Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.
Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.
Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.
As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.
Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one.
Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.
As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.
There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.
Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day.
To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.
If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain.
As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.
Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.
Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings.
After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.
Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal.
Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.
As far as we are concerned, there’s not much to be said about Fenghuang as our wanderings there were vague and our criticisms much more specific. So, as its charms lie not in the experiences to be had there, but rather in the sight of its stilted houses rising precariously along the river winding through it, we will leave you with a series of pictures rather than words to guide you through our experiences in Fenghuang.
As an added bonus, here are some great Chinglish/blatant copyright moments from our time in Fenghuang:
The Chinese tourism landscape is littered with superlatives. As one travels from site to site, it seems at times that nearly every one of them is preceded by a “most” or followed by an “-est”. Some are rather vague as in the countless countryside villages touting the “most beautiful scenery” in all of China while others are painfully specific as in Zhangjiajie, the mountain range rumored to have inspired the floating mountains in Avatar. There was the “longest and tallest glass bridge in the world” as well as the “highest natural bridge in the world” and the “longest passenger cableway in the world,” and who could forget the “the highest, fastest, largest-loaded outdoor elevator in the world.” These titles, seemingly thought up by a boastful toddler and devised to draw in tourists to a once-in-the-world experience, were misleading in that they made you think that the feat of engineering was the main attraction when in reality, it was what those feats of engineering led you to that was the real attraction for no amount of superlatives could capture how truly incredible the mountains themselves were.
Our first experience with the majestic Zhangjiajie came in the unmajestic process of slogging up its slopes in the thick summer heat. Mossy steps wound up and out of sight, disappearing into the dense greens of the forest. Alongside the steps a network of disheveled shrubs and weeds wriggled in and out of each other, their branches and vines spilling over the edges of the path, crowding the ground and air that we walked through. Out of the bushes sprang spider-like grasshoppers whose efforts to evade us, their alleged pursuer, failed miserably as they more often than not crashed into our bodies before falling to the ground and springing away again. Despite one crossing our path every minute or so, they weren’t the most notable insect accompanying our hike up the mountain as a cloud of flies called our face and its immediate vicinity home for the entirety of the climb and all around us the steady humming of the countless other insects inhabiting the forest reminded us that we were not alone on our hike.
If all of this sounds rather miserable, I can assure you it was not, quite the opposite actually as the slew of insect encounters was drowned out by the beauty of the scenery we were climbing through. Rising out of the aforementioned lush forest bed rose an army of trees stretching high into the bright sky of summer. And, if you cared to direct your gaze even further up than that, your view would almost always be accompanied by one of the unique columnal peaks of the mountain range. As we climbed higher and higher we couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take the cable cars.
After about two hours we finally reached the top where, sadly, the crowds thickened and walkways thinned. One typically hikes up a mountain to escape crowds and noise, but in China, more often than not, you’ll find more of it at the top than you will at the bottom. Most of the people are harmless, bodies just like us moving around each other as they appreciate the views, but there are always some who, emboldened by their cable car ride up the mountain apparently, feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs every few minutes so as to announce to all other mountain dwellers that they are there.
As annoying as the shouts are, and they are always there, they eventually become white noise. As for the crowds, however frustrating it was to move through hoards of people on the top of a mountain, it was a sight designated for tourists which meant cable cars, clearly labeled paths, stone steps to hike up and down and even small shops selling refreshments. As much as we wanted seclusion and serenity, it’s not as if we hiked through raw wilderness to get where we were. Still, it would have been nice if more of our fellow hikers would have recognized their surroundings not as something they had conquered to help make them feel big but rather as something they could appreciate to help make them feel small, for most everyone could use a dose of that in today’s world.
As we hiked around more, each step was accompanied by dizzying views that plunged deep into the mountains below. While these kind of views would turn the stomach of anyone even considering a hop over the much appreciated railings running alongside the paths, they weren’t enough to stop some from going over the railing and, in one case, down the side of the mountain on a rope for some audacious acrobatics. We watched in a stunned awe as a man in a yellow suit straddled the side of the mountain with nothing but a rope tied around his waist. Like watching a horrific scene unfold from afar, we looked on helplessly as he began running from side to side, jumping off the face of the mountain, and spinning in midair. As it was clearly a performance and the man doing it his profession, we wondered if he ever got bored by his act. If descending down the side of a mountain dangling on a rope ever became mundane for him. In any case, we most certainly were not bored, and our transfixion on the daredevil was broken only when he was pulled back up the mountainside and into the shrubbery hanging off of it.
Now suddenly very thankful for the solid ground under us, we continued our hike, balancing views of our trudging feet below with the more scenic expanse of mountains stretching out beside us. Every now and then, we would come to a level stretch of path, which worked wonders for our legs as well as for our ability to appreciate the scenery. As we looked out, we found the collocational “mountain peak” to be moot as the mountains didn’t come to a point. Rather, they rose bewilderingly like crumbling columns from the valley bed, erect and stretching upwards much like the trees that surrounded them before leveling off at the top where a verdant collection of trees and bushes marked the end of their rise. It was no wonder some referred to it as a stone forest.
Our second day began with a delicious hot bowl of noodles for breakfast at our hotel: Yangjiajie MINI Inn. As we ate, the backdrop of mountains served as an ever-present reminder of the day ahead. While the previous day had seen us spending a majority of our time exploring the tops of the mountains, this day would see us traversing less elevated ground by way of the Golden Whip Stream, a winding waterway that cut through the base of the mountains. One often thinks that looking out from the peak of a mountain is the best way to appreciate its enormity, but there’s something to be said too about walking at their feet, dwarfed by their shadow as you move through the eeriness that is a dim setting on a bright, sunny day. This was one such occasion.
Apart from the mountains, whose faces poked out at us from above the tree tops, there were plenty of other scenes along the walk that demanded our attention. The stream, a shallow, trickling basin of water, slowly moved around the rocks it had failed to overtake, creating a soundtrack of gentle bubbling noises that would accompany the entirety of our walk. Ahead, the thick foliage of summer created a dense green landscape that stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Tree trunks and wayward branches coursed through the green like a network of black veins. Dragonflies and butterflies filled the air and on the ground, our company existed not only in the form of fellow hikers, but also in wild monkeys. Swimming in the stream, moving through the bushes that hugged our path, and swinging on the trees overhead, the monkeys were nearly everywhere we looked.
In spite of our close proximity to them, the monkeys could barely be bothered to glance in our direction, that is, unless they heard the rustling of a plastic bag at which point they might as well have been a begging dog. We would have preferred the former, coexisting without co-depending, but there were others who simply couldn’t resist tossing a bag of chips to a monkey in hopes of having some sort of interaction with it. It was sad to see monkeys licking the inside of plastic bags before tossing them in the river, only to be picked up by another further downstream who would snatch it out of the water and examine the bag for any missed remains. If a monkey wasn’t fortunate enough to get a treat thrown their way, they would drop in a dumpster, rummaging through the garbage for any scraps they could find, their grease stained fur serving as a reminder of their longing for a human treat.
As if tossing plastic-encased snacks to the monkeys wasn’t entertainment enough for those doing so, there were some that even resorted to violence towards the primates as a means of amusement. At nearly every shop inside the park, slingshots were for sale and, sadly, it didn’t take long for us to realize what they were for. Along our walk, we saw several people using the devices to fire fist-sized rocks at yelping monkeys who scurried away and out of sight. Each time we saw this we not so kindly reminded those doing so in our broken Chinese that their actions weren’t appropriate.
