and not archaeological research. Due to the military interventions which resulted in disturbing the historical integrity of Bagan, it doesn’t qualify for the UNESCO list. I keep my fingers crossed for Burma and changing that situation.
Sunsets over Bagan
According to Burmese astrology, the week lasts for 8 days. Each of the days has a guardian, an animal which at the same time is a guardian of people born on that day. Burmese people, to fit into the 7-day calendar, divided Wednesday and turned it into two days – one until noon, and one in the afternoon. And we are still in Pagan. We hunt for sunsets. Most of the temples are made from red brick and are surrounded by reddish sand, and in sunlight they acquire a unique character. A sunset watched from a hill, from a terrace of a pagoda, is an exceptional experience. The setting sun gives the sky dozens of shades of blue, crimson and orange. Light mist hangs over coconut palms, you can see smoke in some places, and the pagodas, surrounded with warm light, against the background of the spectacle of the sky, seem almost unreal. And somewhere among all this, you can hear the beautiful song of nuns from a convent nearby, who repeat melodious mantras into the microphone, creating a magical performance witnessed each evening by hundreds of spectators.
The ball unites!
And only at night, when the super-junior representation of Poland played a match with Burma, did we get some time to rest ?
Meanwhile, after resting among the most beautiful dust in the world at Pagan, in the turmoil of history, we went deep into central Burma and ended up in the town of Kalaw, surrounded by mountains, pastures and meadows, and we lost the internet connection with the world. Temperature dropped to pleasant 25 degrees, while we met people there in warm hats and coats. Our plan was to walk 48 kilometres from there to the Inle lake, but life verified our plans. 51 million residents of Burma create one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, and the neighbouring area is inhabited mainly by Palaung, Pa-O, Danu, Danaw i Taung Yo:). For a long time we wondered if we would manage to walk so many kilometres with children, especially that we realized in the middle of the way to Warsaw that we forgot to take Nina’s sling. We had to devise something. We bought a backpack, cut holes for legs and we deeply believed we would make it. We couldn’t find a guide. No one wanted to make this way in the heat, dust and mud with such small children. Finally we found Piu and decided to trust him. The last moments before the trekking, we spent in a retired elephants sanctuary. There are no such attractions here as elephant-riding, because it would demand training the animals hard, but you can feed them – we checked, they prefer pumpkin to bamboo – and you can bathe them in the river. With a natural sponge and a natural soap from plants growing nearby. After every scrubbing, the elephant would rinse itself giving us a shower straight from its trunk. There are only 2000 elephants living in the wild left in Burma, and following 5000 belong to somebody. Elephants are still used in large numbers in timber industry.
The trip to Inle lake was supposed to take 3 days and we were to walk 48 km. Since we forgot to take a sling for Nina, we got the backpack in which we cut holes for legs. Armrests we made from two pieces of fabric. The closer it got to the trekking, the more we opted for driving the first 20 km and shortening the trip from 3 to 2 days. In that way, we only had 28 km to walk. We found a wonderful local guide Piu (at least that’s how his name is pronounced), who at the agreed time guided us through fields, meadows, and a bit of “jungle”, closer to the real life of the Burmese. We passed fields with yellow sesame flowers, fields of garlic, eggplant, picturesque rice fields, we evaded oxen and buffalos, which recognize the smell of foreign guests despite tons of oils with UV filters and insect repellents (malaria).
We saw many smiling children, carrying water or helping their parents in other ways. There’s no electricity in the Burmese countryside, no running water, you have to carry it in buckets, often from remote places. In most farmsteads, there is only one lightbulb powered by solar energy. The living conditions here are very difficult. Our road was also becoming more difficult, and the load we carried on our shoulders seemed to grow heavier with every kilometre. In the fifth hour of the walk, we started to sink in the mud up to our knees, and what’s even worse, we were falling together with children. Fortunately, in the moment of the biggest crisis, there was lunch waiting for us in a nearby cottage. We walked 13 km in direct sunlight and difficult conditions, but the shade of bamboo in the cottage, delicious food and nice hosts compensated for the effort. Unfortunately, we rested for too long and we couldn’t walk the last five kilometres planned for that day, especially with tired children right before sunset, and because of buffalos and leeches we couldn’t walk at night. We had to rent a car to drive as to the arranged lodgings in Pa-O village. Half of the village walked us to the car, and since the 5 km road we were supposed to walk wasn’t good for cars, we had to take a very roundabout route, bumpy and 2-hour long. When we arrived, it was already dark and we were exhausted.
