Horse, Buggy, and the Best Lit Photos of Bagan

Horse, Buggy, and the Best Lit Photos of Bagan

Day 3 in Bagan, Burma: October 7, 2012

This after a few days on dodgy bikes, this was a much more comfortable way to see the temples.

After a few days on dodgy bikes, this was a much more comfortable way to see the temples.

We started the day in the afternoon with an East meets West lunch.

We started the day in the afternoon with an East meets West lunch.

This is a petrol station in Bagan.

This is a petrol station in Bagan.

These clay pots are filled with drinking water that is available to all passersby.

These clay pots are filled with drinking water that is available to all passersby, next to one of my favorite trees, the poinciana.

Just the standard temple, cow, and motorbike view.

Just the standard temple, cow, and motorbike view.

Looks like the clouds are fixin' for a real purdy sunset.

Looks like the clouds are fixin’ for a real purdy sunset.

Uh-oh, it looks like our buggy may have a traffic jam ahead...

Uh-oh, it looks like our buggy may have a traffic jam ahead…

Good time to walk up a temple and let the cows, goats, and herders pass by.

Good time to walk up a temple and let the cows, goats, and herders pass by.

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Then the light started making the temples more photogenic.

Then the light started making the temples more photogenic.

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The complimentary color combination was stunning.

The complimentary color combination was stunning.

Time to climb up the temple and watch the sunset.

Time to climb up the temple and watch the sunset.

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This one is one of my favorites because of the amount of temples visible in the setting sunlight.

This one is one of my favorites because of the amount of temples visible in the setting sunlight. It just doesn’t even look real.

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Bagan, thank you for staying so lovely in a country filled with so much strife.

Bagan, thank you for staying so lovely in a country filled with so much political strife.

Goodbye Kaday Aung Hotel,

Goodbye Kaday Aung Hotel,

Goodbye Bagan. Hope to see you again someday.

Goodbye Bagan. Hope to see you again someday.

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Bumpy Road, Broken Bicycles, and Buddha Images in Bagan

Bumpy Road, Broken Bicycles, and Buddha Images in Bagan

Bagan Day 2: October 6, 2012

Mark and I decided to downgrade our room at Kaday Aung Hotel http://www.kadayaunghotel.com from superior ($45USD) to standard ($30USD), which better suited our budget. After breakfast we exchanged our rickety bikes for what appeared to be much better ones…but they weren’t. Nonetheless, we were ready for a day of cycling around to see temples. There are just so many!

This was a few kilometers down the road and today we were ready to see more of Old Bagan.

This was a few kilometers down the road and today we were ready to see more of Old Bagan.

IMG_3942The first big temple we perused had gigantic Buddhas in all directions of the temple. All similar, yet different.

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Temples temples everywhere!

Temples temples everywhere!

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Buddha imagery was even in the ruins.

Buddhas everywhere too!

Buddha imagery in the ruins

Buddha imagery in the ruins

This is an artist's rendition of Bagan at sunset probably from the viewpoint of a hot air balloon. Mark wanted to go in Balloons Over Bagan, but the season started the day we left Burma, and tickets were sold out months in advance. Oh well, next time.

This is an artist’s rendition of Bagan at sunset probably from the viewpoint of a hot air balloon. Mark wanted to go in Balloons Over Bagan, but the season started the day we left Burma, and tickets were sold out months in advance. Oh well, next time.

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This nice man showed us upstairs to a better view.

This nice man showed us upstairs to a better view.

And a better view it was.

And a better view it was.

Just beware of wasps nests

Just beware of wasps nests…

and Tokay geckos

…and Tokay geckos

More friendly vendors

More friendly vendors who we bought art from.

We then headed for a temple that was one of the most famous in Bagan, kind of like the Shwedagon of Bagan as is evident here.

We then headed for a temple that was one of the most famous in Bagan, kind of like the Shwedagon of Bagan as is evident here.

