Thursday, January 12, 2017

Visiting Mt. Popa, seeing temples with murals, and learning about life in villages near Bagan

As carefully as one might plan a vacation (and I spoent a great deal of time on travel planning), some of what you get out of it turns on luck -- good luck or bad luck.  On our second day in Bagan, we had a stroke of good luck.

We had seen so many temples in the space of eight hours on our first day of touring in Bagan that we asked our guide, Thin Zar Soe, for a change of pace; we accepted her suggestion that we drive away from Bagan itself to walk up to the shrine atop Mt. Popa, and that we learn a little bit about village live in the area.  We did ask to have the opportunity to visit three more temples that I had read about in guidebooks – one of them, Sulamani Pahto, can not currently be visited as a result of damage from the past summer’s earthquake, but she was happy to build two other temples with wall paintings into our itinerary for the day.   I asked Thin about the palm sugar bars that we had had at lunch the day before, and the tamarind bits (which she said were called tamarind flakes) that had ended our meal the night before at the River Front restaurant.  She assured me that a chance to pick up some of these to share with my office colleagues when we got back home would be on the day’s agenda.

We began by driving off toward Mt. Popa, but we had a surprise waiting for us along the way — villagers were parading along the side of the road for the “nomination ceremony” for some of the children of the village!

We got out of the car to wait for the parade to reach us while Thin explained what we were seeing: today the villagers would be parading with their children around the village, but the next morning, they would take the honored children to the local monastery for their first time living with the monks.  On this occasion, it would be only for a few days; when they got older, the boys, at least, would all be expected to become monks for period of at least a few months.  Thin assured us that it would be perfectly fine to take photographs of what we were about to see.

Chingchai told us later that Thai Buddhists don’t engage in the novitiation ceremony, although, like all Thereveda Buddhists, older boys are expected to become monks for at least a few months; novitiation is exclusively a tradition in Myanmar.  It is generally done for children at some time between the age of 8 and 18; usually it happens when children have more free time, such as during the summer holidays.  But at least today was Friday, so their several days living with the monks would begin on the weekend and so they would miss less school.

At last the parade began to move again: first boys showing the national Buddhist flag


Then older girls from the village

then the older boys

and finally the novitiates themselves, the boys mounted on horses and shielded by parasols

then the girls riding in bullock carts

Some of these children looked VERY young!

bringing up the rear was a truck with recorded music and professional dancers sashaying – you could see tha this dancer was a professional, in that she threw me a broad, confident smile as she saw that she was being appreciated with a camera

As we drove on, it was clear that our day was going to consist in part of a tour of the Myanmar countryside, similar in that respect to our trip to Banteay Srei outside Siem Reap in Cambodia. Thin talked to us about rural life and what we might see along the road.  Many villages have no electricity, but use solar panels; they rely solely on rain for water.  During the summer, people from Old and New Bagan go to the villages to donate drinking water to families that would otherwise be without, making merit.

She also talked about palm tree culture.  Palm trees are male and female; it is the female trees that bear the fruit.  The trees are the source of palm fruit, palm sugar, and palm juice, as well as palm beer and palm whiskey.  It is the toddy palms that are found in northern Myanmar where Bagan is located; coconut palms are found in southern Myanmar.  Besides palms, the main local agricultural crops are sesame, pigeon peas, peanuts, and maize, which we had assumed meant corn but which, after we saw some of what Thin was calling maize being carried in sheaves by local women, Nancy thought might well be millet.

We continued down the road as Thin talked to us about the local agricultural industry.  This was a lead-in to a spot where we had the chance to observe the transformation of raw produce into usable products – a bullock being used to grind peanuts to make peanut oil (the remaining solids being used for cattle feed)

here a man climbed up the trunk of a palm tree to tap it for palm juice

We saw how face paste was made by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree with water on a circular flat piece of sandstone

and how palm sugar is cooked down (in the rear is a chimney through which smoke from the fires was being exhausted)

to make a paste

 that could be rolled into balls to make candy (here was my chance to buy some of what we had has for lunch the day before!)


and the making of palm whiskey.   I bought several examples to take home to share.

