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Travel with Hafeez: Myanmar - Part II
After staying for two days at Mandalay, I was ready to move. Generally, I do not stay at one place longer than two to three days. Some make fun of me for such a rapid travel. But it is the only way to see a country from one corner to another in a limited time and cost.
Kyine was a lovely lady working in the hotel. I asked her about Bagan and what I got was: “Only two buses. Ticket here $8.50, Highway Terminal, $6.50” A two-dollar profit margin!! That was worse than a daylight robbery. I dragged my carry-on to main road and negotiated with a taxi driver to drop me at Highway Terminal for $4.
The terminal was dusty, over-loaded with buses, mostly junk. I traced the ticket counter for Bagan only to realize that ticket was same as Ms Kyine had offered i.e. $8.50. Also, I found that one bus had already gone, next would go at 1:30 pm. I would have to wait for about three hours.
At 1:30 pm, I got the bus. When I entered in, I was happy to see a wide space in between two rows of the seats. My happiness was short-lived. Firstly wooden crates were pushed in; secondly, passengers were made seated on plastic stools in the remaining space. Stools were termed as half-seats and attracted half fare. The bus left only when it was full to the brim.
I had a window seat. The person sitting next to me, on the aisle seat, was constantly chatting with the one sitting on the half-seat. Both were educated and sometimes talked to me on plight of transport in the country. A ride on the tightly packed bus had all the intimacy of coach journeys described in old literature.
The bus was right-hand drive. It looked very dangerous as traffic also was right-handed. As a make-shift arrangement, a conductor was posted on the left-hand door who constantly shouted warnings to avoid collisions.
To start with, the bus ran parallel to the Irrawaddy River. After about 40 km, it entered a town named “Kyaukse”. I was told that the place was famous for elephant dance. No real elephants but only figures made from bamboo and paper. Two men would adjust themselves inside the elephant-body and dance around the town to the accompaniment of Dobat and Drums.
Next stop was at Kyaukpadaung, a small town beside the river. The area became dry. The landscape changed from flat to undulating slopes with only low scrubs and bushes.
During a tiresome journey, it is a great relief to stop by a roadside café. On entering, I heard sound like “slurp, slurp”. It reflected taste of the food being consumed. People were sitting on knee-high plastic chairs gulping different curries, greasy bread, noodles, banana pancake and tomu (sweet, semi-solid porridge made of coconuts and raisins).
Perhaps, near the Bagan, the bus had turned into a local bus. Stoppages became frequent allowing passengers to get in and out. A newcomer to my next was a beautiful girl, her cheeks white with a paste and tiny flower buds woven into her hair. A little after, I found a young monk in red robes occupying the seat. At about 8 pm, the bus was stopped at a military check post. All foreigners were required to present their passports and pay $10 for as entry ticket.
I met an American, John Swanson, while traveling in the bus. Incidentally, we both had reservation for the same hotel, Park Hotel (Thiripysaya, Block No.4, Bagan, 95-061-603222).
Since we were dead tired from daylong bus journey, we hurriedly had our dinner from a nearby restaurant and went to sleep.
Next day, 9th April, 2009, we explored Bagan on a horse-drawn cart hired for the day for $10. It was very pleasant to see ancient architectural designs, precious frescoes, mural paintings and stone inscriptions. In fact, Bagan was a country’s # 1 destination where centuries old pagodas and temples were densely concentrated, mostly within walking distances. Some were untouched, some in ruin, some restored.
Three most famous Bagan pagodas are:
High as a 17-story modern building, it is a significant monument. Its terraces provide a panoramic view of the green and brown landscape. One can see hundreds of temples, distant hills and even bed of Irrawaddy River which bisects the country from North to South.
Though slightly shorter than Thatbyinnyu, it is one of the oldest yet best preserved Bagan pagodas. Four tall standing Buddha statues peacefully adorn its corners.
Ananda temple is considered to be one of the surviving masterpieces of the Mon architecture.
This is the holiest of the Bagan pagodas. Its impressive gilded bell-shaped stupa houses relics of Buddha. The bell shape became a prototype for later temple construction.
The gilded pagoda sits on three rising terraces. Facing stairways are four shrines, each of which houses a four-meter-high bronze standing Buddha. Their right hands are held palm outward, fingers straight up, portraying the gesture of abhaya or 'no fear'.
In the evening we went to a lone temple on the other side of Bagan. It was awesome to view the sunset. The setting sun silhouetted hundreds of golden zedi, stupas and pagodas and brought us in a tranquil state.
On Bagan, Kipling is quoted as calling it ‘a golden mystery… a beautiful winking wonder.’
