Bagan & Chin State

One of the most impressive locations of Myanmar is in Bagan with its more than 2.000 Buddhist temples dating mainly from the 11th to 13th centuries. Some of them are in bad conditions and the interior frescos are ruined by time and careless but that’s contribute to the charm of the all site; you have to wander and find your own treasure, the one you prefer, the one you want try to climb… We avoided the most known temples, and it is easy to find by yourself other beautiful ones.
From Yangon we took a night bus that arrived in Nyaung U bus station (close to Bagan) at 4.30 am! The arrival time is the only problem we have travelling by night bus: they often arrive at destination one hour before sunrise when it’s too dark and too early to walk and look for a guest house. The good point is that, while waiting, we can meet others travellers: Ory and Kristen this time. We share with them not only the boring job to find a cheap accommodation, but two entire days biking around the temples.

We chose to bike even if it was hot and we found many places where we could buy a cold drink and something to eat. We did not felt the crowd  (except around the most famous pagodas) because the area with the temples is vast so we could really spend our time in each temple we visited without any other people. Said that, when we arrived in our first temple, there were some kids who call another guy who came to explain a little bit of the history. This “guide” told us his father was archaeologist and that’s why he know so much about the temples. At the end he tried to sell some sand drawings. So we listened carefully to him and then we tried to skip the commercial part. We have to say that we also really met someone who worked for the conservation of the pagodas or at their maintenance at least: he had the key of the temple. He took us to the top of the pagoda and he left us alone to take pictures and contemplate the panorama.

One of the thing that impressed us the most are the stucco carving that decorate the exterior of the temples: they’re full in details and keep their beauty despite all the erosion and the strong  earthquake that hit Bagan in 1973 and destroyed many other temples.

The best time of the day to see Bagan is at sunrise, but we were to tired to get up again at 5:30 am. We chose to keep our energies to reach Mindat, in the Chin State. It’s not a popular destination. Cadu saw for the first time the name of Mindat on a folder he took in the International Tourism Fair in Paris. Almost only organised and expensive tours (available also in Bagan) take tourists there. Our luck was to meet two other travellers that gave us the tip to make the trip without joining a tour rent. We had the catch a local bus from Pakoko, 40 minutes away from Bagan. We left this two other guys at 5h30 am in a the taxi that left us at the bus station in Pakoko. But this specific bus depart was from another street which we found reasonably quickly considering that we do not speak Burmese. Once we got there the bus arrived: an old machine on wheels with a the water reservoir on top for cooling the engine and inside no space for a standard-leg fellow like Cadu. Only at 8:30 we understood that the bus was not leaving because there were not enough places for all the passengers who were waiting. We set inside and half an hour later (when a second bus arrived) we finally left for a 7 hours trip on the dirty bumpy roads that links the world to the Chin State. Besides we had to cross several dry rivers and eat a lot of dust. As told, Mindat is not a tourist place and there are only two guest houses:  one was closed and the other was asking 20 USD for the night; we found expensive but we were tired and no other choice. We split with the others because they wanted to try to sleep in the church or in the monastery for free, something not allowed by the government. At dinner time, a policeman came to us with a local guide at the restaurant we were to ask a copy of our passports: every foreigner who arrives here has to be registered at the police. We also understood that accommodations are expensive here because the license they pay to government is very high and they do not have other choice.

We were looking for a guide, instead was the guide who found us! Naingtam: a 26 years old boy, full of energy and very interested in preserve his people and his land. We were impressed with the knowledge he has about the Burmese and Chin culture and history. And of course with his generosity: He helps regularly the people of the villages and we were with him when he gave some money to an old lady who lives alone with his husband and to a couple who lost the house in a fire.

For our trek in the next days we rented two scooters: Cadu was with Naingtam and Fede with a friend of him. After driving in a dirty road with beautiful mountains as landscape, we stopped by the river and continued on foot to Kyar Do village. Originally they were animistic, but with the missionaries works, a part of the population were christianized. When we arrived in the village some pastors from Yangon were there to teach them the ‘word’ of the Lord. We met the pastor from Yangon and we watched to the religious function that was in Burmese translated in Chin language. Before arriving in the village we were afraid of disturbing their way of life, but we noticed that their costumes are already changing thanks to religion and the new road that arrives there.

After lunch we were invited in an animistic house: we found there women smoking their long pipe, drinking and offering corn wine to men and to a guest who came from another village. We tried the wine but we did not “bottom up” as they were suggesting with the hands. They kept laughing  the whole time because of our appearance and our strange behaviour. One of the most visible characteristic of Chin old women (the government forbid this practise in the 60s) is that their face is tattooed with patterns that differ from village to village. The legend says that the prince from Rakhaing (a region in the south) used to choose young girls from Chin villages (famous for their incredible beauty) to bring them to the court; with the tattoos they tried to hide their beauty and be ugly to to be taken away. The animistic explanation: a woman without tattoos cannot enter in the afterlife. And what men have to do to appease the spirits and get a place on their heaven? They have to sacrifice at least once in his life a wild buffalo (maidan, in Chin) and share the meat with the shaman and the all villagers. The skull on the beast is proudly hanged in the entrance of the house. A man who killed six buffaloes became an hero for all the village.

In the afternoon we passed through another village while going down until the river and went up again to finally arrive in the Aye Camp: an isolated wood building with a magnificent view of the mountains. We couldn’t see very clear due to the heavy haze in the horizon. Consequence of the dry season, high temperatures and the fires on the fields. The day after was consecrated to reach the top of Mount Victoria: we walked (or tried to) in the middle of the forest for about one hour and then we took the main dirty road to get to the summit.  We could admire the mountains that mark the border with India and Bangladesh and all the flora typical of this region. It would have been great to have more time and go further to Marak U, another historical city of Myanmar. We met few people there, mostly birdwatchers who were coming back to Kampelet (the nearest “city” to Mount Victoria).

We arrived back to Mindat very tired and full of dirt but, for sure, it was the best trek we did in all our trip. We had the chance to get in touch with a culture that is slowly disappearing and, above all, to talk a lot with our guide who could explain us their way of life, their traditions and the way they are evolving.

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