Temple detail

Temple detail

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Praying nun

Praying nun

Smoking monk

Smoking monk

Maybe it was because we were hungry, thirsty, and sore from cycling over a million bumps, but there was a strange feeling at this temple. I didn’t take pictures of many people, but there were a lot of people begging for money and trying to giving us ‘presents’ we didn’t want so we’d buy something from them. It was the only temple that felt like that, and the sketchiest people we met in Burma outside Yangon. The expression on the face of the monk above gives you an example of the not-so-welcoming atmosphere.

It definitely had unique details

Unique temple details…

...and different perspectives, but it was time to get out of there.

…and different perspectives, but it was time to get out of there.

Little did we know at lunch that day that we'd discover Mandalay Red, a 7% alcohol beer that was very tasty and went down all too well in the heat of the day.

Little did we know at lunch that day that we’d discover Mandalay Red, a 7% alcohol beer that was very tasty and went down all too well in the heat of the day.

After 2 Mandalay Reds, we rode to a temple that supposedly had good sunsets.

After 2 Mandalay Reds, we rode to a temple that supposedly had good sunsets.

Ahh Bagan!

Ahh Bagan!

So beautiful!

So beautiful!

IMG_4025As you can see, it was starting to get dark and we were about a 7 kilometer, bumpy, and traffic filled ride away from our hotel. On my bike, I could only use one pedal. Let the adventure begin!

By the time we got back it was dark, and we were exhausted, but still okay for a refreshing dip in the pool and a couple more Mandalay Reds to send us to an early slumber.

Buddhist Temples, Benevolent People, and Boat Rides in Beautiful Bagan

Buddhist Temples, Benevolent People, and Boat Rides in Beautiful Bagan

Day 1 in Bagan: October 5, 2012

After being in Yangon and its surrounds, Mark and I took the night bus to Bagan. Bagan is a city in Burma known for having more than 3,000 remains of its ancient Buddhist temples. We’d seen stunning pictures, but no picture could compare to the vast amount of beautiful temples it offered all in one place.

Our first glimpse of one of the many temples at 4:00 am

Our first glimpse of one of the many temples at 4:00 am

We arrived at 4:00 am hopped in a jalopy and headed down dark and bumpy dirt roads to Kaday Aung Hotel http://www.kadayaunghotel.com/ in New Bagan. The staff was extremely friendly and set us up in a superior room ($45USD) upon arrival. We slept until around 8 am and got up for a complimentary breakfast in the outdoor dining room. Mark cracked me up by going barefoot and saying, “Whop, whop, whop, whop an, Panyaden style.” (Panyaden is the school where we work in Chiang Mai. Throughout the day neither teachers nor students wear shoes in the classrooms, and usually not outdoors either. It’s healthier for the feet.)

This was our view from the superior room porch. Lovely!

This was our view from the superior room porch. Lovely!

After our leisurely breakfast we got maps and information from the hotel staff, rented mountain bikes that looked sturdy, but we soon found were not strong enough for the bumpy roads, and were off to see the temples.

At our first temple we stopped and also shopped.

At our first temple we stopped and also shopped.

There were hundreds of intricate hand painted fabrics.

There were hundreds of intricate hand painted fabrics.

As usual there were English signs almost correctly written, but still were a bit off.

As usual there were English signs almost correctly written, but still were a bit off.

Friendly people everywhere.

Friendly people everywhere.

We rode on and passed hundreds of stupas like this.

We rode on and passed hundreds of stupas like this. Babies weren’t always present.

Inside the temples we kept seeing this guy.

Inside the temples we kept seeing this guy.

Much like in Thailand, in Burma the day of the week you were born is culturally significant. Each day of the week is associated with different symbolism, in Burma, it’s an animal. In this temple you make an offering to your animal, and then switch on a light.

Monday, my day of birth, was represented by a tiger.

Monday, my day of birth, was represented by a tiger.

Other days of the week were singha and elephant.

Other days of the week were singha and elephant.

More shopping. Our philosophy was to share the wealth and buy from many different vendors.

More shopping. Our philosophy was to share the wealth and buy from many different vendors.

We were looking in this woman's shop as the heat of the midday was beating down.

We were looking in this woman’s shop as the heat of the midday was beating down.

She mixed up some thanaka paste with the thanaka root...

She mixed up some thanaka paste with the thanaka root…

...and applied it to my face in leaf patterns.

