(alternate title: I wonder when my last tetanus shot was*...)When I announced that I was going to Myanmar during my Christmas vacation, Engrish's input was solid. She'd been to Bagan, a city that had about a billion pagodas, and encouraged me to do the same. My first instinct to visit Myanmar came from my feisty little friend Kristen, who had lived in Mandalay for a year and would be returning in time to see me when I got there. She had posted photos, a long long time ago, of herself doing wacky things with pagodas in the background, and I decided this was where Engrish was talking about.
when I went to Egypt with Belynda, we did the only logical thing to do and got up at the buttcrack of dawn to go see the sites of Luxor. This meant that we beat the heat (yes, it is still hot in November in Egypt) and a lot of the tourists. I used the same tack with Bagan. The dudes at the fabulous Bagan Umbra Hotel (officially 3 star, but 5 star in my books - great service, comfy, awesome pool) told me breakfast began at 6 the next morning, which gave me plenty of time to scarf down some eggs and roll out. I rented a bicycle for the day (the second day I rented a scooter, because while I am in shape, the shape I happen to be in is round), and only got about a couple of blocks away before I had to stop and play photographer. Another couple of blocks and the sun started to rise, so of course I pedaled to the nearest pagoda to take some photos of everything washed with golden light.
I just happened to pick a pagoda that had access to the upper levels. Not all of them do - many are getting close to a thousand years old, and protecting them is a priority - but I saw other tourists up there and started trying to figure out how to get up there. It turned out you have to climb up tall, narrow stone stairs, barefoot...
...oh yes, did I mention the bare feet? Because in whatever kind of Buddhism this is, we don't wear shoes or socks inside. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going sans socks and shoes, but it's not like going into Seoul's Mormon temple, back in the day where they had us take our shoes off, and we walked on plush, pristine carpet. The pagodas are open to all elements - heaven only knows what I was stepping on at any given moment.
The bare feet were not even the scary part, though. The scary part was coming back down. I'm not claustrophobic or acrophobic, and those were facts that I had to keep telling myself on the way down. "I'm not scared of heights. I'm not scared of small spaces. This is fine. I'm not going to fall."
Well, I made it out, and moved on. Some people might tell you if you've seen one pagoda, you've seen them all. While I can agree that there is a certain similarity, especially between the smaller ones, if you are really looking (as might someone who has a camera attached to her face, for example), you'll see how individual each one is. Some have lost most of their details, while others are stunningly well-preserved. Some have much of their paintings intact. Some may not be impressive by themselves, but are grouped together with many other pagodas, or their surroundings makes them stand out. And at least one has bats...when I realized that's what that sound was, and that was the source of the various fluids on the floor, I refused to go any further. If you're the kind of person who likes knowledge, learning about their history probably helps. Dougie-Poo suggested this to me. Since I like to see and feel my way around, I printed a barebones amount of information off Wikitravel, glued it into the Book, and then totally ignored most of it. That's just how I roll.
Sadly, I didn't stay out on the bike very long. This thing happened called "Eating lots of fruit and coconut product." I'll tell you that coconut is a natural laxative and leave it at that. Once I got back to the hotel, I decided I needed lunch and a nice relaxing afternoon, and didn't go out again til the evening. I took a horse cart to the palace, where they are putting on a dramatic interpretation of Bagan's history. Since there's not much else to see in Bagan in the evening (or, really, at all, besides pagodas) I dropped some money on a ticket, and wandered around nearby, waiting for the show to start. The sun went down, which means a neat thing happened - I got to see the pagodas in a new light (see what I did there?) Actually, they look pretty lit up at night, but I'm thanking my lucky stars it was just a nice, tasteful glow...now that I'm in Mandalay I've seen atrocities committed with LED lights that I can't even. I just can't.
*In 2004, unless I'm mistaken. We had to have one for Anasazi.