Our hosts gave us a royal welcome. The dinner we ate was one of the best, the breakfast was also delicious. I would like to say the same the same about the night, but the truth is, we aren’t used to all the sounds emitted by nightlife. The cottage was made from hollow brick, as thin as 10 cm, it had a solid tin roof, and windows covered by either bamboo or sacks from cement. The porch was a kitchen with a hearth and one or two small cupboards. Apart from that, there was the room in which we slept, with an altar for Buddha and family pictures on the wall. Our hosts’ bedroom was behind a bamboo wall, with doors made from thin fabric. At night, you could hear sounds coming from neighbouring houses, some insects buzzing loudly, all the conversations, snoring and roosters. The room downstairs, above which we slept, which at first we thought was a garage, turned out to be a barn for buffalos and cows, which during cold nights slept under the owners’ bedroom to provide warmth. I think it was only because of us that they hadn’t brought them inside. The PaO people believe they’re descendants of a dragon and to honour it, women wear brightly coloured turbans on their heads, symbolizing the dragon’s head. For us, the most surprising was when the owners’ children, aged between 2 and 9, went to sleep at another house. Our guide explained that children spend on average two nights a week with their parents, and the rest they spend with various aunts in the village, listening stories they tell. It’s a tradition. Meanwhile, because of the pouring rain, the roads turned into cloggy mud and we couldn’t walk on them in our flat-soled shoes. Tired by the night and the walk of the day before, we rented a car again, and it forced its way through the mud instead of us, until we finally reached Inle.
The life by Inle lake is conducted on water. Houses on long stilts are built above water, and next to them long boats float on the waves. The children here first learn to walk, and then to steer boats. There are also beautiful gardens floating on water, in which vegetables are grown. In this season of the year, most often you see beans and tomatoes. The vegetables are sold at the local market. The gardens are immersed one metre into water and when you walk on them, you float like on a water bed. The local attraction is a monastery with jumping cats. The monks living there, a long time ago, reportedly out of boredom, taught cats how to jump through hoops. Even though it was spectacular, like all training, it meant a stick to beat the animals and overfeeding them as a reward. Fortunately, it turned out that the cats no longer jump. And even though a monastery with cats walking around was so boring we couldn’t believe we went to visit it, at least the cats looked happy. And the most beautiful by the Inle lake is the life conducted there. People bathe in the lake, do the washing, sail in the boats, transport goods in them. So ordinary, yet you cannot tear your gaze away from it. Another beautiful performance takes place on the lake, when local fishermen row the boats using their legs. They do something like figures of eight with them, and it looks as if they were dancing. And all those miracles take place to the accompaniment of the loud whirr of the engine of the rented boat.
The Inle lake is 22 km long and 11 km wide. A big piece of life to peek at. Around and on the lake, entire villages are built, residents of which specialise in various handicrafts. Hand manufactures with silver objects, spinning mills where threads from lotus flowers, or actually their sprouts (abundant on the lake), are used, metalwork, cigar and cigarette making… The list is long. There are no machines doing the people’s jobs here and even though more and more tourists visit the region, photographing everything, still the objects made here are not tourist souvenirs, but a real piece of life of the Burmese. I was the most impressed with threads made from lotus sprouts. Gathering them is unbelievably laborious, and so a piece of material made entirely of lotus flower is very expensive. Usually, it is intertwined with cheaper silk. By the lake, there is also a very beautiful Indein temple to which, as to most of local temples, long staircase leads, surrounded by stalls with Burmese handicraft. And it isn’t cheap Chinese stuff. Objects from lacquer (a bamboo or teak wood covered with several layers of a special resin gathered from a type of tree growing in the north of Burma), sculptures made of wood and stone, objects from silver or jadeite – local stone, bamboo balls, beautiful fabrics, umbrellas from Pathein, shawls from lotus or lotus and silk, traditional longui, a type of skirt, and many more. Generally, when you return from the temple, the only thing you remember is this colourful market of all sort of things, as well as the sound of hitting, after each successful deal, a wad of banknotes on almost every thing left on sale, to ensure success in following deals on that day.
On wild beaches, not trampled by people, millions of crabs live. They dig their holes in the sand, and push compact sand balls outside, creating incredible sculptures on the beach. I’ve been constantly admiring it for years. For the last several days of rest after our journey, we moved to the Burmese Ngapali Beach. I finally had time to read papers, which I love doing when travelling. Of course I can only read what has been prepared for the tourists in English. The newspapers here are controlled by the government, and the news such papers contain always says the most about the local situation. And so every day, the government newspaper informed about new activities of Lady, meeting the President of Japan or Philippines, or attending the summit of Asian countries. Every day, Lady shared the front page with news on the situation in Rakhine district, where – according to the government newspaper – children were returning to schools after the terrorist attack of the 25 August organized by Rohingha terrorists (!). This was described in the media. The newspapers didn’t mention the fact that Muslim children didn’t return to schools or the ethnic cleansings, but every day there was an article about how the government improves the situation, by gathering abandoned crops, or introducing identity cards. Apart from that, in one of the districts, the department of the development of the countryside sponsored a sewing course for country girls so they are happy now, as they can get a better job. There was also a Polish accent in the newspaper, an article on an exhibition “that which we couldn’t shout at the world”, about the reality of life in the Warsaw ghetto, organized at that time in the capital of our country.
And Ngapali beaches are beautiful, still not as full of tourists as beaches in Thailand or even Cambodia. And here, we said goodbye to Burma hoping we would one day we would return to its people and places, we would complete our trekking to Inle, only what will we see there by then?