Steve Weir
Racing Club de Blackheath in MYANMAR 2016

Day 3 Monday 24/10/16 - Bagan

The Bod-ahs in the Pagod-ahs

In the departure -lounge, we were given a lunchbox which featured a thin sandwich with a luminous filling, which we guessed to be jam. It also featured a hard-boiled egg, and still anxious to firm things up, I managed to scrounge two additional eggs in order to replicate the egg-bound diet I had successfully deployed in Nepal.

Arriving in Bagan after a short and pleasant flight, we stood next to the coach waiting for our baggage to arrive, and several people availed themselves of a standing massage which was being offered to anybody hanging around outside the airport. I didn’t go for it myself (might shake things up), but the general conclusion was that it was very satisfying.

The luggage turned up on what looked like a 14th-century handcart, and we headed off to what turned out to be a swanky hotel, called the Zfreeti Deluxe. As we arrived, we waved sympathetically to the Wests’ son Leo and his girlfriend Emma, looking relaxed and refreshed in a café opposite the hotel. It wasn’t serendipity, they had been travelling around Asia, and had arranged to meet up in Yangon.

Having done so, they hadn’t then been able to get onto the flight to Bagan, and had been told that the only realistic alternative was a nightmare 14-hour bus journey, packed with people sacrificing chickens, wielding knives, and cackling loudly in their faces. Having witnessed the infrastructure so far, it wasn’t difficult to believe, but in the event, the journey had taken more like 6 hours, and hadn’t been unpleasant at all. Hence the relaxed and refreshed demeanour in the cafe, and the mis-placed sympathetic waves from the coach.

The Hotel Zfreeti was indeed Deluxe. The reception-desk was housed in a very large pagoda-like structure, and we sat around having coffee, and generally enjoying its swankiness. To the side was a landscaped garden with a swimming-pool, a ready-made and handy escape from the humidity, with guests reclining around the outside of it, including a small group of Germans (so no chance of a sun-lounger in the morning, then). I had enjoyed the hotel in Yangon, but here, it felt like you could finally breathe, and relax.

Bagan is on a bend in the Irrawaddy, down-river of Mandalay, and is famous for its Buddhist temples. Thousands of them, spread over miles, so it’s a hot-spot for tourists. They started building them in the 11th century, and then got a bit obsessive about it. Bagan is sometimes pronounced (and sometimes written as) ‘Pagan’, so Bastard Jones mused over whether it had evolved into the English word ‘pagan’. But I looked it up when I got home, and it hadn’t. ‘Pagan’ evolved from the Latin word for village, and Bagan evolved from a Burmese word, which didn’t mean ‘village’. Nothing to do with it, but one of the most endearing features of a Racing Club Tour is the opportunity it provides to sit around talking bollocks, as we were doing now.

Eventually we coalesced into an orderly enough group to board the coach, and set off to see the temples. The area is criss-crossed with roads, but on every side, and at every corner, there is a large temple poking through the foliage, as though some mad farmer were cultivating them. Stopping off to visit them entailed taking off your shoes, and squelching through the mud in your bare feet as you approached, because depositing mud around the temple from your bare feet is so much more respectful than depositing it from your shoes. (A point no doubt made by some sweating colonial clerk while he was typing his 50th report on the vexed “Shoe question”).

The first one we visited had an inscription next to the front-door where some German archeologist had decided it would be ok to nick the most valuable bits of it and transport them back to Berlin, so long as he vandalized the front of it with an inscribed IOU. The Pergammon museum in Berlin bears testament to the extent of this kind of pillage, containing as it does entire buildings and enormous gateways, though to be fair, I don’t think the British Museum was exactly in the habit of asking for permission, either.

We toured some of the larger, and more well-known ones, such as the Ananda. You would have to have a lot of time on your hands, as well as being clinically insane, to visit them all. They weren’t particularly ornate inside, and it turns out that Bagan hasn’t been given World Heritage status, because the military regime’s technique for restoring them was similar to my technique for plastering, in which more plaster ends up on your clothes than on the wall. Every time there’s an earthquake, they bring in the Burmese equivalent of Delboy Trotter to do the repairs. Not as far-fetched as it sounds, because whenever the street-sellers in Yangon asked us where we were from, and heard the reply “London”, they replied with the words: “Lovely Jubbly, top banana, eh?”, so Only Fools and Horses is bigger in Burma than you might think.

So it turns out that UNESCO gives a higher priority to the preservation of Liverpool’s waterfront than the 3,000 or so temples in Bagan. But it was stunning, nonetheless. Although the interiors tended to be red-brick, with little in the way of ornament or art, there was no shortage of gold Buddha statues. They were around every corner. The Buddha, in this part of the world, is different from the Buddhas we saw in Nepal. In Burma, he has a full head of hair, and is ripped and toned, like he’s kept up his gym membership. In Nepal and India, he’s bald, and his stomach is more laundry-bag than washboard. It turns out that this is because the Burmese follow Theravada Buddhism (“The School of the Elders”), and the Nepalese follow Mahayana Buddhism (“The Great Vehicle”), although I would have to do some more research to find out why this determines whether the Buddha is a slaphead. (I looked it up, but it all gets a bit complex, and Modern Family was on TV).

