We got on our bus and started the day with a trip to a local market - not a tourist market, although there were stalls there geared toward us as well as street hawkers ready to swarm us with postcards and other trinkets as we got off the bus. I was immediately approached by a woman selling "thanaka" which is a local makeup - mostly worn by women, it's tan and is a natural bug repellant and sun screen, but also works to tighten the pores and improve the complexion. Most of us had a sample applied as we got there, and I also bought a cake and jar to put it in with water - if nothing else, it will make for a great face mask! Throughout the day, the local women would point at my face and say, "thanaka, very beautiful." It was fun.
At first I just walked along the street looking into the shops, but quickly realized that there wasn't much to be found that way, so I doubled back to a side street and started to wander, and that's when I realized that once you got back in there, it was a veritable labyrinth of tightly packed stalls roofed over with tin, fabric, or open to the sky in some places. Everywhere you looked was a feast for the senses... it was fascinating. Most of the stalls were for food - produce of all kinds, baskets of rice and beans measured out by the can or using old fashioned scales. There were platters of beautiful green leaves artfully arranged in spirals - too big to be herbs, but obviously for eating... those seemed to be hot commodities as I saw people buying and selling them all over.
There were many stalls selling fish - dried and fresh. If I was a seafood eater, that market would have dissuaded me from eating fish on this trip! There was no ice to be seen - fresh fish were displayed whole in baskets on the ground, or in pieces laid out on countertops. There were also chickens - whole, or in pieces, with flies buzzing in circles, lazily waved away at infrequent intervals and occasionally an attendant would reach over to wipe off a piece of chicken where one had landed.
At one point I discovered a butcher shop - several people sitting cross-legged on the counter in a stall behind the banner, quickly and efficiently stripping meat from the bones as they prepared it to sell, stray dogs circling out front blatantly hoping for scraps to fall. The remaining bones were so clean the dogs wouldn't have found much to satisfy, even if they managed to get a hold of them.
The people in Myanmar wear ankle-length skirts - men and women, with the difference being color, pattern, and how you tie it. They're cool and comfortable, and many have quite beautiful patterns. As I wandered through the stalls, I found a woman selling the skirts (or lengths of fabric sized for them) and saw a pattern in colors that I loved. She showed me how to wrap it and tied it for me, and I bargained with her and bought it and wore it through the market. I'll need to put some seams in it and maybe a tie when I get home, but I look forward to wearing it! Next to that I ran into another couple from our group who were completing the purchase of a large, 100 year old gong. The proprietor at the booth showed me several smaller ones - they have a scalloped triangular shape and they hang like a wind chime and have a beautiful sound when you strike them. Those were also quite old - I found one that had faded engravings of an elephant and bought it, along with a worn wooded "hammer" to sound it. I have no idea where to put it, but I like the idea of an antique Burmese dinner gong!
Finally we all got back to the buses and headed out to see some of the temples in Bagan. We started with the most beautiful of them, covered with gold and ornately ornamented. We again took off our shoes to wander through, and found that the local hawkers were tenacious indeed! We realized that they would hop on their mopeds and follow our buses from one stop to the other, hoping to wear us down with persistent offers for their goods. I managed to resist them, but I enjoyed looking at the stalls arranged around the temples. At the first temple, we saw two monks and found out that one of them, who looked quite wise and venerable, had won an award for memorizing all of their holy scripture - I believe they said only six monks had ever achieved it, and that we were quite lucky to have the chance to meet him. Pretty cool... I got a picture, but I don't think I've pulled it off my camera yet.
And the second temple - if I remember correctly, it was noted for its architecture.
And the omnipresent stalls for shopping outside of the temples. I think it might have been this one where I picked up a set of wind chimes made from temple bells. I love the sound they make... solemn in a way, very peaceful.
