Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]

Southeast Asia, Part V: Stupa-fication at Inle Lake

The thing to do in Inle is get out on the lake. I’ve just arrived and don’t really know what that means yet, but I allow myself the luxury of sleeping in a bit my first day here. But the leisurely morning ends there: within about 6 minutes of finishing brekkie, I find myself on the back of the hotel lady’s motorcycle en route to a boat. I don’t yet know much about the boats here either, but she drops me at a property with a small cottage and a bigger shed and something that looks like an outhouse. There are some people milling about, and there are chickens and dogs wandering in the driveway, some motorbikes scattered around, and some chairs (occupied and not) around an unlit fire. A smiling guy comes out, and my hotel lady leaves me in his hands. He ushers me towards the back of the property, which I realise abuts a canal. It’s like Venice, if only for the gondola-like boats, but not at all otherwise, for all the dust and beeping and stray dogs about, a texture to the air which I can’t place, but breathes of wood smoke and fish sauce. Welcome to Inle Lake. You are not in Kansas anymore.

We head down the rickety ladder and my new guardian now hands me off to a smiling boat guy with tanakha’d cheeks, and we set off to see the lake on this long boat with a puttering engine, its long-tailed propeller designed to tackle the lilies and lotus greens that grow like weeds on the lake and its tributaries. I’m seated on a wooden chair that sits atop the wooden slats in the bottom of the boat. I’ve got a cusion, life preserver and umbrella (for sun or rain). We’re ready to go!

I’m still not at all clear on what we’re off to see, but my boat driver shuttles me down a mud-banked river along which he dodges the patches of green which seem to sprout up spontaneously. The river opens to a massive lake (about 50 sq mi), ringed with a low mountain range. It’s beautiful, this first glimpse of Inle, a morning layer of fog-smoke still burning off the lake’s surface.

We motor across the lake and into a neighbourhood of sorts, its houses and shops and restaurants on stilts. Inle Lake boasts a plethora of skilled craftspeople, and part of the tour is to their workshops. Our first stop is a silver-maker. I’m dropped off, given a cup of tea, and guided into the shop, where there’s an area in which a craftsman is showing how they make the silver here. I’m shown the stones they get the silver from, and then the mortar and pestle-type thing they use to stamp and mold the material into the jewelry I’m shown next. Then, I’m guided into a room bigger than the actual workshop, glass cases with rows and rows of jewelry that was clearly not handmade here, interspersed with some that may have been.

Next, we visit the cheroot makers, and I get out and watch as they demonstrate the cigar-making. After this, we navigate the watery streets (the neighbourhood is literally in the lake) and stop at a temple, thronging with boats and bustle. I have to pee.

I walk up into the melee, remove my shoes, and I’m immediately accosted by a woman who insists I buy offering flowers. I politely decline. She shoves the flowers in my face again. I decline again. This goes on for a couple of minutes until I find an opening and make my escape (sans fleurs). The temple is loud and crowded. The toilet is frightening. The tourists are pushy and rude, more into selfie-taking than worshipping. A shrine to what I wonder, as there are no monks anywhere to be seen.

I’m having a weird visceral reaction to this place, like I need to get out of here before it eats my soul. And I do, and then I explain to my boat driver that I need to see nature and culture and no more crowds. So after lunch, he motors us away from the crowds, down a series of green-lined rivulets, and to a market that appears to be bustling, but he points upwards and says go there. There looks to be another temple, this one with a zillion stupas, their gold and white and stone spires pointing to the heavens.

Between me and the temple is a covered stairway, lined with sellers of all manner of stuff – longyis and trinkets and jewelry and woven crafts. I’m relieved that while the waterfront is bustling, the market and the site is not. I am one of only a handful of people there, and I take my time walking up the hundreds of steps to the temple.

We’re at the Shwe Indein Pagoda, and I’m standing in the middle of what I realise is more like a village of centuries-old stupas, in various states of restoration. I spend nearly 2 hours wandering amongst the 1000+ structures here, awestruck at each turn. Some are meticulously restored, while some, gorgeous carvings and all, are tilting and overgrown, the jungle threatening to take them.

When I get up there, I am literally stupa-fied.

As I make my way down the hill again through the near-deserted market, I’m feeling better about this place. The energy here is so much different than that of the earlier pagoda, and it makes me very aware of the subtle cultural idiosyncrasies at play, not merely an east-west thing, but also region-to-region and temple-to-temple. Somewhere in the sub of my consciousness rings there is a place for everyone, and for everyone a place.

