Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!
So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.
For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:
What Rivendell was to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so Mérida was to us on El Camino: a beautiful city offering a comfortable and luxurious stop at the beginning of what would be a long and arduous journey. For us, the beautiful part of Mérida came in the form of its Roman ruins, pristinely preserved and still dominating the city’s life 2,000 years after their construction. Luxury came in the form of a one-star hotel that, through the eyes of these pilgrims anyway, looked like the Waldorf Astoria with its top-of-the-line amenities: a double bed, locking door with keys, and private bathroom. Our stay wasn’t long (just one and a half days) as we didn’t want to completely lose the pilgrim groove we had worked ourselves into with much effort over the previous week and a half, but it was a welcome and wonderful visit all the same. Below you can find some pictures from our time there as well as a poem by Kate.
Epithet to Medusa
Are you aware
of the irony
of your preservation
your only companions—
in a writhing frenzy.
Your staring eyes—
more damaged than before—
and your memories
before your life
was as tangled
as your serpentine tresses.
“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.
Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.
Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.
Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.
As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.
Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.
To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana.
Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.
Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.
When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.
While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.
While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.
As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.
After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple.
Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue.
However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist
An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.
They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.
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.
“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.
Imagine something you really want. Now ask yourself the question, “Would I cut my own eye out to get it?” If your answer is yes, and hopefully it isn’t, then you are in the company of an 8th Century Chinese monk named Hai Tong.
Over 1,000 years ago he and some others made their living in the present-day city of Leshan, which happened to sit next to the confluence of three rivers. The rivers, tumultuous and unpredictable, wreaked havoc on the villagers and, as it was decided, a water spirit was to blame. So, Hai Tong took matters into his own hands and began raising funds to carve a Giant Buddha into the cliff face to help calm the waters. When asked by government officials to show his sincerity for completing the project, he opted to do another carving, that of his aforementioned body part, in a manner that surely must have convinced them of his dedication. Ninety years later, long after the death of Hai Tong, the statue was completed and 1,000 years later it’s still standing and remains one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world.
Wanting to see (with both of our eyes) the colossal carving in person, we set our sights on a day trip to Leshan from Chengdu. The bus ride was quick and in no time at all we were buying a ticket and heading through the main gate. As we entered, the atmosphere turned to that of a jungle, or at least what we would imagine a jungle to be. Bamboo shoots shot up from either side of the path we walked down, their thick foliage casting a uniform shadow across the scenery ahead. Below the bamboo canopy hung thin and wiry vines and standing formidably above it was stone wall whose rusty orange exterior was segmented by running streaks of grass and weeds. Deep and dark crevasses, some big enough to be caves, covered the wall.
After a short while on the path, the jungle-like atmosphere turned to that of a mountain as our path tilted upwards before leveling off once more at the foot of our first site: a stone stupa as old as the Grand Buddha himself. After straining our necks to look up at it for a short while, we noticed we were sharing the site with a red-clad monk who, to our surprise, walked up to us and asked in perfect English, “Would you mind taking a picture of me in front of the stupa?” We nodded obligingly and followed him as he slowly walked in a circle around its base, counting his prayer beads in a manner that made us wonder whether he remembered that we were following him. After making a full circle, he stopped in the front, gave a quick smile for the picture, took his smartphone back, and began circling the stupa again.
It’s amazing how different an experience you can have of a place depending on which walk of life you come from. For us, we were there solely for touristic purposes while he was there for spiritual ones. We, to marvel at the work of man, he, at the work of God. Despite our different intentions though, the result of our experience was the same: that of pure awe and admiration.
After leaving the stupa, our path would take us through a couple of new and beautifully decorated temples before finally emptying out into a large plaza where we would get our first glimpse of the Grand Buddha. It was one of those moments where you see something so incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced before that, for a brief moment, your mind struggles to grasp what it’s taking in. And then, in an explosion of consciousness, you scramble to take in every bit of detail that you can, wonder trumping disbelief. That is what we experienced upon seeing the Grand Buddha for the first time, its giant eye peering over the encompassing railing, dwarfing the silhouettes of the people standing before it.