After about an hour’s walk along the stream, we reached an area filled with food vendors where we grabbed some spicy potatoes and a bowl of noodles before turning around and retracing our steps along the stream. The walk back was nice as we weren’t preoccupied with looking here and there for new sights and sounds but rather could just enjoy by what was then a familiar setting.
As we neared the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and with much of the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to abandon the comfort of level ground for the inverted pathway leading up to Huangshi Village, which was said to offer some of the best views in the whole of Zhangjiajie Park. Upon reaching the summit, we would discover that it wasn’t a village at all and the views obscured due to a biblical downpour that had ensued upon our arrival at the top. Camped out under the futile protection of a closed China Post-shelter awning, we watched as the downpour only increased with ferocity and an impromptu river formed on the ground where our feet stood, soaking our shoes and socks to a degree that, even several hours after the rains had stopped, would cause an incessant squish-squash to accompany every step we took around the mountain.
After the rains finally did let up, we mentally rung ourselves out and hurried to the nearest outlook in hopes of seeing a misty mountainscape left in the wake of the rainstorm. We were not disappointed. Rapidly moving mist crashed into the mountainside and spilled back into itself like violent waves upon a shore. Elsewhere, in the more open spaces of the valley, the mist sat in cloudy clumps, waiting patiently to be dissipated by the suddenly noticeable summer sun beating down from overhead. Slowly the patchy landscape came into a full, crisp view as the last wisps disappeared. As if a show had just ended, we soaked up one last deep gaze out at the mountains before starting back down the mountain through the dripping scenery to make the long journey back to our hotel where another delicious home-cooked dinner awaited us.
Most of our last day in Zhangjiajie was spent finding our way to a point on our map that had intrigued us since we first examined it: the Field in the Sky. Intrigued by the imagery its name evoked, we couldn’t let the chance that it was a gross dramatization of an ordinary scene hinder us from going to have a look. After a long bus ride, we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our map, which was surprisingly handy throughout our time in the park despite having no real distinct features apart from the sights that were worth visiting, was no help to us. From where we stood, several identical roads shot off in different directions, running off and out of sight behind a crowded forest of pine trees. From what we deemed was our point on the map, a very clear road snaked an inch or so across the page to the Field in the Sky. If only it was that easy.
We asked a group of passing hikers if they knew where it was and, after looking at us confusedly for a brief moment, convened for a muddled, mumbling meeting amongst themselves before shooting a desperate finger in a random direction and hurrying away. We smiled politely, waited until they were out of sight and then began looking for someone else to ask. Eventually, we met someone who, upon mentioning the name Field in the Sky, immediately nodded knowingly and told us to follow the unassuming dirt road that branched off from the road we were standing on.
Still on the path nearly two hours later no longer out of desire to see the Field in the Sky but out of pure stubbornness, we finally came upon it. Exactly as advertised, the site was a terraced patchwork of fields carved out of the top of one of the many gnarled mountains spread across the landscape. The light shimmered off the fields, turning them a bright green that stood out in the otherwise deep and dark tones of the landscape. As the other mountains looked on at the field, they must have been jealous, their moppy tops of unruly foliage were no match to the clean cut look of the field-topped mountain.
As picturesque as the view was we had to leave in search of shade and water as the sun was heavy and our water bottle had been empty for the last hour or so of our walk. Being a somewhat popular tourist site within the park, there was luckily a shop not too far down the road where we were able to do just that. Like a watering hole in the savannah, the shop was full of people despite there being not a soul to be found outside of its shady interior. Talking with some others while we sipped our water, we were told that there were amazing views fifteen minutes or so down the path. Having come this far already, we heeded their advice and continued on.
The fairly level path quickly turned to steps that fell over each other down the mountainside before bottoming out at a lookout that, as promised, dropped our gaze directly into the heart of the mountains. It was the best view we had had in Zhangjiajie by far and we sat, legs hanging over the cliff’s edge for what felt like hours staring downward in awe. As we did so, a quote from The Lord of the Rings came to mind. In it, an ancient tree mused about how humans could have such a “hasty” word for mountains. Certainly, he pondered, something that has existed since the beginning of time should have a name more compelling and worthy of the magnitude of the thing it described. Looking out at the hacked trunks that were the mountain range, this idea couldn’t have made more sense. “Mountain” just didn’t seem adequate enough of a word to describe what we were looking at. Perhaps no word or combination of letters could. So, we instead just looked, for nowhere perhaps but in our mind could the majesty of the scene before us be captured.
If asked to picture a romanticized version of train travel, your mind may disappear into black and white images of women in Victorian dresses waving handkerchiefs at a departing train or to the Hogwart’s Express chugging through the British countryside or perhaps even into the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song. Where this question will most likely not take you is to Sri Lanka, a place that people don’t normally think about when it comes to train travel or in any other context for that matter. Yet, from the moment we stepped up to the counter to purchase our first ticket in Colombo, we found ourselves entering a process that would charm us at every turn through the duration of our journey through the country.
The unattainable nostalgia that trains evoke first hit us in the station itself. Train timetables etched in chalk hung from the walls, hand drawn signs as worn and outdated as the language they used directed you to the “Gent’s Room” or the “Ladies’ Waiting Area,” workers dressed in a crisp white paced about the platforms in anticipation of the next train’s arrival, and each train’s departure was accompanied by a last call before slowly setting itself in motion.
On the train, a moderate clickety-clack marking the trip’s passage eased us into a state of sustained comfort as we watched the lush Sri Lankan landscape pass away outside our window. Vendors frequently made their way down the aisles, their walk a contained stagger as they battled the sway of the train. Fried treats and tropical fruits filled the baskets slung around their necks as they called out the details of the treat in tow in a repetitive fashion that slowly faded as they passed further away. It was from one of these vendors that we bought one of the most delicious cups of tea we’ve ever tasted, a sweet concoction that was poured shakily into a paper cup and practically boiling as it spilled over the cup’s fragile edges and onto our legs. As avid train lovers, the experience was blissful and despite being on the train for nearly half the day, we were a little disappointed when we reached our destination, the beach town of Trincomalee.
After several long plane rides, even longer layovers, a lengthy train ride however enjoyable, and our fair share of travel frustrations along the way, a few days stay on the beach was an appreciated finale to our summer travels through Myanmar and Sri Lanka. A short tuk tuk ride from the train station brought us to our hostel: Orion Beach Way, which sat a mere two minutes walk away from Uppuveli beach. Wanting some sense of adventure in the relatively unadventurous setting of a beach, we decided to book a cabana instead of one of the hostel’s standard rooms.
While the appearance of the cabana, walls made of wooden planks and a roof of leaves, excited us upon seeing it, once inside we found that our proximity to the nature outside was a little too close for comfort. No better example of this could be found than with our bathroom. When you first enter your hotel bathroom, there are many things you are hoping to find such as free bars of soap, a plush, luxurious towel, an elaborate bathtub and so on. What you don’t want to find are palm-sized spiders that, when they move, stand erect on all of their legs before darting menacingly across the floor and out of sight. You also don’t want to turn on the light to find a startled squirrel rabidly crashing around before leaping over your head and squirming through the hole it came in from. Sadly, as you might have guessed, our cabana had none of the former and all of the latter. Like checking for a zombie before entering a room, each trip to the bathroom, and into the cabana for that matter, entailed a fierce banging on the door a few times before entering. However, in spite of these unfortunate encounters, we did enjoy our stay in the cabana not only for the uniqueness of it but also for the shady refuge it provided us during Trincomalee’s unbearably sweltering afternoons.