In one temple, the Buddha had a different facial expression, depending on where you stood in relation to the light streaming in from the high windows. Standing at a distance, he has an inscrutable, mysterious expression on his face, but standing closer, he has a playful little smirk on his face, smiling like he’s just confided to the Mona Lisa that he’s farted. It was all very captivating, and I reflected that I could spend an entire day squelching through the mud and taking it all in, which is just as well, because that’s what was arranged.

I felt brave enough to venture another ticket in the Curry Lottery when we stopped at a nearby family restaurant. There were one or two minor tremors, but nothing to register on the Sphinctre Scale. Afterwards, we walked around what the guide described as a “leckawa factory”. I had no idea what he meant until we saw a number of people sitting around contributing to the process of making laquer-ware by hand. It was intriguing to see how they made cups and bowls and bags look like patent-leather, and then Bastard Lang went berserk in the gift-shop.

He bought some black shiny bowls with an expensive-looking gold interior, along with a plastic-bag full of other stuff, and was very pleased with his haul, as it meant he was covered for gifts for the next two Christmases, and wouldn’t have to scramble down Oxford Street on Christmas Eve looking for last-minute gifts.

But there were more temples to see, and when the coach deposited us back at Pagoda Central, there was a long line of horse-drawn carriages awaiting, so we paired up and occupied them all, setting off in a long convoy towards the Pyathagyi pagoda, hopefully in time to see the sunset there. It was a pleasant sensation, feeling the rock ‘n roll of the horses negotiating the rutted dirt-tracks, and enjoying the views of the temples through gaps in the passing foliage.

Some people were exploring the same countryside on little hired scooters, amongst them Dara O’ Briain, who was spotted from our horse and carriage convoy, making a film about Burma (or at least, set in Burma). We should have invited him to our match, I’m sure it would have added some quirky comedy to his programme, but we didn’t seize the moment. Additional quirky comedy was going to have to be provided by Ed Byrne, which I didn’t have much faith in, as I’ve seen funnier traffic-lights.

We stopped to re-group at a clearing, and I noticed that Bastard Jones’s horse had the same gait as its passenger. It was a perky, jocular little trot, as though more interested in performing some stagey little act of dressage than in pulling the cart. Bastard Jones looked particularly pleased with the harmony of the arrangement, and was beaming as his horse pulled him around in a small circle, before setting off again, and mincing off jauntily to the front of the convoy.

We arrived at the Pyathyagi Pagoda just in time to climb it and view the sunset. It was a pyramid-shaped temple, rising in tiered terraces, with tourists hanging precariously onto each terrace like an overloaded refugee boat crossing the Mediterranean. Splitting into smaller groups, we chose our terrace (depending on who could be most bothered climbing the steep stairs), and then a hush fell over the crowd as the sun began to set over the broad Irrawaddy river, on the horizon. Leading down to the Irrawaddy, temples large and small were set out like chess-pieces across the wide expanse of lower-ground. It was one of those Racing Club moments you’ll never forget.

Where there are tourists, there are street-sellers, and we had to negotiate our way through knots of bare-footed children selling postcards, in order to get back to the coach. “No, thanks”, we said. “Lovely Jubbly, top banana”, they replied.

I was relieved to be heading back to the swanky hotel, happy and relaxed, but dog-tired. Somewhere along the way, we had acquired a new guide, who was called something like Cha-To, but was christened Cato by Bastard Vigne. He had a relaxed manner, like somebody who listened to Pink Floyd and smoked exotic substances, and he jabbered away in that curious, hybrid Asian English which is becoming more widely-spoken than native English. (I’ve read before that the word for ‘Orange-Juice’ is ‘Ranju’).

I understood about 50% of what he said (20% when I was tired), but noted that he ended every sentence with the curiously colloquial expression “y’naa”, like an Asian version of Sid the Sexist. Vince had been a little more animated, so I had understood more, though it had taken me a while to understand what he meant when he said: “In the Pagod-ah, we leave for the Bod-ah, the Bananas and Coco-nah” (We leave bananas and coconuts as a tribute to the Buddha).

Still keen to shore things up, I didn’t walk down to the local village for the evening meal. The top-rated establishment on Trip Advisor was a burger bar and restaurant called “Weather Spoons”, which was tempting, but I opted to stay by the pool of the swanky hotel and have a burger. Not very intrepid, but I found myself falling asleep at the table while talking to Bastard Vigne. Which is unheard of.

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