Yeah, it’s a pretty picturesque place, but for me, these 9th century Buddhist ruins, cool as there were, were only part of the story. The people of Bagan were also awesome to interact with, which is sort of a rarity for a traveler. If we’re being honest here, most local people who talk to you when you’re traveling are trying to sell you something. It’s pretty rare to travel in the developing world and have somebody talk to you with no ulterior motive. You have to get pretty far off the beaten path for that. That is what makes Burma so great. Burma is, as a whole, still pretty far off the beaten path. The Burmese won’t harass you to buy things (usually) and there are lots of chances to have actual interactions with them. Maybe it’s just that they aren’t jaded yet.
One of the first things I saw when I got to my accommodations was a single file line of monks walking through the street. They were ordered from oldest to youngest, and they were all carrying large black pots. People from every building came out to the curb to meet them with a big pot of rice. The monks would open the lid of their pots, and the people of the community would give them a spoonful of rice. This is apparently called ‘giving alms’. It was interesting to watch. The monks walked in total silence as they did this, and there was not a single structure whose occupants were not participating. Here's a few pictures of the bros at the end of the line.
The Monk Haircut Peter Almost Got
The next morning, after sunrise, I wanted to see it again, but I wasn’t sure where to go. I had seen a large monastery off the road a little ways, on the west side of Bagan, so I decided to go there. The monks live there, right? They have to come back some time.
We headed over, but the monks weren’t there. That was fine, we could wait. In the meantime we took our shoes off and walked around the grounds of the monastery. It was an interesting place, but I had seen similar things in Cambodia. The differences between the two places were interesting.
Outside the monastery were a crowd of maybe 10 Burmese people. I love their makeup, so I asked one of the mothers if I could take a photograph of her child. She laughed and agreed. The child probably hadn’t seen many cameras like mine, so he was a bit confused, but I still really liked the pictures.
Finally we had had enough waiting. Where are these damn monks?? We decided to (try to) ask one of the locals who were working in the market in front of the monastery where we might be able to find the monks. This was a bit more complicated a question than asking for a picture, so we were struggling to find the best sign language. The women sat there looking amused at our laughable game of charades
Then I had an idea. I ran my fist from my forehead back across my head with a “ZZZZZ” sound, to signify a shaved head. You know… because the monks are all bald.
“Ah!” One of the women exclaimed, “I know what these idiots want!” were my imagined subtitles for what she said to her friends.
She quickly walked off, gesturing for us to follow. I was hopping on one foot chasing her, still trying to get my shoes back on. She took us down a side street and into her village. Once we got into her village she began talking to people and knocking on windows to wake people up.
“Are these, like, the monks that went out last night?” we laughed to one another.
This awkward march through her village continued on for a while… longer than it should have. The way she was knocking on windows and calling to people made us into a bit of a spectacle. I still took a few low key photos as we went though.
Finally, she had found what she was looking for. But there were no monks. She had brought us to the village barber. She had apparently taken my head shaving gesture to mean that I wanted to have my head shaved. To me, that seems like the least logical conclusion that she could have come to. But hey, what do I know?
I cannot oversell how awkward I was in this moment. We were all laughing but we did our best to politely gesture “oops, sorry, no, bye”. The woman, and the family of this alleged barber that she had just woken up didn’t seem too put out though. They were also laughing. And as soon as we walked out from the village, onto the main road, there they were. Of course.
Peter Joins The Youth Soccer League
One of the first things that I came across in Bagan was a group of kids playing soccer on a dusty dirt field. The field was between a road and a dry, trash-filled river bed. The older kids, who were maybe ages 7 to 9, were in a pretty intense game. The younger kids who were hanging out there were apparently in charge of keeping score and refreshing the chalk lines on the field. There was a big bag of chalk in the shelter on the far side of the field that they would dip their little cups into in order refresh the lines.
At that point, I was traveling with a tall English gentlemen, so I asked if the 2 of us could join the game. The kids rolled with it, and assigned us to opposite teams. Playing in bare feet, it didn’t take long before I was absolutely covered in dust. And we played with them for a solid hour. Whenever my teammates wanted to call for the ball they made 2 kissing noises with their lips. That is how they said “hey!” in Burma. Even to call a waitress in a restaurant.
