Thursday, October 23, 2008

Off the beaten path

The Train Ride

A small mound of Burmese shrimp chips, smelly fish snacks, and beer cans wobbled precariously down the center of the isle in cadence with the dangerous back and forth lurching of our Burmese train carriage. The packaged food mound rolled over a dense crowd of old crones sitting limply on the floor, all their bodies moving together side-to-side against the adjacent seat cushions in a kind of sea-sick narrow-gauge train rave. The mound stopped beside Katlijn's bobbing sleeping head. Astonishingly, a smiling face popped out from behind the plastic baggies of red chili sauce and through the thick stench of dried prawn flakes.

Just as two scrawny arms emerged from the pile of dubious Burmese treats, the entire mound exploded.

Every crone in the train rave swiveled their heads in a single group motion at the former lump of smoked sea goodies, its shell of dodgy snack bags blown clear away revealing only its skeleton: a spindly Burmese kid with two thin outstretched arms holding the twisted remains of a couple of old plastic bottles- their entire contents had exploded forth on top of Katlijn.

Katlijn blinked and grimaced in her sleep, slowly awakening from her slumber, trying to discern nightmare from reality. A familiar flash of insight settled over her, a relapse, a recurrence: the whole stinking wobbling humiliation of it all. She was drenched in an oily fermented bath of whatever rank-smelling liquid Burmese people drink with their salty fish nuts.

Burmese snack sales-woman carrying her product at a train-stop near Hsipaw.

An oddly familiar old monk with giant spectacles and splotches of gray hair sprouts turned around and clarified the situation: "Palm wine," he began- a poor man's spirit even by Myanmar standards. "All this train rocking must have caused it to burst from the plastic containers," he wisely explained.

Surrounding her was a sea of huddled old crones, and one terrified boy covered in soggy fish bits, smiling nervously at her, all waiting expectantly for her reaction. Everybody seemed to grasp what had happened but Katlijn; being on the receiving end of a massive palm wine explosion, it appeared, was perfectly normal- a kind of Burmese public transportation rite-of-passage.

Katlijn, to her credit, resisted the temptation to heap racist expletives at the poor terrified Burmese kid and, in a remarkable feat of equanimity that even raised the eyebrows of our kindly old monk friend, smiled with all the grace and humility she could muster, untied her hefty backpack from the shelf, found a reasonably clean set of North Fakes, slowly rocked and swayed her way through the grinning, toothless, undulating crones, and locked herself into the ridiculously dark and tiny confine of the Burmese public train toilet facilities.

The monk smiled warmly after her in approval and there was an audible murmur of relief among the squatting crones. The skeletal boy, saved from a gargantuan loss-of-face, seemed to relax a bit and even tried half-heartedly to sell me a few dried crab-sticks.

Katlijn later told me that as she crouched naked in the toilet room, swinging wildly against the slimy walls, washing off the stench of palm wine from her hair using the train's only semi-functioning bum-gun, she realized that this very moment was the ultimate low point in her world trip.

Off the Beaten Path

We arrived in the late afternoon at Hsipaw, a gorgeous town surrounded by rice-paddies. A pleasant place where the backpacker-friendly locals introduced themselves as "Mister- something" to help tourists remember them. There was Mister Charles, the hotelier. There was the paranoid Mister Books, who sold books. There was even a grubby street vendor calling himself Mister Bean, "I sell the best beans in Hsipaw !"

There were also more tourists in Hsipaw than anywhere else in the north Shan State. Hsipaw, it turned out, was a burgeoning Burmese backpacker town. I don't have anything against backpackers, but the same conversations we have together were starting to get old: where we are from, where we are going to, and how truly sick to death we all are of instant Chinese noodles. We wanted new conversation, new experiences, new people, an undiscovered country. We wanted to be in the same illusive place all the other backpackers wanted to be, but paradoxically couldn't find: out in the sticks, the boondocks, Woop Woop, off the beaten path.

Just as a giant cyclone smashed through Yangon, days before Myanmar would briefly enter the ephemeral space of international consciousness, Katlijn and I, in our own private quest to realize the great backpacker dream, hired two biker kids to drive us out of Hsipaw.