After walking up to the railing ourselves and squinting down to the Buddha’s feet, we got our first idea of just how big the statue actually was. His ears were big enough for a grown adult to climb into comfortably and nestle in for a nap. His lap big enough to play a half-court basketball game on with room to spare. And his toenails, almost too far away for us to see clearly, were bigger than the people walking around them. It was absolutely gargantuan and the spectacle of it meant heavy crowds nearly everywhere we turned. Although we desperately wanted to descend to the Buddha’s feet, our desire to avoid the long and raucous line to do so was stronger so we decided to leave the descent for later in the day, when, as we hoped, the line would be much shorter.
We opted instead to explore the rest of the park’s grounds, which as we found out after coming up on our first map of them, were vast and the perfect place to waste time away until we were ready to head back to the Grand Buddha. As we began making our way through the grounds, we were taken down an endless array of paths that wound in and out of each other, up and down hills, through temples and shrines, around a tiny koi fish pond, and past plenty of Chinglish gems.
Eventually though, the path led us back to the Grand Buddha where we discovered that our brilliant plan of waiting for a shorter line had backfired rather dramatically as the line was now much longer than it had been before. Suddenly we had to use the restroom again, a cheap ploy to avoid getting into the line for as long as we could, knowing what awaited us, which was an inescapable fate of pushing and jostling for line position, pictures being taken of us against our will, and jeers of “foreigner” shouted in our direction. The wait, as we expected, was all of this and more, but luckily it was fairly ignorable as there were bigger things demanding our attention, mainly, the Grand Buddha.
To get down to its feet, we would have to take the nine-turn cliff road, which was exactly what it’s name implies, a jagged path hanging off the cliff side as it descended to the feet. The staircase, which offered incredible views of the Buddha when you you weren’t staring at your feet to prevent a stumble down its steep steps, was an attraction in and of itself. All along the descent, there were statues and figures carved into the rock face, their extremely worn and weathered condition a testament to their age.
With each of the nine turns, we made our way further and further down the Buddha, body part by body part, an anatomical descent of sorts. First we started at the neck, then, with the next turn were at the chest, then the torso, then the lap, and on it went until we finally found ourselves standing at its feet.
Standing at his toes (which were taller then we were) our eyes naturally trailed up the Buddha’s body and around the two cliffs that bookended it, one of which we had just zigzagged down. Trees, which stretched out from every crack and fissure offered by the cliff side, appeared to be small shrubs in comparison to the size of the Buddha. The people hanging over the railing near his head, like ants. Our minds bounced back and forth from appreciation of the enormity of the statue to speculation of the enormity of the task that made it.
No matter where our wandering gaze took us around the the Buddha, we always ended up back at his eyes, which appeared almost human in their contemplative stare out into the three converging rivers. It was the one part of the statue that was attainable. The rest of the body, while human in form, was anything but. With its cracks and crumbling edifice, it appeared to be blending back in to the cliff from which it was carved.
After what must have been an hour of looking up at the statue, we decided to give our necks a rest and start heading back up towards the Buddha’s head. By that time of the day, most of the crowd had cleared out and we figured it would be best to follow suit as the park was nearing closing time and the sun creeping ever closer to the horizon. By the time we made it back to Chengdu it was dark and, hungry from a full day of exploration, we stopped off at a restaurant on the way back to our hostel to try one of Sichuan’s most famous exports: hot pot.
The process of eating hot pot is as enticing as the food itself. First you order an array of ingredients, which range from things as simple as raw potatoes or beef to “do-people-really-eat-that?” things like congealed blood or the lining of a cow’s stomach (we opted for the former). Then you order a soup for the ingredients to be cooked in which varies in degrees of spiciness. Since Sichuan is known for the face-reddening, sweat-inducing nature of its food, we chose one of the spicier varieties.
After our waitress had brought out our pot of soup, placed it in the middle of the table, and turned on the stove beneath it, the water boiled red due to the heaping amounts of peppers dwelling beneath the surface. Soon after, plate after plate of the ingredients we ordered were brought out and we began dumping the contents of them into the soup to cook. As we pulled the first bits of meat and vegetables out with our chopsticks and drew them towards our mouth, we worried about just how much of the spice had soaked in.
To our relief, it was the perfect amount and for the next hour or so we sought out the rest of the bobbing pieces of meat and vegetables, plucking them out of the water until there were none left. After paying our bill and with a full day now behind us, we walked contentedly back to our hostel to rest up before our last day in Chengdu.