Yesterday, while exploring Bagan, we had a Chinese lunch of a typical style. We were made seated and a number of dishes, bowls and trays were placed on our table one after another. There was a wide choice of egg rolls, soups, salads, chow mein and Kung Pao Chi Ting. On the same day, in the evening, we went to an Indian Restaurant, Aroma. We opted for a set menu consisting of rice, ‘papdam’, bean soup, mutton ‘coffta’ and tea. While I could digest all, John experienced some stomach problem. He could not sleep at night. When a taxi came for taking us to our visit to Mt. Popa, he was not in a position to join me. Despite this, he handed over to me his share of $12.5 which I reluctantly accepted.
Temple atop Mt. Popa
Mount Popa was 50 km away from Bagan. Near the mountain, the approach became quite scenic. The barren and dry land turned green. It was like an oasis in a desert. The taxi driver told me about contribution of Japanese in this regard. Suddenly, I saw an odd shape sticking out of the landscape. No doubt, it was Mt. Popa.
On reaching its base, the driver asked me to go ahead while he would wait in a nearby hotel. Indeed, it was not an easy task to go up to a shrine scaling 750 stairs.
There were two giant elephant statutes at the entrance. Inside, there were a lot of shops laden with flowers, incense, fruits, drinks and, of course, peanuts for monkeys. Initially, it was a fun to go in small steps. At one point, I was asked to take-off my shoes and go barefooted. Then the fun began: the stairs became steep and the steps slippery due to frequent cleaning with a wet cloth. Some steps had rough surface which pinched my bare feet and resulted in pain. Luckily, there was a handrail which saved me from falling. Many visitors were seen sitting or lying on the way huffing deeply.
In about 40 minutes, including two brief rests, I reached the top, 737m above the base. It was a major pilgrimage destination with many shrines. The temples were flashy with massive use of silver and gold. Besides, there were tinny mirrors and dazzling lights which made rippled- effects. It looked like something out of Harry Potter.
Mt Popa was said to be a home to 37 nats. A nat is a spirit, previously human who met with violent death. Like human, a nat has ‘wants and needs’, likes and dislike, delight and anger. People who believe in nats take part in some festivals. They gulp ‘toddy’ in large quantities, get drunk and dance wildly in fits of ecstasy to the loud beat of the music.
I sat for one hour on the top enjoying a panoramic view below. Going down was, of course, easy but the danger of slipping remained. Besides, there were semi-tamed monkeys snatching food from the visitors. They were considered holy and no one could harm them.
On return, I took a sigh of relief. I traced the driver and resumed journey back to Bagan.
In the evening, I asked the hotel to get a ticket to my next destination, Kalaw. I was told that the bus would leave at an odd time, 4 am and if suited me they would be glad to book a seat for me. I had no choice.
For $2.5, the bus driver had agreed to pick me up from my hotel. Initially, it appeared a tourist bus and I stretched my legs hoping for a nice ride. At the next stop, there was a crowd of people and they kept on entering the bus in a seemingly never ending influx. At long last, the bus moved with a jerk jolting everyone. Initially, it was flat area with little greenery. As the bus neared Kalaw, the road started winding up and down, twisting and turning
In about 10 hours, I reached the place and found it very peaceful and quiet with old colonial buildings. It was very pleasant to get out the bus and breathe fresh air. It was a popular hill station in the colonial time. When leaving Myanmar, the British reportedly said, “If we could take Kalaw with us, we would!”
I had reservation for the Pineland Inn which was two-storied guest-house on the highway. The room rent was only US$5. Nearby, their sister concern, Pineland Restaurant served delicious Chinese and Burmese dishes.
I had a hearty meal and a little walk. There were quite a few teashops, fruit stalls and general stores operated by Indian Muslims and Hindus. The evening was cool and it was delightful to move in an area laden with the pine trees and bamboos groves. (Kalaw is about 1,400 meters above sea level).
Next day, I left for Inlay Lake by bus which took about 3 hours. I paid $3 as fee for entering the town, Nyaungshwe.
- INLAY LAKE
This vast picturesque lake, 900 metres above sea-level, is one of the main tourist attractions in Myanmar. The lake, 22 km long and 10 km across, has a population of some 150,000, many of whom live on floating islands of vegetation.
I stayed in Minghar Rest House. It was located in a residential area. Firstly I thought it was a good choice until a loud-speaker blared and never-end chant of mantras started. High pitched and piercing tones became unbearable. I got up and traced the source. It was from a magnificent temple. Once used to the loud voice, I became immersed and relaxed under the influence of the sermon. Whispering in my year, a young monk translated something like this: “World-Honored One, we subdue our hearts with the vow that we “must cause all living beings -- those born from eggs, born from wombs, born from moisture to enter Nirvana without residue and be taken across to extinction.”.
Being a touristy spots, there were lot of restaurants in the town. I picked up an Italian one and enjoyed their speciality, “Wood- fired Authentic Pizza” for $5.
