In the City of Many Temples

We took an early flight to Bagan today. En route to the airport, we drove through the wealthy part of town. All the houses there were hiding behind tall brick walls, some topped with barbed wire. From what we saw above the walls, those houses would not look out of place in any wealthy American suburb.
In Bagan airport, the luggage was hand-delivered to the passenger-waiting area. No baggage belts have yet been installed here.
Right off the bat, we went to the local market. How can I describe this market?! It was the most down to earth and the least sanitized market I’ve ever seen. Merchants were sitting on the ground or on slightly elevated platforms, cross-legged or with their feet tucked under. I don’t get it, how they can maintain this position for more than 5 min. I sat in this fashion at the temple yesterday for 2 min. and my body started to ache. So here they were, sitting, waving flies off their wares: some alien-looking dried things, slightly beat-up and very organic fruits and vegetables, all kinds of innards in large tubs, bloody carcasses hanging off the ceiling, from which different body parts were sliced off at the customers’ requests, and live fish thrashing in large tin bowls. Things were weighed out on hand-held scales consisting of a bar with two metal hooks, to which woven baskets were attached: one, containing the product to be sold and the other – some objects doubling as weights.
In this small town, not most but all women were wearing thanaka, and a lot of it. It was smeared on their faces in thick chalky strokes. The guide told us that many local men do not find women with no thanaka attractive.
This place is rural. There are more hoarse-driven carts here than cars, and a lot of dirt roads. Bagan is famous for its many temples. Once upon a time, the population here amounted to half a million, many of the denizens were wealthy, and they were encouraged by the king to build temples. We climbed one of them; it looked more like a miniature Tulum than a Southeastern pagoda. It was not very tall, but the steps were steep, up to 2 feet high, and very narrow – 6-8 inches wide, and we had to climb them barefoot (as shoes are not allowed in and on the temples). Once on top, we saw a vast sea of jungle with thousands of pagodas and temples poking out of it. Three thousand +, to be exact. The view was quite incredible! But the climb down was not. I am not afraid of heights, but didn’t feel terribly comfortable here.
The ground around the temple was set up as a market selling local handicrafts. One stand featured two aged long-necked women, the ones that are outfitted with neck rings from young age to stretch their necks to inhuman proportions. The rings are terribly heavy and press on their shoulder- and collarbones deforming them. Between the long necks and oddly shaped shoulders, they looked like creatures from another planet. Their faces were delicately beautiful, they wore similar heavy rings on their legs (those seemed to be for decoration rather than stretching). They were bird-like, exquisite creatures. I have no idea how they move around at their age with all this additional weight. They must be in constant pain from arthritis. I saw a documentary on such women once, but never in my life did I think I would see them in person! There are probably only few of them left. Can’t imagine for this barbaric custom to continue. But I must say, unlike people with other bodily mutilations (like bound feet,for example), these women were stunningly, hauntingly beautiful!
Bagan is hot and dry, so people take siestas here. And so did we; and at the hotel, received Thai massage and reflexology treatments. Back to the temples in the afternoon to see more buddhas and frescos of decorative designs, scenes from the life of Buddha, his footprints, and Burmese writings. Burmese script is very pleasing to the eye. It looks like a lace of circles. semi-circles, and circular symbols. We were told, that once, Burmese writing was more angular, but then the people started writing on leaves, and the leaves were tearing from the sharp angles the letters were forming, so the script was altered to become more flowing, round, so that the leaves could tolerate it.
In the evening, we went to see the sunset from the top of a bigger temple-pyramid. We and every other tourist in sight. This temple was taller but it was equipped with railings, so it was easier to climb. Still, not for the faint of heart. I was quite impressed with a busload of septuagenerian Italian tourists who went up, their surely achy bones and age-related arthritis notwithstanding.


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