Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Myanmar: Bagan

Bagan, December 11th - 13th {notes from journal}

They say you can't point your finger in any direction without pointing at a temple. The ride to Bagan was worth the pain -- it's awesome (a word that has lost the 'pow' of its meaning thanks to teenagers, myself included... I was, longer ago than I like to admit, one of them).

We're staying in Nyaung Oo, a nice little town with narrow roads, guesthouses, and restaurants geared to tourists... the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages is the soundtrack, along with the buzz and chitter of nature, amidst neighborhoods where little boys play games in the street using the boughs of trees as royal batons, where grandmothers take toddlers for walks, and -- if you look in the right place at the right time -- pigs the size of European automobiles are fed in someone's front yard.

It's a drastic change from Mandalay, where there is little in the way of 'tourist stuff'. As I've previously written, it's hard to see the presence of tourism in Mandalay. It's nice to get away from that for sure -- and, I've found, despite my usual desire to drop into a place devoid of 'tourist stuff', it's nice to have a little familiar comfort. In Myanmar, tourism isn't the mammoth machine it is in other SE Asian countries. Perhaps Nyaung Oo is an unusual place because it has things foreigners like, such as ambiance, candle-lit tables, establishments that cater to a romantic mood and end-of-the-day-relaxation. There are souvenir shops and guides for hire -- Bagan is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar with its thousands of pahto (temples/shrines) and zedi (Buddhist stupas).

The pahto and zedis date from the 10th - 14th centuries and dot the landscape in an endless procession of spires and gold to the horizon. A history that reads like a fairy tale, the temples and stupas of Bagan started like this: In 1044, a man named Anawrahta ascended to the throne of Bagan. At this time, Myanmar was in a transition from Hindu to Buddist beliefs. A monk was sent by the Mon king of Thaton (named Manuha) to Bagan to convert King Anawrahta to Buddhism. So successful was the monk that King Anawrahta asked Manuha to give him sacred texts and relics to fill his kingdom. The request was denied but King Anawrahta was determined -- he sent an army to Thaton to take them by force: scriptures, even monks and scholars, were brought back to Bagan. It was then that he began building the monuments to house his newly acquired possessions. Successors continued to build monuments over time but the start of Bagan's decline at the end of the 13th century marked the coming end to what the Burmese had deemed 'the first Burmese empire'. There is dispute over the decline of Bagan: was it due to Kublai Khan's Mongol invasion? Was it internal struggle between the Mon, Shan, and Bamar people of Burma? Some of the temples were destroyed or looted and by 1300, the city's growth halted. From the 14th - 18th centuries, the area was considered 'spooky' with bandits and Nats about. The Burmese only moved back to Bagan after the British established themselves there to protect the area. (I will credit Lonely Planet, here, for the substance of this information).

Finally the oppressive gray cloud cover (which to me, up until this day, has been symbolic of the government's rule of the people) has broken and departed. The sun is out in azure skies and we rode out into the day on bicycles to explore Bagan. The first temple we visited, in Nyaung Oo, is a huge glittering stupa in an enormous temple complex. Perhaps Marco Polo was referring to this place, called The Shwezigon Paya, when he wrote, "... they do form one of the finest sites in the world, so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lighted up by the sun they shine most brilliantly..."

We passed through a gauntlet of souvenir vendors, women who pin handmade butterflies to your shirt, "A present," they tell you, hoping (no, expecting) you will return to their shop when you leave. Others gave us presents as well, more butterflies, asking for a 'present' in return, i.e. 'small money'. Some want shampoo or lip balm. Still others approached us with folded paper containing gem stones -- rubies, sapphires, emeralds. "A good price," they promised -- but we don't know anything about gems and politely declined. The stones come from the North and East and establish a healthy 'underground economy' along with opium, heroin, and methamphetamines (while drug trafficking is punishable by death in Myanmar, there are those who believe the government looks the other way from a healthy and wealthy drug trade).

At one temple, we saw an American man buy gems proffered in a scrap of paper (so casually, are they stored). He told the salesman, "I'll take them all for $100.00." What a sale! What a windfall! What a bargain! That's a huge amount of money for a Burmese (many people working in the tourism industry, good jobs, are paid a mere $8.00 - $10.00 per month). A huge amount of money for the salesman, but probably a fraction of the cost of the actual worth in the Western world assuming their authenticity). The American stooped down and extracted a crisp 100 dollar bill from the money belt wrapped around his ankle in the shade of a quiet temple. We saw this man and his companion several times later throughout the day with a caravan of gem-hawkers on his tail, following him in a trail of dust.

