Artists in Bagan: Part I

The events described in this post occurred in December 2016. 

A cloud of clay-colored dust flowed behind us like a cape. Sam turned right on the unmarked packed-earth street, leading our duo into a quiet neighborhood. We had nowhere in particular to be. On our first day in Bagan, we were riding for the sake of the ride. For a pittance we had rented motorbikes, a both convenient and necessary way to explore the thousands of temples that sprouted across the scrubby plains of Bagan like dandelions in a field back home. 

We cruised down the street at idling speed, seeing no one. That is, until two boys on bicycles lurched out from behind a rattan fence. “Hellooooooo!” one of them sing-songed as he pedaled furiously to catch up with us. The other boy raced behind, a big grin revealing a missing front tooth. Sam and I slowed to a stop. Having caught their quarry, the boys suddenly became shy, straddling their bikes on the opposite side of the street from us. Sam, ever the effervescent traveler, waved and returned their earlier bold greeting. The boys waved back, smiling and speaking softly in their own language. 

“Hello, what’s your name?” Sam smiled back, nodding encouragement when the boys responded with giggles. Before they could respond, a man walked out of a house next to where we had parked. The bolder boy’s face was a mirror of the man’s. 

“Hello! This is my son,” the man greeted us warmly in perfect English. He introduced himself as Aungkolatt and insisted that we come into his home, where his wife would serve us tea and snacks. Sam and I were still atop our idling motorbikes. We looked at each other. “Mau?” Do you want? I asked. “Boleh,” sure, she shrugged. Our second shared language, Bahasa Indonesia, proved a very convenient tool. We killed the motors, kicked the stands down, pocketed our keys on their obtrusive chains from the rental company, and followed Aungkolatt inside. 

Posing from left to right: Sam Geary (fellow Fulbright ETA and the best traveling companion ever), artist Aungkolatt, and me.

As was customary in most parts of the region, we slid off our shoes (flip flops, to American motorcyclists’ chagrin) at the threshold. The front room was tiled, and an intricately carved wooden table was soon laden with steaming tea and spicy, crunchy snacks. Aungkolatt motioned for us to sit and join him around the table. He grinned and began with pleasantries. What do you think of Myanmar? How long have you been in Bagan? What do you think of the food? 

Sam and I effused about our experience so far. We had only been in the country a few days and arrived in Bagan that very morning, but we were both smitten. The reserved, uninterested locals who paid us no mind was a blessed relief from the B-grade celebrity status we endured in Indonesia. We told him as such, and he laughed. He then shared with us that he was an artist, but there was a delay in opening his gallery so all of his paintings were at home, and perhaps would we like to see? 

I froze. Years prior I had a similar experience in Bali, where I was invited into a family home only to be subjected to a sales pitch. I did buy art from the cunning family in Bali, which I still have and enjoy, but the gouge on my shoestring budget was a pain that I have not forgotten. Sitting in this front room, I felt duped. Here I thought we were going to have an “authentic” experience (a word that makes me gag but I recognize its usage in my mind), but instead it was a money grab at us tourists-turned-ATM. I was more irked about this turn of events than Sam, though we both responded pleasantly and agreed to see his art. 

With that, he jumped up and whisked into a back room, from which he returned with rolls and rolls of canvas. He knew his audience; backpackers have no space to buy their paintings pre-stretched. He unfurled them, one after another, on the floor before us. They were all the same size, roughly two feet long and one foot tall, and all depicted the scenery of Bagan in dreamy watercolor. 

“Which ones do you like?” he gestured for us to come closer and take a look. We did, and were quickly absorbed in looking through the frozen scenes we had been zipping through all day. Sam and I each took a pile of paintings, going through them and pulling out ones we liked, then going through that shortlist until we both had one to take home. Aungkolatt asked for $25 each, a very reasonable price. We didn’t try to barter with the artist in his home. 