As we dipped our feet into the warm ocean waters, taking in the last remaining traces of sunset, the sky before us caught fire. Deep oranges and reds sat hovering over the mountain-lined horizon, contained by a thick plume of dark and smoky clouds. We were barely two hours into our time in Hoi An, an ancient trading town along the coast of Central Vietnam, and were already beginning to discover the many charms it had to offer, chief among them beautiful scenery. To our delight, the fiery sky remained unchanged for the entirety of our time on the beach, but this didn’t stop us from looking up every few minutes to remind ourselves of where we were or what surrounded us. And so began the theme of our six days in Vietnam. It was never a matter of seeking out new things but rather making sure not to miss them. The sights and tastes and experiences were there, all we had to do was just walk out the door.
Long before coming on the trip we had designated our first full day in Hoi An as an unequivocal beach day. While we were aware of the abundance of cultural activities to do around the town and the limited nature of our itinerary, we were also aware of the novelty of being on the tropical shores of Vietnam and that, we deemed, deserved spending at least one day entirely sea or sand bound.
Our day, like all the rest, began with a free breakfast at our guesthouse, Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay, one of the most accommodating places we’ve ever had the fortune of staying at. Pho, a spicy beef noodle soup, was the dish of choice on the menu and we slurped up two delicious bowls of it before renting a couple of bikes and peddling off towards An Bang Beach, our first and only destination for the day.
I’m not sure how one could feel eager to do absolutely nothing for an entire day, but that’s exactly how we felt as we parked our bikes at An Bang and began the short walk to the beach. As we approached it, we weren’t met with the view of an expansive blue ocean as we had expected but instead with a canopy of grass umbrellas, each with a pair of cushioned loungers neatly situated underneath, stretching across the sand as far as the eye could see. The umbrellas, we had read, belonged to one of the many restaurants looming overhead and we braced ourselves for what would surely be an onslaught of sales pitches to choose one over the other. Before our feet even touched the sand, shouts of “free chairs” filled the air, serving as lures meant to startle us into unwittingly committing to a certain set of loungers and therefore into getting all of our food and drinks from that particular restaurant for the rest of the day. However annoying the attention being thrust on us was, it seemed like a small price to pay for the comfort of cushioned seats and shade on an already hot day and we chose two loungers at random, thus beginning our day of nothingness.
As we sat in our loungers, the pleasant but unfamiliar feeling that comes with having no agenda or real sense of time in a place where the feeling is mutual overcame us. Our obliviousness to the rate at which the day was passing first became evident as we ordered two beers only later to find out that it was barely 10:00 a.m. For some reason, perhaps due to the fact that the sun was more overhead than before, we had assumed it was closer to noon. In any case, we savored the beers, especially the first few sips, knowing that the cold and refreshing nature of them would be quickly erased by the now sweltering midday heat.
As the beers warmed, our pace of drinking them quickened and, by the time we had finished, our appetites had grown and we abandoned our comfortable seats to fulfill the oath that had secured them for us in the first place. After painstakingly climbing the six stairs to take us from the beach to the restaurant, we sat down and rewarded our effort with an assortment of dishes, one of which was Vietnamese spring rolls, kicking off a six-day love affair with the crispy treat that was a far cry from any version we had had before.
The trajectory of our day after lunch stayed pretty much aligned with our pre-lunch activities of either sitting or swimming. By this point in the day, the latter of the two became more difficult as any trip to the bath-like waters of the ocean required a frantic sprint across the now scorching beach, igniting a series of “oohs” and “aahs” until our feet finally hit the refreshingly cool touch of the wet sand. In spite of this, we still went often and had even purchased some goggles to explore whatever life existed under the surface.
To our delight, there was plenty, most notably the scattered legions of jellyfish that had somehow managed to slip through the fleet of fishing boats sitting off in the distance. Unsure of whether they stung or not, we kept our distance aside from the occasional poke of their squishy caps with our fingers. It wasn’t until later when we unknowingly swam into a small crowd of them (they were sneakily transparent) that we realized they were, in fact, not the stinging type. Apart from the jellyfish, we also saw starfish, rainbow shrimp and even small colonies of hermit crabs, who, in this particular case, failed to live up to their name as there were hundreds of them clustered together on the sea floor.