After the second temple, we headed to a lacquerware workshop where we were able to walk through and see how they make it. They coil long, thin strips of wood (I think it's bamboo?) and then apply 16 layers of lacquer before painting designs. It's a very traditional handicraft in Myanmar, and it was very cool to see how they did it, as well as all the amazing displays of finished work in the showroom. I did pick up a small dish (ornamental curry serving dish, but a small one) lacquered in black and painted with gold leaf motifs and peacocks. We also found the most gorgeous marionettes - in this region in general, we'd learned that they're an important part of the cultural history - water puppets in Vietnam, and at the museum of ethnology in Yangon, there was a whole display of them. The ones we found here were the prettiest I'd seen for sale, and looked the most like the ones in the museum. So a bargain was struck! I have no idea what I'm going to do with a Burmese marionette (mine is an alchemist, I'm told), but right now it looks very cool on my couch :)
Next they took us for a lunch stop at a local restaurant, but we went to some pavilions on a hill overlooking the river where we could either eat what we brought with us or order from the menu. There was a row of comfortable reclined lounges facing out to the river, and we sat chatting, enjoying the breeze and the view and just relaxing in the sun. Instead of ordering, we pulled out our granola bars, nuts, and crackers and munched and then continued to listen while Glenn (Glenn Rawson - the educator who came with us on the tour) talked to all of us about some of the history and other things about the trip. Finally we finished up lunch and headed back to the buses to continue the day.
We saw another temple and also went to a local village. In this case, we were told to be careful not to buy things from anyone unless it was in a shop, and not to give away candy or money - this wasn't a tourist thing, it was real life, and they didn't want to start training the people in that place to have expectations or start begging from tourists. There was enough of that as it was! We got out and wandered around... it was very dusty, a fine brown dust that was pervasive everywhere in the village. We wandered through the buildings near the bus, looking at places where people were weaving or making the bases for the lacquerware pieces. There were adorable children excited to see strangers, piles and piles of what looked like small crab apples out to dry, and lolling cattle interspersed throughout. We stopped in here and there to look closer at farms and crops and get peeks into daily life as we wandered and talked and looked and talked some more. It was so cool to see a place that was so humble, and yet it was clean and it seemed that the people were mostly happy, hard working, and had what they needed. This stop (along with the market in the morning) hadn't been on our original itinerary, but we all agreed at the end of the day that the stops that had been added in were the best parts.
After visiting the village, we went to another temple - we saw one with lots of ancient murals that were painted on the walls depicting the 10 lives of the Buddha (we couldn't take pictures inside, though), and then another that had 86 statues of the Buddha. They were all interesting and different, but I also have to admit that at this point in the tour, we were about at our limit of visiting pagodas and seeing statues. They all blend together after a while (although I still have a fascination with all of the stupas! I think they're beautiful.)
Finally, we headed back to our hotels. At our hotel, our tour manager Mike had arranged for a horse cart ride for those who were interested. We really wanted a chance to see a panoramic view of the area (I'd seen it online and on the new catalog for the tour company), so we asked to see what the best way was to see that and found out that the horse carts would get us there, so off we went! I took the second seat in the back of the cart - it was bouncy, so I had to hang on, but it was so fun to drive slowly through the ruins and local villages and see so much up close.
Just as the sun was starting to set, they took us up to the base of a hill where we all got out and climbed to the top. You could see for miles around in every direction, with the golden glow of the setting sun reflecting off of the pagodas and the river behind us. It was simply stunning - all that we had been hoping to see. I had wanted the view not just because it was amazing, but because it shows just how many pagodas there are scattered through the area. Seeing them individually up close, you get a sense of their grandeur, and then looking at the larger picture, you begin to understand the immensity of all of the temples and stupas built throughout the region. We stood there watching the sun set and standing in awe, loving every minute and so grateful for the chance to be there.
Pictures just don't do it justice... it was awesome. After that - the culminating point and definite highlight of the day, we went back to the hotel. Just as we were coming around the bend to stop, we heard people calling down to us and saw a couple from the trip who had done their own thing instead of the cart ride - they were on the top of a temple just around the corner from the hotel. So naturally, as soon as we got off the cart and paid the driver, we walked back over there to see what was up! It was almost deserted, but there were still a few kids there to lead us up for the view. It was pitch black in the stairwells, but I had my cell phone, aka flashlight, so we made it up okay. The view was stunning, but I decided not to join Scott on the top terrace seeing as how there were no stairs up! I figured I'd probably get up, but not down, and none of it would have been graceful. But I enjoyed it just fine from where I was.
After that, we made our way back down and I gave each of the three adorable kids a dollar to thank them for being guides. Then we went back to the hotel and joined up with a couple and their daughter who were on our bus and sat down for dinner at the restaurant out on the terrace by the river and watched as the last of the light disappeared behind the hills. We sat in lantern light and ate satay, curry, and pineapple shakes, and laughed and talked and had so much fun.
It was a wonderful, beautiful day full of memories of people and places that I'll never forget. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip!