Saturday 20th April 2013
I had travelled from Yangon yesterday, and today was my first day in this mystic city they call Began. I couldn’t resist in marvelling at what exciting views might great me outside as I looked out towards Old Bagan. There, in front of me all lit up for all the world to see were several temples including Htilomnlo Guphaya-Gyi, Dhamma ya zi ka Pagoda, Ananda Phaya and Dhammayan Gyi Temple, to name but a few. But I just knew that I shouldn’t get too excited about it yet as I still had a lot of sleep to catch up on.
Outside was silent, the only noise I could hear was the Bali chant coming from a temple somewhere in the distance, a crazy cockerel crowing notifying any snake or predator that he’d had breakfast as was now ready to be eaten, as birds twittered away gaily in anticipation of what might happen next. Everything else seemed quite tranquil.
As the sun began to rise in the eastern sky I wanted to get one of the nearby temples silhouetted against the early morning sky. Running around on the ground in sandals kicking fine gravelly soil and dodging the sharp prickly plants is not much fun. Eventually, I got the sun behind one of the temple complexes. The western facing walls were black, with the sky behind the yellowy brown sky. For me, this was perfect and impressive with the sunlight glowing out from behind the tower helping to silhouette the highest point of the temple.
Later I hired a bicycle, a heavy Chinese one, and with my compass, for navigation purposes, I headed north taking photographs of virtually everything and anything that resembled a temple or a pagoda.
So, Michael Davis, intrepid cycle adventurer set out on a new escapade, exploring the temple environment of Bagan; not exactly a sequel to Indiana Jones and the ‘Temple of Doom’.
One of the first temples I reached was called Soe-Min-gyi monastery. I was followed around by a what sounded like a very influential scholar, who tried in vain to convince me that he knew everything about the history of the temples, but I wasn’t taken in by his enthusiasm. At the end of my short brief visit, he then was determined to show me his artistry; telling me that he could paint very elaborate sand paintings. In fact, virtually every temple I that I went to afterwards had the same identical sand paintings on display.
I carried on, towards Old Bagan, passing more temples that seemed to be under repair, but still magnificently designed and wonderful in their own unique way. Inside many of these temples were Buddha figures, all facing out towards the different points of a compass. The age of time and neglect in some cases were showing. Some of the Bali scriptures were also damaged beyond repair, what had been originally painted on the ceiling had collapsed into forgotten memories. I was aware that a dreadful earthquake that had hit the region back in 1975 and by looking at the temples you could easily tell what was old and what was new.
Some of the temples like the Htilomnlo Guphaya-Gyi had all the thrills of craft markets, selling their boutiques including their mass-produced sand paintings (which of course they’d too had painted). Some of the temples were small as if there were family ones, while others were of gigantic proportions as if to welcome the masses.
The Irrawaddy River was now what I was in search for. I headed down this road, not having a clue where it would lead me to. It was OK at first but, as I slowly descended, it slowly got trickier, certainly not suitable for a bike like this as there were stones and bricks that had obviously managed to find their final resting places.
At the bottom was alone dwelling and outside it was a mother and son. Her son acknowledged me in English, were my features so obvious, or was it more than I was turning from white to red and a body that was mattered in sweat. Possible he realised that only a stupid Brit would challenge cycling down such a ravine like that, plus just wearing a Tilley hat for head protection.
At the bottom was the Irrawaddy River, probably one of the widest rivers I’d yet seen in Asia. Traffic on the river seemed to be flowing well.
After taking photographs of this magnificent waterway that had offered me so many intriguing thoughts. I turned my bike around and then decided to cycle back up the challenging rickety rackety path. The mother and son watched me in disbelief as I attempted to navigate up the steep path. It was only once I got well out of the sight of them when I lost my balance and had to push my bike some of the way.
The heat of the day started to intensify. I decided to head back. On my way, back I got talking to a Swede, who had a Trek bike, we both stopped for a while and chattered away, before heading out on our different tours.
At half past two, I decided to venture out again, I was too eager and just wanted to go out exploring the place. I knew before I went out that I’d not had lunch yet, but that was partly because I didn’t feel like having anything to eat. I knew this was going to be quite a challenge, let alone in this cruel and unforgiving tropical heat.
The first temple I visited was Upalithein, a beautiful looking temple. A more of a flat square looking one with stone decorations running along its length. According to my research, it was believed to have been built by a monk called Upali. It contains a Buddha image and many wall paintings. According to the northern wall, the paintings were made in 1793, and that it took one year to complete at a cost of 1920 kyats.
One of the painted walls depicts Mara trying to persuade Prince Siddartha to give up his plan to renounce his worldly goods and go into the forest.
I later did the rounds of other temples like the magnificent temple of Ananda Phaya, which had a white entrance with the main temple behind, followed by Thilhtaykan, which was a simple golden temple with a white structure.
The fourth temple I visited was the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, was at the time under restoration, it looked like it was going through a major surgery as it was totally cocooned in a mesh of bamboo scaffolding.
In my rush to get around the temples, I was more interested in getting photographs of the structures than what was inside them. To get to some of the temples meant cutting across fields and relatively rough terrain, in the hope that it would get you somewhere. During my cross country cycling, I came across a French cyclist. He claimed the path had been a struggle for him. He advised me to head off towards the local airport rather than head towards my destination. But in the heat of the day, I simply didn’t fancy that.
