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Day 14: Bagan, Day 2

On day 2, we continued exploring more temples. Considering how many there are, we couldn’t hope to get any significant percentage of them done, but we were certainly going to try.

First up was Pyathadar Temple. The interesting thing about this particular temple is that it’s one of the last temples built by the Bagan dynasty, which puts it squarely as the most complex and advanced achievement of that period. It exhibits tremendous Indian influence, which was common in the Myanmar of these times. It also happens to have pretty nice views from the top.

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The corridors are fairly impressive.

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As are the views:

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And the detail of the upper structures:

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After this, our guide took us to a really interesting small temple. It was slightly off the beaten path, and was being taken care of by a woman who, apparently, took it upon herself when her father died. Her father was an archaeologist that spent a long time researching temples of Bagan, and this particular temple was his preferred. He, through some sort of an arrangement with the Burmese government, managed to become the sole caretaker of this temple, and after his death, this duty passed to his daughter. What was special about this temple was that it represented Buddha in a slightly different light – it was designed in such a way that you would not look up at Buddha, but could instead climb on a small staircase and look at him. This was very… different from the normal way, and was intended to represent equality, as with a mere mortal.

Another interesting part is that this temple does not show up on Google Earth (not a single picture is attached to it) and there is no information on it anywhere that I can find. It really was a niche gem that our guide wanted to show us.

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Next stop was Sulamani Temple, built by King Narapatisithu sometime in the late 12th century. Legend has it that once, on returning from a hike, he stumbled upon a shining ruby in the dirt. He saw it as a sign, and he built a temple on that spot. Decorated with spectacular murals, many of them have vanished over time, or been replaced by junk, but overall, the temple is still impressive, especially with the impressive spire.

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Of course, our favourite brand is everywhere.

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Local flowers:

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Entryway:

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Corridor:

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Side view of Buddha:

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Some of the remaining murals:

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Thanks for the garbage.

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One of the side gates:

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Next up was Dhammayan-gyi temple. This is probably the most massive temple in Bagan, and has a fascinating story. The king who built it, Narathu, built it in just three years; the length of his reign. Possibly, this is why the top is unfinished. It is said that he demanded perfection in the bricklaying work, and he would visit the site and put a needle between the bricks; if the needle passed, he would chop the fingers off the hand of the workman who laid the brick. He was also a violent, and unpopular king – he ascended to the throne via regicide, by killing his father, and by fratricide, killing his elder brother, who was entitled to the throne. He also killed his queen with his bare hands. He was eventually assassinated, but not before building Dhammayan-gyi as a sign of repentance.

The really peculiar thing about this temple is just how dark it is. Most other temples in Bagan tend to be somewhat sunlit, as they are supposed to be happy places, for worship and respect. Dhammayan-gyi is spectacularly dark… and there are bats in it. They don’t bother people, since they don’t like them any more than people like bats, but they are there – and this is certainly not the case for ANY other temple we’ve been to in Myanmar. Our guide suggested that this is due to the dark energy in the temple. I can believe that.

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Next up was a lacquerware shop that our guide wanted us to check out. We got to check out how each piece is individually lacquered – and importantly, just how many times.

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First, how the individual items are folded from individual pieces of bamboo:

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Then, after about 15 layers of black lacquer, the actual design is applied. Apparently, men do the overall high-level brush strokes, followed by women who apply intricate detail.

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The somewhat comical thing was, when we walked in, one of the girls (the right one) was SMSing on her phone, and the other was working. But when we (the foreigners) walked in, she very smoothly put away her phone, and continued etching. I guess slacking is international.

Finally, this comes out, ready for painting:

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Eventually, after a lot of black paint…

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… and going through phases like these…

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… something like this comes out.

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Or, if you prefer it in gold:

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Needless to say, the level of detail is fairly impressive.

Next was Myazedi Pagoda.

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Saw a curious monk on the grounds. That’s a nice Nikon, yo.

 

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Map of Bagan… in real life!

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A tourist bus was arriving as we were leaving.