We visit a lotus weaving workshop next, where they demonstrate how the fibers from the lotus stem are woven to create a strong material, more precious than silk. And we visit the Jumping Cat Monastery, well-known for its trained cats. There are cats here, but I learn that they don’t jump anymore…it turns out that one of the practices the old monk didn’t pass on before he passed on was the training of the cats.

The day ends with a gorgeous sunset on the lake and large pot of Tom Yam soup. And, per the guesthouse’s suggestion, I reserve a boat for the following day to take me out to the lake’s farther reaches, to the town of Samkar.

We leave before dawn so I’m also treated to a sunrise over the lake. The journey takes about 3 hours, across Inle and down a river that is more marshy waterway than actual river. And while Inle lake is known for its oodles of pagodas and temples, it’s also famed for its fishermen. These iconic symbols of Burma’s Shan State go out on the lake every morning, doing their traditional dance: one leg wrapped around the oar, the other maneuvering their wooden skiff (a manual version of what we’re on), while his hands work the basket-like net. I’m already feeling a little hustled and shuttled like a tourist from the prior day (don’t they know I want an authentic experience rather than pay-per-view??), so I skeptically wonder if this, too, is a show for the tourists (and do I exit through the gift shop?).

But I’m drawn in by the nature of this longer journey…lush terrain lines different parts of the lake, and the greenery narrows around our long and narrow boat. I’m in bird-watching mode, spotting egrets and herons and cranes and a variety of other water birds as we navigate through the marshy lotus patches. These wetlands morph into fields and it’s sometimes hard to determine where the wet- ends and the -lands begin. It’s like two enmeshed cultures: land and water. Like a lotus, they need to find stability and nourishment in the solid bits, make peace with the water for equanimity and balance, and look skyward for wisdom and direction.

Because I opted to journey a bit off the beaten path today, I missed the floating market. And also the 5-day market. But we visited a sake-maker (with samples!) and some stunning pagodas along the way; and at most of them, I was the only one there. So the reward for the long, cold ride this day wasn’t that I got to see what everyone else does at Inle Lake, it was that I got to experience the stillness and the serenity of these sites; the only sound at times, the bells atop the crowns of the stupas, tinkling in the light breeze.

I won’t have a physical souvenir of these places, and I don’t know the names of most of them*, but the reflection in the mirror-like water, the bells in the air, and the scent of incense wafting from the altars are all the keepsakes I need.


My days at Inle Lake close with a 3-hour bicycle ride around town. Along the way, I was given a thumbs-up and blessed by a near-toothless monk, and had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten outside of Rajasthan. In Inle, I got rained on. I experienced world-class Burmese smiles and warmth and genuineness. I saw some surreal temples. I (re-)learnt that sometimes the best way to deal with an experience that isn’t for me is just to leave: there are mobs of people enjoying it whether I’m there or not. Once I take myself out of the equation, it just IS.

On the way back to the airport, the taxi passed the spot my other taxi driver crashed only a few days before, and I briefly wondered if I were a jumping cat, how many lives would I have used up thus far?

But for now, it’s onwards to Bagan and to one of the great architectural wonders of this world!


*In Samkar, I saw the Tha Kaung Mway Taw, Taung Tho and Samkar pagodas, plus a little ancient site sitting below a “newer” pagoda (here newer is a relative term; many of the temples here are over 1000 years old).

Read more of these adventures in Southeast Asia: [Part I: Bangkok] [Part II: Diving in the Mergui Archipelago] [Part III: Back on Land] [Part IV: Yangon]

Southeast Asia, Part IV: Entering Myanmar Proper

I’ve connected with a friend-of-a-friend who is a certified tour guide in Myanmar. She’s going to show me as much of the city as we (read: I) can absorb in 24 hours, before I continue on to Inle Lake and Bagan. There are 3 imperatives on the list: 19th Street (Chinatown), Shwedagon Pagoda for sunrise, and the Rangoon Tea House.

The taxi drops a nitrogen-weary mermaid at her hotel in Yangon, and it’s like night-and-day to the Bates-esque experience of the previous night. I check into the Yuzana Garden Hotel (which I’ve booked online for maybe $5 more than what I’ve just paid in Kawthaung) and feel like I’m walking into a renovated palace with its 15-foot ceilings and wood and marble finishes.

N.B. For this trip, my hotels average ~$25USD per night, and this one (very much in the price range, thanks to Agoda) is by far the snazziest!

After getting settled, we head out on foot to wander the streets of Yangon, not aimlessly, but since it’s later than anticipated, the anticipated market is closing for the evening so we walk past one of the city’s “Christmas in Yangon” stages that have been set up for tonight’s celebrations.