The longer we were in the ocean, the more tempting it became to return to the shade of our loungers. And, usually after a half hour or so, we did exactly that, plopping our bodies down on their cushioned surface. While we sat, the rest of the afternoon slipped away as we took in the scenery around us. Looking out, our gaze couldn’t help but be drawn first to the mountains and islands in the distance, jutting out from the perfectly straight line separating sea from sky. A bit further in, boats bobbed on the otherwise open sea and heads and bodies eventually joined them, black silhouettes evenly spaced from one another so as to create the illusion that the ocean was theirs. Waves would move around them, washing ashore in their mesmerizingly endless fashion. On the beach, between the sea and the shade of umbrellas, not a soul was to be found, only fisherman’s boats which resembled a giant overturned tortoise shells or the occasional sandal or T-shirt that was thrust aside as its owner madly dashed from one heat haven to the other.
For most of the day, this view remained relatively unchanged until the late afternoon when local Hoi Aners began arriving to the beach and the quiet wash of the waves became inaudible under the shouts and shrieks of children celebrating the end of another school day. It was strange for us to think of it being a normal day for them as well as imagine their lifestyle, a full day of work or school followed by a quick dip in the ocean.
That night, the sun set in as equally a spectacular fashion as the night before and we sat and watched as the sky was transformed into a canvas of colors. Wisps of clouds, which ran across it like brushstrokes, seemed to change color by the minute as the sun crept further into the horizon. As beautiful as it was, the colors, like the crowds, didn’t last long and began to fade as darkness set in and, with our enjoyably long day coming to an end as well, we grabbed a bite to eat before biking back to our guesthouse.
With our beach day now behind us and eager for a taste of Hoi An’s historic side, we decided to spend our third day exploring its old town, a cluster of centuries-old buildings sitting along the banks of the Thu Bon River. After a pleasant 30-minute walk from our guesthouse, we arrived at the outskirts of the town and entered it through the “new market,” which, like most other parts of the town, resembled nothing close to what you would describe as new, starting with the people who occupied it.
Old women, crouching under the shadow of their pyramid hats, lined the outer edges of the market, a rainbow of vegetables neatly contained in baskets spread out before them. Overhead, tourists and locals shuffled through each other in a manner that suggested that they were either unaware of the other’s existence or else didn’t care to acknowledge it. Baskets of chickens and ducks, slabs of meat, and even the occasional bucket of fish filled the spaces in between, leaving a hodgepodge of odors, none of which were in the least bit pleasant, lingering in the air. All of this, along with a temperature rapidly approaching 100 degrees, made for quite an uncomfortable atmosphere for 8:30 in the morning and we pushed through the market rather quickly, emerging into the immensely more charming lanes of the old town.
As we began exploring the town, the views stayed delightfully consistent. Two-storied houses and shops, stained in a mustard yellow, lined the lanes, their exteriors showing the effects of time with worn wooden panels hanging from their windows and long, streaky water marks running through their paint like age lines on a tree trunk. From their roofs, long locks of disheveled plants hung down, a mangled mane of vines and flowers exploding out of the clay tiles. Above the street, a web of wires and cables, from which dangled a colorful assortment of lanterns, stretched from one building to the next. The town looked every bit its age, but that was the point. When you stepped into it, you stepped back in time. Sure the interiors of the different buildings were redecorated and filled with souvenir trinkets and tailor shops, but if you could look past that, it wasn’t hard to imagine what life was like there centuries ago.
As we wandered further into the town, we began to notice one of the few unpleasant things about it: a complete lack of shade. This was particularly problematic because, at 9:00 in the morning, we were barely into our day and already the fully harnessed power of the sun was beating down on our heads. At first we tried to beat the heat, slogging through the streets like a couple of snails with a trail of sweat in our wake, but, after about a half hour of this, we decided there was no beating it and opted instead to go inside one of the many buildings bookending the lanes to escape the sun. Among the abundance of options, we chose the Fujian Assembly Hall to serve as our oasis and happily entered into its moderately cooler, but abundantly less sunny interior.
All around Hoi An, there were assembly halls like the one we were entering, all of which were dedicated to different nationalities. Like the town itself, they were remnants of the bygone trading days, when merchants from all corners of the globe would set their sails for Hoi An to do business with the Vietnamese. As we stood in the same halls that a Chinese person undoubtedly stood in centuries ago, we couldn’t help but think just how different our journeys had been to get there. What would they have thought of us getting into a big, metal tube thousands of miles away, shooting off into the sky, and landing safely near the town just a few hours later?
After touring the hall, we ventured back out into the streets refreshed and ready to continue our exploration of the town. For the rest of the day, we made sure to take frequent breaks in the shady interior of a shop, and, when we did happen to be out in the sun and feeling sorry for ourselves, we would just have to look around at the local women to instantly feel better about our circumstances.