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Next up was Ananda temple – the most beautiful temple of Bagan. It’s a whole complex of stuff – museums, terracotta, plaques and so on. It was built around 1091 AD by King Kyansittha.

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A few warnings worth heeding were at the entrance…

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A full-blown market was in session.

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The main Buddha statue was, once again, representative of the reallyintricate detail that the builders of the Bagan period possessed. The statue looks relatively normal in general…

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… until you realise that from the outer rung, the statue’s face looks happy:

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… but from the inner one, recognizably less so.

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All to do with the angle of the face, but still – absolutely fabulous when you actually realise it.

An ordainment ceremony was in process for some kids.

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After the Ananda, I expressed a desire to our tour guide to go somewhere to watch the sunset. He took us to a completely abandoned temple that had a ridiculously decrepit staircase… that took us up about one floor, after which we had a spectacular view of the valley. Another off-the-beaten path place that was a complete win.

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Panorama of the view:

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Some more pics:

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We ended the day in a place called Starbeam Bistro, which, despite the Western-sounding sci-fi name had some trouble with a steady supply of electricity… but most certainly no trouble with absolutely spectacular local food.

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Best of all? The final bill. This is a dinner for three, with beer, juice and water. Exchange rate is approximately 1000:1, so this was $16.

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And so ended our penultimate day in Bagan. Next day we planned on doing nothing and just relaxing in the hotel until our flight in the evening… but after seeing all of what we saw, we decided to include another half-day of sightseeing to make sure we covered as much as we could. It was a well-worthwhile decision, but more on it later.

 

 

 

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Day 13: Bagan, Day 1

Since I decided to go to Burma, Bagan was absolutely the most important stop on my plan. Having seen the surreal pictures of thousands of pagodas in the mist, I absolutely had to see this for myself. Getting a bit ahead of myself here, I was not disappointed; it was a complete overdose of temples and pagodas, but it was an incredible learning experience, considering they were all different. I had an excellent guide to take us around, as well – I’d be happy to recommend him if you ever go.

In my descriptions, I will heavily rely on other sourced content, as I cannot pretend to be any sort of an expert on Burmese Buddhism (and there are over 2,200 pagodas and temples in Bagan, about a thousand of which I feel we have visited over the three days). Some of the pictures on these sourced sites are far better than mine, too, but oh well.

Our first visit was to the Dhammayazika Pagoda. Its structure has pentagonal terraces instead of the more typical square base of normal Bagan pagodas. On each side of the pagoda, there is a small temple housing an image of Buddha. The usual practice in most temples was to have four images facing the cardinal points, representing the four Buddhas of the present world cycle who have already attained Enlightenment. In this pagoda, though, the fifth temple is placed with a “future” image of the Buddha. It was under renovation like several others we have seen, which was unfortunate as far as our touristic experience goes, but great for the pagodas, as a number of them have been ignored for far too long. _MG_3674

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Another Japan trip

It occurred to me that if I buffer my posts until I’m done posting the Burma stuff, I’ll be so swamped with subsequent travel that I’ll never get the posts done. So I’m going to intersperse the Burma trip with more “current” news.

So I had to make an unscheduled work trip to Japan. It was set basically on Wednesday, and I’ve just landed. So here are a few notes from the trip so far (though to be fair, I’m not likely to have as many “touristy” notes since I’m here for work – but food blogging shall happen!). I’d make some kind of a quip about “feeling like I’ve not been here for a while”, but that would probably be ill-received.

My flight routing was through Vancouver on to Tokyo. Sadly, the Air Canada 787/Dreamliner does not fly yet, so I couldn’t fly to the much more convenient Haneda airport. I also couldn’t fly the direct Toronto-Narita route because there were 3 seats left in business, and my upgrade chances were so low I was willing to route differently. To be fair, it’s also a bit more pleasant to break the journey into slightly shorter flights (YVR-NRT is a shade under 10 hours, unlike YYZ-NRT, which is almost 12). Continue reading

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Interlude: flight from Yangon to Bagan

