The next day I just don’t have the energy for being beaten down by the sun all day, so I hire a man with a horse and cart and sit in bumpy padded luxury. We head to farther-flung sights, but I’m already getting temple fatigue. Some of the temples have beautiful 13th-century drawings on the inside, but you’d need to be familiar with Buddhist lore to get much out of them.
Once again, I’m finding that the places I get most out of are those where I’m allowed to sit and rest, and to chat to people who don’t suddenly change tack and start laying out lacquerware or paintings, leaving me with the guilty dilemma – did they really take me around for free? Or do I have to buy something in return? Because it does happen, I don’t want to be too quick to shoo away anyone who starts up a conversation, but just as I think I’ve got the hang of it, I get talked into buying some lacquerware at what must be a damn good price for the seller, given that I quickly get swarmed by every single seller within a one mile radius.
The sunset of the neverending sand paintings shows silhouetted temples as far as the eye can see, though these are only a handful of over 2,000 temples, many still used by worshippers today. Out here, though, the skyline is dominated, stamped all over really, by an ugly red-brick structure some 60 metres tall. This is the Bagan Viewing Tower, built by “independent entrepreneur” (and close friend of General Than Shwe) Tay Za.
According to this website, the tower “has now emerged to accord a unique panoramic view of the ancient kingdoms and their environs. It’s a vision of rare exotic beauty, a vision of a legendary past, a vision of a great king. It’s unlike anything you have ever seen.” Which is not true, because I’ve seen egregious eyesores before. Still, as the old joke goes, “Why’s the Bagan Viewing Tower the best place to see Bagan?” “Because if you’re there, you can’t see the Bagan Viewing Tower”.
The horse, and driver, are about to expire, so I let them take me home for curry. After being invited for tea at an earnest young man’s house “any time you are in Mrauk U”, which may well be never, I head home.
The next day, having tried and failed to drum up interest in a shared taxi to Mount Popa (and got up 2 hours after the sole pick-up leaves), is pretty free. I hire a bike and wander in the general direction of Old Bagan, cycling around in circles until I can feasibly go for lunch.
I end up somewhere lovely, opposite the Lonely Planet-stamped place. They’re warm and friendly, and I could have filled up just fine on the “presents” that keep coming. It’s a family enterprise, and with 7 daughters and 1 son it’s quite a family. The youngest daughter potters around firing a toy gun and putting her skirt over her head, while the walls are heavy with the elder daughters’ graduation photos.
The food is beautiful – charcoal slow-roasted aubergine mashed with garlic, peanuts and salt. I also try a little of their “guacamole” – locally grown avocado that’s rich and silky and absolutely divine. Food in Myanmar is strongly influenced by each of its neighbours, and draws also from the diverse ethnic background of the country. Access to beautifully fresh ingredients doesn’t harm either.
From here on June 10th 2011.