However enjoyable our time on the beach was, it was nothing to write home about and certainly not worth mentioning in a blog as it consisted mainly of three components: sitting, swimming, and drinking. What was noteworthy about Trincomalee, like anywhere else we had gone in Sri Lanka up to that point, was its wildlife. The most immediate representation of this, the crow, could be seen from our beach loungers and just about anywhere else we cared to go along the coast. Taking the place of the familiar beach staple of sea gulls in both quantity and annoyance, the ominous creatures made it very clear that it was them, not people, who owned the beach. Nowhere was this more clear than one morning at breakfast when a crow swooped over our table and snatched a pancake from our plate shortly after it was set before us. As if this wasn’t agonizing enough, after doing so, the crow perched itself on a ledge a few feet away, refusing to eat the pancake dangling in its mouth for such a time that made us convinced we were being taunted.
Apart from crows, another familiar sight on the beach were cows who either moved along the shoreline in a herd, busy to be somewhere as they moved at a pace that was hard to keep up with, or stood alone seemingly just as surprised to see people on the beach as people were it.
However unfamiliar the familiar crows and cows were in a beach setting, we were hoping to see animals we couldn’t see back in Ohio or Iowa and more specifically ones that spent their time below water, not above it. To do this we would have to secure the help of a boat which wasn’t too hard to do as the only thing that seemed to outnumber the hostels and restaurants of the town were the dive shops whose shacks hugged the shoreline every hundred yards or so. The one we decided on for no good reason at all other than it was there, was called Trinco Water Sports. The owner had all of the charisma you could want from a beachside dive shop owner and gladly signed us up for a snorkeling expedition one day and a dolphin watching excursion the next (we had apparently just missed whale watching season which came at great disappointment to us).
For snorkeling we would have to venture to Pigeon Island which luckily inhabited none of its namesake bird and lied only a few hundred yards off the coast. After puttering up to the island’s shell-filled shores, we slipped on our snorkeling gear and dipped our heads beneath the surface. As we looked down the first thing that caught our attention was the hodgepodge of corals spanning all shapes and colors that rose up in a heaping fashion from the sea bed making it look like a landscape out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The coral, however interesting in its veined textures and sporadic designs, quickly faded from our attention as the waters were teeming with life, the likes of which we had never seen before. Pufferfish teetered about like a toddler taking its first steps; families of cuttlefish squirted by; parrotfish swam about smugly, seemingly aware of their vibrant beauty; needlefish flickered into view, their long flat bodies only visible from the streaks of silver shooting across them as they swam; and blooms of gelatinous jelly fish floated by, each with neon streaks of red and green coursing through them that dared you to reach out for a quick touch; among others. All of it seemed hardly real as the mixture of creatures fluttering about our faces and out of the dark crevasses of the ocean floor were to us like a foreign entity, aliens living in another world that we were lucky enough to sneak a peek at.
The highlight of our snorkeling trip came as it neared its end. Separated from Kate at this point and sensing that our time was coming to a close, I ventured as far away from the island as I could, following the trail of slimy buoys floating on the surface that marked off a protected area of coral closed to snorkelers. After about fifteen minutes of this, and with a burnt back and increasingly tiring legs, I decided to hang up my flippers and swim back to shore. Just as I turned around to make the return journey, two black-tipped reef sharks, one about the size of me, swam within a few feet of my face. Now, logic should have told me that the sharks were harmless given that there were countless tourists that came to the island every day for snorkeling and, as far as I knew, none were ever attacked by the sharks that inhabit the reef. But, logic isn’t the first thing that crosses your mind when a shark glides past your face and you’re at least a fifteen minutes swim away from land. So, I gave a quick and pointless scream, swallowed some salt water in the process, and began flapping in a panicked manner towards shore. As adrenaline gave way to the biding logic that I was most likely safe, my mind became flooded with how incredible it was to see a shark in the wild, if only for a few seconds. After getting back on our boat, we motored back to shore, the entire way being mindfully aware of the plethora of life lying below the surface we were cruising over.
The next day would see us returning to the same shack early in the morning for dolphin viewing. Our boat was scheduled to leave at the crack of dawn, but our fellow boat passengers had apparently missed the memo. As we watched the sun rise higher and higher on the horizon, our frustration turned to panic as boat after boat shot off from the shore. Most of them departed without a hitch, but a few struggled to get going due to their size and the fact that only the captain and a few others were attempting to push it. So, to pass the time, we decided to wade through the cool morning water to lend a hand. In one instance, a boat full of Chinese passengers watched in amusement as we helped dislodge the boat from the wet sand underneath with not one member of their party of twenty or so getting out to help, instead snapping pictures in our faces as we struggled to push their large party of the shore.
It would be good practice for when the passengers in our boat finally arrived behind the furious stomping of the boat’s captain who had to walk to their hotel to wake them up. With dark sunglasses covering their eyes and showing signs of being severely hungover, they stood and chatted while we pushed our boat into the water, upon which they hopped in alongside us with an infuriating aloofness amidst a spattering of accusations directed at one of their members who was a disappointment for having called it quits at 3 A.M the night before. At that moment, we couldn’t think of any worse a companion to have as we set off.
If we weren’t awake prior to boarding the boat, the ride to see the dolphins surely would have done the trick. The ocean, a dark navy blue in the slanted rays of morning, was violent, and our boat’s path traveled directly against the cresting waves it was mustering up one after the other. After shooting off each wave, we would crash down with a violent thud that we could feel in our bones, a process that repeated itself many times over before the boat finally came to a halt near the numerous other ones also on the prowl for dolphins. After the engine hummed to a stop, it didn’t take long for us to spot the rapid rise and fall of dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water in our direction and then past us and out of sight, after which the boat drivers scrambled to start their engines, shooting off in some communal direction in hopes of another sighting and happier client. The dolphins, intelligent as they are, probably found this all amusing as they drug us about from here to there, luring everyone in with their graceful sprint through the water.
Eventually the dolphins must have disappeared for good for our driver began heading back towards Trincomalee. Before making it back to the beach we would stop off for an impromptu snorkel session at a secluded rock far off the shore. The session, which we were thankful for, came at the request of our boat companions who had paid a little extra. With this in mind, it came as a surprise then when the group upon putting their snorkel gear on, swam directly to a small rock which they proceeded to climb on and smoke cigarettes for the duration of the 30 minute session.
The trip back to the beach was bittersweet. We had another great experience to add to the many we had already had in Sri Lanka, but our time in the country (and Myanmar before it) was at its end. As we skimmed over the now smooth ocean surface, a flock of flying fish jumped out in front of our boat, flickering into the sky for a few seconds before dropping back into the water, one last unexpected pleasantry in a country that had given us many.
With one day left in the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa and having already viewed its signature attraction of ancient ruins, we decided to dedicate our last day in the town to one of the other unique draws it had: its wildlife. Within the city limits, stumbling across the country’s biodiversity wasn’t a difficult task as playful macaques could be found on a whim, lizards scampered about, and giant bats filled the nighttime sky. The animal we were most interested in seeing though was one we had seen many times before in almost every zoo we’ve ever visited: the elephant. While we had seen one roaming in the distance alongside Polonnaruwa’s man-made lake, we were eager to see one both up close and not in the confines of the familiar exhibit so we booked an afternoon safari to Kaudulla National Park where we hoped to be able to do just that.