I smiled despite myself, initial bristling indignation replaced with pleasure at the painting I selected. It featured three Buddhist monks in saffron robes, walking through the ancient city gates of Bagan on their way to collect alms in the dawn light. The colors he used both soothed and excited me, rich gold for the dirt, verdant green leaves on the trees, and gentle hues of blue and purple in the sky. What I particularly liked was that I had been through that gateway myself. Having experienced the subject of the painting, I felt an instant connection. 

Sam chose a painting of fishermen on boats on a river, which we had yet to see. I forget now how it came about, but Aungkolatt offered to show us the spot where he painted Sam’s piece. Fueled by tea and the excitement of a budding story, we eagerly agreed and returned to our motorbikes. The boys from earlier were still playing outside, riding in circles on their own bikes. We asked them to take a photo of us with Aungkolatt in front of his house. His son did the job with an expert eye.

The Irrawaddy River, the greatest river in Myanmar, brings water and life to Myanmar. However, in the dry season, the river dries up considerably. Our motorbikes are parked in the shade of the stupa to keep the black leather seats cool under the scorching sun.

Moment captured, the three of us mounted our metal steeds and sped off in the direction from which Sam and I had originally come. We followed Aungkolatt back to the paved road, through some intersections, and finally turned off the main road onto a dirt track hidden by scrubby bushes. The tires bounced and wrestled across the rougher terrain, winding serpent-like through thickets of foliage until at last we reached the edge of the river. 

Any hopes of dipping our toes in for refreshment were out of the question, however, as the riverbank lay the length of a football field below us. It was the dry season, and the water had receded greatly. I imagine in the rainy season the entire basin fills, but for now, the river remained a distant reality. We parked next to a stupa and wandered around, taking photos while our artist-turned-guide shared more about local life. Curiosity satisfied, we returned to our bikes. It was then that Aungkolatt proposed another stop on our itinerary: were we perchance interested in seeing where he painted most of his pieces featuring temples growing out of the trees, the iconic image of Bagan? Of course we were interested! 

We wound our way back through the twisting dirt track, back to the road, and followed our leader in the direction of town. 

The temple he brought us to was deserted. Even with gobs of tourists swarming around Bagan, there were plenty of remote temples to go around so anyone could feel like Indiana Jane. We dismounted and followed as Aungkolatt casually climbed up the crumbling bricks. UNESCO would cringe to know what easy access everyone has to these structures, able to be climbed upon at a whim. For our purposes, we were thankful for the easy access and amazing views, though I am concerned that my behavior is part of the degradation of this most magical place. 

In any case, we climbed up and up, finally perching on the highest ledge our sandaled feet could comfortably walk on. We sat down, admiring the view after the exertion of the mini-climb while Aungkolatt pointed out the nearby temples, adding names to their stoic white and red structures. Cows grazed in clearings amongst the temples, and wires ran hodgepodge across the scene to remind us of what century we were in. Steep hills rippled on the horizon on all sides, like a protective shield around this wonder. 

View from atop Aungkolatt’s temple, where he frequently comes to paint the surroundings.

We lingered and chatted with Aungkolatt, asking him to teach us Burmese. His English was at a superior level, so he was able to help us with the most useful phrase, “How do you say ___?” Knowing this phrase in any language gives you a great tool for your own learning among the locals, and Sam and I tucked this golden sentence into our brains for use later. 

Finally, as the sun began its descent and our thirst made our feet itch, we climbed down and prepared to say goodbye. Once again, Aungkolatt surprised us with another invitation. Did we have dinner plans that evening, and if not, would we care to join him and some of his friends for a picnic? Sam and I exchanged glances. Aungkolatt has been most trustworthy and helpful so far, did we dare accept his offer to meet up with strangers in the dark? We conferred in Indonesian, then agreed to accept his offer. I got his cell number (a friendly taxi driver had bought a SIM card for me in Yangon. He knew I would be questioned harshly and ultimately ripped off if I did it myself. Just one more example of the unexpected friendliness I found in Myanmar among otherwise largely reserved people.) and off we went our separate ways, knowing that we’d see each other again soon. 

Continue reading at Artists in Bagan: Part II (will be posted next week).

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