The Golden Age

Myanmar Part 2 | Mandalay to Bagan | day 200

I feel the crunching of my ragged old chain as dust lingers in between the links. We are moving quick this morning, trying to beat the mid day heat. Escaping the city as the monks are collecting their morning alms. The air is brisk, a heavy fog hangs, and most of the city is still sleeping. We’ve ridden only 20 miles along the Ayarwaddy River and have already passed ten monasteries. The country has a devoutly Buddhist population and more monks per capita than anywhere else in the world. We are heading into the plains of central Myanmar, the land of pagodas, where majestic, spiritual structures dominate the horizon. These conical shaped buildings were built to house relics and sacred writings, at least one is always visible at any point, a brilliant reminder to be mindful, to live in the moment… and just breath.


We developed our own rhythm of travel, with the encroaching winter of the Himalayas no longer threatening our timeline, we can cycle at a much leisurely pace. We start early, arriving to a place around 3:00PM with enough daylight to walk around whichever village we end up. Staying an extra day in a place we like, usually every three or four days we will take a day off to keep up with our photos and blog. It tends to be the quaint places in between the destination cities we like best. 

"A brilliant reminder to be mindful, to live in the moment… and just breath."


Nearing nightfall on our second day out of Mandalay, we approached the random intersection of a town, Myo Thar, consisting of a few restaurants, a police station, and 13 monasteries; 13 monasteries for a town of less than 1,000?! Darkness was setting in, there wasn’t a foreigner designated bed in sight and camping is forbidden. We had heard to go to the police in this scenario, so here we go!  

We strolled into the local station with smiles on. It was a much different scene than you would see at a police station back in Texas. Not a single uniform, just a group of guys outside playing chinlone, a Burmese version of hacky-sack. They pointed to the open-air cinder block building with tin roof, where we found the presumptive sherif.  We did our typical spiel: pressing our two hands together by the side of our head with closed eyes, “Sleep?” Half an hour, a few phone calls, and a couple signatures on a piece of paper later and we are off to our surprise bed for the night.  We followed a man on a scooter from the police station, with no clue where we were heading, only to pull into a monastery. We were brought before the Abbot, feeling a bit liked orphan children. We thanked him continuously for his hospitality. 



The Abbot was tall, bald-headed, and gentle. He walked us to a monk’s room, that would be our’s for the evening and were instructed to take hose baths in the back. Periodically he would come around, peak his head in and make sure we were ok. Soon our “guide,” a man who knew more English than most, came by to chat and would take us to breakfast the next morning. At the crack of dawn, we said goodbye to the Abbot who was eager to snap a couple photos with us before we left. Our guide took us to a local breakfast spot and gave us a tour of their market, showing us their locally made goods and grown vegetables.  

"He walked us to a monk’s room, that would be our’s for the evening and were instructed to take hose baths in the back."

The country side is a mix of tropical and desert. The flat earth morphs from red Oklahoma dirt to yellow beach sand. Far reaching canopies of Banyan Trees turn to forests of tall Toddy Palms, and and bushy coffee plantations turn into agave lined rice fields. Every corner brought a new surprise.



We had gotten a bit twisted around, per usual in towns and tiny villages. Sometimes we act like were lost, just to engage with the locals a bit, but this time we actually could use a little help. Stopped on the side of the road, a small woman watched us from some bushes and motions for us to come over.

We dragged our bikes up on her lawn, confused as to what she would want, and turn around to find a dimpled sea of red clay pots. A family of potters was hard at work, one woman was stamping a decorative texture onto the pots with a mallet while another mixed together the red clay with a stick in a large bowl. The woman excitedly showed us their hand powered potters wheel, whipping up a perfect pot in seconds. The pots are cured in the sun and looked like the pots that held water for travelers found along the road side. How great to have an impromptu craft lesson, it seems everywhere we go the Burmese are creating something beautiful and cleverly designed from the natural environment.  



I accidentally scared the shit out of a little boy monk. One look at me, and he took off running, leaving his bike in the middle of the road. I suppose a guy twice your size rolls up with black gloves, sunglasses, a dark helmet, long sleeves and pants, on a Surly Troll with beefy tires, probably seems like an alien tanker just landed in the village. ‘Guess they don’t get many visitors ‘round these parts… 

"A Surly Troll with beefy tires, probably seems like an alien tanker just landed in the village."


“Cold Drink?” 

A man asks from behind his newspaper as we slowed to a stop.

We dismount as a smiling child hands us an ice cold energy drink. We hide under the awning, trying to escape the intense Burmese sun. 

One by one people from the village started to gather around.

“Everyone is exited to see you, we have never had a foreigner visit our village before.” the man, Thuta, explained, as another showed up to stare. 

 


“Would you like to see our monastery?” 

We followed the man through a schoolyard, disrupting every classroom from kindergarten to 12th grade. We even made a guest appearance to the 10th graders during their Chemistry lesson. Children gathered in masses shyly giggling and shouting “Hello!” and we shyly responded to their enormous delight. 

It was incredibly clear, most of them had never met a foreigner before. 

We eventually made our way to the beautifully kept monastery and bowed in front of the head monk, who offered us more energy drinks and fruit. The head monk, who spoke more English than he let on, lead us through his monastery showing us old relics and scriptures and the monasteries extensive garden. We thanked him for his time and tour and left with one less sock. 



“Would you like to meet my family?” 

We followed Thuta, passed an enormous beautiful white ox chained in the front yard to a cluster of bamboo homes. Four generations of their family lived together on one plot of land. They eagerly brought us every sweet they could find in their house and the biggest smiles you could imagine. The women pulled at Olivia’s shirt giggling, because it was a man’s shirt and asked if we would please stay. We had to continue on, but not before taking some family photos! The 89 year old great grandmother took center stage and we exchanged meaningful goodbye hugs. It was incredibly overwhelming to be immediately taken in by such an accepting and warm family. This was easily one of our best days of the trip thus far. 



"During Burmas Golden Age, from 11th to 13th century, 10,000 pagodas were built in Bagan"

During Burmas Golden Age, from 11th to 13th century, 10,000 pagodas were built in Bagan, the city at the end of our route. This small city on the bank of the Ayarwaddy River was once the capitol and central nervous system of the Pagan Empire. We enjoyed three days of cycling about the overgrown pathways connecting the network of pagodas. Each has its’ own unique structure, inside sat a large Buddha and maze like hallways, and small tunnels leading to second and third floor terraces. Evenings were spent chasing sunsets, running to the tallest pagoda to watch a fiery haze ignite over Bagan until the sun is eclipsed by the mountains. 



Myanmar was a magical experience, yet we were still leaving the country with a week left on our visa. “Why are we leaving?” we asked ourselves. We debated on throwing together a route in the south, maybe ride to the eastern bit of the country to Yangon. But there was something pulling on us, saying it was time to leave. We were ready to be on a longer route again, something longer than a few weeks. Even boarding our last bus ride out of Myanmar, we weren’t sure if we were making the right decision. But with our new found route making knowledge from our time in Myanmar we are ready to start planning our multi-month route across the highlands of SE Asia through Northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. 

It was all just so damn good, exactly everything we could have hoped for. The culture, the openness of the people, great food, and ease of pretty much everything. We went in to Myanmar with no expectations and had an unforgettable time! We were in India for two and a half months, Nepal a month and a half, and Thailand will be eventually two months. Three weeks in Myanmar felt like a blip, but it showed us a whole different side of Asia. This beautiful country got us exited to explore more and see more, faster. It seems like the longer we cycle the more we want to see. 


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