At the temples, adults and children sell laquerware (Bagan is famous for laquerware), bracelets, paintings, puppets, bells, pottery, opium pipes and scales (and opium if you want it), and all sorts of interesting things. They are as zealous as the gem-hawkers following the American and if they make a sale, they are likely to close up shop and take the rest of the day off... We bought several traditional Burmese paintings (hand painted Buddhist motifs on fabric) and with cash in hand, the man we bought them from was 'done' for the day. He probably made enough money to take the rest of the week off, judging by the 'salaries' of $8 and $10.00 a month for hotel staff.

But back to the monuments -- they are everywhere. Looking into the distance from the top of a temple reveals a landscape full of more monuments, impossible to comprehend, their domes and spires rising above the treeline in every direction. Riding a bicycle, you slowly pass them on your left, on your right... they are behind you and in front of you. It's amazing.

Bagan has been compared, by other travelers, to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in terms of being 'a wonder of the world'. While there are some similarities in some of the architectural styles, they are different places. Bagan is less 'ruined' than Angkor... it's still active, more in tact, although the monuments have been pillaged at times in history: pieces have been absconded by Europeans for sale to museums or for personal collections (this is true of Angkor Wat, too). Inside, some of the temples are plain as opposed to the opulence of their exterior ornament, but some possess enormous golden Buddhas the size of tall buildings... large enough to make men below appear as tiny as figurines in a spirit house. For wannabe archaeologists... people who, like me, fell in love with the romanticized image of the trade from, of all things, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', both Bagan and Angkor Wat are truly 'wonders of the world'. Each with their own merit, both astounding. There is really no point in comparing the two, I feel, because they are unique cultural relics from differing civilizations. See them both is what I'm saying...

Our second day in Bagan we hired a horse drawn carriage and visited out-of-the-way temples, places with less people and a light sort of whipping wind in a vast landscape with red, rocky dirt and scrubby trees that made me feel as if I'd discovered a previously unknown place. Inside dim interiors, more Buddhas (I think Myanmar must be the home to the largest number of Buddhas in the world), faded painting on crumbling walls, the coolness of concrete upon the feet. Like all Buddhist temples everywhere, these must be tread upon by bare feet only. Shoes are left outside -- in Myanmar, though, shoes must be removed to walk upon the entire grounds of the temple whereas in other places in Asia, it is only at the doorway of the temple itself where shoes must be left behind.

Clip-clopping down the streets of Bagan and Nyaung Oo, we noticed people weeding the grass in the road's median, people painting fences (always seafoam green), people repainting the black and white stripes on street curbs, people trimming bushes and generally 'beautifying' the place. Our horse cart driver told us, upon inquiry, that everyone is getting the city ready because the government visits in 3 days. I'd read about this: forced labor. It's not that the people are so full of pride for their government officials that they want to make it nice for them, it's because they are forced to do it -- free labor, inspections, and what punishment if they chose to disobey? Prison. There are many who believe people should not visit Myanmar because of this practice. Roads and other tourism infrastructure are the result of forced labor (and in bus rides throughout the country, we always saw road work, people hauling stones in baskets on their heads -- many of them children).

I don't mean to sound crass, but the effect of the painting and weeding and collection of litter makes for a clean and well maintained city. But why can't the government employ people to do this work? Especially since so many struggle for jobs, for money. But the government is the military and they rule the country without concept of fairness and dignity, but on principles of discipline and rigid order and martial law. The ruling government was never elected. They took power through a military coup decades ago and in the 90s, in an uncharacteristic allowance of an election, they refused the results and held captive the rightful victor for six years. Some say the election was staged to suss out the opposition -- the generals who run Myanmar don't stand for objection to their rule and imprison their "enemies". Even the telling of joke can get you 7 years in a forced labor camp, such is the story of Par Par Lay, a comedian with a troupe known as The Moustache Brothers (we saw them in Mandalay -- they are constantly watched by the government and are blacklisted from performing anywhere outside of their home).

When we entered Bagan, a giant red sign was posted along the road that read as such:

The People's Desire
- Oppose thse relying on external elements, acting like stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state
- Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

There are others that state:

- Only when there is discipline will there be progress
- Anyone who is riotous, destructive, and unruly is our enemy
- The Tatmadaw (armed forces) shall never betray the national cause

Before coming to Myanmar, I thought there would be a hugely visible military presence, but I was surprised not to see one. There are, of course, people under cover. There are spies who question locals about their conversations with foreigners. People don't say much against the government because they never know who might turn them in. There are checkpoints along roads where people have their ID cards checked by government officials (they didn't seem to bother with us foreigners). Posted on the shelters at the checkpoints are signs that read, "All respect. All suspect." I saw this sign posted at the airport as well.

It's much different for a foreigner in Myanmar than a Burmese. I never felt threatened or ill-at-ease, but it's there -- the oppression of a bad government... it's there in the paint on fences and curbs, in the signs with draconian messages, the checkpoints and the silence of free speech.


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