Upon arrival to Nyaung U, I jumped in a trishaw and asked to be taken to a guesthouse from my book. The driver agreed but as soon as we were approaching town, asked me if he could take me somewhere else. I surrendered and soon after I arrived at my hotel. I checked in, and highly considered taking the morning easy and having a quiet, relaxing day. I took a hot shower, and found myself packing my daypack and putting sunblock on. I had thought about taking a horse cart around the ruins for the day since I was quite tired from all the previous days of travel, but declined the offers from the reception of the hotel as well as the first two men that approached me in the street. Then, a man with perfectly round, innocent, curious eyes came up to me and asked if I needed a horse cart. Before I could even respond, he rattled off a number of facts, his name was Kyaw Kyaw, that his cushions were very comfortable, that he was from Old Bagan and had lived in the area his whole life, that he knew a lot about the temples and could tell me all that I wanted to know, that we could go to very famous temples, we could go to quiet temples with no one else, that…
I immediately liked him and his enthusiasm and friendliness so we agreed on a price for the day. Within 5 minutes of meeting him, he told me more about himself than most people tell me in a week. He was 38 years old, had 6 kids, and his father died while he was in university so he couldn't finish. He had been a trishaw driver for 10 years and had been a horse cart driver for 4 years now. I settled into the neon pink Minnie Mouse cushions and nodded as he continued his autobiographical monologue.
Bagan. What a place. Admittedly, in photos I’d seen before visiting, I hadn’t been sure what to expect – it was clear that there were a great number of temples in the area, but in photos you don’t realize that you’re getting a tiny tiny view of it. Panoramics don’t capture the grandeur and detail in each temple, and close-ups don’t do justice to the scale of the place. There are more than 4400 temples in the 42 sq km area that makes up the Bagan Archaeological Zone. It’s difficult to form a mental idea of what that means.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it even in the first hours of being in the area. We stopped at various temples and pagodas, many made of commonplace red brick, and Kyaw Kyaw explained what they were and what king had built them…until we went to one that I asked to stop at, and asked him what it was called. He stopped the horse cart, turned around, and with an expression that was grim yet laughing even while frowning, he said “I dunno!” and burst out laughing. He said, “Sorry miss, too many temples in Bagan, sometimes no name, and we don’t know who made it. Too too too many temples!”
As we trotted down the Bagan – Nyaung U road, catching glimpses of such wonders as Ananda Pahto and Taibyunnin, he showed me plants on the side of the road that were being grown for a government biodiesel project.
“Miss, sorry if rude, are you married?”
“But miss, you are very beautiful.”
“I am married.”
“I got married when I was 19.”
“You have only one wife?”
“Oooh yes! With one, enough problems. If two, I think I have to sleep horse cart!”
His laughter sounded almost like choking, as he constantly was chewing betel quids and in his complete laughter he needed to make sure the red liquid didn’t fly out of his mouth. As we approached Old Bagan, he asked me if I could lend him 200 kyat – USD 0.15. I said ok, and asked what for – “Lottery.” I laughed and said we would share if he won. He picked 2 and 5, making sure I was ok with his selection. I nodded and we rode on.
When we got to Taibyunnin, he consulted other horse carts and found that the winning numbers were 0 and 7. “Sorry miss, next time!” Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Two girls ran out to me with postcards to sell. I refused, and they asked me if they could walk with me. I said of course, but I wasn’t going to give them any money. They shook their hands vigorously and said, “No, miss, no money!” and grinned. They spoke excellent English and we were able to have quite a good conversation. Dii Dii and Ni Lah were both 8 years old and lived nearby; everyday afterschool they came to sell postcards to tourists. We entered Taibyunnin and walked very quickly through the halls, and my brilliant guides told me, “Small Buddha, small Buddha, Big Buddha.” Repeat. There was one particularly jolly Buddha, probably about 8 or 9 meters high, and Dii Dii turned to me with a grin that made her eyes disappear and said, “Same same you.”
We finished walking around the temple and we sat outside, and I made them cranes. They said that they wanted to come with me around the temples. I said it was ok with me but they had to ask Kyaw Kyaw. They yelled with delight and ran barefoot to where Kyaw Kyaw was taking a nap, and woke him up, jumping on him. He agreed immediately and all of a sudden what had been a spacious, quiet horse cart pulling me along became a loud, crowded vehicle with 4 kids piled on top of me. As we plodded along, Kyaw Kyaw turned to the kids and held out his palm, saying “You, 1000. You, 1000. Each pay 1000.” This made all the kids giggle and shake both hands back and forth, arguing “Noooo!”
The kids pretended that we were a happy family, Kyaw Kyaw was father, I was mother, and they were brother, sister, brother, baby. They taught me “Shideh”; Burmese for “I already have” – so I could say this to their peers who would try and sell me postcards. We visited several sites together, including a large pagoda on the bank of the river, and after a few hours, they returned to Taibyunnin because they were expected to come home having sold some postcards.
After visiting Dhammangyi Pahto, the largest of the temples at Bagan, which resembles a Mayan ruin, I asked Kyaw Kyaw to take me to Shwe San Daw Paya, which is listed in every guidebook as being the best place for sunset. It was the most horrible vision of tourism I had seen thus far in Myanmar; large tour buses crammed with German and Italian tourists blocked the entranceway, postcard vendors followed people around with aggressive tones in their voices, and the serenity of the other temples was replaced with noise and chaos. I decided to check out the view nonetheless, and managed to reach the base of the pagoda with minimal struggle. I looked up, and found that of the five tiers of the pagoda, the top 2 were already filled with people that looked like part of a jigsaw puzzle, and the people on the third were already starting to resemble sardines. There was still at least an hour before sunset. I decided to go all the way to the top anyway, because I was alone and thought I might be able to find a space anyway. The vertical steps with barely enough room to place a foot on were decidedly scary, and the metal handrail was gripped tightly by many people. I did make it to the top, and found a space, but after a few minutes of being pushed around by other tourists and listening to a cacophony of loud European languages, and realizing that the sunset wasn’t going to be spectacular due to nearly complete cloud cover, I descended and ran to Kyaw Kyaw who was surprised to see me so early, since I had been talking about sunset all day. I told him too many people, he laughed his throaty chuckle, and we went back to Nyaung U. I was at the point of sheer exhaustion and decided to take a nap before going out to dinner; I didn't wake up again that night