To drive us not just off the beaten path, but as far away from it as we could get. We wanted to be as far away from the beaten path (while still outside rifle range of the nearest insurgency and armed opium plantation) that we could possibly be. And this, we learned, was a place in Myanmar called Namhsan.

The Motorbike Ride

Family outing.

The road-not-taken turns out to be full of massive ruts and, on the back of a flimsy made-in-china motorbike, a thoroughly harrowing ass-numbing experience. It is a road so old and forgotten it hadn't been maintained since the age of empires, often causing us to cling to our underage drivers for fear of our lives as we skidded along the muddy potholes in the pouring rain. We stopped once to watch a local bus unloaded all its passengers before crossing a water-logged wooden bridge that sagged and groaned in imminent collapse. When it was our turn to cross the rotting colonial-era infrastructure, my driver clenched the accelerator inducing a sad painful wine from our flimsy hog, while yelling over his shoulder "too risky to cross with passengers !"

Ignoring his own advice, we slowly sputtered our way to the other side.

The Challenge

Downton Namhsan

Though the old road from Hsipaw to Namsan is only 80 km long, it took us five hours and a two motorbike breakdowns to make it all the way up. We donated $1 to the nefarious regime for the privilege of spending a night at the only guesthouse in town.

Namsan itself is a charming village of wooden houses set atop a world of stunning forested hills accompanied by the soundtrack of distant cow bells. If not for its population of Palaung tea pickers and Chinese shop-keepers, Namsan might look like a centuries-old New World pioneer settlement, though the locals prefer to call it "The Switzerland of Myanmar". Out in the distance we gazed over a real no-man's land, apparently one of the least visited places on the planet. Somewhere out there, beyond those hills, grew nearly half the world's opium and the Burmese government waged a brutal, unknown, and ancient conflict against renegade Shan hill tribes still struggling for their independence.

Elderly Shwe (Golden) Palaung woman in traditional hand-woven tribal clothes typical of the region.

It wasn't long before we were introduced to the town's only English speaking locals. A jovial old woman calling herself "Macy" spoke impeccable English and was eager to invite us for a little conversation practice with her young students over the obligatory pot of Burmese green tea. "Sandy" guided us around the hills and introduced us to the local factory workers at the tea plantations. Despite the incredible hospitality of the towns-people, a suppressed fear kept gnawing at us from the back of our minds: we would soon have to endure the muddy five hour spank of the road-not-taken back to civilization.

Children sorting tea leaves outside a factory. Most Palaung make their living from tea, though opium poppies are never far away.

Over the mechanical clatter of nineteenth century imperial tea machines, we brought this fear up with the town mayor and a gang of curious factory workers. They could instantly relate: even the locals avoided crossing that old bridge if at all possible and wanted nothing more than to help us find a way around it. The mayor proudly handed us a dusty old English-language encyclopedia volume (letters C-D) written more than seventy years ago- a bit of light reading material while they hammered out a plan. A huge raucous debate soon ensued all around us as everyone collaborated furiously trying to figure out what do with us. Katlijn and I thumbed sheepishly through the fusty encyclopedia, until finally they reached some sort of consensus. Taking great pride in his achievement, the mayor presented us a crumpled old Chinese Valentine. He opened up the heart-shaped card revealing a sophisticated drawing of boxes and lines labeled with that mysterious sequence of shapes and squiggles we had come to recognize as Burmese text.

Palaung factory workers drying tea leaves over a thatched bamboo table.

After a lot of hand waving, shouting, and charades, we gathered that they had, in fact, drawn us a map of the region describing a network of tiny backwater villages, monasteries, and shrines that would lead us back to civilization. Every time we walked into a new box on the map, we were to turn the card over and show the nearest crone the squiggles written on the back. Sandy explained that those squiggles roughly translated as "take me to your leader."

