Bagan – The ancient temple city of Bagan is one of the most impressive sights we have seen. In the mid-12th century the ruling king started building Buddhist zetis, pagodas and temples at a staggering rate. This building continued for over 230 years until there were 10,000 Buddhist structures. Today, 2,200 are still standing in Bagan’s Old City and countless more in the neighbouring towns. It is really overwhelming to see and so hard to describe the marvel of it in words or capture in a picture.
The archeological site of Bagan is very large. We rented motor bikes on the first day to make sure we could see the highlights, and another day we rented bicycles to get to a few select sites.
On our second day we splurged and took a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. It’s a great way to really appreciate the vastness of Bagan. With a bird’s eye view there are temples as far as you can see.
Sunrises and sunsets in Bagan aren’t as great as we had hoped. Here, as in most of Myanmar, they burn everything; leaves, crops, garbage etc. The result is that the air and sky always have a smoky haze. The sun is completely blocked out at the beginning and end of the day.
Mt Popa – The drive from Bagan to Mt Popa takes you through palm sugar ‘factories’. We stopped at one and were astounded by the antiquated equipment and techniques that they use. It was hard to believe that it wasn’t a museum, but that they actually still use equipment such as: an ox-driven press, alcohol stills dripping in to jars, and an open fire to boil down the sap. They made candy, alcohol, syrup and vinegar here. We bought some tamarind candy made from their palm sugar. It’s really good.
The main reason we were in this area was to visit Mt. Popa. This extinct volcano has a large, rocky outcrop with a monastery on top. There are 777 stairs leading up to the monastery.
This monastery is an interesting site on its own, but it also has a unique history. Before Buddhism, people in parts of Myanmar practiced spirit worshipping, called nat worshiping. There are 37 main ‘nats’ which are spirits of real people who died a tragic death. In the 12th century when the king converted the country to Buddhism, he let these people continue their tradition of nat worshiping. It is still an important part of Buddhism in many places today. They worship by leaving flowers and food at nat shrines. The shrines have creepy statues of nats dressed in clothing, posing as if they are alive. Mt Popa is an area that still practices nat worshiping today. On the stairs to the top we saw dozens of nat shrines. Their favourite is drunken nat, who protects drunks and gamblers.
The steps to the monastery are also home to short-tailed macaque monkeys. They are hoping for food from tourists and are playful rather than aggressive. They were more fun than other monkeys we’ve encountered. One baby was trying to get Richard’s attention by tugging on his pant leg.
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