I hadn’t been here long at all when the couple next door stopped to chat. After about 10 mins of exchanging travel tales they invited me out with them for the day. The plan was to hire a taxi for the day, go to Mount Popa and then tour some of the temples on the Bagan plain.
The drive to Mount Popa was really great. Along the way we saw really rural scenes like oxen pulling ploughs in the fields and pulling the millstone which was grinding nuts into oil. The driver stopped at a particularly interesting rice wine operation. The palm sugar nuts were harvested in the fields by men who climb the trees themselves using the soles of their feet to grip onto the trees. The base product was then milled and somehow (I didn’t quite catch how as I was too busy bird/animal watching) turned into sugar. Subsequently the sugar was distilled into rice wine which was tastes amazing and I bought some to take home. Also, the sugar was made into sort of pastilles which were then covered in sesame seeds, the result being a delicious sweet.
The place was a thriving operation; they seemed really well organised and tuned into tourists even speaking a few essential English words. It was such a rural scene really; men climbing trees with their feet and oxen pulling on a millstone. This is the Burma I want to see, something different from bustling Yangon and dreadful Mandalay.
Following this stop, we proceeded to Mount Popa again passing through villages where people lived in bamboo/musa huts some of which were on stilts all skilfully woven and plaited to make huts and sheds for people and animals. I could see inside the people huts the contained, raised platforms for sleeping, like a room within a room.
Once we arrived at Mount Popa our driver dropped us off at the base of the cone shaped outcrop for that is what it is with a monastery on the top. It was a steep climb really…but with the weather not being so hot and it only being a twenty-minute ascent, it wasn’t all that bad; it was fine for me and I certainly found it less strenuous than Mandalay Hill which was less steep, but longer and much hotter. I left the couple near the top so they could enjoy the view and the experience by themselves.
Whilst descending Mount Popa a disturbance occurred amongst the monkeys! From nowhere a great big daddy monkey baboon-type came bounding down the precipice at a rate of knots scattering the rest of the colony in all directions. The whole episode caused quite a stir; the monkeys were screaming and hollering and I was quite surprised at how quickly they bounded down the almost vertical cliff face.
The first temple we visited was stunning and virtually empty. It was called Schwezigon Paya. The sky was very blue and it was very warm but not stifling; I could have spent longer here taking in the atmosphere and getting good shots on my camera but we had to use the driver’s time wisely so we went off to explore others.
For sunset shots, we went to a particular temple where the light is just right for evening photography. This temple had a really narrow stairway to the roof top. The view over the plains was beautiful.
Our final visit was down to the river; my first close-up view of the Irrawaddy since arriving in Bagan because I was too afraid of being bitten by mosquitoes again. But my bites have now healed and I knew we were only making a fleeting visit so I felt confident I wasn’t going to be devoured. The sunset was pretty and there was some life going on down there; I’ve decided I’m going to take a river cruise whilst I’m here, just taking care to saturate myself in insect repellent beforehand.
It’s very quiet here in Bagan; I don’t quite know where all the tourists are meant to be, as I certainly haven’t seen more than a hand full all day. The hotel is quite empty despite the word being that Bagan is supposed to be totally booked up and completely heaving. Maybe tomorrow will be a different story.
Just a note on the whole Burma experience so far…I’ve had some very good days, a few very bad days and a lot of moderate days in between. Burma is a hard country to travel in and that’s my feeling as well as other travellers I speak to. Lack of decent transportation is my biggest gripe here. No decent trains, buses, taxis, trams etc leave me the traveller pushed into flying which is tiresome and expensive. There are plenty of taxis but they are invariably clapped out and mostly should be condemned. The pollution is another gripe; it breaks my heart to see so much rubbish and litter discarded indiscriminately, but then this IS Asia I suppose. Burma offers some great places of untouched wilderness but as yet, they are mostly impossible to get too; tourists aren’t permitted to drive a hire car. When the rules change and I’m sure they will soon enough, Burma will make a great place for a road trip.