…and applied it to my face in leaf patterns.

It did make me cooler. She was happy I liked it and gave me some paste. She didn't speak English and I don't speak Burmese, but we understood each other. People everywhere were delightful.

It did make me cooler. She was happy I liked it and gave me some paste. I bought some shirts from her too. She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Burmese, but we understood each other. People everywhere were delightful. 

We then headed down to the river for lunch where I met these new friends.

We then headed down to the river for lunch where I met these new friends.

So cute!

So cute!

Mark and I were offered to take a cruise out on the river. It was inexpensive, would give us a unique perspective on the temples, and would be much cooler than cycling.

Mark and I were offered to take a cruise out on the river. It was inexpensive, would give us a unique perspective on the temples, and would be much cooler than cycling.

Our boat driver

Our boat driver on our deafeningly loud boat.

Temple views from the river

Temple views from the river

Bathing and doing laundry at the river

Doing laundry at the river

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Bathing and staying cool

Bathing and staying cool

Life on the river

Life on the river

It's hard to see from this picture the dozens of temples in view.

It’s hard to see from this picture the dozens of temples in view.

Our way back to shore

Our way back to shore

I adored this gentle child.

I adored this gentle child.

I bought some handmade postcards form her? him? I wasn't sure.

I bought some handmade postcards from her? him? I wasn’t sure.

Heading back to our hotel we passed a few hundred more temples.

Heading back to our hotel we passed a few hundred more temples.

After day one it was confirmed: we love Bagan!

After day one it was confirmed: we love Bagan!

The Shwedagon is not a Burmese Deodorant

The Shwedagon is not a Burmese Deodorant

The Shwedagon at night

The Shwedagon Paya is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma. It is an ancient structure originally built between the 6th – 10th century, though has been rebuilt due to earthquakes and other disasters. In its enormous golden form it contains relics of the Buddha, over 2000 rubies, and over 5000 diamonds, including one 76 carat diamond at the top. Needless to say, it is an impressive sight.

Mark and I arrived during a rainstorm in the late afternoon and stayed to see it lit up after sunset. The storm had cooled off the tiles under our bare feet. I enjoyed finding Monday, the day I was born, is the tiger in Burmese tradition. In Thailand, and apparently Burma, it is important to know which day of the week you were born. There are different Buddhas and colors in Thailand, and in Burma, the were also different animals that represent each of the days of the week. I poured water over the Monday Buddha image, gave it my flower offering, and bowed before it.

My pictures should give a fairly good visual sense of what it was like, without its sheer magnitude. Here is a little text to go with the photos: Golden temple beauty was available from every angle. I was enchanted by the pink robed novice monks and how the older children looked out for the younger ones. An adorable little girl liked making the sound of the temple bells, “Gonnnng.” The volunteer cleaning brigade swept the temple as swiftly as if they were line dancing. The psychedelic/shlockified Buddhas had lights that danced around their enlightened heads. The bright golden stupas looked magnificent lit up against the darkening sky. It was time to leave when it felt like the monk was getting a bit too friendly.

Mark and I joked that Shwedagon or Sweat-be-gone would be a great name for a Burmese deodorant – strong enough for a Buddha, made for a man.

If you go to Burma, it is well worth the trip to visit the Shwedagon in all its golden grandeur.

Democracy Now? A Preposterously Brief Burmese History

Democracy Now? A Preposterously Brief Burmese History

Today, as I breathe a far away sigh of relief to see the words ‘President Barack Obama for another 4 years’, it reminds me of just how lucky I am. I have the luxury of voting, the luxury of choosing to live in another country, and the luxury to travel to almost anywhere in the world freely with my US passport.

“People in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.” Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech.

Nowhere does this seem more relevant than the country I just visited, Burma (Myanmar).

Burma’s politics are contradictory, backwards, confusing, and very difficult to explain. This is my interpretation from a variety of sources. I have tried to be as accurate as possible, but often it is difficult to know what is really happening there based on the news. I will skip its old history and start around 100 years ago.

After being a British colony from 1886 – 1947  Burma fell under the rule of U Nu and things started going downhill. In 1958 it fell under the horrible dictatorship of Ne Win for essentially 30 years and things got progressively worse.

