Going on a Tour Less Toured

Pyay (27 – 28 December 2014)

We started on our journey when the sun had just started rising above the horizon. I felt that there were more to see in Bagan but that was all the time that I had. It would have been nice to have another day in Bagan.

On the other hand, I was feeling somewhat excited. I was starting on what I call the “hardship portion” of my tour of Myanmar. My Singaporean agent had warned me not to expect too much in terms of tourism infrastructure during that portion of my tour and to take everything with a sense of humour. I had asked to visit Pyay and Mrauk U and in fact the Singaporean agent had told me that Pyay was somewhat out of the way and I might be better off not going there. But I wanted to visit a place in Myanmar that was not usually seen by tourists to the country. And there was this interesting archaeological site near Pyay.

It was going to be a long drive to Pyay and M tried to break it up by making quick stops at the start to see various things. We stopped for photo opportunities in front of some Bagan monuments. At that almost ungodly hour some hot air balloons were floating by above Bagan. These were part of another tourist trap in Bagan undertaken by tourists who have too much money and do not know how else to spend it. On the other hand I did read somewhere that the view from the balloons was fantastic in the sunrise.

Bagan in the early morning

Bagan in the early morning

The most interesting encounter that day however was a wedding at this village outside Bagan. It was totally unexpected and definitely a treat for me. The hospitable family offered us food and coffee but we had to decline since we wanted to reach Pyay by the afternoon.

Wedding tentage

Wedding tentage

Couple paying respects to their elders

Couple paying their respects to their elders

We passed by an oil field along the way. It was the first time I had seen an oil field with all the nodding drilling machines and it was quite a awesome sight. M pointed out that a lot of the oil in Myanmar was sold to China. As for the proceeds of the sales, it was anyone’s guess where they actually went to.

At an oilfield

At an oilfield

I had been warned by my Singaporean agent that the drive to Pyay would take up to six hours. The only major urban area along the way was the town of Magway. We reached there at about half past 10 and M told me that it was time for lunch. Fortunately I had my breakfast about four hours before that, but it was still way too early for lunch.

M left me for an hour at this eatery that looked very much like a Singaporean coffee shop and which was supposed to serve Chinese food. M ordered a huge plate of fried noodles for me. The noodles looked Chinese but tasted quite unfamiliar to me. I know that I should be grateful for my food, and the portion was huge for a price of 2,500 kyats, but I really did not enjoy those noodles much.

I found the long drive to Pyay quite pleasant. I was however puzzled about why they needed so many toll stations on that highway. I think we had to drive through at least ten of them (I lost count) and pay toll every single time. But the highway was well maintained and so very green. I also enjoyed the view of the many villages and fields along the way.

Frequently along the highway too were women waving the metal pots in their hands at passing motorists to ask for donations. The donations were meant for some local temple or monastery. I was surprised to see that so many temples or monasteries required donations. Nevertheless, I had not seen one badly maintained religious structure in the country so far and I guess the donations were genuinely put to good use. Could they maybe use some of that money to feed the poor I wonder?

On the highway

On the highway

A resting place along the highway for weary travellers

A resting place along the highway for weary travellers

Transporting bamboo

Transporting sugarcane

Highways serve cattle too

Highways serve cattle too

Going to the fields

Going to the fields

A bean field along the highway

A bean field along the highway

We reached Pyay finally at mid-afternoon and that allowed me to check into my hotel and have a short rest before I went out to see the town. We had been on the road for about eight hours.

A strange sour smell hit me as the door to my room was opened by the porter although I kind of got used to it after a while. I was however very pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the WiFi at the hotel worked really well! Myanmar is indeed full of surprises.

M took me to the waterfront as my first stop on my tour of Pyay. The sun was already near the horizon and people were out having drinks and snacks by the waterfront. Or maybe it was dinner for some of them. M thought that it was a romantic affair just sitting by the road, having a drink and some snacks, and watching the sun go down. I imagined myself doing all that alone and decided that I was better off staying in my room at the hotel, smelly though it might have been, and watching a few videos on YouTube while waiting till nightfall before going out for dinner.

Late afternoon at the Ayeyarwady

Late afternoon at the Ayeyarwady

There was a stall selling fried snacks and I tried some. They were made of potato, maize, lady’s finger or some other vegetable dipped in a lot of batter and then fried in oil. They did not taste half bad although I would have preferred them with a bit of light soy sauce and chilli.

The Shwesandaw Pagoda is probably the most important landmark in Pyay and this sits atop a hill in the middle of town in all its golden-ness. This pagoda looks a little like the Shwedagon Pagoda and I think it is fair to say that the Shwesandaw is the Shwedagon of Pyay. There is a lift to take people up to the top of the hill and the pagoda unless they wanted to prove their religious fervour by using the stairs instead. There was already quite a long queue by the time we arrived.