After a wildly busy day in Yangon, I was fully expecting a no less busy day in Bagan, considering that beyond sightseeing, it actually contained, you know, flying there. For some obscure reason, all domestic flights from Yangon leave between 6:00am and 6:45am. (and there are like, 6 of them). And all domestic flights come back around 5-6pm. One would think that, you know, considering tourists are likely to have flown in late the previous day, and considering the (lack of?) volume of domestic flights, it wouldn’t make a difference whether they left at 6:30 or, say, a more humane 9am. But no. Everyone, out, early. Fortunately, everyone is used to, so the hotel prepared breakfast boxes for us, which was really cool. We had breakfast included, sure, but typically kitchens open at 6:30-10:00 or so, and if you don’t fit in those hours, well, too bad. So it was a nice gesture of them to actually prepare takeaways for us:

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Nothing extravagant, but sandwiches, muffins and juice. Works for me.

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Day 12: A day in Yangon, Burma

When looking for hotels in Yangon, I went through a number of threads and reviews, since I haven’t been anywhere close to the city, and there were no major chains present. I ended up settling on Traders Yangon, which is as close to a chain as possible (it’s a Shangri-La property – an excellent chain of hotels); there were a few other very good options, such as the Governor’s Residence, but unfortunately, the glory days of $100 5-star hotels in Yangon are far, far gone, and the Governor’s Residence was pricing out in the $400 range for the days I needed it for, which was completely unreasonable. I managed to find a sort-of a mistake deal on the Traders (with breakfast, too!), so I went with them instead – plus, having participated in the Shangri-La 3rd anniversary game, I had some points to blow on dinners.

Seeing as Traders is the “budget” version of Shangri-La, I was prepared for a somewhat scrungy 3-star hotel. I wasn’t quite prepared for what we came to, though.

Here goes the photographic diarrhoea that I had previously promised. On the off chance it makes you feel any better, I have a total of just under 4,000 pictures from this trip; so what you are seeing here is a very carefully curated subset.

Building from the outside:

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Metal detectors at the entrance:

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Interlude: On to Myanmar (Burma)!

So with our trip to Japan wrapped up, it was time for the part of the trip I have been waiting for for a very long time. In fact, before I got my hands on the so-called “RGN fares”, i.e. the first-class tickets from Myanmar to Montreal that happened in September 2012, I didn’t even know I wanted to go to Burma. It is only once this incredible deal came about that I got on the bandwagon, and decided to go. I participated in what was called “round 3″ – because it was the third time airlines ignored the warnings from IATA that the Burmese kyat was about to be devalued by 100 times, and fares departing Burma had to be reindexed. The first two rounds were either to the West Coast, or on non-Star Alliance airlines, so I didn’t bother with them, as I couldn’t earn any mileage that I cared about in one case, and positioning to the West Coast was not exactly exciting for me; but to Montreal? Really now.

So we packed our stuff and headed to the airport. For once, we were early arriving to Kansai Airport – a completely unheard-of feat for me, so I was profoundly looking forward to using the beer machine in the lounge. It’s the coolest beer-pouring device you can ever come across: you put your glass on it and, as is the case with most things in Japan, press a button and wait. It will tilt your (cold) glass, pour beer with no foam, then straighten it, then put the foam in. Completely awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The excitement mounts.

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Day 11: Kyoto and Sakura (cherry blossoms)

There is probably no more beautiful city than Kyoto. It’s a terribly cheesy statement. An intensely disputable one, as well, considering the multitude of other examples of cities which are serene and beautiful. But if you visit Kyoto, and especially if you live there for a bit, there is something undeniably unique about it, which sets it apart from other cities. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but after our usual pilgrimage to the city, I spent some time trying to understand what is it in Kyoto that I like so much, and I couldn’t quite: in a way, there is nothing specifically different about it (besides a myriad temples). It has the same streets as other Japanese cities. It has the same overhead power lines. It has the same mix of old and new houses (though “old” tends to dominate, and even new ones tend to respectfully follow older design guidelines). It has hordes of tourists, both foreigners and Japanese, especially during important holidays and seasons. But… after everything, there is something so deeply ingrained into its fabric that connects with you and just pulls you in that you can’t vocalise it, but it sticks forever. To complete this sentimental soliloquy, Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet, once wrote, “Kyo nitemo… kyo natsukashiya.” – “Even when in Kyoto, I long for Kyoto”.  