Our day began, as any should, with breakfast. We set out early, riding our bikes down the streets of Polonnaruwa in search of a place to eat, an endeavor that didn’t take long as our attention was caught by one of the first diners we passed. Drawn in by the dizzying array of fried pastries on display in its street-front window, we parked our bikes and headed in for a closer examination. After pining over the selection before us, we decided that there was as good of place as any to eat and soon found ourselves with the dangerous thought of, “Well, I’m only here once and will never get to eat this again in my life.” The result of this thought left us with an anything-but-humble portion of food piled on our plates that, upon eating, left us in dire need of a good walk or else a good sofa. With the latter nowhere in sight, we opted instead for a slow stroll down the road that the restaurant sat on. As we reached the road’s end we were left looking out over a sunny patch of grass where we were delighted to find an extended family, or several, of macaques mingling with each other.
As we watched, we became enamored with one adolescent monkey and its infatuation with an unfurled roll of paper towels.
Our interest in this particular monkey was quickly shifted though as two puppies bolted into the mix, causing a hullabaloo amidst the ranks of macaques. In the beginning, the monkeys cautiously approached the puppies, poking them with an outstretched finger and arm or giving them a light tap on the back before springing away. Their initial caution wore off quickly though as soon they were playfully biting the dogs and grabbing at them in a taunting manner, acts that sent the dogs into a frenzy of manic spinning as the barrage of monkey hands made them unsure of where to turn. However raucous it got, it was clear that both sides were thoroughly enjoying the other’s company, a party that ended only when the puppies’ dad walked up, chest puffed out, and the two dogs slinked off ashamedly into his care. We could almost hear the monkeys snickering.
With our safari now fast approaching, we left the macaques for more wildlife viewing in Kaudulla. We boarded a truck at our guesthouse and after a short drive were being led into the park by a dirt road flanked at all times by a thicket of bushes and overarching trees whose low hanging branches we would occasionally dodge as our heads were poked out of the top of the truck in hopes of seeing an elephant. Despite our fervid gazing, we didn’t see any on the path, being served instead an appetizer of various birds and lizards scattered about the route with the most noteworthy sighting being a peacock, which wasn’t all that spectacular until we wrapped our head around the fact that it was wild. So ubiquitous is the psychedelic bird in the urban wild of zoos and parks that it has become easy to forget that it can exist in a habitat outside of these environments.
Eventually, the dirt road ended and the trees opened up into an expansive savanna that rolled humbly into the distant forests and mountains stretched across the horizon. Eager for our first elephant sighting, we would jab our fingers in the direction of a black mass perched on a hillside only to discover ashamedly that it was a fellow truck also on the prowl. As we continued to aimlessly traverse the landscape, the lack of elephants led us to redirect our attention to the rapidly darkening sky. In our naïveté and knowingly hopeless optimism, we convinced ourselves that the storm would pass…it wouldn’t.
Before the skies could open though, our truck crested a hill and there before us were four elephants moving slowly about each other. Our fascination with seeing the largest land animal not even one hundred yards away from us was overshadowed, quite literally, by the approaching storm, which, by that time, had made the early afternoon seem like twilight and cast an eerie silence and stillness over the savanna. Well aware of what was coming, three of the elephants began making their way towards the forest. The one that had decided not to join them was standing as still as a statue, its gaze fixed firmly on our truck. In a matter of seconds we went from a state of awe to one of frenzy as we watched the elephant begin barreling towards us in a full out sprint. Now less than fifty yards away we began frantically shouting at the driver to get us out of there but the truck wouldn’t start. The elephant was now within a stone’s throw and still running at full speed. We braced for impact. And then, to our surprise, the elephant stopped as suddenly as it had begun its dash. It was now so close we could see the whites of its eyes as it walked away smugly. We could have sworn we saw it smirk.
So relieved we were to have avoided a Jurassic Park-esque experience that we had barely noticed the biblical downpour had ensued in the process of the elephant nearly toppling our truck. As our heart rate slowed and our senses came back to us, we scrambled to put the tarp over the opened top of the truck which was a akin to setting up a tent in a rainstorm. While we eventually would get it up, we were soaked to a degree beyond amusement and for the next half hour or so we sat in our dripping clothes waiting for the rain to let up, which it eventually would.
Driving around the now rain-soaked landscape, our truck struggled in its efforts to wade through the muddy ground, often slipping and stalling as it kicked glops of mud all over us. Eventually finding some traction along the banks of the forest, we watched as the elephants that had sought the refuge of a canopy during the storm began slowly making their way out into the open again. Whole families emerged, relishing in the fact that the water they so enjoyed was now sitting on the ground instead of falling on their heads. We continuously reminded ourselves that we were seeing wild elephants and just how unique that was. They seemed happy in their playful interaction with each other, seemingly unaware of the hoard of trucks encircling them. The watching eyes must have eventually gotten to them though as they left the open area to trot back into the forest. We watched until the last one had completely disappeared, upon which we left the park, our protruding heads happily dodging branches as the still soaked hair that sat atop them dried in the cool breeze of dusk.
“Hmm, that black speck moving across the horizon is much bigger than the other specks” we thought to ourselves, lazily gazing out at the animals moving around the giant, man-made lake sitting outside the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa. The small specks were unmistakably cows, aimlessly grazing on the tall grass surrounding the lake, but what was the big one? Its movements, unlike the cows, were purposeful as it strode out of the surrounding forest and towards the lake. Slowly, the word popped into our heads, “Elephant!” Distracted by the familiarity of lakes and cows, we forgot that we were in a place where you could look out at any point and see a wild elephant wandering across the landscape. For us, this was Sri Lanka, never quite what we expected it to be, but always surprising us in the best of ways.
If we were to describe to you a town surrounded by fields, filled with friendly, English-speaking locals, with a couple of local diners on its main street along with one good grocery store, you could be mistaken for picturing a small, midwestern town in the U.S.A. If we added in a bit about a local guesthouse owner, upon our arrival, giving us directions to one of those diners by saying, “Take a right, then another right and when you get to the clock tower, keep going and you’ll find some restaurants past there,” you may be sure of your suspicion. It wouldn’t be until we got to the part about roaming wild elephants, troops of monkeys, locals bathing in rivers, and UNESCO-recognized ancient ruins sitting within the town limits that you would begin to think otherwise. So was the allure of Polonnaruwa, with all of the charm you could want from a small town and all of the experiences you could expect from a world-renowned tourist destination.
Following the directions given to us by our guesthouse owner, we peddled into the town, past fields so green they appeared artificial as they swayed in the gentle breeze pushing in off the lake. Fruit vendors dotted the side of the road, their stalls decorated by a colorful arrangement of tropical fruits, some of which we had never seen before. Slowly along the route, guesthouses and hotels started becoming more frequent sights and finally the clock tower came into view. Heeding the advice given to us, we rode past it and pulled our bikes off to the side of the road, continuing our search for lunch on foot. There was no need to lock our bikes, we were told, as no one in the town would bother to steal them, a theory that held true for the entirety of our time there. In fact, on one occasion we returned to our bikes to find that someone had even moved them off the side of the road to a shady patch under the awning of a convenience store. We were never at a loss to find examples of the warmness of locals in Polonnaruwa.