Most of them, to our shock, looked dressed for a blizzard, wearing jeans, two or sometimes three sweaters zipped up to their necks, gloves, big hats, and even face masks. We had also seen it on the beach the day before and, curious as to why someone would put themselves through that, we inquired about it and were told that Vietnamese society prefers women to have light skin, which we thought was a rather ambitious beauty standard for a tropical country. In any sense, it put into perspective any sort of misery we were feeling due to the heat and kept our complaining to a minimum.
As the afternoon rolled around, we finally hit the edge of the town, marked by a 16th-century Japanese bridge, which looked in every sense the way a centuries-old structure should. The wood of its handrails, cracked and bare, had long since seen the refurbishing touch of a paintbrush, the porcelain that decorated its roof was either chipped or missing entirely, and the red paint covering its exterior was faded. But, like everything else in the town we had seen up to that point, it worked, which was the allure of Hoi An.
Despite being a very old place, it was neither in disrepair nor did you get the feeling of over-preservation as you walked through it. Everything fit so well together, even the different influences in architecture didn’t seem to clash. The faded red of the Japanese bridge didn’t look at all out of place in between the mustard yellow buildings, whose endless run along the lanes would be broken up by an occasional sky blue or teal storefront. It all worked, the age, the colors and we enjoyed every bit of it. As the day wore on though, we decided to leave the town for another day and head to the beach to take in another sunset.
We would pick up our fourth day in Hoi An where the third one had left off, near the ocean. For a majority of the day, we passed the time either in, around, or on the ocean. Our first stop of the day was Cham Island, which we would have to take a speedboat to get to. The ride there, while bumpy, was enjoyable and, after about twenty minutes, our feet were back on solid ground and our tour guide, who vastly overestimated his own English skills, began taking us around the island that he called home.
One of the consequences of going on a tour, and the reason why we don’t take them unless we absolutely have to, is that the guide decides what you see and how long you see it. Often times, their ideas about these two things are vastly different from our own and this time was no exception. We were there for beaches and snorkeling, but upon arriving we were instead paraded around the island’s interior, making a stop at the village temple, going by the schoolhouse and eventually going through the village itself, which had long known the advantages of tourism as the streets were practically lined with vendors selling treats and trinkets. We appreciated the tour for what it was though, being grateful for the small pieces of information we were able to gather about the island we were inhabiting for the day.
As we began walking back to the boat, our tour guide sought us out (we were the only English speakers on the tour) to tell us a joke he seemed particularly proud of. As we mentioned earlier, his English was elementary at best and, because of this, we were only able to understand a few words of it. We gathered that it had something to do with two chickens comparing their breasts with those of humans with the punchline having something to do with claws. Confused, we asked him to repeat it again and, after the third time, we nervously laughed in a manner that wasn’t fooling anyone. That was the last time he talked with us for the rest of the tour.
After getting back to the boat, our next stop was to go snorkeling, the thing we had been most looking forward to on the tour. Ever since we had gone Boracay two years earlier, we had been anticipating doing it again and were giddy to finally be doing so. As we pulled up to the snorkeling area, our tour guide plopped a bag of goggles and breathing tubes on the back of the boat and set us free to explore. As we dug through the bag of snorkeling gear we were appalled by the fact everything had some degree of mold growing on it and we pulled out the least affected pieces we could find and wearily strapped them on.
Our worries about the mold were soon forgotten though as we jumped into the water and peered beneath the surface of the ocean. Fish of all sizes and colors swam around each other, dipping in and out of the numerous holes and crevasses strewn across the sea floor. Coral stretched up towards the surface like mountains to the sky, swaying in the currents in a similar fashion as trees in the wind. Slivers of light shone down through the water, running over the entire scene like a system of veins. It was like dipping our faces into an entirely different world. Every now and then we would poke our heads out of the water and were amazed each time at how normal the surface looked, giving no hint at the entire ecosystem that existed just a few feet below it.
After about thirty minutes we were summoned back to the boat where we boarded and promptly set off towards the island’s main beach to have lunch, which consisted of a wildly inappropriate amount of food. Plate after plate after plate of meat and vegetables and fried snacks were laid out before us and, not wanting to waste any of it, we shamefully emptied the contents of each plate into our stomachs until there was nothing left. Uncomfortably full, we lumbered to the beach where we wasted away our bloated misery on a couple of shade-covered loungers until we were called to the boat to head back to Hoi An.