I discovered that monks had priority in the queue to use the lift. On the other hand, with so many visitors using the lift, it also meant that the monks had to leave the lift last.

Approaching the Shwesandaw Pagoda

Approaching the Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Laying out the candles for a religious ceremony

Laying out the candles for a religious ceremony

Looking petulant

Looking petulant

Waiting around

Waiting around

Thanks to the elevation of the hill on which the pagoda stands, I got a good view of the town.

View of Pyay

View of Pyay

Giant Buddha statue at a neighbouring temple

Giant Buddha statue at a neighbouring temple

The reason that M took me to the pagoda at that time however was to let me watch the sunset from the hill. It seems that visitors to Myanmar enjoy the sunrise and sunset a lot and guides make sure that at least a viewing of the sunset is provided for on every tour.

Sunset in Pyay

Sunset in Pyay

My full day in Pyay started the next morning at the river again. Some workers were loading sacks of rice onto a boat. It reminded me so much of those drama serials about Singapore’s early struggling years and in which at least one of its male characters would be involved in moving sacks of rice at one of the quays. I never thought that I would get to see this scene for real but there it was. It was hard work but it was a paying job at least for the morning for those workers in Pyay. They would have other jobs to go to in the afternoon.

Loading up the boat with rice

Loading up the boat with rice

The children played while the adults worked

The children played while the adults worked

I told M that my grandfather used to move rice at the river like them too. He was stunned. I suppose he had thought that Singapore had always been rich. But my grandfather had indeed been a coolie in Singapore after he had moved there from China. As I watched the workers before me I kept imagining my own grandfather, who had passed away before I was born, carrying sack after sack of rice at the pier along the Singapore River just to put food on the table at home.

In the present day however, it looks as if China has become a credible economic power and it is now other countries supplying the coolies to load goods for the benefit of the Chinese.

As a boatload of timber passed by on the river, M told me that they were most likely bound for China. In fact, like the oil and timber, much of Myanmar’s natural resources apparently go to China. The problem is that the money paid by China for these resources does not seem to go back to the country at all.

I do sense some sort of resentment against China in Myanmar. Indeed why would there not be resentment if China were supporting the unpopular military government of Myanmar and exploiting the country’s rich natural resources without returning anything to the people? In fact, just within the first few days of my visit in the country, there had been protests against this copper mine in Monywa operated as a joint venture between a Chinese company and a Myanmar military-backed company. The joint venture company was accused of being involved in land grabbing and environmental destruction. On 23 December, a group of villagers protested against the joint venture company’s decision to build a fence through disputed land. The police opened fire on the protestors and killed a woman.

Down the road along the riverside was a Chinese temple. I think M took me in there simply because I was Chinese and thought that I might be interested to see it. He had nothing to tell me about the temple. In fact I gave him a crash course on Chinese folk beliefs and told him who the main deity worshipped in the temple was. It was Guan Yin. Although she is a Bodhisattva, and therefore Buddhist, M had never heard of her. Guan Yin seems to be a mainly East Asian Mahayana Buddhist deity. The Buddhists in Myanmar mainly followed the Theravada school of Buddhism.

The Fortune Lotus Temple

The Fortune Lotus Temple

There were also three or four other deities worshipped alongside Guan Yin and at least two were Taoist in origin. This is a good reflection of the traditional religious belief system of the Chinese which mixes both Buddhist and Taoist elements so much so that it becomes hard to draw a clear line to differentiate between the two originally distinct religions.

M recognised a mural depicting a scene in “Journey to the West” on the temple’s exterior wall immediately. He said that he loved the story. I had always thought of the story as a very Chinese one and only enjoyed by the Chinese. It was interesting to hear a foreigner saying that he enjoyed it too.

Further down the road still along the riverside was a huge local market. We took a walk in there.

At the market in Pyay

At the market in Pyay

Selling the sticky sweet at the market

Selling the local glutinous rice sweet at the market

We passed by a stall selling a local sweet and M got the owner to give me a piece of the sweet to try. It was made of glutinous rice and covered in coconut shavings. It tasted like nian gao except that this was terribly sweet. I could have really enjoyed the product I think if only it were a lot less sweeter. I could practically feel my teeth dissolving away as I was chewing it.

Exploring the market

Exploring the market

Breakfast stall

Breakfast stall

At the market

At the fruit stall

Thriving trade in pirated DVDs

Thriving trade in pirated DVDs

Outside the market and along the street was a long row of stalls selling thanaka. I was almost tempted to buy a log and try it for myself.

Thanaka stalls

Thanaka stalls

The ubiquitous thanaka paste is made by rubbing the log on a stone. The paste is applied on the face as a beauty cream and sunscreen. M admitted that he used the paste at night although, like all men in the country, he would not be caught dead with it in public. The ladies however wear it everywhere and all the time.