The first shop we passed resembling a restaurant was what looked like an oversized closet with pictures of fruit smoothies plastering its exterior. Having had nothing to eat that day besides the variety of treats paraded down the aisle on our train from Colombo to Polonnaruwa that were fried to a degree suitable for a state fair, our bodies were craving nutrients and a place advertising fresh fruit smoothies seemed like a good place to start. As we entered the shop though, we found that smoothies were the only thing on the menu and the owner, aware that we were looking for a bit more than a glass of fruit juice, pointed us to a restaurant across the street that his friend owned.
If ever there was place that truly embodied the phrase hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the establishment that we were crossing the street and walking towards would certainly have been it. The roof consisted of several crooked sheets of rusted tin, the outside walls were faded and tattered, and the interior a collection of old and worn furniture that lined the stained and peeling walls. As we sat down, the owner pointed us in the direction of a large bowl of rice and four earthen pots sitting buffet style on a table near the entrance. We filled our plates with the rice along with the lentil curry, minced jackfruit, and a couple of other things we couldn’t identify that filled the bowls along with a handful of baked pita bread crisps. An ice cold Pepsi served in an opaque and chipped glass waited for us back at our table.
While on vacation, the little voice in the back of our head meant to warn us against the possibility of food poisoning at sketchy-looking restaurants always gets a bit louder, as if our mind has given it a higher pedestal to shout from just to be safe. In this instance though, the voice was silent. Despite the less than ideal conditions for a place preparing our food, we had an overwhelming feeling that the restaurant was well-taken care of, a feeling that was justified by our meal, which was one of the best we would have during our time in the country. As we left the restaurant, a man in shabby business clothes took a momentary break from eating his lunch with his fingers, as most in the country do, to look up at us and, in a delightful but fleeting way, say in perfect English, “Best buffet in town!” before returning to his meal. As we said, always being surprised in the best of ways.
After leaving the restaurant, and with little time left in the day, our agenda for the afternoon was limited to a bike ride through the town to familiarize ourselves with its layout before the next day’s more thorough exploration. Our ride took us to the entrance of the ancient city, past the lake where we saw the elephant emerge from the forest in pursuit of an early-evening bath, and to a small outpost of ruins that were aptly named as there wasn’t much left of them apart from crumbling heaps of brick, crooked columns whose ceilings had long since disappeared, and one pristinely preserved statue carved out of a rockface.
Arriving back at our guesthouse at dusk and with time to spare before dinner, we went on a short walk towards the last remnants of the day’s sunset, an orange glow emanating from the distant mountains. As we watched the glow become slowly overtaken by the veil of night, we could see what looked to be a flock of birds steadily flowing out of the horizon. Their methodical movements across the sky left us hypnotized, a state that was only broken when one flew overhead. Its size astounded us. In the distance, the flying creatures had appeared like small dots but overhead, they were more the size of a hawk. “Surely, they can’t be hawks though,” we thought to ourselves as there were hundreds of them streaming across the sky. We watched as another darted by, then another, then another until finally one flew by slow enough for us to notice that it had webbed wings, after which we made the horrifying but exciting connection that these weren’t birds at all, rather bats! We watched, entranced by their graceful flock, for as long as we could until the night grew to a degree that made the mammals nearly invisible to the eye. As we entered back into the gate of our guesthouse, we were told that dinner was ready, a delicious home-cooked affair prepared by the owner and his mother that we unashamedly devoured before retiring to our room for the night.
The sun had barely risen on our second day in Polonnaruwa before we were on our bikes and heading towards the ruins of the ancient garden city that drew tourists to the small town by the thousands. Our tickets, large and thick enough to make one expect to find bark on their outer edges, were purchased at the site’s museum which we toured for a brief briefing on the ruins before peddling through the gates and beginning our exploration of the city.
Before going to the ruins, we were told they they were relatively compact, accessible by bike and seeable in an afternoon. While the first two held true, we began to question the authenticity of the latter piece of advice as soon as we pulled up to our first site: the Royal Palace. As we got off our bikes, we found ourselves taking in a scene that looked like it had been plucked from the pages of a storybook. Paths shot off in every direction, running past various ancient buildings and out of sight over the meager hills of the landscape. The trees that filled the grounds had bark that appeared like a collection of bulging veins that wove through each other down the trunk of the tree before slithering menacingly into the ground below. The palace itself, which once stood seven stories high, was now a jagged heap of bricks whose magnificence had long since faded but whose allure was still very much intact. An otherworldly light was cast over the scenery from the sporadic canopy hanging overhead. We wandered around the grounds aimlessly, as no direction seemed like the right one to go in, eventually settling on a nice place to sit and take in all that was laid out before us.
Very aware of the extent of sights that still awaited us, we decided to leave the Royal Palace ruins behind and head to the next main sight in the city: the Quadrangle. Inciting flashbacks to the horrors of elementary geometry, we were relieved to find that the sight had nothing to do with math and everything to do with ancient ruins. The Quadrangle got its name from the four walls surrounding it, whose short and thin nature made us believe that they served more as boundary markers than to hinder anyone from entering. Inside the walls, a trove of religious buildings lay spread across the grounds, each one in a varying state of ruin. What caught our eye the most, apart from the buildings themselves or the statues that filled them, were the semi-circle slabs of stone that sat at the foot of many of the doorways. The name for them, moonstones, was as beautiful as the stones themselves.
Named so because of their semi-circular cut, the moonstones feature various animals chasing each other in a ringed fashion across their borders. While debated, the animals are said to represent the four noble truths of life recognized in Buddhism, which are – prepare yourself – birth, decay, disease and death, which most seem to be antonyms of life, but, when thought about, sadly make sense. Beneath the animals ran a band of leaves said to represent desire, below which a lotus flower sat. It is said that once one can master the four noble truths of life and learn to suppress desire, they can reach Nirvana, represented by the lotus flower. A lot of meaning packed into a stone and a constant reminder of one’s beliefs as they passed over it to enter the Buddhist temples and structures that the moonstones sat outside of.
As we walked around the grounds of the Quadrangle, we began to notice that our ability to tour the temples barefoot was becoming increasingly hindered due to the sun beating down on the bare floors of the roofless structures. Like grabbing a plate that a waiter tells you is very hot only to find that it is indeed very hot, we tested our ability to walk on the scorched stones over and over again, burning our feet as a result and leaving us to dash pathetically towards any shade in sight. Faced with this inability to tour the temples, we decided to leave the Quadrangle, and the rest of Polonnaruwa, for later viewing once the sun was a bit lower on the horizon.
The second half of our day in the ancient city began with us being captivated not by the ruins but rather by the monkeys that called them home. As we pulled up to Gal Vihara, the first sight on our agenda for the afternoon, we noticed a rather large gathering of macaques huddled around a collection of waste bins sitting outside the souvenir shops of the area. We had seen a monkey or two scampering about the grounds earlier, but this was a full-fledged village and well worth a closer look. Inch by inch, we made our way up to the outskirts of their micro-community, watching in wonder as everyday monkey life unfolded before our eyes. There were toddlers testing their limits as they leapt from one branch to another, usually failing to come close to their intended target, adolescents chasing each other around and causing havoc that an irritated adult would sometimes speak up about, and mothers, sitting idly by and watching nervously as their children played, sometimes swooping in to stop a kid they had decided was being too dangerous or inappropriate. We watched on, our unfailing interest in the monkeys being matched only by their complete uninterest in us. Eventually, a voice in the back of our heads reminded us of the plethora of sights awaiting us and we bid farewell to the macaques and began making our way towards Gal Vihara.