In the afternoon, a boatman came to fetch me from my hotel. He led me to the lake passing through a well crowded market. Soon we arrived at a canal where a large number of long-boats were moored. Nearly 15 meters in length, in jet black color with an out-board motor, each boat had four low-chairs. Seating alone inside one with leg stretched, I felt like a maharaja. The boat moved slowly through a narrow channel. On both sides were paddy fields, hemmed off by bamboo poles and wooden railing. After a while, we entered the open lake. It was a vast reservoir of water rimmed by the blue-colored mountains. Many boats were insight, some speeding fast causing spray of water. Some were engaged in bringing up mud, silt, weed and dead vegetation
Rowing a boat with one leg.
An unusual feature was that all village-canoes were being rowed by one-leg for fishing. Normal fishing methods were not appropriate in the shallow water filled up with weeds. So a unique way was found. Using one foot to steady their oar, the fishermen kept their both hands free in order trap the fish with large conical bamboo baskets.
The first stop was a village with a web of canals as its streets. The boatman guided me to many handicrafts units engaged in cigar rolling, cloth weaving, boat making & steel hammering.
Phaung Daw Pogoda & Jumping Cat Monastery
Next stop was Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda housing five small Buddha images heavily overladen with gold leaf placed by devotees. I did not see any Buddha images as these had turned into balls of gold.
Later, we moved to Nga Phe Kyaung, a wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake. In tourist literature, it was called the Jumping Cat Monastery. There were quite a few cats ready to leap through a small ring made from iron-wire.
From Inlay Lake, I went to a nearby airport and took a flight to Yangon. On getting out of the airport, I was in for a surprise. There were few cabs and cabbies were not budging from $10 for a ride against a normal rate of $4. I was told that because of a festival, “Thingyan”, the traffic was restricted to certain roads and a long way would have to be taken to go to the downtown. I spent some time in negotiating and finally agreed to $6.
The water festival marked the start of Burmese New Year. It was being celebrated in a rough and shod manner. Water was being thrown, in large quantity, on any one in sight.
Since it was a three-day festival, I made preparation to face it next day. Wearing polyester shirt, acrylic trouser and rubber shoes, I was ready for the occasion. But I could not imagine its scale. The moment I came out of the hotel, a bucket full of water was thrown at me. Once on the road, I faced onslaught from street boys using water pistols and bazookas. As if it was not enough, water tankers were moving on the road with stirrup pumps.
It was free for all. Soon I was asking for it as getting soaked was a great relief in the hot summer. There were dances and songs all over the city.
I saw a young boy being chased by some girls. When caught, his hands were tied behind his back, his face blackened with oil and his head dunked in a bucket of water. It went on till he surrendered. He had to perform a monkey dance while the girls clapped hands in a rhythmical manner.
I was told that such acts were rare and only among close family members. However, in villages, these were still being practiced.
In the evening, I went to see the most sacred temple in Myanmar, Shwedagon Paya. It was a big complex having many entrances. Two nine-meter-high half-lion & half-griffin statutes were guarding its southern gate. Inside, there were a large number of shrines, prayer pavilions, stupas, large bells, museums, planetary posts, banyan trees, flower pots, murals, offices and guard posts. I was lost in the maze and, while getting out, was helped by many guards to retrieve my shoes.
Bahadur Shah Zafer Tomb
I had one task left: to offer prayer (fateha) at the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Muslim Emperor of India. He died in 1862 five years after he was toppled and banished by the British colonial rulers. To get there, taxi drivers were asking an exorbitant fare of $10. Disappointed, I looked for an Internet cafe and hit a website, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, I got all information in a second. It was in the vicinity of Shwedagon Paya. I noted down the address on a slip of paper and instructed a taxi-driver to drop me one street before the pagoda. He asked me “where to” and I replied “none of your business”. He smiled and left me exactly at the gate of the Mausoleum for only $1.5.
At the tomb, a caretaker greeted me and showed me three graves of: (i) Bahadur Shah Zafer, (ii) his wife, Begum Zaneet Mahal and (iii) his grand-child. Later, he disclosed that it was not his real grave but only a symbol. He took me down-stair and showed me the real one. After a short prayer, I was told that in 1991, when workers were digging the place for foundation of a new hall, they found a red-brick structure which was acknowledged as the real tomb.
Hanging in the hall was his famous poem:
I had requested for a long life a life of four days
Two passed by in pining, and two in waiting.
How unlucky is Zafar! For burial
Even two yards of land were not to be had, in the land of the beloved
Back to Home.
On 16th of April, 2009 I returned to Karachi, Pakistan. My tour was fabulous. There were no mishaps and I remained safe and sound. Praise be God who protects lone travelers like me.