I say a private Happy Birthday Dad and we walk on, then jump in a cab and arrive in Chinatown for a beer and Yangonese BBQ on 19th Street, which, I’m told, has become one of the only decent places for young people to hang out together in this city. And so it seems: the street is bustling, as millennials (plus only a v small smattering of tourists) line the restaurants, drinking beer served up by the beer girls from Myanmar and Chang, and chatting up a storm over BBQ. You fill a basket with skewers of every imaginable thing, from chicken feet to quail eggs, squid to sausages, and hand the basket to the BBQ guy who sends it to the kitchen to cook, and the meal is delivered to your table with rice and a fantastic dipping sauce.

We don’t have much of an agenda tonight so we wander the streets of Chinatown and beyond, eventually making it back to the area where Christmas is in full swing, and we arrive at the same stage we were at earlier to catch local renditions of Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Is he? I wonder… We’ve been talking tonight of the monumental changes taking place in this country since the Regime was ousted only 3 years ago. It’s like a new lease on life for many of these young people here, and the significance that we’re on the street after 9pm watching a modern-clad local songstress belting out Western Christmas music is not lost on anyone in the massive crowd, myself included.

Next morning, we head out before dawn to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar, and as such attracts devotees and tourists from across the globe. We arrive well before 6am, and while there are no tourists here at this dark hour, there are streams of worshippers at every possible corner of the place.

There are no words that can describe it here: the air smells of jasmine and incense and wood smoke. My ears are buzzing with the sounds of chanting and individual mantras, all in languages I cannot decipher, but that join together in a soundscape that melds with the nag champa. The rising sun turns the mesmerising 100 metre-tall gold leafed stupa first pink, then a vibrant, lustrous gold that seems to drink in the morning’s rays.

It’s said that 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha are encased in this stupa, archaeologists estimating that it was erected c. the 7th century, though legend says it was built 2000 years before that. And while I’m not a practising Buddhist, one cannot help but be drawn into the story and embraced by the surroundings here.

As we exit the temple, a market of sorts is set up, selling materials for prayer offerings and myriad other goods from refrigerator magnets to local handicrafts to idols. What gives me pause is the wicker cage full of songbirds that are on offer: you purchase one in order to set it free, symbolic of releasing one’s attachments and so forth. It hurts my head and heart to think about the contradictions. And my guide agrees with my disdain: they’ve found a way to usurp the teachings for their own profit. Prophets, they are not…and my skepticism of organised religion continues.

We continue on to brekkie, more wandering, a ride on the railway, the bus, and a local ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, just to make sure we’ve hit all modes of transport here. We visit another pagoda and admire their reclining Buddha, its soles telling Gautama’s horoscope. And of course, lunch at the Rangoon Tea Shop, rounding out the musts for the visit here.

My impression? There’s not a lot to do in Yangon, but Shwedagon is literally awe-some. The food is excellent, and I note the Indian, Chinese and Western influences in nearly everything we’ve managed to inhale these past 24 hours. I find it amusing that at every meal so far I’ve been asked, you can eat spicy food? or told, very concerned, that’s spicy. Yes, I reply, donning my chopsticks and smiling.

Bonus: I’ve also managed to find custard apples, an Asian fruit I’ve only ever seen before in India. Now, onwards to the next (next) part of the journey that begins with an unexpected jolt.


Inle: They say what doesn’t kill you makes for a good story after-the-fact, right? Just so, because as I was worried about flying Myanmar National Airlines, I was not worried at all about the taxi I’d take from little Heho airport to Inle.

The air here is fresher than Yangon, and a smoky evening mist is settling. I get in the mini-van and we start driving down the steep 2-lane road that winds up and over the small mountains that surround Inle Lake. The views are stunning in the waning light. About 15 minutes in, my driver starts slowing down and veering towards the edge of the road. There’s a nice scenic overlook where others are stopped, so I think he’s slowing to give me a photo opp.

Problem is, he doesn’t stop.

Before I can figure out what just happened, we’ve crashed into the white and red safety pylon thing that separates us from the 100+ metre drop-off, which at this point is directly in front of the vehicle. The driver has either passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, and the jolt wakes him enough to look back at me with these hauntingly glassy eyes (and for me to ask are you okay?). I think I’m in a bit of shock, because it takes a moment before I realise I must get out and get help. Immediately.

My mind is racing but I am not moving. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if we were going any faster. It’s almost sunset. I’m in Burma. The absolute only place I know I DO NOT WANT TO GO on this trip is a Burmese hospital. Will the post hold? I just read a book about the opium trade. I wonder if he’s on opium. Get. Out. Of. The. Van.