While ancient, to call Gal Vihara ruins would be a drastic overstatement. The humble collection of four Buddha statues, etched into the swirling, marbled granite of the site, looked as if they could have been carved yesterday, their features smooth and unblemished as they ran across the stone’s surface. The rules of erosion and time that existed in such perfect unity throughout the rest of Polonnaruwa didn’t seem to apply here.
After leaving Gal Vihara, I would have another encounter with the primates of Polonnaruwa, this time with the resident langur, the macaques less intelligent cousin, which was evident in their blank gaze that was broken only for the occasional itch. Separated from Kate at this point as we had split off to pursue our own interests at the current site we were at, I came across a couple of slouched langurs sitting on a crumbling wall. Mistaking their vacant expression and idle state for a creature unwilling to move, I crept closer as there was was no sign that they were even aware of my presence. After taking several pictures and pulling the camera lens away from my eyes, I was startled to see that the monkey I was snapping a photo of had moved. My surprise quickly turned to pure terror as I realized that the monkey had moved to begin its pursuit of me. No experience in my life has ever quite prepared me for an angry monkey, only a few feet away, sprinting towards me with malintent, so I relied on my primal instincts and ran madly until the monkey gave up its pursuit. I was thankful that the langur had the attention span of, well, a langur and doubly thankful that there were no other people around to witness my desperate dash.
The rest of the day would see us stop off at other various sights within the grounds, each as inspiring as the one that came before it. While walking past half missing statues that towered into the barren sky or past trees as timeless as the buildings that they were crawling over, you couldn’t help but feel small, like an ant crawling over a piece of gold, completely unaware of the true value of it.
Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the feeling of wonder that will accompany seeing it in real life as was the case with the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan. Over the years we had seen countless depictions of the city on websites and in magazines, but it wasn’t until we climbed up our first temple and were staring out at the vast plains of the city and the countless ancient temples and pagodas that filled them that we were truly in awe, a feeling that would never really go away during our time there.
If we could have had it our way, we would have explored every temple that we could see after looking out from that first one, but, as we had three days and not three months in the city, we would regrettably have to pick and choose which ones we would visit. As we rode our bikes down the dirt paths that wove through the ancient city, it seemed as if we were passing temples as frequently as we were souvenir shops, or people, or even trees for that matter. Some laid right alongside the road with life in the forms of restaurants and dogs roaming around their bases, and others sat off in the distance, looking as if no life had existed in their vicinity in centuries. Some were bell-shaped and others resembled castles with their towering tiers and toothed roofs. There were ones that stretched high into the blinding blue sky, blocking out the sun and offering a nice shady refuge from the midday heat, and others that struggled to stretch up two floors. There were fat ones and skinny ones, brick ones and whitewashed ones, restored ones and crumbling ones. In fact, with so many choices as to which temple to stop off at, choosing one wasn’t so much a matter of intention as it was one of feeling. “Ooh, that one has a lion outside of it” or, “The stupa on this one has a unique shape” or rather simply, “I’m tired of this bike and the sun, let’s stop off at the next temple we come across,” were all thoughts that dictated where we would go. And, although some buildings were more impressive than others, we were never disappointed by what we were seeing for each one offered something different from the next which is what made the place so incredible. With over 2,000 temples and pagodas, we never once came across one that completely resembled any other we had seen prior.
After finally giving up the view from that first temple, we clambered down it and hopped on our bikes to head across the road to Gawdawpalin Temple, one of the largest of its kind in the city. Before we could make it through its front gate though, we had other business to tend to: that of purchasing a longyi, the ankle-hugging skirt that men and women alike wear throughout the country. Besides allowing us to fit in, if only slightly, with the locals, its light and loose fabric also offered us an airy alternative to the constricting jeans and shorts we had been wearing up to that point, a difference that would be much appreciated as the day heated up. Later, we would find biking with them to be a nuisance as evidenced by our longyis coming unknotted several times while riding, causing us to nearly flash school groups and other tourists passing by. Apart from that minor downfall though, they were extremely fun and convenient to wear.
So, with our longyis now firmly wrapped around our waists, we made our way into the temple. Shortly after passing through the front gate though, our attention was caught, rather hijacked, by a large group of Burmese tourists who had elected one individual to shyly approach us and ask if we would take our picture with them. “Sure!” we thought, “what harm can a picture do?” After all, we have lived in China for nearly four years and having our picture taken, whether by request or not, had become routine. Expecting one group photo, we were surprised instead to find ourselves getting a picture with just one individual, then another, then another until the entire group of 20 or so had snapped a photo with us as if we were statues in a public square. However odd it was (what do they do with those pictures?) we found the situation more amusing than frustrating.
In fact, before that experience we had had others exhibiting the forthcomingness of the Burmese when it came to foreign tourists. For example, while waiting at a bus station in Mandalay the day before, a handful of people approached us to casually ask where we were from. After we told them the USA they would nod thoughtfully for a moment before quizzically saying, “Trump?” or sometimes “Obama?” in a manner that demanded an opinion from us about the president in question. One person, after opening with the aforementioned dialogue, proceeded to ask probing questions that delved deep into our beliefs about religion and politics. Nestled in the heart of the tourism industry, it became easy to forget that Myanmar used to be, and in many parts, still is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Experiences like these served as welcome reminders of this.
After snapping our last picture with the tour group, our tightly coiled smiles unfurled and we were finally able to make it into the grounds. As we stared up at the towering temple and the deep blue sky that it stood in front of, only one word came to mind: magnificent. We were paralyzed by the grandeur of it; the carvings that lined every window and door and ran along every roof, the sense of timelessness that existed as we walked through its corridors past the lifelike gaze of the Buddha statues that lined them, and the fact that thousands more temples (and at one time ten thousand), many as breathtaking as this one, sat within a few miles radius.
As we moved from the cool inside to the significantly less cool outside to take in the exterior of Gawdawpalin, we found that our steps had to be taken much more carefully as the pavement was scorching hot. As we moved around the temple, we maintained the fragile balance between our desire to see every inch of it with the more urgent desire to avoid burning our bare feet (shoes had to be removed before entering a temple). Tiptoeing from one shady patch to the next, in a manner that channeled our inner Fred Flintstone, we were eventually able to make it around the entire temple before finally making it back to our bikes where we slipped on our sandals and began cycling in search of another temple to explore.
The next one we came to was Ananda Temple, one of the most revered sites in all of Bagan. Legend has it that the temple was designed by eight monks who had shared with the king at the time their experiences living in a cave temple in India. Eager for both the magnificence of the temple being described to him as well as the cool interiors (a novelty in the hot and arid Bagan plains), the king conscripted the monks to build him a temple of equal attributes. Upon completion, the monks were executed so that no other building like it could ever be built again. It is always a surreal experience to be in a place that has lasted as long as the legends that describe it.
Walking up to the temple, our eyes were naturally drawn to the golden stupa sitting atop it like a crown, the midday sun beating off of it at a degree that even made our sunglass-shielded eyes squint. Partially obscuring the stupa was a web of bamboo poles that wrapped around it, a reminder of the ongoing reconstruction efforts that had been taking place following the earthquake that shook the plains not even a year earlier. Even with such a blemish, the stupa was incredible and the rest of the temple followed suit as it expanded out from the central stupa tier by tier before abruptly ending in a two-story wall that shot down into the ground. Intricate carvings of mythical beasts ran menacingly along the eaves while their larger brethren sat formidably on the ground at each corner, dwarfing us as we scampered by in search of the next patch of shade to stand on.