The major highlight for me in Pyay was my visit to the archaeological site of Sri Ksetra situated just a couple of kilometres outside town. There laid the remains of a major Pyu city-state that had existed more than a thousand years ago. The Pyu civilisation had lasted for about a thousand years before it was destroyed by invasions from the Nanzhao kingdom in present day southern China. The Bamars then came, built Bagan and the Pyus were absorbed into their territory and culture. Burmese culture and architecture contain quite a bit of the Pyus.

Many remains of the ancient city still exist in various states of preservation for tourists to gawk at. They look somewhat like the other more recent monuments in the country except more rudimentary. What used to be a city however is now the countryside.

Curving gateway of Sri Ksetra

Curving gateway of Sri Ksetra

Bawbawgyi Pagoda

Bawbawgyi Pagoda

Bei Bei Pagoda

Bei Bei Pagoda

Inside Bei Bei Pagoda

Inside Bei Bei Pagoda

Lay Myet Hna Pagoda

Lay Myet Hna Pagoda

Inside Lay Myet Hna Pagoda

Inside Lay Myet Hna Pagoda

Fields behind the ancient city walls

Fields behind the ancient city walls

There is a simple museum housing the finds from digs in the former city-state. It was amazing looking at things that were so old and belonging to a culture that no longer exists on its own in the modern times.

M himself seemed to have come to the museum for the first time too. He was almost as busy snapping photos as I was.

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

At the Sri Ksetra Museum

Pyu inscription

Pyu inscription

One thing that the Bamars did not learn from the Pyus though was their writing system. M could not recognise the Pyu writings. It was also clear to me that the Pyu alphabet was different from the Burmese one.

Pyu Alphabet

Pyu Alphabet

Lunch was eaten downtown at a Chinese eatery again. Fortunately they had Thai food on the menu this time and I ordered a tom yum soup. It was good to have something other than Burmese or Chinese for a change. I am too accustomed to variety at home. The service was uncomfortably good as well. This guy kept insisting on filling my bowl for me although I could have done it myself.

It was time to say goodbye to M and the driver after lunch. They had at least seven hours to drive before they could reach Bagan. At the same time I was introduced to the driver N who would take me to Yangon the next day to catch my flight to Sittwe. I had to go on a long drive again the next morning with N.

Despite it supposedly being winter in Myanmar, it was really hot in the afternoon in Pyay. It was then that I realised that I had come southerly enough in the country for the seasons to not matter much if at all. I had to hide in the hotel till later in the afternoon when I could be sure that I would not be baked alive.

Pyay is a little town with a definite old world charm about it. I am glad that M had left me alone after lunch so that I could wander about and explore the town a little on my own.

General Aung San in the centre of downtown

General Aung San in the centre of downtown

The local fire station

The local fire station

Pyay train station

Pyay train station

Pyay street

Pyay street

Pyay street

Pyay street

Old buildings in Pyay

Old buildings in Pyay

Pyay street

Pyay street

Old building in Pyay

Old building in Pyay

Mamak store

Mamak store

The traditional among the westernised

The traditional among the westernised

Mix of traditional and westernised

Mix of traditional and western

Watching a boxing match on TV at the local teashop

Watching a boxing match on TV at the local teashop

The abandoned

The abandoned

Waterfront dining

Waterfront dining

Food street

Food street

Food street

Food street

BBQ stall

BBQ stall

A thriving pirated DVD business under the watchful care of the local police

A thriving pirated DVD business under the watchful care of the local police

Shopping for groceries at night

Shopping for groceries at night

There were two churches in the little downtown, one Baptist and one Catholic, and I was amazed to see them. I had probably passed by one mere sign pointing to a church thus far on this trip but had not actually seen a church building in the country before Pyay. And then there were two within such a small area. After all the resplendent Buddhist temples and monasteries I was brought to, the small and simple churches became something of a novelty for me.

Baptist church in Pyay

Baptist church in Pyay

Catholic church in Pyay

Catholic church in Pyay

Based on recommendations I had found on the internet, thanks to the hotel’s wonderful WiFi, I learnt that there was a little Korean cafe in town. I discovered its location that morning when we drove past it.

At the old school Grandma's Café

At the old school Grandma’s Café

The owner of the Grandma’s Café had worked in Kuala Lumpur previously and learnt to make Korean food there. He runs the cafe with his wife who had learnt how to make Korean food from him. I have to say that the bibimbap I had was pretty authentic and it cost me less than 2,000 kyats. The cafe also serves western fares like burgers and pasta.

I had quite a satisfying day in Pyay. I had asked to go there in order to see the remains of Sri Ksetra and a place away from the usual tourist route. My objectives were met. I was ready for my next adventure.

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