We got back to our guesthouse around 2:00 and immediately grabbed a couple of bikes to head to the beach to spend the rest of our day. We decided this time to try a less touristy beach than the others we had been to and were pleasantly surprised that the perks (a lounger and umbrella in exchange for ordering food or drinks) remained the same along with the added bonus of relative seclusion.
After arriving we noticed the sky darkening around us and became worried that an ensuing thunderstorm would force us back to the guesthouse earlier than we had wanted to. We expressed this concern to the woman working at the bar and were assured that the storm would only last a few moments. This would have been believable had the crisp blue skies stretching across the horizon not been overtaken by an expanse of dark, gray clouds stretching as far as the eye could see in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, we decided to wait around and see what would happen, retreating to our loungers as the sky opened up. Sure enough, after about a ten minute wait the rain stopped and our view once again consisted of sunny blue skies. We should have known better given our experience with thunderstorms in the tropics: intense but short-lived.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was perfect with a mixture of cocktails, dips in the ocean, and lazing around on the beach. As the sun began to set, we hopped back on our bikes and began to look for a good restaurant along the beach, of which there were many. We chose one at random and spent the rest of the night picking at seafood and watching as the last remaining light was sucked under the mountains and the sky and ocean became synonymous in the black of night. With one more full day ahead of us, we headed back to our guesthouse to get some rest before our early rise the next day.
The agenda for our last full day in Hoi An was a long one and like most other days we had spent there, aimed to be a blend of both cultural and coastal activities, the first of which was a trip to the ancient Cham ruins of My Son (pronounced “mee-sohn”). We had read that walking around the ruins was akin to exploring the inside of an oven, which after 4 days in Vietnam was entirely believable. We also read that the sight is swarmed with people around midday once all of the tourist buses roll in. So, wanting to avoid both of these as much as possible, we woke up at 5 a.m., started up our motorbike and were on our way.
To find our way there we followed a surprisingly clear hand-drawn map from one of the workers at our guesthouse. Despite its clarity, the simplicity of it made us constantly question if we were going in the right direction or had missed our road. So, every few miles, we would stop and ask a local shopkeeper or passerby, who were always friendly even at 6:00 in the morning, how to get to My Son. At one point we were sure we had gotten ourselves completely lost and pulled over to ask a fruit vendor for directions and our gazes were shamefully guided to the giant sign right above our heads that read “My Son” with a big yellow arrow pointing us in the right direction. The motorbike couldn’t have taken us away faster.
You would think that feeling completely lost in the Vietnamese countryside while cruising around at 40 m.p.h. on a vehicle that you’ve only driven once before in your life in a country that has no observable traffic laws would be a bad thing, but it really wasn’t. In fact, it was one of our favorite things we did in Vietnam. The sense of adventure we got riding around and taking in vistas of expansive fields, mountainous skylines and small villages just beginning their day all while other motorists and even a truck with pig feet hanging out of it whizzed by us was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had in our travels. It was uniquely enjoyable and, after 35 miles and nearly an hour and a half on the road, it was almost disappointing as we rolled up to the gates of My Son and parked our bike.
At this point, it was still only 6:30 in the morning and the park had just opened. No other motorbikes were parked in the garage nor cars or buses in the parking lot. We seemingly were the first ones there, other than the workers who sleepily greeted us as we bought our tickets and made our way towards the ruins.
We entered the grounds through a dense expanse of trees, whose browns and greens dominated the scenery as far as the eye could see. After about ten minutes of meandering through this, we spotted a speck of orange off in the distance and began walking towards it. As we did, a half-standing tower slowly materialized before us and we soon found ourselves at the first of what would be eight different sights of ruins. Some were small, consisting of just one or two buildings like the one we were at now, others were sprawling, but each deserved at least some degree of contemplation of their role in the society that built them and what the lives of those people were like.
As we bounced around from sight to sight, we began to notice the relationship My Son had with the jungle around it. After centuries of existing side by side, it was almost as if the jungle had decided to reclaim what was once it’s own. Hills of grassy earth climbed up the walls of the different structures, almost making it look like they hadn’t been built but rather grew out of the earth like the trees around them. It was difficult to imagine one without the other.