1988 – On 8.8.88 civilians non-violently demonstrated against the government and at least 3,000 people were massacred. Aung San Suu Kyi had returned from England to see her ill mother. She spoke out at the protests on 8.8.88 and became the secretary-general of the National League of Democracy, who won general elections. The military would not relinquish their power and essentially quashed democracy for the foreseeable future.

Despite a continued military rule, Suu Kyi was/is seen as a hope for Burma’s future. In 1989 she was put under house arrest, where she remained for the better part of 20 years. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize.

(image from http://rlv.zcache.com/)

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, because Burmese government committed multitudes of human rights abuses on its own people, many foreign countries banned travel, investment, and any kind of economics in the country.

2007 – Prices of gas and petrol rose more than 200%, which made all goods expensive. This caused the ‘Saffron Revolution’, which was neither saffron nor a revolution but a protest by 50,000 monks (whose robes are  burgundy in Burma). There was widely televised footage of the government killing monks in the street. At least 30 monks were killed.

2008 – Cyclone Nargis destroyed much around Yangon killing at least 140,000 and leaving many others  homeless. When other countries stepped in to help, the Myanmar government refused any type of aid for its people.

2010 – ‘Elections’ showed that the military-backed party ‘won’. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days later. Since these elections, government reforms have started taking place. Burma’s military rule has been replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government. I’m not sure how different that is, but it sounds like a step in the right direction on the ‘roadmap to democracy’.

Now it’s November 2012 – Violence in Rahkhine state has been in the news for the past few months on a daily basis. Foreign investment has started happening, which could be good or go completely wrong.

I have read that Burma “warmly welcomes” President Obama’s visit next week. He is the first US President to visit Burma. He would like to encourage the country in its ‘democratic transition’.

Burmese leader Thein Sein said he would accept Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people vote for her in the next election in 2015.

So what will Burma’s future be? I don’t know. I just knew it seemed like a good time to visit my neighbor while in transition for what will hopefully be changes for the better. Travel restrictions have lessened in the main tourist areas, though special permits are needed for parts of the country and other parts are still off limits. In a few years Burma could be a very different place, some parts for the better, other parts could be worse.

Despite its horrible government, the people are absolutely lovely, the country is incredibly picturesque, and there was and air of innocence that felt a little bit like stepping back in time. It is hard to believe that in a place where people have faced such atrocities that they could be so genuinely kind, but they were. As with any country, especially Burma and the US, the government and the news do not paint an accurate portrait of its people.

I wish Burma luck on achieving democracy, stability, and peace. The people deserve it.

Is It Burma or Myanmar?

Is It Burma or Myanmar?

This is the country whose pictures prompted my desire to travel to SE Asia many years ago, but whose political situation kept me from visiting the country back in 2000-2001 when I traveled throughout the region.

So, what country am I speaking of? Is it Burma or Myanmar? Well, to answer that question, I will attempt to show why answering that question is more confusing than one might think.

After British colonial rule, and the dictatorships that followed, in 1989 Burma’s name was changed by the government to Myanmar. Apparently, the United Nations refers to the country as Myanmar for this very reason. However, the CIA World Factbook calls the country Burma.

NPR has this to say:

The U.S. is among the nations that choose not to refer to the nation as Myanmar. “Out of support for the democratic opposition,” and its victory in a 1990 parliamentary election — the results of which were annulled by the military rulers — “the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma,’ ” the State Department says.

The BBC (which still refers to the country only as Burma) writes that:

“Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar. They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics. … If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says. …”

What? Burma and Myanmar mean the same thing? How did the locals corrupt the word so much? Burma and Myanmar sound nothing alike.

However, I will take my cue from Aung San Suu Kyi who prefers Burma because it is a name that was changed without reference to its people. (According to Lonely Planet, who choose to use both names.)

So, which one is it? Now that you have some information, I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Regardless of what you call it, I just traveled there for 18 days. The next several blog posts will be dedicated to Burma (or Myanmar), Thailand’s neighbor to the west. In case you are wondering in Thailand they refer to it as pratet pama  ประเทศพม่า.