About 45 minutes into our match, a Burmese guy who looked to be about our age sat down on the bench to watch. Maybe he was somebody’s older brother. I invited him to join my team since the kids were starting to switch sides to gang up on me.
Eventually I was tired and sweaty, so I sat down on the bench for a quick rest. I took out my camera and started to flip through my photos but the kids had other ideas. They pointed at each other, telling me to take pictures of their friends. None of them wanted any pictures to be taken of themselves, but the prospect of me photographing one of their friends was apparently hilarious. These exchanges devolved into... well, this:
They loved seeing the pictures on my little screen when they finished beating each other up. Eventually I had to go though, and they were sad. It would have been cool to hang out with them more, but I had been there for almost 3 hours.
Cute 'Lil Burmese Babies
Out in the temples there were scattered Burmese people trying to sell things to me. I'd say that the ratio of vendors to temples is about 1:7. I normally hate being solicited, well, almost anything. But I actually bought something this time! I usually don’t, but this item was sufficiently cool. Hopefully I can get it all the way back to America with me. I have a long road ahead of me.
The people out there were nice because they didn’t push too hard to sell you things. I asked if I could take a picture of a few of their kids and they cheerfully obliged. One of them even smiled! Look at them – aren’t they cute?
Burmese Festival + Soccer Match
We had been told that there was a festival happening while we were in Bagan. I’m not sure what the occasion was, but we decided to go check it out. When we arrived it was 100% locals. I did not see a single other traveler. So we wandered in and tried some street food. It was actually amazing! I bought a pastry from a fat man and he taught me a few words in Burmese that I instantly forgot. It’s a hard language dude!
Walking through, I was thoroughly enjoying the Burmese pop that they were blasting. I was enjoying it so much in fact, that I actually took a moment to record it. Take a listen!
Tell me that's not catchy! If anybody has any idea what the name of the artist or the song is, please get in touch and tell me! This song gets stuck in my head, and it's the subject of some nostalgia at this point.
Anyway, we wandered through the market, eventually finding our way to the banks of the Irrawaddy river. On the river banks people were bathing and washing their clothes. Towering over the river was a large pagoda. We took a stroll through.
From inside the pagoda, we could hear a crowd cheering, and a voice coming through a speaker. We followed the sounds and before long we found ourselves at yet another soccer match. This one was apparently a pretty big deal though, because there was a big crowd. The crowd was huddled around a small dirt field enclosed by wooden sticks, and the game looked to be pretty intense... even if it was miniature.
The sole white person there, I took a few laps around the field and watched the last half of play. People looked a bit surprised to see me wandering around. Kids were perched on shoulders or in trees to get a better view. Every once in a while I would make eye contact with a kid staring at me. I'd throw him the peace sign and he'd grin and look away. The adults in the crowd were much more indifferent to my presence.
All the men in the crowd were chewing on something and then spitting onto the ground. It was like chewing tobacco, but the liquid they were spitting was red. On our way out we came across a stand where they were selling it. We wanted to try some but they were selling them in packs of 10. We weren't sure if we wanted to commit to buying 10 of these... whatever they were, but before we had a chance to make up our minds, they gave us each one to try for free.
The actual food looks just like a leaf wrapped around... something. Above is a picture of what goes inside. I honestly couldn't tell you what any of these things are, but it didn't taste bad. The white stuff looked like paper mache. When I put it in my mouth it was crunchy, as if it was full of nuts, although I didn't see any on the table. It also had a weird minty taste to it. I'd describe it as crunchy toothpaste. Apparently it actually a form of chewing tobacco though. Oops. It's called 'betel' (pronounced like the word 'beetle') if you ever come to Burma and want to try it.
I was sad to leave Bagan but I was even more sad to discover that my bus left at 4am. Woof. I was even moresad than that when I found out that my bus out was one of those tiny local buses, not often used by tourists. But instead of complain about the terrible bus ride ahead of me, I'll finish with some miscellaneous photos I took. I especially loved the photos of this guy stoking the fire near a temple.