Wednesday, 4 March 2015

3300 Temples, 1 Bicycle

I'm cycling as hard as I can in the heat, griping the handlebars with sweaty palms, trying to keep the ancient Chinese bicycle straight on the narrow dirt track. It's not easy, as I discover as my back tyre sinks suddenly into a loose patch of sand. I topple over sideways, ending up on my bottom in a newly-ploughed peanut field.

I can't stop giggling as I untangle myself from my undignified heap, and the local wild dogs scamper away in fright from the noise.

This is Bagan, Burma's ancient city:

Twenty-six square miles of arid farmland, dotted with 3300 temples.

Forty degree heat.

One old, gearless bicycle, and one slightly out of shape, middle aged woman.

How could I resist?

It's hot, sweaty work following dirt trails across the plains; I pass a goat herd, bells tinkling as the animals graze the thorny bushes, and oxen plodding slowly across the fields, dragging wooden ploughs that probably haven't changed design in centuries. The rainy season has just started, and the red earth is still dusty and desiccated but soon to be planted again. My tyres sink into the soft, sandy soil with alarming regularity, and sweat drips off my hands as I struggle to keep the bike moving on the gentle hills.

The tracks all looks the same, however, and soon I'm lost. I'm studying my map when a motorbike pulls up next to me. Two young Burmese men smile at me, and the driver asks where I'm looking to go. I tell him, and he says he'll take me there. I object, feebly, gesturing at his compact motorbike and my ancient Chinese bicycle. “You go fast; I go slow.”

“No problem,” he says.

They ride slowly next to me across the winding dirt tracks that criss-cross the plains, keeping the motor in low gear as I puff along, pedalling beside them. We chat – about where I'm from, and what I think about Burma. About how they're studying English in business school, and hope to be able to travel the world one day, “like Westerners.” They escort me to the temple, show me around, then wish me well with the rest of my trip before they ride off into the dust. Small acts of kindness are everywhere in Burma.

Another temple, further down the plain: fingernail-sized, bright red beetles with carapaces like crushed velvet scuttle around my feet as I struggle out of my hiking boots (you go barefoot at all Buddhist temples, even ancient ones). I'm nervous as they inch closer to my toes – bright colours are warnings, aren't they?

The key holder, a young local man who unlocks the temple each morning for visitors, smiles reassuringly. He tells me they're called Angel beetles, and they only appear at the start of the rainy season.

“Watch,” he says, and touches one gently with the tip of his finger. It stops moving completely. “Stay two, three minutes,” he tells me.

He shows me around, pointing out how the brick sizes that differentiate the original from restored portions of the building; many of the temples had to be partially rebuilt following the devastating 1975 earthquake. We climb up narrow brick steps that wrap around the back of one structure and allow us access to chamber below the roof. “Pyay, pyay” he cautions, warning me to be careful on the narrow ledge with my big, Western feet. Slowly, slowly. A newly restored sitting Buddha image watches over us, his bright white ceramic face beaming with child-like, rosebud lips.

I give the keyholder a small tip for showing me around; tea money, they call it. He smiles, and goes back to playing video games on his smart phone as I hop back on my bicycle.

Burma crawls with these contradictions – video games and smart phones, ox ploughs and ancient temples.

By mid-afternoon, I'm spent, stinking with sweat and covered in red dust. Dark clouds begin to cover the roasting sun, and the wind begins to blow. The monsoon rain is coming, promising a break from the punishing temperatures.

I stagger into a small, open-air restaurant that nestles outside one of the most popular temples, and order a mango lassi as the rain begins to hammer on the metal roof like an angry god. The owner sits down at the next table and turns on all the fans, bathing both of us in a cool breeze, as I surreptitiously wipe the sweat off my forehead. “I no like heat,” she tells me. “Burmese very happy rains come.”

We sit together, watching the deluge run in rivers off the packed dirt roads and enjoying the cooling effect of the fans. “You like Myanmar?” she asks me.

“Very much,” I tell her.

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