As we continued on the way, Thin explained to us that Popa means flower in Pali language (the old Myanmar language, i.e. Sanskrit).  She said that there were two structures referred to as Mt Popa, The small one (with temple on top) is 2417 feet high; there was also a big Mt Popa standing is 4986 feet above sea level.  It can be reached by trekking but there is also a resort near the top to which one can drive and get the view for the fee of $2 apiece.  But we were ready to climb to the temple at the top of small Mt. Popa.

As we drive along, we spotted  women walking home from the fields for lunch

Soon a mountain began to loom in the distance – there was big Mt. Popa, nearly 5000 feet high, and small Mt. Popa, about half that height: really an igneous extrusion rather than a mountain per se, it can be seen at the far right of the following photo

The latter was our destination

As the road climbed, we passed some shrines

and then there it was – a temple on top of the extrusion at the side of “big” Mt Popa, with a staircase going up the side

Taking a look at what I assume were the stairs, curving around the edge of the mountain and tilting downwards and outwards, with no handrails, and knowing that I would be doing that barefoot, mad me start to reconsider whether I would be ready to complete the climb.

We stopped at the Mt. Popa village and began our climb. 

as well as this area with several vendors making green papaya salad

Then we reached the point where we would have to take off our shoes and socks. 

There were many monkeys around,

and even had a not recalled the shoe-stealing mischief from our visit to San Phra Kar in Lop  Buri a few days before, there was a helpful sign reminding travelers to be careful

so I was pleased to see that free shoe lockers were provided to hold our shoes

We reached one Nat shrine, holding the 17 Nats most common to this region. 

Thin told us the complicated story of  Popa Mai Daw, the queen of Mt. Popa (in the image below, she it the figure with the ogre head perched on her like a hat),

She began life as Princess Wunna Thein Gi; she married a handsome man named U Byatta (in some version, a prince) had two sons with him(had sons Shwe Bin Nye and Shwe Bin Gyi, and lost both her husband and her sons at the hands of the current king as a result of various twists and turns of disobedience to vows as well as treachery.  The outcome of all this tragedy is that she died of a broken heart and all four of then became nats.  I wanted to remember it but it was far too labyrinthine to write it all down.  Happily, we then passed through a passageway with some statuary behind glass that bore a simplified telling of the tale.

Images of Popa Mai Daw and her family appeared several times along our climb up Mt. Popa and in the temple up top

Thin also recounted the tale U Tint Tai and his sister:

he was a blacksmith who was so strong that his strokes caused earthquakes.  This caused so much trouble that the king wanted to be rid of him.  He fled the area, but the king was able to lure him back by telling Tint Tai’s sister that he (king)  would give Tint Tai royal rank.  Having captured him, the king ordered him to be burnt alive; his sister, full or remorse for her role in luring him back to his death jumped into the fire; as a result of their tragic deaths, they became nats.

The remaining 600 steps passed relatively quickly, with the landscape opening up around us

It turned out that the bare, tilting surfaces that I had assumed were the stairway were actually shades over the stairs.  Much better!

The monkeys were fewer up here, and this one, it appeared, was exhausted from the climb

Finally, the temple at the top came into view

and here we were

On the ridge of big Mt. Popa just to the left of the summit is the Mt. Popa Resort; as we left for the mountain that morning, Thin had told us that tourists who are not up for climbing the 800 steps, mostly barefoot, can be driven up to the resort where, for the price of $2, they can get an even nicer view of the surrounding countryside.  But I was glad we had chosen to make the climb.

There were several shrines at the top

guarded by beasts of various kinds

as well as bells and gongs to focus the mind on prayer as well as to announce one’s arrival

There were a series of Buddha’s in niches; the faithful would make offerings to proper Buddha in “birthday corner,” that is, for the day of the week on which the donor was born.  Thin explained that there are EIGHT days displayed because Wednesday is divided into two days, one is midnight to noon and the other, Raduday, is noon to midnight; they are not located next to each other, but on opposite sides.

The photo of Thin, our guide, shown above a bit, shows her near the niche for her own, Friday birthday corner
This stupa is being regilded with gold leaf; Thin remarked on the difference in color between the gold paint at the bottom and the gold paint at the bottom
Water stored in these pots was available for offers of purification

We started back down Mt. Popa.  This time we stopped into the Nat shrines along the stairway.

 In this group, Popa Mai Daw is both the central figure and the darker figure at the left of the photo.

And here, just after one of the shrines, was a marker indicated that two saints had been born at that location

Just after the end of the stairway down, and on the other side of the street, is a Nat shrine housing images of all 37 of them;

On the way up toward Mt. Popa, Thin had stopped our driver at the roadside Yangon Restaurant to reserve a table.  The place was empty at that point, but almost all the tables were taken when we arrived in the afternoon.  It was a reasonably good lunch.

We stopped off at a fruit and vegetable market as we drove down the hills toward Bagan

There were baskets of bright purple dragon fruit as well as these red and purple chilies

As we continued through the country side, we saw bullock carts used as a mode of transport

not to speak of loads of firewood or maize being carried by women on their heads

other women walked on the side of the road carrying heavy loads in a balanced set of baskets

We passed this location where a small rural house was using a solar panel attached to a battery to store the accumulated power

The house had baskets for food storage

There was a net erected for playing sepak takraw, the regional game in which a rattan ball is batted about using only the feet, knee, chest and head to touch the ball.

Across the road was a restaurant that had a large green-walled plastic “tank” erected to collect and store rain-water.

On reaching Bagan, we stopped to see two small 13th century temples:  Nandamannya Pahto and Payathonzu (the latter name means “three temples.”

Nandamanny had these nice carvings on the outside,

including these ogre heads


and other creatures.

One of the ways that we could tell that these are early temples was that, as Thin had stressed to us the day before, they have only one story

and they are relatively dark inside because the light enters filtered through small window openings. 

The result, though was that it was hard to see the very special feature of both of these temples without\ flashlight which, happily, Thin had brought along – they both have well-preserved, finely detailed and exquisite wall paintings.  Much of the painting dated back to the 13th century, but the use of green pigment in the background of a sitting Buddha indicated that some of the painting had been done later, in the 15th century.  To protect the paintings against deterioration that would be caused by flash photography (and, perhaps, to preserve the ability to sell images), both temples forbid the use of still or video cameras inside.

Behind Payathonzu, we spotted three stupas in the Sri Lanka style

Before returning to our hotel, Thin took us on a brief walking tour of the Village of Anut Pwasaw (West Pwasaw).

This boy was pushing a large barrel of water that he had secured for his family’s use;

while a woman was lugging water home in two buckets

We could see a variety of housing materials in use – the house in the rear would have been owned by people rich enough to have solid walls and windows but the house in the foreground, more typically, has woven walls albeit a solid ceiling;

and this house has both woven walls and a thatched roof

We got a short lacquerware demonstration; here is is turning a bowl on a wheel, adding layers of pitch; each layer has to be dried before another can be added

It can take 7 months to produce finished product, after which he carves a design into the layers

We had had no plan to buy any lacquerware on this trip, but we paid for the demonstration by purchasing a couple of small cups.

We said goodbye to Thin at our hotel (we were set to fly to Inle Lake first thing the following morning), but hired the driver to bring us once more to the River Front Restaurant.  This time, we were there early enough to see the form of the pagoda on the hill across the river,

 The sun descended further and the colors became more dramatic

Within a few minutes, all we could see of the pagoda across the hill was its night lighting

We ordered ginger salad, minced beef with mint & kebab spices, and a mild pork curry (mild).  Again, it was a delicious meal.  Certainly a restaurant we would recommend to our friends: when are you going?

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