What made the temple truly unique from the other ones we had seen though was its facade, which once had been whitewashed but now took on the color of sand due to what we imagined to be a bleaching process during its restoration. This detail gave the temple an otherworldly dimension as did the four Buddha statues standing as erect and timeless as an old tree inside its cool and dark corridors. As we stared at these and other features of Ananda, we couldn’t help but question the authenticity of them for they looked like an elaborate set for a Hollywood blockbuster or what you would imagine to appear out of the haze in a desert mirage. These things however, are often reflections of reality and not the other way around.
As the afternoon wore on, we became reminded that, while temples and statues can feed the mind, they can’t exactly feed the stomach and, with that thought, we left Ananda in search of lunch. After getting on the main road, there were choices abound and we pulled off at a restaurant called The Moon, where we enjoyed some curry so spicy that workers, upon seeing our red and profusely sweating faces, hurried back to the kitchen to bring us tamarind candies, a Myanmar remedy for spice. The waiters watched in amusement as we unwrapped the candies with the fervor of a Christmas-morning toddler, flinging them into our mouths and effectively extinguishing the fire.
After finishing our meal, which, in spite of its spiciness, was one of the best we would have in Bagan, we set off to find more temples. Unlike the more frequented ones that we had seen in the first part of the day, our post-lunch explorations would see us stopping off at random smaller ones scattered about before finally ending the day back at the temple we had started at. As we sat atop it, we watched intently as the sun slowly descended in subsequent slivers of light bursting through the clouded sky before finally disappearing beneath a silhouette of temple tops and mountain ridges.
Our second day began where the first had left off, sitting atop a temple, this time waiting for the sun to rise. We were warned by countless blogs and articles to not miss a Bagan sunrise or sunset while in the city, advice which we heeded and for good reason as there was something transcendent about the whole experience. Precariously perched on a ledge, we watched as the the features of the plains and the temples that filled them became slowly illuminated, their features emerging bit by bit from the deep blackness that had characterized them just moments before. What made the moment surreal though wasn’t what we could sense but rather what we couldn’t: sound. Apart from the chatter of birds, the soft, distant hum of a motorbike engine, or the subtle shutter of a camera inevitably failing to capture the moment, there was nothing to be heard. A noticeable void that was made moot, or rather mute, only by the overwhelming scenery unfolding before us. As the sun rose higher and higher, the scenery changed less and less and we decided to head back to our hotel, Bagan Thande Hotel, for some breakfast along the banks of the Irrawaddy River before getting back on our bikes to begin another day of exploration.
After riding on the main road for a short while we veered off it in favor of a bumpy path that we vibrated down before pulling off at a cluster of brick buildings sitting outside the gates of Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Before exploring the latter, we decided to check out the smaller ones surrounding it, a decision that was met with enthusiasm by one of the vendors sitting on the steps outside who warmly approached us and began taking us around the buildings and telling us about each one; a nonverbal understanding that we’d be receiving information in exchange for business, an agreement we were happy to make as she was very nice and the things she was selling very cheap. And, as for the information, it was priceless (cue eye roll).
One of the more surprising things we learned from her was that the temple we were walking around had been looted by German soldiers in the 19th century (a fact we weren’t able to confirm in our own research). Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that German soldiers, before both world wars, would have been wandering around Bagan on the very ground where we stood cutting statues out of a temple we were staring at. What else had happened there that we were completely unaware of? The answer is unfathomable, but the search for it, whether factual or imagined, can give any place life and context where legends and stories fall short.
Another interesting fact that was shared with us was that the three unassuming brick buildings lying across the dirt path from the temple were built in subsequent centuries. One from the 9th, one from the 10th, and one from the 11th, all sitting side by side and, as far as we were concerned, looking as if they had all been finished in the same day. Their architects may have begged to differ though for, for them, the structures probably couldn’t have been more different. After finishing our impromptu tour, we bought a longyi from our guide and climbed up the 11th century pagoda for a great panoramic view of Bagan before heading to Thatbyinnyu.
Not being able to explore the temple’s signature feature—its height—due to the staircases leading to its top being closed off, we opted instead to just meander around its base, which perhaps was the best way to appreciate the towering nature of it. Unlike the brick pagoda that we had climbed up just moments before, Thatbyinnyu had whitewashed walls which always seem to add to the antiquity of a building. The black mildew lines that ran in streaks across the walls made the intricate features of its exterior seem to bleed together like the age lines on a carved piece of wood. It was nearly impossible to imagine it having the sandy brown exterior of Ananda that we had seen the day before.
After making the full circle around the temple we boarded our bikes and began heading to Shwesandaw Pagoda to scope out where we would be watching the sunset that night. The pagoda consisted of a series of toothed tiers stacked on top of each other with the smallest and uppermost one being capped by a bamboo-encased stupa. Compared to other sites we had seen in Bagan prior, the building itself wasn’t that incredible (which for a 1,000 year old free-standing structure was still pretty incredible), but the views offered from it were unlike any we had seen in Bagan up to that point. As far as the eye could see stretched a forest whose trees, with their different shades of green, gave the landscape the camouflaged look of a soldier’s uniform. It was the perfect backdrop for the sharply contrasting brick temples and pagodas that rose out of it in uncountable numbers. Some were big and thick and seemingly rooted into the ground while others were thin and spindly, sticking out of the forest in a pointed fashion like stalagmites rising up from a cave floor. If you weren’t too lost taking in the magnitude of it all and the details of each individual temple, you would also notice the ring of mountains circling around the landscape or the silver streak of the Irrawaddy River shooting across the mountain’s base or even the bright blue sky shining over head.
As we sat on one of the tiers taking it all in, we wondered what the designers of the buildings would think of their works of art (for that’s what each one was) being climbed upon by civilians, some of them unaffiliated with Buddhism. Or, for that matter, that their creations had been reduced to crumbling brick, worn statues and faded paintings. Our first thought was that they would be disappointed, but upon further contemplation we imagined that they would be very proud. Proud that, not only had their work lasted a millennium, but that people traveled from around the world to see it. Imagine creating something that could captivate even one person 1,000 years from now. In that amount of time would it be the work itself or the age of it that would captivate? In Bagan, it was both.
Knowing we would be returning for a second round at Shwesandaw made it easier to leave the sweeping scenery behind in search of our next stop: Dhammayangyi Temple. To get to the temple we had two choices, take the well-labeled main path or the winding stony back roads that we weren’t entirely sure even led there. Naturally, we chose the latter and it didn’t take the wisdom of hindsight long to tell us that we had chosen poorly. For starters, we were venturing out on an empty stomach (it was well past lunch time at this point) as well as an empty water bottle, which is a recipe for disaster for any experience really as the desire to survive drowns out the desire to enjoy. What’s more, not long after starting down the path we realized that it was impassable by bicycle due to huge patches of sand that made our bikes swerve uncontrollably each time we hit them, which was frequent. So, walking it was, with our bikes in tow and practically no shade to shield us from the sweltering midday heat as the temples and trees that had appeared endless while sitting atop Shwesandaw all seemed to stop well short of the path, which is perhaps why it was there. As we slugged on, each step felt slower and less productive towards reaching an end, but, as tragic as our travails seemed, Dhammayangyi would eventually come.
