Beautiful Bagan unveiled

Myanmar in my mind

Still lightheaded from the astonishing beauty of Old Bagan, Bretha, our new-found Egyptian friend Aya, and I headed to the nearby town of Nyaung U for afternoon snacks.

Bretha asked the van driver where he and his fellow drivers usually eat, not some place where they would take tourists. He obliged and dropped us at a roadside eatery.

At a mohinga noodle place in Nyaung U

Over mohinga noodles, the three of us wondered why Buddhist temples of all shapes and sizes were scattered across 104 square kilometers of green plains in Bagan, mirroring the stars overhead.

It is said that at the height of the Pagan Kingdom in the 13th century, more than 10,000 sacred structures were built, but only 2,000 remained to this day, surviving harsh weather and natural calamities like the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in August of 2016 (a year after this trip).

The plains of Bagan are dotted with some 2,000 ancient temples.

Still, seeing a handful of the surviving temples was a humbling experience, knowing that these monuments for the gods, marvels of architecture and engineering, had been here for so long and for certain will outlast us along with the fleeting technology of our kind.

Having emptied our noodle bowls, we considered going to the public market, where local goods such as the magical kwun-ya, the yellowish cosmetic paste called thanaka, rolled tobacco, and mystery meat were traded.

A Nyaung U woman applies thanaka, a traditional cosmetic paste, on Bretha’s cheeks.

Aya, in her delicate hijab, listened intently as Bretha described our trip to the market in Nyaung-U earlier that morning before we checked in at the hotel. There was much to see and do at Mani Sithu Market.

We decided to go there the next day as it was getting late in the afternoon. As we stepped out of the eatery, Aya told Bretha within earshot: “It’s my first time to eat street food. Thank you.”

The majestic Thatbyinnyu Temple

Heartbreak and atonement

The next morning, we did more temple hunting under Bagan’s gray, cloudy skies. The plan was to ride bicycles to visit temples we missed in the previous day’s van tour. But the sandy trails and intermittent drizzle posed several challenges, so we opted to go on foot.

Somewhere past the grandeur of Thatbyinnyu Temple, I absentmindedly asked our friend: “So Aya, why is it you’re traveling alone? To nurse a heartbreak?”

On foot in overcast Bagan. Thatbyinnyu Temple in the background.

“Actually, yes,” Aya, stopping in her tracks, said gingerly, adding she had just split up with her fiance, and smiled.

Bretha glared at me, and turned to Aya apologetically, “Don’t mind him, I think yesterday’s betel nut hasn’t worn off yet.”

Bretha took it from there and the two women talked about what women talk about while admiring the beauty and incorporeal qualities of temples.

On Sulamani Temple. What is that pyramid-shaped structure up ahead?

We went inside must-see structures, such as the elegant Sulamani Temple. As we scaled the upper decks, the sight of an even more massive pyramid-shaped temple emerged in the distance.

No stranger to pyramids, even our Egyptian friend was impressed at the sight. We decided to make it our last stop.

As we explored the brick interiors of the “pyramid,” something felt oddly familiar, as though we’d seen it before. In our past lives, perhaps? Alas, ancient souls we must be, all three of us!

Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan’s biggest, looms large

But our musings were cut short when we realized that indeed we’d been here yesterday, during the van tour, and by some sort of sorcery, we found our way back.

I’d later learn that this structure, Dhammayangyi, the largest Buddhist temple in Bagan, was built as an act of atonement by the king who came to power by killing his father and elder brother.

The king himself was assassinated, so construction was halted and the temple remains unfinished to this day, a tragic monument to avarice and remorse.

An herd of cows in the plains of Old Bagan.

Where are we from?

We headed back to the hotel via a different path, passing through smaller sacred structures, some inhabited by goats and surrounded by cattle and strays, where smiling children with probing eyes, faces smeared with thanaka, would approach us, asking, “Where you from?”

I would exclaim, “We’re from the Philippines!” To our suprise, the child would show us a Philippine bill or coin, then segued whether we wanted some trinkets as souvenirs.

We soon realized that every child we’ve encountered since day one here in Bagan would say, “Where you from?” Such was their classic opening line, their marketing hook. Each time we declined, and each time sullen eyes would follow us as we walked away.

Dogs of Bagan
Favorite pastime in an ancient sandlot
Cover and distance

“Since you travel a lot,” Bretha asked Aya, “Have you ever felt discriminated against?”

Aya revealed she does get some odd stares now and then because of her hijab, which, while it protects her head from the elements, does keep some types of people at a distance. “This hijab,” Aya said, “it’s both a blessing and a curse.”

Since Aya was flying back to Yangon that afternoon, the three of us decided to drop by the market before going back to the hotel for check out.

Rainy day at Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U

As in most of Myanmar, the locals with kwan-yu stained mouths and teeth still wore their longyis. The market air filled with scents and odors — spices, produce, firewood smoke, freshly rolled tobacco, rain-drenched earth.

A familiar sight caught my eye and tingled my nerves: palm-sized heart-shaped leaves, white powdery slake, and chopped nuts. I turned to Bretha and Aya: “Where you from, ladies? Would you like some kwun-ya?”

The two beautiful women exchanged meaningful, mischievous glances and beamed their pearly whites.

