Kipling said, “Burma is like no place you have ever seen.” He was talking about Bagan. A huge temple complex at the bend of the Irriwaddy River where there are over 3000 temples, some as high as a ten story building.These temples date back to the twelfth century, and cover many square miles. They poke up above the plain, some gold, some white, some a red stone. Most are completely abandoned and open.
I arrived in Bagan by steamer. It was my intention to climb one of the taller temples and go out a high window and then climb up the outside to get a good view of the plain to photograph the setting sun slapping just the temple tops.
I rented a bicycle and rode with great difficulty along the dirt paths which crisscrossed the entire plain. It was vert hot. I was sweating a good bit. I was alone, I saw no one else. There was a tall red stone temple which stood above all the others and that’s the one I headed for.
All the temples were surrounded by a square wall, about eight feet high. Each one had four gates. North, South East, and West. I leaned my bike against the wall near a gate. I had about 100 yards to cover before reaching the temple. The ground was hot and parched and full of dead prickly grass and plants. It is an important custom among Buddhists to remove your shoes when ever you enter the temple grounds. I am not a Buddhist, But, I respect their traditions. I removed my sneakers and ran across the hot ground, trying to not step on the thorny plants. I reached the temple right at one of the large ornately carved doors.
It was wide open and just inside was a large seated Buddha, eight feet high. He was covered in dust. I passed him and I could just see a stairway before it became pitch black. I found the stairway and groped up it feeling each step as I climbed upwards. I was very afraid that I might find a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Especially the poisonous ones in Burma.
I probably climbed five stories before I saw light up ahead. I came to a large doorway that lead out to a stone ledge. I Looked around and decided that I could go higher climbing the outside of the temple.
I figured I had about a half hour before the sun set. So, I climbed as fast as I could. I found a good spot. The Irriwaddi was just in back of me and in front were scores of temples, large and small. Two large white ones glistened in the distance. I decided then that I would see them tomorrow.
I looked around. Below me was a lean-to hut with a young couple busying themselves around the hut. The woman was gathering small sticks. She took them around to the front of the lean-to and started to build a fire. I watched the small puffs of white smoke rise slowly towards the trees. The husband looked on expectantly. It was dinner time. I started taking pictures of them. When all of a sudden the husband looked up and saw me and waved. I waved back and took his picture. At this point I felt a little embarrassed having been caught. So I raised my gaze to the horizon. Their were yellow parched fields with temples dotted around. In one distant field I could see goats grazing.
A noise startled me. I looked around and here came the husband with a big smile climbing up the outside of the temple. He greeted me with the Burmese word,”Mingalaba” Which means something like “Hey, How ya doing?”. I smiled back, said,”Mingalaba,” and motioned for him to sit down opposite me.
With a big red toothed grin he held up a bag of beetle nuts and offered me some. I took one and popped it in my mouth. He spoke no English and I spoke no Burmese. He pointed to himself and said “Zarni”. I told him my name was “Bill”. I then showed him my camera and pointed to the setting sun and the temples spreading out across the plain. He nodded rapidly several times that he understood my intension. He turned and looked at the sunset and pointed to the beginning of a rising bank of clouds. “Oh Shit” I said aloud. It wasn’t looking good for my sunset shot.
I heard a squeal, and his wife came around the ledge. Her dark eyes were creased in a broad smile. She came directly to her husband and sat up close. He put his arms around her and they both looked at me. So, I took their picture. She said her name was Nanda.
They talked to each other for a few seconds and smiling started to pantomime that they wanted me to have dinner with them. I Glanced at the clouds blocking the sun. I realized that I wouldn’t get my shot, so I happily agreed to dinner.
The climb down was effortless. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance in the dark. We popped out into the fading light of day, We went to the nearest gate where I gladly put my sneakers back on. They really felt good. Then we walked towards their lean-to. The fire was just red coals and Nanda immediately left us to gather some more wood.
Zarni motioned for me to go inside and sit down on the bench / bed which ran the full width of the lean-to. There was nothing else in the room except the small fire and a metal grill propped up over the coals. There was no chair. The floor was dirt and the walls were open. A light breeze moved through the room giving some relief to the hot dead air. Underneath the bed was the pantry.
Nanda returned with an armload of small sticks. She got the fire going again. Zarni and I sat on the bed and watched her. He was so excited at having me as a guest that he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was laughing. The two of them talked excitedly back and forth and a decision was made to show me something. Zarni quickly reached under the bed and pulled out a beautiful bone handled carving knife.
He held it out to me with both hands for me to examine. I took it gently and looked at it carefully and told him in english what a fine knife it was, all the while turning it over in my hands. They were obviously pleased at my reaction. I smiled and said excitedly, “Wait until you see what I have.” I reached behind me and pulled out my buck knife. Not just any old buck, this one I bought twenty years ago in Santa Fe. I was just another tourist walking by the indian vendors at the Palace when I saw this knife laid out next to a bunch of silver necklaces. The handle was made of turquoise, mother of pearl and silver. I bought it right then and have rarely been without it.
I handed it to Zarni and he held it up for Nanda to see. She came over and the two of them admired the knife. They were chattering back an forth while pointing to the different stones. I reached over and opened up the blade. What a great reaction, It would have been a superb commercial for Buck.
Nanda reached under the bed and pulled out their one pan and several rather used looking cans. She put the pan on the grate and dug rice out of one can and brown stew looking stuff out of the other and put them into the pan. Then she brought out the dinner ware. There only two plates and their two forks. She set them down in the sand next to the grate and used one of the forks to stir.
Zarni and I sat there carefully watching her. She squatted next to the grate and very confidently watched over our dinner.
It was dark out side now. I am always amazed how quickly it gets dark the nearer you get to the equator. Dinner was ready. Nanda had put the food on the plates. She handed me my plate first, with the clean fork. After she handed Zarni his plate she squatted on the floor facing us.
Here’s the test, they both sat motionless watching as I took my first bite. Dam, it was good! I let out a woop and laughed and told them how really good it was. Far better than I was expecting. They were so pleased. I felt a real feeling of Love for these two. They had nothing and they shared it. They were pure, uncorrupted. Lao Zu would refer to them as the Uncarved Block.
After a very quiet dinner Nanda took the plates and put them into the pan. Then turned and spoke to me. I think she was thanking me for being their dinner guest. I smiled and put my hands together in front of me and gave her a polite bow.
I had to think about leaving. But, first I had to find two gifts. I dug around in my camera bag and pulled out a beautiful fan I had been carrying around since China. It was a medium size fan made of white plastic, but moulded to look just like an ancient ivory fan. It was quite beautiful.
When I handed it to her, her eyes got real big and she squealed with delight. Wow, that was a home run. Now what did I have for Zarni? I dug back in to the bag and couldn’t find anything that seemed special. Then I found two very nice ball point pens. I pulled them out and handed them to Zarni. He seemed very pleased. Then he got down and looked on the shelf under the bed and came up with a giant grin and handed me a roll of film. Not in a box but with the tab sticking out the end. I was flabbergasted. And I let him know how pleased I was.
I pointed outside and indicated it was time for me to go. The three of us walked outside. I was glad to see the moon was full. I have to ride about two miles, and I didn’t pay much attention on the way here. They gathered around me and pressed me to come back for another visit. I said I would. We shook hands vigorously, lots of smiles. I felt really good. It was an unforgettable dinner.
I got on my bike and wobbled off into the dark.
— Bill Stanhope