Everyone insisted that if a stranger walks into a Palaung tribal village, the locals would not only be delighted, they would feed us, give us a bed to sleep on, and point us to the next box on our map. It was more than just hospitality: it was a cultural and religious obligation. The Buddhist monks and villagers had to help us, there was no need to bring food or water for the journey. Thus, we were faced with the following challenge:

Could a couple of dumb white backpackers with no knowledge of the local language or culture survive the three day journey back to civilization, bypassing entirely the road-not-taken, with nothing more than plain old Burmese hospitality and a map scribbled on the back of a tatty piece of Asian Kitsch ?

Armed with only this, a lot of water purification tablets, and some emergency instant Chinese noodle packs, Katlijn and I set forth to find out.

The Hospitality

We began the journey with some trepidation. A close inspection of the map revealed that few factory workers could agree upon which boxes should be connected together. In fact, the entire card was riddled with scratched out lines and alarming little question marks. To make matters worse, nobody seemed to know what kind of distances were involved. One line between two boxes could take anywhere from one hour to a full day depending on which puzzled monk we showed our card to. Clearly, we were going to be relying a lot on Burmese hospitality.

Blue canteen in hand, Katlijn walks beside a Palaung picker carrying home the morning's tea.

We put this hospitality to test when we arrived wearily at the first box on our map: a village consisting of a handful of thatched bamboo huts and the unlikely demographic of about fifty toddlers and four old crones. The kids went absolutely ballistic when we stumbled into town, crying out Burmese greetings while tugging relentlessly on my leg hairs. They sat us down in one of the houses, poured us a cup of bitterly green Burmese tea, and prepared us a feast.

We would have been content just to receive some hot water for our instant noodles, but they spent a good hour cooking us an assortment of local Palaung fare which they arrayed for us on a tree stump: rice, vegetables, spicy fish sauce, chunks of raw sugar, and a salad made from tea leaves. As we sat with a family shoveling this into our mouths with our fingers, the entire village came out to watch us eat. Some food tasted great and went down easily, other dishes required considerable determination to get through without wincing in front of our gathering hosts. Tea leaf salad was particularly challenging. Having the consistency of spinach but tasting something like a used Lipton tea bag, I imagine it would take a lifetime of cultural up-bringing to fully acquire a taste for it.

Typical Palaung lunch boasting several kinds of curries arrayed in bowls in front of us. The ubiquitous tea leaf salad can be seen on the right.

In retrospect, despite the fact that we didn't know what we were eating most of the time, we couldn't understand a word anybody was saying to us, and palm wine featured prominently on the menu, the home-cooked meals we shared with the Palaung tribes were some of the finest dining experiences we ever had.

The Shower

The roads were lined with friendly tea pickers plucking leaves from the myriad of tea plants covering the hills around us. There was no shortage of people to ask for directions. Unfortunately, the accuracy and consistency of the answers we got left much to be desired. Talk to anyone who has been to the orient: never ask directions from a local. It's hard enough getting them to read a proper map, but trying to get your average tea-plucker to make sense of whatever nonsense was scribbled on our fading Valentine card was a thoroughly frustrating endeavor generally culminating in a lot of confused head scratching and a vague wave in a random direction. It wasn't long before we found ourselves way off the dirt roads, tripping over the steep dry scrub growing between tea-plantations: not exactly where one wants to be in a country boasting the world's highest rate of poisonous snake fatalities.

Covered in sweat and dust, we miraculously stumbled out into a clearing and found our way to a wild-west town full of old ramshackle wooden buildings. The town turned out to be "Kunh he" and, encouragingly, had several signs vaguely resembling the text written in the second box of our map. Too tired for basic formalities, I simply shoved the grimy Valentine card into the hands of the nearest resident and pointed to the text which we believe read "take me to your leader". We were soon brought to a beautiful old monastery and introduced to a young monk calling himself "Ken".

Ken trying out our i-pod.

"Would you like to wash ?" Ken managed in his best English. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than a good shower. Ken asked me to follow him.

After twenty minutes of walking down a steep hill in my underwear and towel wondering what the residents of Kung He were thinking in selecting this location for their public toilet facilities, we emerged into a clearing full of half naked villagers sitting around a large cement bunker with three wooden pegs sticking out of it. It seemed somehow natural that the whole village had turned up to watch me shower.