Going home

Bagan for Vagabonds

Myanmar in my mind

As soon as the doors of the sleeper bus opened, touts in sarong-like garments called longyis milled around the passengers who had traveled 10 hours overnight from Yangon, offering taxi rides to Old Bagan or neighboring Nyaung-Yu.

Just as what an online travel guide had warned. Bretha and I squeezed cautiously through the mob at the New Bagan Bus Station, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, or else that tout would lock in on us and follow us to the ends of the earth until we relented.

Luckily, no one took an interest in travelers who looked like locals with tiny backpacks, so we slipped unnoticed and picked a quiet spot near the stalls that had just opened shop. It was probably around 5 or 6 a.m., so we had some hot milk tea for warmth.

Life-changing chewables

As we waited for the mob to dissipate, I noticed a Burmese teen rolling powdered leaves with crushed brown fillings. “Momma!” I exclaimed at Bretha, bringing memories from two years ago when I first chewed betel nut in Sagada. Here, they called it kwun-ya or kun-ja, and I asked the young man for a set of chewables.

Laying betel leaves on a counter, he spread a layer of slake lime from an oddly shaped mortar and pestle, then sprinkled chopped areca nuts on each leaf. He took one leaf, rolled it with his dexterous lime-caked fingers, and, flashing a smile stained dark red, handed me a lovely roll of organic Burmese chewables.

As was the custom, I, brimming with confidence, popped one kwun-ya in my mouth and chewed vigorously. The next thing I knew, my head was buzzing. “You okay?” Bretha said. I chewed one last time before I spat everything out rapid fire at a ditch. “Wan’t some?” I asked Bretha. She declined. In hindsight, it was the right thing to do.

After a 10-hour bus ride from Yangon, “pre-breakfast” of kwun-ya or kun-ja at the Bagan Bus Station that a young Burmese man prepared. Made of betel leaf filled with chopped areca nuts and slake lime, these chewables are a favorite among Burmese locals.

It was at this point that a driver approached us and offered to take us to Old Bagan, and I, lightheaded from the extra-strong betel nut now swirling in my head, nodded with hardly any resistance.

Before Bretha could protest, the driver, who like every other local was chewing kwun-ya, led us to the back of the terminal where a horse cart was waiting.

Yes, a horse cart. After a few long minutes of deliberation, I finally persuaded Bretha that this was a good ride. And so our slow motion trip to the ancient city of Bagan begun.

A very long trip

After what seemed like an eternity on the cart — not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers — we were dropped at the edge of Old Bagan, in Nyaung-U.

…not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers…

I looked at the horse, and yes, did I feel a bit sorry for the poor thing, but on the other hand, his human must do this for a living. Bretha and I then headed on foot to the public market.

It was just several minutes after the break of dawn, and local vendors and buyers in their traditional garbs went about the morning’s trade at a frenetic pace. Some traders were still unloading their precious cargo.

Elderly Bagan woman selling root crops in Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U

One would quickly notice that the trappings of modern life have not yet taken over, and the Old World was still much evident, at least here in the Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U.

Stalls were overflowing with produce and other items, some arranged meticulously in circular patterns inside baskets, while others such as root crops and meat were laid down on the ground.

Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form. We saw a group of men rolling dried local cigars, and a few meters away a baker was intently kneading local bread on a broad table blanketed with flour.

Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form.

A baker kneads local bread in Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U

As we ventured into the market’s interior we, chanced upon a rice noodle and fish soup dish an elderly woman served piping hot, the same dish a group of monks were enjoying at the next table. And so we ordered a bowl each, which came with local sausages, and flavored to taste with slices of lemon, chopped scallions and chili paste.

We learned later what it was called: mohinga noodles and fish-based soup infused with lemongrass, an irresistible Burmese staple. How we’d love to let the kids have a taste of this noodle dish, but they have to stay behind back home as the school year had begun.

For now, Bretha and I will enjoy the reason for the trip: the 15th year since we tied the knot. And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.

Breakfast before Bagan: a Burmese woman pours hot broth into a bowl of mohinga noodles at a stall in Nyaung-U public market

And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.

Water carrier

Hello there, stranger

A taxicab then took us to a resort hotel that I had booked for a really low off-season price. To our suprise, the resort was one of understated elegance, situated along the Irrawaddy River at a dedicated site with other early post-colonial structures that now offered accommodations. A few yard shrines, ancient but well-preserved, dotted the four-hectare Aye Yar River View Resort.

After taking our backpacks to our room, I returned to the lobby and found Bretha chatting with a guest wearing a hijab at the lobby. We shall call her Aya. Since she was also doing the day tour in and around the temples, she offered to share her van with us and just split the fee.

As a couple, we don’t usually mingle with other travelers, much more get cozy with strangers, but we hit it off with Aya rather quickly.

Ancient structures at the Aye Yar River View Resort

Off to the temples

“Traveling alone?” I asked mindlessly while waiting for the van at the lobby. Aya nodded, adding she was on a business trip in Yangon and decided to fly to Bagan for the weekend while her peers stayed behind.

Aya is from Egypt but was working in Dubai, and while her work in the Middle East took her to different continents, her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.

…her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.

The van eased into the driveway, and we hopped on for the whole day tour in and around hundreds of centuries-old temples and shrines that would take us back to a once glorious time of kings and empires.

Old Bagan

(Another version of this article also published on SunStar Travel)