Bagan and Inle Lake
Bagan is a fascinating place full of Buddhist temples and stupas dating back to the 1000s. There are over a thousand scattered throughout a lovely, wild plain. Some are decorated with interesting wall paintings (like one of the Portuguese traders who are depicted as twice the size of the Burmese, with beards and giant long noses) and ornate sculptural flourishes, and some have gold stupas on top, but most are in an attractively semi-ruined state. You can climb to the top of some of them and get a wonderful view of temples as far as the eye can see. Since they’re spread out over a large swathe of land, the best way to get around to see them is by horse and cart. I guess you could also rent a taxi but that’s less fun. The carts are actually quite comfortably cushioned and oddly the horses don’t really smell bad. The first day we tried to see as much as we could since we weren’t sure if we’d be able to change our flight to have an extra day. None of us (except for Super Maia) were feeling that hot, Marco and I since we were up all night with sick Francesco (Burma Belly or Airport Water), who was conked out in the back of the cart for most of the day.
We managed to change our flight in the end and took it easier the next day, spending the morning at the hotel pool (although the water was too cold to go in) and then visitng some out-of-the-way, less famous temples in the afternoon. That was my favorite part, because the temples we saw were very beautiful, but there were no hordes of souvenir hawkers out front – just the temple caretaker tending his goats. (Some very cute high-jumping baby goats too). It was nice to wander around inside the ancient temple and really get a feel for how it must have been in the past.
Our last stop was Inle Lake. I liked it so much there that I was sorry I thought it necessary to add a day to Bagan and take one away from the lake. It’s not that easy to reach – we flew early in the morning to a town an hour away from the lake, and then it was another 45 minutes by boat to reach our hotel, which was on stilts in the middle of the lake.
(Actually in terms of getting around we took a lot of flights because getting to each of these places would have required a 10 or 12 hour car ride on scary roads. Not that the idea of internal flights in such a messed-up country is not scary).
We had lunch in the main town on the lake and went to the pharmacy for some parasite medicine for Francesco before heading toward our hotel. We found a restaurant that had amazingly authentic Italian food (gnocchi with butter and sage, fresh tagliatelle with ragu) which was a comfort after the greasy curries. It turns out that a woman visiting from Bologna taught them how to cook Italian food and sent them seeds to grow basil and oregano.
So after a satisfying lunch, we went by motorboat across the lake to our hotel. The lake is really lovely, peaceful and serene. The local fishermen have a way of steering their boats with one leg while standing up. It sounds weird but looks very graceful. Before arriving at the hotel we stopped at a pagoda where the monks, in their free time, have taught cats to jump through hoops. That was a big hit for the kids!
We passed through some villages on stilts on the way to the hotel. Even though the people who live there are clearly quite poor, those villages are so beautiful. I think it had to do with the time of day – late afternoon – but somehow the reflection of the warm light on the water and houses, the fresh breeze and the peacefulness of village life gives it all a magical quality. The houses are all made of wood, kind of rickety and crooked but sometimes decorated with flowers and painted shutters. Everybody knows how to row a boat, even small children, who row themselves home from school.
We spent the next day going around visiting the lake villages, stopping at pagodas and workshops where people were making cloth from silk, cotton and lotus fibers and another where young ladies were making cheroots – little cigars seasoned with tamarind, clove, brown sugar and anise. They reminded me of the cigarette girls in Carmen, especially when our boat driver was flirting with the prettiest girl.
We had to leave our beautiful hotel (our bungalow had the best view of the lake) at dawn to get to the airport in time. It was incredibly cold in the boat on the way back – I had on a t-shirt, long underwear shirt, sweater, jeans, wool hat and a blanket wrapped around me but I was STILL cold. However, it was very beautiful –foggy and very quiet, with fishermen peacefully fishing on the lake as the sun rose.
We spent one last night in Yangon at a formerly grand old hotel that was well past its prime but therefore full of character and came back fairly exhausted from so many early morning flights, rushing from one place to another and parasites. Next time I’d go without small children and with more time to really explore, but in the end it was well worth it.