"Would you like to wash ?" Ken asked again.

"Yes, please." I replied

There was a long silence while I stared at Ken and the grinning villagers, trying to examine them for some hint as to where I might find the shower facilities. I turned towards the cement bunker.

"Is the shower in there somewhere ?"

Ken motioned me towards the cement bunker, so I walked over to it not quite knowing what to do. I turned around and faced the villagers who weren't even trying to stifle their snickering. "Sorry, I just don't know how this thing works."

"Would you like to wash ?" Ken repeated. Ken had an irritating way of repeating unhelpful things.

"Look, Ken," I began while adjusting the towel around my waist, "do you even know what 'wash' means ? I mean, is this thing even a shower ? Are we even in the right place here ?"

"You wash !" Ken encouraged me.

Hoping for the best, I pulled at one of the wooden pegs. Suddenly, the peg popped out and the entire contents of the cement bunker gushed out at me in a freezing cold torrent of water that threw me off balance. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground in my underwear while Ken and the entire village joined each other in uproariously laughter.

The rest of my bathroom shenanigans, which consisted of the seemingly innocuous acts of brushing my teeth with a toothbrush and washing myself with soap, elicited nothing but more giggles from the villagers every time I peered behind me. Perhaps to save what little dignity I had left, Ken finally came over to show me how it was done. He cautiously pried open the second peg, picked up a smooth round rock, and fiercely scrubbed himself red. He was particular attentive to the top of his head, on which he used the stone to polish each of his tiny gray Buddhist sprouts. After that, he produced a ghastly metal implement which, to my amazement, he shoved deep inside his mouth and thrusted painfully about.

It suddenly became clear to me that out here, I was the one that didn't know what 'wash' meant.

The Evening Cinema

I learned from Ken on our hike back to the monastery that Palaung tribal villages have only one shower for the entire community and about two regular showering times each day, hence my supportive crowd. Back at the temple, we discovered that there is also a single television for the entire village. This television is generally occupied by a gang of couch potato monks who spend the best part of the day glued to the screen watching Thai kick-boxing.

Couch-potato monks. Our host, Ken, laughs while sipping tea from his mug.

Ken was a slavishly devoted host, but alas, no great chef. He prepared our Chinese instant noodle packs for dinner. It was a bit of a let-down from our lunch experience, but the upshot was we wouldn't have to suffer through another bowl tea salad. As we ate dinner, we watched as most of the villagers quietly filed one by one into the temple's TV room for the evening's entertainment. Ken asked us to follow them inside where an odd assortment of Buddhist relics, incense sticks, and prayer beads were arranged haphazardly around an old television set, a dusty DVD player, and a satellite dish.

All the town's children gathered in the monastery for the evening cinema.

Ken handed us a binder containing the monastery's DVD collection and urged us to select a movie for the whole village to watch. Everyone smiled at us eagerly as Katlijn opened to the selection on the first page,

"Jaws","Freddy Versus Jason"," Alien"...

We looked up at the quaint tribal villagers and saffron-robed monks smiling expectantly at us. None of these titles seemed appropriate so we turned the page and kept looking.

"Halloween", "Evil Dead II", "Alien versus Predator"...

"Keep looking," began Katlijn nervously eying the countless children climbing around us, "I don't think we can show them this. It's a monastery, after all." We turned the page,

"Rosemary's baby", "The Exorcist", "The Omen"...

Everyone kept waiting for a decision. Some of the kids were getting impatient and began tugging on my arm hair.

"Night of the living dead", "Hostel", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"...

Our awkward situation grew dire.

"Wicker Man","Hell Raiser","Jack the Ripper"...

"Just what kind of monks are you !?" I cried out in exasperation, flipping frantically through Ken's macabre collection. Finally, there it was on the last page: the DVD cover for "Narnia". By some miracle, C.S. Lewis had come to our rescue. Katlijn jumped up enthusiastically and announced our selection.

