Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bagan Monastery

I didn't want to go back to Nuang U, knowing they had no power, and I didn't really want to go romping about the temples during the mid day period. I asked my horse cart driver where else I could go to take photos. He suggested a nearby monastery and I gladly accepted his suggestion. Despite seeing more than a lifetime's supply of monks at the Ananda festival, I figured I could get some great shots of monks at their studies. I didn't see a monk anywhere near the place. Presumably they were all at the festival.

Of course what I did see was vendors. Vendors seem to inhabit every corner of Bagan and this monastery was no exception. No sooner had I crawled off the horse cart when three teens ran up to show me their selection of shirts for sale. They were lovely hand-made shirts made from a fabric that looked like course linen. It always breaks my heart to say no to them because I know how few sales they make. Furthermore, their crafts are nearly always delightful and really are wonderful souvenirs. I begged off the girls and made my way into the monastery.

The floors of ancient structure were worn smooth by generations of bare monk feet. The teak walls, banisters and beams were intricately carved with patterns and monkey, bird and floral motifs. Those areas exposed to decades of relentless sun were badly worn, the grain distinctly raised, though the carvings were still quite apparent.

The interior was fairly typical in that it consisted of a few large open areas. The monks would typically gather around the Buddha image in the center or go off to the various corners to study. I found it curious that the builders had taken the time to carve some of the crossbeams supporting the ceiling but the vertical timbers remained untouched.

In one area I saw several lacquered and carved caskets whose purpose remains a mystery.

Back outside, I decided to wander around in case there were other things to see. I knew I was near the river and noticed a large staircase platform, no doubt leading to the bank. As I started toward it, my teenage vendors spotted me and rushed over to see if now I was ready to buy a shirt. "No. Thank you. I don't need a shirt." I walked down to the river and did a double take when I discovered the old paddle wheel steamboat (see Baking in Nuang U). The girls followed me all the way down and waited for my return. "Aren't you afraid you're going to miss a customer?" I asked them. They assured me that I was the only customer today and that they had no sales and only wanted small money. Sigh. They continued their pitch as we climbed the stairs.
Once I had convinced them that I really didn't want a shirt, they decided that I should buy one for a family member. I assured them I was an orphan. Wife? Girlfriend? I told them I was single but I was looking for a girlfriend. "You want to be my girlfriend?" I said with a grin and wagging my eyebrows for effect. They laughed but one of them quickly found the chink in my armor.

"OK! I be girlfriend for you. You buy shirt and give to me!" she squealed in delight. Hoisted by my own petard!
This carried on until we were back to the monastery. I told them that I did want souvenirs but I had to travel light and that I didn't want to buy so many things. I explained that I took a lot of photos and at one point I likened it to souvenirs that were free. My "girlfriend" lit up at this and said she would give me a good souvenir. She picked up a small stone from the ground and solemnly handed it to me. "Ah, this is very valuable, yes?" I asked. She nodded and the other two laughed.

They wouldn't give up with the shirts no matter what I did. Finally, I decided I'd throw them a low-ball offer, five dollars. They'd started the negotiations at fifteen or twenty dollars but figured they'd settle for ten. There was no way they'd go for five. When I announced my offer they all grinned and nodded in agreement. Oh well, I guess I could use one more shirt. I settled on a black short-sleeve shirt that looked like it would do well in a hot climate. It turned out that I was to wear that shirt a lot during my journeys. It was one of the best purchases I'd made on the trip.

When I got back to the horse cart, I had a couple more vendors waiting to pounce. Presumably my driver had been gossiping to the local gem dealers. He had seen me looking at a ruby at our last location and assumed that I was in the market for a gem. I had turned down the previous guy and did so again to these fellows. I know nothing about gems and knew that I was going to get ripped off no matter what. It's much better to just walk away. They continued with their sales pitch while I made arguments against the purchase. They had two cut and polished stones. "I don't know if that rock is valuable" I insisted. They assured me that it really was valuable. I remembered what I had in my pocket and pulled it out. "I'll trade you this valuable stone for that valuable stone." They looked at the stone given to me earlier, looked at me and then looked at each other. "Is valuable. Sure!" They gave me a lopsided smile and continued to extol the virtues of the rubies.

One of them took the ruby and held it against a large flat rock on the ground. He hefted a grapefruit size rock and smashed it down on the ruby. It was no delicate knock but a full-out bash. The ruby pulverized part of the rock but was unblemished. OK, even not knowing anything about gems, I was impressed. They had started out at around a hundred and fifty bucks for both gems, but were down to fifty by now. "Ten bucks" I said as I started to put my gear in the horse cart. They dropped to thirty-five then thirty then twenty-five then twenty. Maybe I could have gotten it for fifteen, but twenty seemed like a reasonable price for a couple of rubies even if I was getting ripped off. I wrapped them in a piece of paper and stashed it in my camera bag. A few weeks later I showed them to a dealer in Laos. He said they were worth about fifty bucks there. Hey, not bad!

Just before I left, another lone tourist arrived. "Listen," I told him. "When the girls show up to sell you a shirt, offer to trade this for one." I handed him the stone the girl had given me. He looked at me quizzically. "Trust me, you'll get a huge laugh from them."

See full size images here.

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