Along The Ayeyarwady with James Dean

Soft streams of light crept through the moth eaten holes of my orange drapes, and I wake from blissful dreams filled with beautiful sunsets.

It’s another sizzling day in Bagan… Even as I open the door ajar, I can feel the unrelenting heat. I’m not sure if I can face another day under the beating sun and crawl back in to bed with my iPad to catch up on some blogging.

By 3pm though I’m frustrated. Internet is intermittent. Words come in stutters. I frantically grasp on to an idea before it quickly escapes me, but my brain is as lethargic as my aching body. I’m in dire need of inspiration. Scolding myself for sulking, I haul myself out of bed and take a long, cold shower. I am in Bagan for god’s sake! Bagan! And aside from the temples there is one thing left on my wish list I still need to do…

It served me right. The late start was a punishable offence in Bagan. Not one electric bicycle left. The vendor whom I hired the e-bike from yesterday was long gone. All that was presented to me was an old push-bike that looked like it hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1950’s.
‘No gears but basket!’ the hotel attendant beamed at me, gesturing to the threadbare, wicker bassinet like it was one-of-a-kind.
I took it hesitantly from him and gingerly tested my weight on it. It squeaked slowly back to life as I took it for a test-drive around the parking lot but it would have to do.

 I was heading north this time, away from the ancient temples of Old Bagan and towards the flowing life blood of Burma. With a waterway that snakes its way down the entire length of the country and the promise of blood-orange skies against a backdrop of dense jungle river banks, I was ever more determined to make sunset along these shores.

Nyuang-U came and went as I pedalled my gear less bike past markets and guest houses… They soon gave way to shanty houses and make-shift stalls as I neared my destination. Spotting a stranger in these unchartered lands, children raced after me, their cries of ‘Hello, hello! Where you from?!’ growing distant as I struggled on.
And eventually, there it was – hmmmm, the ‘great’ Ayeyarwady River – a murky brown, unimpressive river bank with a handful of broken, decaying fishing boats.

I stood astride my bike for a moment wondering ‘what next?’
I was expecting a busy dock with hundreds of touts on the lookout for hungry sunset seekers, but I was the only tourist to have made it here today… Several locals were bathing along the shoreline and they peered up at me like I was an intruder.

ayerwaddy 02I was about to pull out my map when a young local man approached me on a shiny, black motorbike. As the cloud of dust settled around him, my mysterious stranger was unveiled to me. Dressed in a crisp white vest and the typical Burmese longyi, he was like a paradoxical vision of James Dean. His black hair was slicked back from his chiselled face and he chewed at something before spitting it out in a blood-red splatter.

I gasped.
‘I’m so sorry. I will leave!’ I rushed quickly, backing away from him.
The stand to my push-bike had come loose again and scraped itself noisily against the pebbles as I tried to make my escape.

He cocked his head and looked at me quizzically. His lips were stained bright red now, like he was wearing lipstick.
‘You want boat? You go 3 temple and sunset?’ he asked finally.
Sunset? He said ‘sunset’?
I searched for the dock again. I could still see none. Still no sign of other tourists either.
‘I can take you’ he said simply and revved on his bike, swinging it 180 degrees so it made a clean sweep in the pebbles.

I wasn’t sure about this. I had risked snakes the day before, cycled lost in the dark for hours – okay, slight exaggeration – it was one hour, by torchlight and in the company of other lost wanderers; but this time I was alone – femme-solo and easy prey to strange men like James Dean.

For some reason I followed him though. Maybe I was hungry for an adventure after a lazy day. Maybe it was the adrenalin that was coursing its way through my body that led me to accept the two hour boat cruise with him.

Once we negotiated the price down to 14,000 kyat, he led me to a stall where a larger-than-life-woman greeted me with a warm smile.
‘My boss’ JD introduced her to me, ‘I am Jo-Jo-Twan. This her mother.’ He gestured to a silver haired lady who was now welcoming me in to their family like we were life-long friends. JD locked up my bike while the two women fussed over me and I almost felt guilty for doubting him. The overwhelming warmth of the Burmese will never cease to amaze me.

Mother and daughter waved at us as we made our way down to the shoreline towards our boat. Called ‘Lucky Soe’, it resembled more of a flimsy rowing boat than a fishing vessel, but I climbed up the rickety ladder, propped into the muddy water’s edge, praying that it was as lucky as its namesake.

With a tug of the engine, it started with a thick plume of black smoke. And we were off! A boat ride down the Ayeyarwady.

Lush jungles, mountains and steeply-sided gorges flanked the 1.5 mile wide river as we cruised upstream. The odd village could be seen, peppered along the river; snapshots of rural life played out before us; sleepy lives unaltered by the modern world. Around us fishermen cast their nets in to the latte-coloured depths of the Ayeyarwady.

Further beyond, the occasional spire and stupa peeped out at us from the overgrowth in their modesty – once beautiful, now alabaster turned grey, they were derelict, worn, forgotten, too far from the temples of Old Bagan for tourists to venture to.

ayerwaddy 03

JD docked the boat along an undisturbed stretch of coastline now and we clambered off the ‘Lucky Soe’, venturing in to unknown territory. I followed him tentatively, through tall reeds that poked their way through the fine white sand, demarcating our trail up and over the bank. To our right were three women waist high in rice paddies. Their faces were smeared with thanaka (a bark paste used as a sunscreen), and their dark eyes squinted at me with curiosity. Next to them an ox stood rooted to the ground, weighed down by an old cart laden with baskets of the day’s long yield.

 Further along the trail we past a man who was taking rest under a solitary acacia tree. He puffed happily on what looked like a big, fat cigar… what I later come to learn is a cornhusk cheroot, the preferred smoke of the countryside.

And then ten minutes later we reached the first of our three temples, a rather unremarkable monument, far from the grandiose steps and stupas of the Old Greats in Bagan. A lone key-keeper was sleeping across the door threshold of the entrance – a feeble attempt at guarding any treasure hidden behind this unassuming facade.
While JD roused him from his catnap, I removed my shoes, fully accustomed to the ‘shoes-on, shoes-off’ experience now, and stepped in to the boxy contours of the red brick facade.

Off the beaten track and unknown to tourists, we were at the 13th century Kyauk Gu Temple – or The Rock Cave Temple, famous for its network of underground tunnels. Built into the river bank, these mazes twist and turn along its 500 foot journey, eventually reaching the Pindaya caves in the Shan State.

We entered in to the dark, dank space and I stood blind for a moment letting my eyes adjust to my new surroundings. If I wasn’t so excited with the thought of ‘boldly going where no man has gone before’, I should have felt scared. I was in a vulnerable position – to getting raped – murdered. But none of this occurred to me as JD flicked on a torchlight and cast a luminescent glow over the huge, serene face of a golden Buddha.

I cried out in delight as I followed the narrow beam of light wash over elaborate carvings and frescoes. JD flicked the torchlight towards a small rectangular doorway now and he motioned for me to follow him. The glow of the torch distorted his handsome features in to a ghoulish, hollowed mask.

Heart pounding but spellbound, I followed him through narrow hallways, haunted by centuries of ghosts. My eyes were fixed on his stooped, silhouetted figure as we explored further and deeper in to these ancient tunnels, pausing briefly at small, confined cellars used for meditation. Walls and ceiling closed in around us until we eventually came to a dead end.

JD waved the beam of light over a small opening – a hole no bigger than 2 feet wide.
‘This tunnel go to Shan,’ JD explained.
He saw the alarm on my face and bared his red teeth at me in a rare smile.
‘No. We no go. Many snakes!’
At the mention of snakes I fled my way out of the tunnels and back in to the gratification of open air again.

ayerwaddy 04The second temple was an active religious site set within the jungle grounds of a monastery. I felt like an imposter as we left our shoes at the entrance and wandered through a small, peaceful complex of woven bamboo huts. A monk swathed in saffron cloth stood out from the greenery, preparing the last of the day’s chores. He gave me a small nod as we made our way towards a small, characterless but active temple.

Leaving a small donation we made our way upstream to our third and last temple now. The light was fading to pastel pinks and oranges as JD helped me ascend the centuries old steps of the temple roof. Once we were high above the plains, the view of the Ayeyarwady was amazing. The brown waterway was now glimmering like molten gold as she snaked her way towards the setting sun. She was exquisite.

JD looked nervous as I balanced myself, one foot in front of the other, along a single row of red brick towards the south end of the stupa. The golden tips of the Old Bagan temples could be seen in the distance; the evening’s sunset even more majestic than yesterday’s. I wanted to freeze-frame this moment. At last, I had my ‘own’ temple to myself, far from the coach loads of tourists that were probably sitting shoulder to shoulder on the Pythada right now.

‘We watch sunset on boat now,’ JD broke the silence, enticing me back to safe ground and I dutifully did as I was told.

I don’t think I will ever forget my lasting vision of Bagan… As we coasted along the river again towards the giant, copper orb, I felt like I was still caught in last night’s dream. Sky and water was aflame with gold and rose, each element merging in to the hazy, umber smudge of the mountains beyond. Only the black silhouette of a solitary fishing boat and its boatman broke the fiery palette of colour. She took one last look at herself in the shimmering waters, a display of understandable self-admiration, before extinguishing herself in to the watery horizon of the ‘great’ Ayeyarwady river …

ayerwaddy 01

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