Bagan, Myanmar – February 5, 2018
Bagan is one of the most mystical places I’ve ever seen. Land of over 4,000 ancient temples, we’ve been scootering around for the last 3 days, and still are happening upon new places everywhere we go.
Every day consists of waking up at 5:45am, chugging coffee, renting $3 electric bikes, and scooting past tall dark monuments to find the perfect sunrise spot to watch the sun come up over the smoky pink mountains and silhouetted minarets. Just as you thought you’ve witnessed all the magic, huge hot air balloons rise through blankets of fog laid thickly amongst the trees, up over the red brick temples, then effortlessly overhead.
During the day, you’re squinting through dark shades, drinking bottled water after bottled water, constantly applying chapstick, and smiling on crunchy sand that gets kicked up into your teeth while scooting across the sand dunes. However, in the mornings and evenings, it’s much colder here than you would expect, as this part of Myanmar has an arid desert climate. It feels like camping—messy hair, puffy eyes, cradling steaming cups of coffee to keep warm.
A girl in my hostel gifted me a super warm, super Asian, super embarrassing sweater for my journey north, saying “I won’t be needing this anymore.” It features a big fuzzy oversized hood and a massive print of a pirate-cow character that’s either licking an ice-cream cone or eating a chicken wing… we can’t be sure.
Local grass-hut villagers are selling home made potato chips, roasted peanuts (the best peanuts I’ve ever had in my life), wood carvings, sand-paintings, zodiac charts, and traditional artisan lacquerware. They sit on bamboo sling chairs with their whole family, coo-ing at you to come in and try their lassis, curries, fish head soups, dangling sausages, and avocado salads. **Side note: if you have a peanut allergy, probably just cross Myanmar off your list, because literally EVERYTHING here contains peanuts.**
Older men smile broadly through their blood-covered teeth. Yes, BLOODY teeth! Here, in Myanmar, the men chew on red Betel Nut rolled in leaves to give them a bit of a zing. They chaw on the leaf pouches and spit red all over the concrete. Thank Buddha a girl at my hostel warned me about this, or I would have been absolutely startled.
They have some funny fashion trends here, including painting designs on their faces with yellow sap-sunblock, flannel pajama sets, men in skirts, extra-long finger nails, fuzzy hair shaved like Troll dolls, notched eyebrows, red teeth and the most extravagant (perturbing, in my opinion) of them all—clean shaven faces flaunting long white mole-hairs left to grow as lengthy and lavishly as they possibly can.
Temple complexes are full of barefooted tourists and locals alike, all admiring the ancient statues and painted walls made of palm oil or egg paints and all-natural dyes from charcoal, red earth, gemstone powder, colorful beans, and indigo. The architect in me geeks out and gets all weak-in-the-knees over these ancient depictions.
Everywhere you look, there’s another stacked clay brick Temple. Riding through red-dusty dune trails you pass through lentil farms, prickly pair groves, cranberry-like fruit trees, blue desert cacti, and sour tamarind pods (used to make little sugar-drop candies that help with digestion). Farmers sit swatting lentils out of the husks, and horse-drawn carriages with jingling bells pull the blue-haired tourists around. Glimpsing local craftsman, you scoot through groves where hundreds of colorful sequined puppets and paper umbrellas catch the sun as they dangle beneath the boughs of pokey desert thorn trees.
It’s absolutely incredible to see these largely in-tact Temple complexes in every direction you look. This place is definitely a wonder of the ancient world, but somehow most temples are unregulated, and you can climb all over them, exploring small staircases and tunnels in order to catch the sunrise or sunset. I’m sure in the next few years this place will come under lock and key, demanding high entrance fees and enforcing boundaries, but for now we’re enjoying this pristine place with hardly any tourists, super-low prices, and freedom to roam/scoot/climb wherever we please!
Alena Netia Horowitz