For as long as the path to the temple had been, it did make our coming across it more meaningful and it almost felt like we were the first ones to have seen it for centuries. While on the path, we hadn’t seen another soul in the hour and a half we were on it and, as we looked at the temple in the distance, all we could see was its ruined state sitting atop an empty plain. There were no noises, no people, not even the sound of wind as the air was heavy and stagnant, just us and the temple. As magical as the moment was, it was short lived as our thirst sent us racing towards it in hopes of finding some water before heading off to find lunch, both of which we did before circling back around to the temple to begin exploring it.
If a building could ever be described as sinister, Dhammayangyi would be it. From the legends that accompanied it to its current state, everything about the temple oozed with a mysteriousness that incited both curiosity and unease. As the story goes, the king who commissioned its building, King Narathu, was not a good man in the slightest. To give you a measure of his character, it is said that he murdered his own father to ascend the throne and become king. Sadly, his intolerance didn’t stop with more powerful family members. When it came to the temple, whose construction he oversaw, he was notorious for being a perfectionist. According to the legend, he would occasionally conduct a test that involved attempting to push a needle between two bricks. If the needle could be pushed through, the mason who laid it was executed. His downfall though, came in his intolerance of other religions. He was known to execute practicers of the Hindu faith, the main competing religion with Buddhism at the time, with one notable example being an Indian princess. Angered by the loss of his daughter, the princess’s father sent eight disguised men to Dhammayangyi where they assassinated the king in its halls before the temple had even been completed. A fitting end for an unfit king.
If the legends that filled the temple’s halls weren’t enough cause for wary treading, the temple itself was. In a completely appropriate use of the term, the interior was cavernous. Darkness crept down from the ceilings and out from holes in the wall for there were places in the temple too deep and ominous for the dim, outmatched light, making its way in from the occasional window, to conquer. The unmistakable squeaks of bats echoed out of the darkness which wasn’t the only trace of their presence as the temple walls were covered in their feces, filling the halls with a subtle, but putrid smell. If the hushed voices and footsteps of other temples were out of veneration, the ones here bore the aura of caution.
The atmosphere though, however repulsive, was unlike any we had ever experienced before and, like a good horror movie, we became addicted to the unease it created. As we made loop after loop, we couldn’t help but think how the late King Narathu would feel about his temple now: a crumbling exterior, an interior more noticeably painted by bats than the work of human hands, non-Buddhists roaming through its halls, and locals taking naps inside to escape the summer heat. The conclusion we came to: not favorably.
With our feet now caked in a range of filth we dared not ponder, we left Dhammayangyi and and rode a few minutes down the road to Sulamani Temple, the last site we would be seeing that day before taking in the sunset. Outwardly, the temple didn’t appear all that unique from others we had seen, which bode well for our sunset viewing as we thought we would be in and out, leaving us plenty of time to get back to Shwesandaw and get a good seat before the masses descended on it. Once inside the temple though, we found ourselves surrounded by paintings, covering the walls and ceilings and anywhere else we cared to look. Some were too big to see in their entirety, as in the reclining Buddhas that stretched from one end of a hallway to the other, while others were small and intricate, as in the paintings of countless palm-sized people depicting different religious scenes. The elaborateness of it caught us completely off guard, as if walking into an old, abandoned warehouse and flicking on a light to find not a room full of dust and spider webs but rather one lined with marble and adorned with gold. We marveled at every square inch, our heads straining up and down, from side to side in an unblinking attempt to not miss a single inch. However incredible it was in the present, we couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have looked like upon completion, a thought we would have to ponder as we regretfully left the temple to speed back to Shwesandaw (on the main road this time!) to catch the sunset.
Sandals off, we ascended the pagoda and perched ourselves on the uppermost tier and watched as the tour buses and bicycles rolled in, one after the other, until the entire pagoda was full of people watching as the sun took a bow and disappeared behind temple tops and mountain ridges.
Most of our last day in Bagan was spent atop a bike as we peddled to more far off places than the closely clustered sites we had seen the previous two days. After a sunrise at Shwegugyi Temple, and a breakfast on the Irrawaddy, we headed off towards Nyuang U, the city that many of those who work in Old Bagan call home, in hopes of seeing Shwezigon Pagoda. While the pagoda was a bust – it’s signature gold exterior was instead covered with mats due to construction efforts – the ride through the city was not, offering a glimpse into the culture of present day Myanmar in a way that touring the old town could not. Women toting oversized baskets around on their heads, street vendors tucked down forgotten alleys, monks that looked barely out of primary school, and the genuine friendliness of locals that exists once one escapes the bubble of the tourism industry were all on display as we wound through the city streets. As tempting as it may be to spend the entirety of one’s time in Old Bagan, and one could easily be forgiven for doing so, a trip to Nyaung U for a taste of local life should always be considered.
After leaving Nyaung U, we made a stop at MBoutik, a shop selling handicrafts made by the area’s underprivileged women, and grabbed lunch at Sanon, a restaurant that trains area youth in the culinary arts; both being worthy causes to support if you ever find yourself in Bagan. Our last destination of the day, whose arrival was prolonged by the frequent and sporadic stop offs at interesting looking temples on the way back from Nyaung U, was Jasmine Lacquerware Shop.
Having seen lacquerware pretty much everywhere we went in Bagan, from the stalls outside nearly every temple whose prices, if inquired about, dropped by half with each step you took away from the vendor, to the more official looking shops lining the roads of Nyaung U, Bagan was seemingly full of places looking to capitalize off of one of the region’s more unique products. We even had people on motor bikes slow down beside us on our bicycles and, in an almost scripted fashion, ask us, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Ah, good country,” and lastly, “Do you want to buy some lacquerware?” before speeding off after our prompt “No!”
Wanting to find a more authentic place to get our souvenir, we went to a nearby village to visit the small, family run lacquerware shop we had read about online and were very glad we had. Upon arriving, we were given a detailed, step by step description of the lacquering process, which was so much more lengthy than we ever would have imagined. Some of the more interesting pieces of information we were able to dissect from our guide’s heavily accented, but much appreciated English was that most bowls were made from bamboo leaves and some even used woven horse hair as their base, the dyes used for the colors were all made from ground natural materials, and that the dazzling designs adorning each bowl and vase were all done by memory, with no grid to guide the artist’s hand as it made the intricate carvings.
After he finished telling us about the process, we were taken to the family’s shop and given time to choose an item from its vast array of bowls and vases and trays. Upon picking out our item, he told us how amused he was at the different ways that tourists plan to use the lacquerware. One story he told, which he still seemed to be trying to work out in his head as he told it to us, was of a customer who intended to use one of the bowls he purchased to, of all things, put his keys in! It turns out that the bowls and plates made there are usually used to hold food like the betel nuts that many men in the country enjoy chewing as evidenced by their brown teeth, or as a serving dish for tea leaf salad, a delicious local delicacy. We told him that the small bowl and dish that we had chosen would be used for decoration, deciding to withhold that using it for our own keys had been a thought!
After leaving the shop, we realized that the afternoon had slipped away from us much faster than we had expected it to. With precious little time left until sunset, we manically peddled back to Old Bagan just in time to catch the sun dipping below the horizon one last time. We stayed at the temple longer than we had with previous sunsets, being fully aware that this was the last time we would ever experience anything like this in our lifetimes.