I drag myself out of my own head and get out of the vehicle.

The post is holding back the van; it’s bent over, and the vehicle does not look good: there is a massive dent in the front bumper in which the post is now embedded. Time feels somehow warped, slow but too fast, and as I put my hand out to flag down a passing taxi, he is already pulled over. He gets out, checks the car, checks the guy, points to his cab and says, Get in. Get in now.

It takes me a moment to remember to grab my bag from the back, but we get it loaded and there is a very nice and very concerned older Swiss couple in the back seat. Glad to be safe, we continue onward and the taxi driver calls the authorities.

Shaken, but not deterred, I profusely thank the driver and the lovely Swiss duo for rescuing me and getting me to my hotel in one piece. Still, part of my brain is also wondering what to do about the glassy-eyed driver.

The rest of the evening goes better: this hotel is lovely, and a hanging garden full of orchids and greenery lines the pathway to my room.

Armed only with a guidebook and a hotel reservation (and Burmese fisherman’s pants), I know how to say hello and thank you, and I’ve got no idea what to do first here, but this is my launch pad for the next few days as I explore the famed Inle Lake.

I silently wish my co-adventuring Calvin were here to continue the journey with me. I make a cup of tea and try to shake off the recent events and doubts.


Demain est un autre jour…the lake awaits.


Read more: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part V]

When in Rome: Part III, Traversing Trastevere and unsung Roman wonders

Day 4: The next morn, we set out for (quite literally) the bowels of the city. Atlas Obscura had pointed us (albeit vaguely) towards what is one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. Turns out, in the 6th Century BC, the Cloaca Maxima was how they (also literally) drained the swamp that was to be the grounds of the Roman Forum, and C was keen on seeing this engineering marvel. We followed squidgy directions, and finally, over bridges and down lesser-used stone stairways, found what amounted to a hole in a hole in the banks of the river, next to which was someone’s makeshift camp. On the bright side, the detour took us past the weirdly popular Mouth of Truth (say a lie in its presence and it will bite your hand off), and also enabled us to see the Tiber from a different perspective, taking us to a part of the city that didn’t have throngs of people milling about and queuing up to see just about anything.

View from below, as it were…

Over the bridge and through the charming quarter of Trastevere, with its vine-clad buildings and the narrow, cobbled streets I adore. This is the way I like to see a city, wandering without a specific agenda and bumping into authentic local wonders.

There’s poetry and tragedy and comic relief plastered throughout the city in its street art. And we stumble upon an old church that incorporated ancient Roman graffiti into its façade. It’s little marvels like this that impress me as much as the one we would stand in queue for the following day.

During this day of wandering, we come upon the Palazzo Spada, an almost nondescript palace tucked into an unobtrusive side street, where we encounter a small wonder called Borromini’s Perspective. We walk into a courtyard (the sculptures of which are a wonder in their own right), which contains a window to an optical illusion – a corridor has been built, at the end of which stands a statue. The statue is a mere 60cm (or 2’) tall, and the corridor is a mere 8metres long. By the magic of mathematics and architecture, the perspective looks like a regal gallery many metres longer…the distance between me and the couple in the photo below is in fact greater than the distance between them and the statue.

From here, we return to the Forum, where we’d hoped to get a sunset view from Palatine Hill. Little did we know that only a fraction of the hill was accessible sans billet, as it were, and that the rest of the site closed at 3:30 – a good hour and a half before sunset. Another place added to the next day’s itinerary.

Skirting the crowds, we find a spot to gain some perspective from above and it’s here that we stop to marvel at the site (sic) of so many structures that formed the center of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, perhaps the most famous structure in this now-modern city, is but a tiny dot in the background.

I can see how one becomes inured to these wonders, and how easy it would be to take for granted these things, though magical and important to new eyes, they can become near-boring on one’s daily run to the store for milk and bread.

And life is like that, I think, as we toast with (massive!) flutes of limoncello to the marvels around us, the majestic Colosseum quietly looming across the way and chatty Italian millennials snapchatting and tittering at the table behind us. We see what we take time to observe, we undervalue what is easily at our fingertips, only maybe revelling in gratitude upon reflection.


We’ve wandered more than a half-marathon’s worth of steps today and the cobblestones seem to wobble more on this walk back to the B&B (it could, perhaps, have been the limoncello), the Colosseum seems to glow brighter, the crisp Roman night seems to embrace us as we wander through the Forum, clip-clop of horse-drawn chariots (erm, carriages) resonating in the night.

Tomorrow, we visit The Vatican.

Read more When in Rome: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II]