If the first day in Bagan was magical, then the second day was just as brilliant. We started the day by visiting the Thatbyinnyu Temple. Known as the largest and tallest temple in Bagan, it has been supported financially by the Chinese government to restore it after it was badly damaged during the 2016 earthquake. I learnt that the top of the temple used to be a prime sunset viewing spot before the earthquake and it was just such a pity that climbing up the temple was now out of bounds for tourists. Nevertheless, just like the other ancient temples that I have visited, the temple itself was still a beautiful one, having been one of the first two-storey structures that was built in Bagan.
After the temple visit, our next stop was somewhere that truly epitomised the meaning of “off the beaten track”. We were about to visit a local traditional Bagan village across the river. The village was known as the Kyun Thiri Village and we had to take a short boat ride across the Ayeyarwady River. Upon reaching the opposite bank, I was in for a nice surprise. In order to reach the village, we had to ride on a Bullock Cart for around 20 minutes. Even though the ride there was bumpy, it was still a refreshing new experience for me and tourists visiting Bagan should aim to try it at least once.
Upon reaching the village, huge fields of crops greeted us, ranging from pepper to chilli to eggplant. I learnt that the villagers would harvest them a few times a year both for their own consumption as well as for sale. Wandering around the village, we also noticed that the village had a hand-dug 15m well, with the water used for both drinking and crops. Carrying on the unique Burmese tradition of setting out 2 clay pots of clean water for anyone to consume for free, this village was no exception and we observed two pots near the well as well. We then visited one of the households of the village and Ko Ko explained that this household had 3 main houses – one for storage, one for cooking purposes and the last for accommodation. The houses also possessed long legs which meant that the houses were 2m to 3m off the ground to ward off the risk of water entering the houses during flooding.
Talking to the villagers, we soon found out that they were facing some sort of a manpower crisis in recent years. With the young people in the village moving out to the city to seek better opportunities, this has resulted in a labour shortage during the harvesting season. We learnt that the village has been trying to cope with this problem through the use of shared machinery where several households pooled money together to buy machinery to ease their manpower crunch. Listening to their problem made me reflect and just simply hope that the improvements in technology can indeed help to ease their difficulties. After all, it is us city dwellers who will ultimately suffer if there is no solution found.
Moving on, we soon chanced upon an old lady who was about to show us something quite interesting. Apparently, she would usually make her own cigar by hand and she readily agreed to demonstrate the entire process for us. Using only Virginia tobacco and corn leaf, she wrapped it into a huge cigar and then lighted it up for us to see. This was the first time I had seen a cigar that big and I reckoned that it would take a long time before she would need to make another one. She explained that she would smoke only as a form of relaxation to ease her boredom when harvesting crops.
It was time for lunch at the village restaurant and it certainly did not disappoint. Some dishes we had included vegetable spring rolls, sweet vegetable soup, pumpkin curry, peanut vegetable salad and Burmese chicken with potato. With all the ingredients taken directly from the crops in the village, that meal was particularly satisfying. Furthermore, with the venue for lunch under a simple but well-designed bamboo hut covered with leaves, coupled with excellent service from the waiter, it created an overall wonderful experience. Thus, I would certainly recommend tourists visiting Bagan to make time for a visit to this village and experience the authentic village way of life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and especially for city dwellers, I’m certain it would be the same as well.
After lunch, it was time to head back across the river and get ready for the last stop of this Bagan trip, which would be to visit a Lacquerware workshop. As one of the oldest traditions of the Bagan dynasty, Lacquerware has since been mostly replaced by the likes of plastic, porcelain and metal in everyday utensils. However, it remains a beautiful art form that captivates and has been passed down from one generation to the next. Before visiting Bagan, I had heard much about this traditional handicraft from my friends and I was eagerly anticipating the chance to see the actual Lacquerware-making process with my own eyes.
Upon reaching the workshop, the person-in-charge explained that there were three main stages involved in making lacquerware. The first stage would be to carve out the bamboo into the shape that you desired and apply lacquer onto it. As explained by the person-in-charge, Lacquer is mainly the sap from trees that can be found in the Shan State near Inle Lake. The second stage would then be to put these carved-out bamboo underground to allow the lacquer to dry. For each layer of lacquer applied, the lacquerware will have to be placed underground for one week. As the quality of the lacquerware increases, more layers of lacquer will have to be applied. The last stage would then involve the engraving of the lacquerware. This is known to be the most tedious and difficult stage as it required a high level of skill. According to the person-in-charge, the workers would usually have to practice their skills on paper for up to 2 years before they were allowed to start engraving on the actual lacquerware. Watching up-close how the workers were in full concentration as they engraved the very intricate designs on the lacquerware made me appreciate this art form a whole lot more.
Overall, looking back on the trip, I would say that Bagan has been nothing short of spectacular with numerous highlights along the way. While many people would have already known about Bagan’s beautiful ancient temples and pagodas, it is so much more than just that. As an integral part of Myanmar’s history, Bagan holds a very special place to all locals, so much so that there are many volunteers who regularly clean up the place. Visiting Bagan would mean having the opportunity to just soak up in the magical and rich atmosphere of this ancient city, and even deepen your understanding about the religion of Buddhism. I have thoroughly enjoyed my overall experience and it is certainly a trip not to be missed.