There are more than 4400 temples in Bagan. Even staying here for more than a week, there’s a slim chance to see all of them. While there are must-see temples and charming unpopular ones, for me the memorable ones are those where I encountered interesting people that adds character to the payas. And early on my first day in Nyaung U, Shwezigon Paya was one of those memorable payas I visited in Bagan.
Coming from an impromptu sunrise shoot, we rode to a nearby tea shop to have breakfast and talk about our itinerary for the day. I had noodle for breakfast. It was a bit oily but it was enough to fill up and energize for the rest of the morning.
Found within Nyaung U, Shwezigon Paya was the logical choice as the next temple to visit. Even with its easy proximity, Shwezigon Paya is popular for the dramatic long shadows of its elongated walkway during the morning for photographers. It is also a significant temple in Bagan, beacaus Buddhism and Nat Worship is done here side by side. Anawartha who initially constructed the temple under his rule included the 37 nat Gods to lure in people into the paya and expose them to Buddhism.
I was there during the Nadaw festival, a month long festival dedicated to the nats, where some people, especially young adults troop to the temple by night time and celebrate with songs, dances and drinks. The morning I came, the vendors were preparing early to display their wares for this busy season. A lady was there applying her Thanaka, one of morning rituals of Burmese people and makes up the distinct facial features of Burmese.
Thanaka comes from a small tree growing at the cool northern regions of Myanmar. The bark from the tree is grounded on a thanaka kyauk pyin (grinding stone) where a few drops of water would make a paste. I asked the lady if I can take her photos while she’s applying the thanaka paste and she didn’t mind. She even oriented herself to my direction while she applies it on her face. Initially she applied a thin layer of thanaka all over her face then thick layers on her cheeks. The thanaka is a natural sun block that is said to tighten the pores, control oil and has a cooling effect on the skin. Women and boys usually wear them but men working on the fields sometimes apply them too not just on their face but also on their arms and exposed skin.
While giving the lady a copy of her photo I instantly printed, her fellow vendors curiously gather to what I was doing and asked where I came from. I told them I’m from the Philippines and I recognized one guy there. He was indeed Ko ko, the same guy who helped out my friend lagalog when he came there two years ago. Somehow I was ecstatic to have seen someone familiar even having seen him for the first time. He gave me some tips on when to come back to the paya here for more photo opportunities.
Inside the Shwezagon Paya is an impressive looking stupa on a terrace surrounded by several shrines. It was pleasantly quiet that early morning with the sound of fluttering wings from the pigeons and brooms sweeping the ground filling the area.
I went back to the long walkway and noticed a couple of well dressed kids near the exit. When they saw me they started a series of dances. I was amused. I saw a lady with a baby probably on her 30s or 40s with a big smile. I asked if they were her kids and she replied with a resounding yes. I took photos of the siblings and sat on the side of the walkway to print it out. I gave the photos to the mother and she looked glad and surprised.
There was a small shanty behind her made of a banig and she settled there looking at the photo. She told me it was their home. My heart somehow felt soft and I guess the kids performing were her way for them to get money from tourist. I don’t have a lot of money with me so I asked her to pose with her family and she excitedly obliged. I took their photo and immediately gave a print to her. She showed it to her kids. I left them and she was still looking at their photos with a smile as I bid good bye.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.