Ken ran off to find the DVD and hit the play button. "It's a good one for children," began Katlijn hopefully to a room full of tribal people who nodded eagerly back to her in non-comprehension.

While the villagers and their children watched the movie with all the seriousness and intensity of discerning film critics, I thought I heard a few groans emanating from the general vicinity of the monks' section when the Disney logo came up. A couple of monks left the room after only a few minutes, and I think I caught one rolling his eyes at us. I guess you just can't please everyone.

The generator cut out halfway through the film and the villagers filed back home. Ken showed us to the meditation hall where he had set us up on the floor with some cozy mats, candles, and blankets. Since I was sleeping in the room anyway, I asked if I could join their morning meditation.

"Not so many monks here meditate in the early morning," he explained. Somehow, I wasn't surprised.

Katlijn sitting on our beds in the meditation hall. We had the whole room to ourselves that night.

Katlijn and I prepared our beds while a group of monks tip-toed mischievously back out to the television room with an old car battery. I blew out the candle. As I closed me eyes and fell into sleep after a long day, I could hear the soundtrack of James Bond drifting in from the room next door.

The Tea Pickers

To Ken's credit, he actually did get up to meditate the next morning, though I had the sneaking suspicion that this was for my benefit only. With characteristic devotion, he prepared us our noodles for breakfast and took it upon himself to guide us to the next box on our map. Ken was very eager to connect with us, but after several hours of repetitive conversation, we were forced to come to the conclusion that he really hadn't the foggiest clue what we were saying. Though we liked Ken a lot, and I am certain he would have dutifully followed us all the way back to civilization, we finally had to ask him to leave so we could continue peacefully on our own.

Motorcycles laden with plastic bags full of fresh fruits and vegetables make the tough journey each morning to sell goods to these remote villages. Katlijn haggles over the price with Ken's help, while a group of local children watch her curiously.

A nat shrine. A nat is a kind of spirit still worshiped in many parts of Myanmar. It is a link to the pre-Buddhism era when forms of animism were the dominant religions. The red and white cloths seen hanging on the shrine are the traditional nat colours of protection.

The next line on our map turned out to be a steep up-hill ascent winding through the hills of scattered tribal villages. Groups of tea pickers lined the roads smiling, waving, and occasionally inviting us up to come join them in their work. After a long hike, we arrived at a village called "Kon Haut" and collapsed in front of an old wooden table at a long forgotten tea house. Within moments, a young teenage boy came running out to us.

The young boy introduced himself as "Anderson" and spoke excellent English. Anderson's soft voice and gentle mannerism instantly qualified him as our favorite Burmese person. He insisted on being our guide to his small village and offered us room and board at his wooden house on stilts. As with all the tribal people we met in this part of Myanmar, he and his family adamantly refused any monetary compensation.

View of Anderson's home-town of Kon Haut where we spent the night.

Anderson's tiny self-contained village was a gorgeous collection of ancient wooden houses perched on top of a high hill offering a spectacular vista of the surrounding forests and tea plantations. Like all the other villages in the area, every resident grew and picked tea for a living. The Palaung people have been doing this for many centuries, forever as far as the people here knew. Anderson's family owns five small plantations located in disparate parts of the forest. During picking season, they get up at four each morning, hike several hours to their plantation, pick tea until the late afternoon, and walk back before dinner time. All this plucking resulted in some truly spectacular finger callouses, which Anderson and his friends enthusiastically showed us with immense satisfaction.

Tools of the tea-picking trade: a woven basket, a walking stick, and a sun-hat.

A day's picking will yield about two large sacks of green tea leaves worth a couple of US dollars. This is enough money for Anderson's family to live comfortably. Anderson can be seen here handing off his day's picking to a cheroot-smoking business man to be weighed.

Palaung woman sitting on her floor weaving a traditional dress beside a pile of freshly picked tea leaves.

