Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Path of Ancients

It was just before five in the morning and I was navigating a scooter through the dark, bumpy roads of Bagan. I swerved around a cow that sauntered in front of me. I was travelling toward Old Bagan to watch the sun rise. I had only a vague sense of where I was going. The world looks different in the black of morning, as the light on my scooter struggled to light a path in front of me.
A motorcycle pulled up next to me, and a young guy asked, “Are you going to watch the sunrise? I know the best spot…follow me.”

I didn’t say anything to him but followed along. I knew that the cost of his help would be listening to his sales pitch for his paintings, like a time-share hawker in Hawaii. I have quickly learned that everyone is a painter in Bagan.

We turned off at a temple just next to the main road. He lead me up a narrow passageway of stone steps with the light from his mobile phone. As I climbed up through the tight space I felt like Indiana Jones, except I was wearing a ball cap instead of a fedora. And I didn't have a whip.
We popped out onto a small terrace and then climbed higher pulling ourselves up the outside of the temple, placing our feet carefully on ledges that were only half-a-brick wide. There were about six others already staking out a perch.

Sunrise over Bagan

From atop a temple to watch the sunrise

The sky began to lighten, as the sun prepared its grand entrance. Then slowly, like a shy child, the big ball of fire slowly rose above the horizon, colouring the vast plain that is Bagan. It is here, a thousand years ago, where more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed. Impressively, there are still more than 2,000 left standing. 

With the sun now warming the air, I climbed back down, and after listening to a pitch for some art, I hopped back on my scooter, and rode to nowhere. Curious, I turned down a dirt track, which a short way along had narrowed and was muddy. I turned the throttle to give the bike more power, so I wouldn’t get stuck, and put my feet close to the ground, so I wouldn’t fall over. Mud splashed up on my sandal clad feet. 

Carrying on, I realized no one was around and I didn’t have a map with me. What’s an adventure if you know where you’re going. A short distance away was a large temple. I climbed off my bike and started across a grassy field. Then I stopped and wondered if there were any harmful critters lurking in the grass. 

I thought of snakes. The first one to come to mind was a Burmese python. It took me a second to compute. Myanmar used to be called Burma, and so yes perhaps a Burmese python might be slithering nearby waiting to swallow or strangle me. I looked in the tree next to me and in the grass ahead of me. I didn’t see anything, but I listened to my overactive imagination and retreated. I drove my scooter through the bumpy field, thinking that if I had to I could outgun a python chasing me.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Arms wide open in Yangon

Morning is the best time to explore a city. The promise of a new day washes off its slumber. It was just before six in the morning in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and once its capital. The sun was struggling to get up when I stepped outside my hotel. Taxi! Taxi!, was the chorus that greeted me. 

I wanted my feet to do the exploring, so I carried on up Sule Pagoda Road toward the aptly named Sule Pagoda, with its gold covered Stupa rising up in the middle of a traffic circle. I passed weathered colonial buildings that spoke of past grandeur now fading into history. “Welcome to Luxury,” read the large sign on a building under construction. The promise of a new grandeur, perhaps.  

Sule Pagoda

Next to the Pagoda, a few buses idled while their conductors called out like auctioneers looking for new fares. Close by, I came to the square-shaped Maha Bandoola Garden, named after a war hero, who fought the British in the first Anglo-Burmese War in the 1820s. In one part of the park a large group of people were doing aerobics, moving to the sound of music that drifted from a portable music player. Others were doing tai chi, while others still were sitting in quiet reflection.

In the middle of the park was a tall obelisk commemorating Burmese independence from Britain in 1948. Apparently, it replaced a statue of Queen Victoria. Sitting at the base of the obelisk was a young man. When he saw me, he smiled and said good morning. I reached out and shook his hand. He told me his name was Ko. I complemented him on his good English. He said he learned it from tourists. This is when I expected him to hit me with a hard sales pitch to be my tour guide, or sell me some postcards or lead me to his uncle’s shop. But he never went there. We talked some more and then just as I about to walk away, he smiled and said. “In a while crocodile.” A phrase no doubt learned from the tourists.

Ko Ko
Ko Ko

I stopped to talk to three other men. They pointed at the tall moment and spoke of independence from Britain. There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. They were complimentary of the British, saying of them that they are very disciplined. The men come here many mornings and walk around the park. Very disciplined themselves, I thought.

On my way out of the park, a man, who could be a paler twin of James Earl Jones, wished me a good morning, as did a woman.  How could it be, I wondered, that such a kind people could have been subjected to a regime for decades that was repressively the antithesis of kind. It seemed cruelly unfair.

There’s a welcoming spirit in Myanmar, and its arms are wide open.

Yangon is home to the largest number of colonial buildings in southeast Asia. Many of them have been abandoned. Here nature is reclaiming itself