So we went to Kyoto to see cherry blossoms. Clearly, one of the dumbest things you can do in Japan is go to any of the major locations during sakura season. Considering we pretty much only had this day to visit Kyoto, we didn’t have much flexibility in the matter, but should you ever find yourself anywhere in Japan during sakura season, go somewhere other than the major tourist spots. Heed this advice. There are so, so many people that congregate in the key spots, and yet, especially if you have access to a car, there are numbers of beautiful spots that are devoid of people (hey, Tottori turned out to be one of them!).

Before we get to Kyoto, though, here are a few general sakura shots from Kobe. Technically, they aren’t entirely relevant to this subject, but I don’t want to make a separate post just for them, so this is kind of a good place to fit them, seeing as we’re talking about sakura in general.
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Apologies for slow updates

I must apologise for the general lack of updates, especially considering I pretty much stopped at the most interesting point. Two days after landing home, I had to fly out to Miami for two weeks for work, and two days after returning from Miami, I had to fly to Seattle for a further three. Besides the fact that those two trips will warrant trip reports (Sixt is one of my favourite car rental companies, for what it’s worth), I am flying back today. I would love to begin updating the trip report on landing… but we’re heading to NYC for the weekend on a Delta mistake fare from last December that will see us fly in first class on a CRJ900 (which really means just a slightly wider seat – everything is called “first class” in America – and really, it’s a CRJ900. You couldn’t make that sound “premium” if you gold-plated it and strapped it onto a space shuttle). Finally, in June, on the same mistake fare, we are heading to Honolulu and Kona, which will at least be on domestic 757s on Delta, so if not much more glamorous then at least with slightly better seats.

So yeah … I will catch up with all these trip reports. I promise.

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Day 10: Tottori Part 2 (and the reason why I came to Tottori!)

The next morning, we woke up and breakfast was pretty much ready. A note on Japanese ryokans: they typically have fairly late checkin times, and very early checkout times. Late checkout, as is common in North America (particularly with status), is almost unheard of, and certainly not to the tune of 4pm: I can imagine a hotel allowing noon under extreme duress, but 9-10am is usually much more common. On the one hand, it’s kind of stressful, since you must get up early and get out, but on the positive side, it means you don’t need to worry about wasting half a day slobbering about the hotel: up, and out. In ryokans, where (set) breakfast is made to order specifically for you, you also have a specific time window during which to eat it – unless you like cold breakfast, that is. So we had ours scheduled for 8am, with a checkout time of 10 (and, by my plans, 9am to get out).
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Just before leaving Nishioka-Onsen, though, we wanted to check out a little store which was closed the day prior, and which seemed rather interesting: a “pudding” shop. These are quite popular in Japan, and tend to have devout followings. Many of the major brands (Morozoff, Koenigs-Crosse, and many others) have their own brands; I am also completely cognisant of the fact that likely nobody reading this has the remotest idea of what a “pudding” is in the Japanese context, nor what makes it special, nor why it even matters. But it does.

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Day 9: Tottori Part 1

When doing research on my trips, I occasionally stumble upon things that I absolutely must see in places I go to, even if everyone else is unwilling (and especially if everyone else is willing). I am somewhat regretful I didn’t make Al Amn, as Edmunds termed it “The best driving road ever”, even though it’s probably not necessarily true (since the Stelvio Pass likely beats it), but when I found that Tottori prefecture had … what it had, I realised I absolutely must visit. Of course, that will only come in part 2, so in the meantime, I must engage my cherished readers in alluring banter that will make browsing through a thousand pictures easier. I swear I’d have posted it all in one day, but I felt the first day had enough experiences to justify a post by itself, and day 2 will cover the entire reason why I went there. Of course, as many of my trips tend to, ours started by eating. We ate at a roadstop near the Sea of Japan where I expected to be able to find some decent fish.

The handwritten entrance sign was encouraging…

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