Anderson introduced us to his friends at the village monastery- a gorgeous two-century-old wooden structure filled with colorful Palaung tribal decorations. Buddhist monasteries, it turns out, serve as the local teenage hangout where young layabouts partake in some serious loafing with the novice monks. We felt very hip chilling with the cool tribal kids, though the boys insisted Katlijn sit on the floor below the men as part of the local Buddhist tradition. The monastery had only three senior monks, three novice monks, and two nuns living next door. The nuns do all the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance for the monastery. It remains unclear to us what monks actually do.

The palaung people decorate the roofs of their village monasteries with colourful adornments.

By the late afternoon, we felt we were starting to get the hang of Palaung village life. After hiking out to the cement bunker, I managed to clean myself with only minimal ridicule. Katlijn might have fared pretty well herself, had she not wore her longyi upside-down. Anderson's family meal of rice, potatoes, and dried chili-prawns was beginning to taste downright homey, and (I dare say) I believe I even started developing a vague appreciation for that insufferable tea salad. Sipping daintily on freshly picked tea, we idly watched the villagers file out to the monastery while chatting casually with our hosts over what lurid film they might be showing at the cinema tonight. Somehow, this forgotten Palaung backwater was starting to feel like home.

Andrew sporting a green longyi at the village shower, while a couple of local children watch in fascination at his impeccable technique. Notice how this six-year old girl is considered responsible enough to care for her infant brother without the parents around. This is typical of the tribal communities in the region, where young children are trusted and involved in caring for their younger siblings.

Katlijn hanging out at our friend's place while his mother prepares dinner. It is unclear if the birds they are holding are pets or appetizers.

Andrew eating at the family dinner table with Anderson.

At night, we lay together under the stars with Anderson and he explained to us that he didn't want to pick tea leaves his whole life. He had always wanted to be an English-speaking guide and meet with people from the West.

We retired back inside Anderson's house where he prepared our beds on the floor, just beside the rest of his family who also slept on the floor together with us. In the corner of the room were all of Anderson's possessions: a tiny wooden desk which he barely fit into and a small shelf of old worn-out English language texts that he had collected over the years. As Katlijn and I drifted off to sleep, I watched Anderson's gentle silhouette flickering in the dying candle-light, hunched over his little desk quietly studying a crumbling English book.

Back to Civilization

Hsipaw market.

Early the next morning, we awoke to the sublimely soothing chanting of Anderson's mother lighting a candle in the family's Buddhist shrine. One of Anderson's friends picked us up, a tough-looking but exceptionally sweet teenager calling himself "Jackson". Katlijn and I piled on the back of his bike and waved goodbye to our good friend Anderson before roaring off motor-cross style to the next box on our card.

Jackson showed us a short-cut through the hills and told us we'd be back to civilization in only five hours at a good walking pace. Of course, we knew better by now and weren't in the least bit surprised when, ten hours later, we finally limped our way past Mister Charles' Hotel, waved a tired "hello" to the cravenly Mister Books, and felt an exhausted euphoria when we heard a familiar voice yell out to us in the distance, "Tell your friends ! I've got the best beans in Hsipaw!" After a long journey off the beaten path, we were back home with the rest of the backpackers.

Given the utility of whatever was scribbled on the back of our tatty piece of Asian Kitsch, it was clear that only Burmese hospitality saw us through our challenge. As we lay down in the comforts of a real bed and rested our aching muscles, I felt an unconscious smile slowly form while I thought about how, on a future day, long after our world travels have ended, when the stress of modern civilization feels too heavy and the accelerated time of the new globalized planet too dizzying, we'll be able to think back to our memories of the motley people of the Palaung tribes, and be comforted by the fact that there is still a timeless place like this left in the world.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bagan Sunset

"Spotty","deplorable", "horrid".

This is just a sample of the derogatory adjectives I found while researching Myanmar's dubious government-operated "budget" airline safety record: a history of downed planes and missing tourists so extensive it rivals even the world's great socialist "no-frills" commercial airliners of Africa and Russia. Myanmar Airways claims its record has improved dramatically after they dropped a rule requiring that planes take off on time regardless of the flight mechanics' advice- certainly little consolation.