Of the many incredible things we saw at My Son though, there was one unsettling one that was present in almost every sight that we visited. Giant craters, so big that one could easily confuse them for small hills, littered the landscape, remnants of the Vietnam War when the ruins were used as a hideout for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the sight was heavily bombed and many of the buildings that once stood were lost forever. It wasn’t until a My Son historian wrote a letter to the US President at the time, urging him to stop the attack, that the bombs finally ceased falling, but the damage had already been done and it was still very much visible fifty years later as we walked through the ruins. Maps and signs pointed to piles of bricks that were identified as once towering buildings and the ones that were still standing were often half-reduced to rubble. It was the first time we felt truly ashamed to be Americans.
Even with the bomb craters, it was very difficult to imagine a war taking place there or anywhere else in Vietnam for that matter. And this is for two people with admittedly very large imaginations. We would see black and white photos hung in shops of helicopters on the horizon and soldiers on the ground, but the Vietnam we saw and experienced was a world apart from this. We didn’t think about this too often though as there were many other things demanding our attention, all of which were much more pleasant than the thought of war.
After wandering around the ruins until about eleven o’clock, the valley they sat in began to fill with heat and tour groups and we decided that it was a good time to leave. So, we made our way back to our motorbike, hopped on, and began the return journey to Hoi An.
Apparently following a map backwards is much more difficult than forwards because the frequency with which we got completely lost (not just thinking we were lost) was exponentially higher than the journey to My Son. During one of these times, while we were knowingly driving in circles waiting for some familiar landmark to reveal itself, we noticed that our ride was getting increasingly bumpier despite the smooth road we were riding on. Panicked and determined to ignore the obvious, which was that we had a flat tire, we slowly crept along the road in hopes that the problem would fix itself (it didn’t). Just before losing all hope, we heard a shout from the opposite side of the road and looked over to find, to our relief, a man waving us in the direction of his home which doubled as a garage. After pulling up, he pointed us in the direction of some chairs, and, several minutes and $2.50 later, we were back on the road. Cheap and friendly are two things you can always count on in Southeast Asia.
After getting back, we made a quick run to the beach before hanging up our motorbike keys for good and heading into the old town on foot to catch their monthly celebration of the full moon. The town, like most everything else experienced in both the light of day and dark of night, took on an entirely different form. The yellows that dominated the city during the day now gave way to the red and white glow of lanterns hanging along and above the lanes which were significantly more crowded and filled with life now that the sun was no longer looming overhead.
As the sun slipped completely under the horizon, the moon, which oddly enough wasn’t full, showed up for its own party and we headed to the riverside where everyone in the town had begun to gravitate towards. After arriving, it didn’t take long for us to figure out how exactly they celebrated the festival.
All along the river, little girls and old women carrying lit candles in paper lanterns impressively maneuvered their way through the crowds asking people if they’d like to buy one. If you did, you were given a big hook that you could use to place the lantern in the river and make a wish. We bought two, happily placed them in the river and excitedly watched as they floated into a pile of other lanterns and were then rowed over by a boat. We weren’t sure how the rules applied, but we imagined that meant that our wishes would go unanswered. Destruction by boat wasn’t the worst fate though as some, after being placed in the water, proceeded to catch on fire and become reduced to smoldering piles of ashes. Hopefully no one wished for world peace.
Most of the lanterns did what they were meant to though and floated along the river unobstructed, illuminating the water in the same way as the stars do the sky. Despite the bustling crowds around us, it was an incredibly peaceful experience as we watched the different-colored lanterns slowly float off into the distance. It was so peaceful in fact, that, as we watched them, we were reminded of how tired we had grown and began the long walk back to our guesthouse.
Our last day in Hoi An wasn’t as much a day as it was a morning. We had an early flight leaving at 9:00 so, wanting to make the most of what little time we had left, we decided to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise. After rolling out of bed and suppressing the protests from our bodies about being up at such a time, we grabbed our bikes and cruised through the eerily quiet streets towards the beach. As we pulled up to it, we found a seat and watched the scenery unfold around us. If some pictures are worth a thousand words than this was a moment worth a thousand pictures. Hopefully three will do.
Once the sun had fully come up and the yellows and pinks and oranges that had occupied the sky just moments before turned to a uniform blue, we hopped back on our bikes to head back to the guesthouse in hopes of catching one last breakfast before our taxi arrived. To our delight, we made it back in plenty of time and, with a full belly of beef noodles, we sadly got into the taxi and bid farewell to Hoi An.