Nick and I arrived in Bagan on a sleeper bus at 4:30 am, our guesthouse was only a mile away so we decided to walk. The road was dark but paved. I tripped off the edge of the road and twisted my ankle in the gravel, going down hard. Unable to remove myself from the road, nick dragged me to the sidewalk as cars passed. It quickly became clear I wasn’t walking the last half mile and nick moved me and the gear to the other side of the highway to catch a cab. At the guesthouse, it felt like the end of our trip until the local doctor confirmed there was no fracture through an x-ray.
Bagan stretches over a 16 sq mile area with over 4,000 temples and pagodas scattered. Construction began in 1044 when the king introduced Theravada Buddhism to the area. In 1287, the kingdom collapsed from the Mongol invasion. As I stayed back to rest my ankle, nick was able to explore. He said the temples were larger than Sukhothai but less detailed than Angkor Wat. Come sunset nick would return to the guesthouse, put me on the back of a motorbike, carry me up the temple stairs and enjoy sunset.
Although years of erosion, neglect, bad restorations and an earthquake (1975), the temples seemed in decent condition. The one temple I visited, Ananda Ok Kyaung, was remarkable. It was large, detailed and lacked the guadiness I’ve seen throughout SE Asia. The 4 large buddhas at each entrance were decorated with detailed paint and facing large beautiful golden doorways. Small buddhas were placed into window like carvings in the wall.
On the 8th, we decided to celebrate my birthday a day early and visit Pyinma, the small village where Gung Gung (my mother’s father) was born and raised until the age of 8. The only information I was working off of was Uncle Bob’s biography and cousin Jen’s interview.
Hong Chon Chin
POB: Pyinmar (Mandalay District), Myanmar
-He lived in Burma for 8 years before moving back to China
We hired a taxi and drove 26 miles south of Bagan, taking an hour and a half to Pyinma (Although pronounced Pyinmar, the only map we could find had it spelt Pyinma.) I wasn’t sure what to expected, to drive to a small town, get out, take a photo and head back. However, the experience I gained was unforgettable. As we drove, we passed palm farms (palm oil), sandy flats, horse and buggies, and ox carts. Our driver was constantly popping his head out of the window and asking for directions.
Eventually we arrived to a small village square with 1 local shop and 2 locals standing outside. The dirt roads were dusty and thatched homes made up the village. With google translate I was able to convey my grandfather lived in this village. They were obviously confused and directed us to the local pagoda. It later became clear that anyone returning to the village would first pray at the pagoda. We observed the small and unmaintained pagoda and enjoyed the view overlooking the Irrawaddy River. We interacted with some kids that were playing soccer with a small bamboo ball and rolling tires with sticks. As we headed back down the dirt alley to the village square, the 15 kids followed us. We looked like a parade. It was a funny sight assuming no foreigners have ever visited this village, let alone on crutches.
Now there were more people at the square as our visit was causing some camotion. I tried once more to convey that my Chinese grandfather was born here 90 years ago. Many of the elders had poor eyes and the kids read them our translations. Ah, they understood. Through google translate, cerades and our taxi driver, the locals conveyed that a few Chinese families did once live in this village, however they either all moved or died. Only 1 family remained and they lived in the neighboring village, Chauk.
My grandfather once said 400-500 people lived in his village, and only about 5 families from China. Besides anyone being Chinese this still seemed accurate. Although it felt like 30 thatched homes made up this village, it was expansive, and the locals said Pyinma consisted of hundreds.
One man said his 98 year old father may remember my family and he jumped in the taxi and we headed to his home. It was obvious that this man had never ridden in a car before as he didn’t understand, how to open the door, close the door and hit his head getting in. We arrived at a thatched home with cows and chickens. We exchanged smiles and laughs with the elderly man. I said my grandfathers name and his parents names, however he did not remember and may or may not have understood why I was there. He was bundled up and the loft smelt of urine. I wasn’t expecting to get anywhere from this the encounter as it’s been generations since my grandfather last lived here but meeting the locals and being invited into homes was a gift. After, the man took us to his daughters house just to show us off. We dropped off the man and thought we were headed back to Bagan.
10 minutes later our taxi driver said, “Out. Chinese.” We arrived in Chauk the neighboring village where we walked through a crowded market. We saw familiar sites of woman with painted faces, carrying large loads on their head and selling unique produce. Our taxi driver asked a handful of locals and all I could imagine was him asking, “I hear a Chinese family lives here. Where do they live?” Although doubtful, it was a funny. We passed the market and arrived to a small home where two women in their 50s were sitting. Their faces were painted and they spoke Burmese but there was something extremely familiar and comforting about them. They had puffy under eyes, single eyelids and plump checks. They were Chinese. Although their family moved to Burma many generations ago, they were of Chinese decent. They didn’t remember my grandfather as they would not have yet been born when he lived there. We tried to ask why Chinese families moved to Burma but couldn’t get a clear answer. After exchanging some smiles and saying thank you we headed back to Bagan.
At the end of the day nothing is certain but the probably that my grandfather too stared at the same vast Irrawaddy river and spent time at this village’s pagoda was moving. It wasn’t hard to imagine what this village looked like 90 years ago because I doubt much has changed. I think it’s important to hold onto you roots because it’s a part of who we are. It makes us unique. So I am thankful for Gung Gung’s stories of riding water buffalo, seeing snow for the first time and praying to the Buddhist banana tree gods. I wish I knew more and asked more questions but am thankful for those who did.
After a successful day, Nick and I spent our last morning in Bagan watching the sunrise. We watched from the top of Pyathada Paya, as 30 hot air balloons floated through the sky.