Our other option was the decidedly safer "Air Bagan", privately owned and operated by Tay Za: Burma's most flamboyant and nefarious business tycoon who not only hordes the profits of Myanmar teak-wood industry, he also has close ties to Burma's massive illegal opium industry (surpassed only by that of Afghanistan). Naturally, he is a close friend to the military junta having paid for the current Senior General Than Shwe's daughter's notoriously extravagant $300,000 wedding.

Alas, we chose to patron Tay Za's Air Bagan and may we burn in hell. It was either that or face the sprawling twenty-four hour odyssey of crossing the entire country in the hot stuffy confinement of a Myanmar pickup truck. Somehow, eternal damnation didn't seem so bad anymore.

Our plane touched down into the cruel dusty furnace of April in Bagan, and by night-fall we found ourselves wandering the desolate streets of a third-world tourist dystopia. New Bagan is the brainchild of a military junta that gave all the residents of the original city one week's notice to pack up and move their lives to this more convenient location. The paved streets and ritzy hotels around us are widely believed to be the product of government enforced slave labour in a failed effort to bolster their tourist industry.

These days, New Bagan is downright spooky. A loud wind howls across dark empty roads in the night. Swanky western-style cocktail bars are populated only by dusty horse and carriage drivers pestering us to rent their services. Vacant luxury resorts sit sadly idle next to the murky green waters of their forgotten algae-ridden pools. Tourists don't seem to come here anymore. Too spooky.

Long boat on the Irrawaddy near Bagan.

Myanmar has a complicated and turbulent history consisting of periods of disunity and warring ethnic groups alternating with more prosperous periods of Burmese domination when rival ethnic groups were controlled with either the carrot of autonomy or the stick of force. It is tempting to consider today's predominantly Burmese junta as a continuation of this pattern. History repeating itself. While the military junta is rightfully despised, people are reluctant to consider the possibility that when junta is gone so will be the uneasy Union of Myanmar it barely managed to cobble together.

Each Burmese Empire had its capital. If the modern ghost metropolis of Naypyidaw is the unlikely capital of today's military junta, Bagan was the capital of the very first Burmese empire more than one thousand years ago. Alone and sadly outnumbered by the hotel staff, we checked out and began our hot and sweaty exploration of this more ancient Myanmar.

Marco Polo was the first Westerner to see Bagan (13th century). He described it as "one of the finest sights in the world." He also claimed that many of the towers were covered in gold a finger thick.

There use to be more than 13,000 temples in Bagan, but only 2,200 remain today. This is more than all the Cathedrals in Europe.

Touring Bagan is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Temperatures soar well into the mid-forties, and the barren landscape provides no respite from the sun. Literally thousands of temples are strewn across a forty square kilometer requiring long hot bike rides between the sites accessible by road, and dusty pony rides for the rest. Each temple is home to gangs of touts either hawking the same paintings and postcards, or trying to barter them off to us in exchange for various personal items.

Covered in sweat and sun-screen on our second day of plodding along sandy roads on clunky third-world rental bikes, we collapsed inside a dingy Burmese restaurant suffering from a mild case of heat stroke and a major case of temple overdose. The Lonely Planet describes Burmese cuisine as a "curious" mix of Indian and Chinese influences which seems to be true since the food they served us had all the greasiness of Chinese take-away with all the cleanliness of an Indian hole in the wall.

Most Burmese restaurants serve a large variety of foods arrayed unattractively in plastic pales at the entrance. The food in each pale is actually intentionally covered in a thin layer of grease in order to keep the many nearby flies out.

Nevertheless, Bagan at dusk is positively magical. We climbed atop lonely nondescript pagoda number 384 somewhere in the middle of the ancient city. A gang of souvenir hawking pre-teen touts was there to join us as we sat down together for the evening's spectacle. Sunset over Bagan is perhaps South East Asia's most awe-inspiring sight. Even the grubby kid shoving postcards into my hands while tugging at my wrist-watch found himself stopping momentarily to bask in the terracotta twilight. Unlike other preeminent ancient cities of the world, the view before us was neither shrouded in jungle nor banalized by popular media. At sunset, the full extant of a massive ancient martian world lies unhidden, disappearing with the sun into the horizon.