So, after crossing fields of this unfertile landscape, I came across Thitsa Waddy Phaya, a huge structure, built so it was stated by Queen Pwa Saw around the 13th century. A magnificent tiered temple. One I’m sure you could have walked up onto the terraces.
Still trying to make the most of the afternoon, and starting to feel that my enthusiasm was starting to waver slightly, I convinced myself that I must continue. In front of me in the distance stood Htilomnlo Guphaya-Gyi, I tried to convince myself that I’d already been here this morning. But my inner-self was in disagreement, in that there were so many temples that looked similar. Tired and fatigued I pushed on forward with my goal in sight. I’d consumed more water than I could account for. My concentration level where starting to wane, I knew I’d not replenished the salt that I’d lost over the day’s cycling. This was dangerous, I knew, I tried to keep alert the best way I could and with the aid of my compass, I tried to figure out in which direction my hotel was. Knowing quite well that darkness wasn’t too many hours away and all I needed now was a puncture. I dismissed my thoughts and relentlessly continued on.
At that time, I didn’t know it but, this temple was built in 1218 AD by a king who had three children named: Zeyatheinkha, Nadaungmyar and Htilominlo. Htilominlo is one of the greatest buildings in Bagan and the complete structure is 150 feet high.
Anyway, I thought I’d planned well here. At the gates of the market outside the perimeter wall, I parked my bike up. Took off my rucksack and commenced by taking my long shorts to place over my cycle shorts. With camera and Tilley hat, I was all ready for my adventure within the walls of these interesting temple walls.
The temple complex was one of the busiest ones I’d come across yet, with both stalls on the outside the temple walls as well as within. En route to explore this wonderful temple, I came across many inquisitive tourists that were astonished by the sheer size and beauty of this place. In my walk, around I got pestered again by those annoying sand painter salespeople still trying to convince me that this was their original artwork. Another lady tried to sell me a typical looking top, it looked very nice but not my style.
The market had all the feel of a traditional market, or at least that was how I imagined one to look like. I continued looking at the fine architecture, the damaged through time of the elaborate designs, much of which had disappeared, gone forever. This to me was a perfect example of an idyllic ancient historical surrounding. The walls and surroundings hustled and bustled with activity within the 21st century, most seemed unaware of what these stones represented as if taking them for granted.
I continued to marvel at this spectacular temple, slowly getting dissolution by which direction I was going in. It was as if the spirits that haunted this temple complex were slowly taking me in and I was game, mesmerised by the astonishing beauty of the fine art and architecture, not to mention the colossal size of the place.
Everything was going well; then ultimate horror suddenly took over my thoughts. My rucksack felt too light, suddenly I realised that I’d not got it with me. Where was it! I tried in vain to remember when I last had it. I remember talking to the French man and getting a drink from my bag. But then I’d put it back on again and that was ages ago. I now had no clue from which direction I’d come from.
I quickly went into panic mode, realising that everything was in there from my passport to my finances to my air ticket back to Bangkok. I raced across the temple grounds trying eagerly to find the correct entrance. Trying to formulate a contingency plan. Where in Myanmar was the British Embassy? I presumed it would be in Mandalay. With no money also meant that I couldn’t buy my passage to Mandalay, let alone the essentials like purchasing of water.
I exited out of another entrance, but again it was the wrong one. With disbelief and horror stretched across my face. I passed previous traders that had earlier tried to entice me, they watched bemusingly as I dashed past them. They must have realised that something was seriously wrong as I continued in my manic state of incredulity, Oh help! What was I to do, I thought this was a thing of nightmares and unchartered dreams.
I reached my third exit, my mind was working like the clappers, it was even more confused than before; I was seconds short of becoming delirious. The first thing I saw was my bike, at least nobody had pinched that. I headed towards it trying to look in between the legs of the crowds to see if there was any sign of my rucksack, but there was nothing there. I felt like I just wanted to scream the place down as all the tension was now truly on the verge of exploding within me. Then as if from out of the blue an elderly gentle spotted me and walked towards me holding my rucksack. I couldn’t believe it. He was like my guardian angel, I was completely dumbstruck, I simply couldn’t believe it. I was so elated, ecstatic, jubilant, I just couldn’t believe it; what a relief.
My hero of the hour spoke very good English. He said he’d watched me put on my trousers and then I seemed to have become distracted, the next time he looked I’d gone leaving my bag behind. He knew I’d come back for it eventually, it was just a matter of time.
I told him that I thought that somebody might have stolen it. To which he reassured me that this was Myanmar and the Burmese people respect other people’s property. I couldn’t say that I’d be that lucky in any other country.
Relieved and now happy, I checked the contents on his request to see if everything was in order. I offered him money as a gesture, but he refused. He showed me the plaque for the temple and after photographing it and thanking him dearly and left to cycle back to my hotel.
Relieved that I’d got my possessions back, my mind was now in overdrive wondering how my contingency plan would have worked out. How would I have got away from the hotel complex without paying my bill? And who would have funded my transport arrangements, to Mandalay?
I arrived back to my hotel, thankfully all in one piece and I hadn’t lost my head in the process. What a day it had developed into. I could resist in the evening by having a Myanmar beer in only to soothe my thoughts.