Bagan: Burma’s Ancient City in Modern Myanmar

Thirteen centuries ago, the ancient kingdom of Pagan was the first to unify what we now know as Burma/Myanmar. At the kingdom’s height, the capital of Pagan was prosperous, deeply religious and a nexus of trade and learning. From 1044-1287, the wealthy citizens and their rulers built over 10,000 religious monuments in an area of only 104 square kilometers. The capital’s reputation for piety was matched only by its reputation for education. Monks and students came from across the Pagan kingdom, India, Ceylon and modern-day Cambodia to study everything: grammar, gods, alchemy and law.  The influx of religions and cultures made Pagan a rich and bountiful city. It brought about a uniquely unorthodox and tolerant melting pot of religion.

Bagan's Ancient Temples (photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

While various and diverse Buddhist sects represented the majority, Hindu sects and native animist (nat) traditions flourished. Temples featured Hindi gods besides Buddha, nat deities appearing in unexpected places. Rather than divide, Pagan welcomed and grew from its cultural diversity. By the beginning of the 14th century however, repeat invasions from the Mongol empire had weakened the city beyond repair. The mighty kingdom of Pagan, its religious monuments and sites of learning soon fell into disrepair in harsh Bagan plains.

Today, 2200 of the original 10,000 remain in various states of authenticity and disrepair. Even staying a whole week in Bagan or its neighbouring villages will leave you plenty to explore on your next trip. Nyaung Oo offers the most reasonably priced accommodation as well as some beautiful temples of its own.  It’s also the local hub for boats down the river, has an excellent market and a variety of cheap eats. The hotels within Old Bagan’s walls are ostentatiously luxurious built into fancy forts and replica temples with world-class restaurants and golf courses. As everywhere else in Myanmar, there are no ATMs. Bring pristine dollar bills and know that the exchange rate will be significantly worse than in the major cities. If you can, change to kip before coming the Bagan.

With so many temples to explore, hiring bicycles or a horse drawn cart is the favored mode of transportation. Most horse-drawn carriage drivers have their preferred circuit hitting most of the larger temples. If you are heading out by bicycle, buy a map, plenty of water and sunscreen.  Along the roadside are clay pots of sterilized water that are a lifesaver in the heat. If you prefer bottled water, bring a day’s worth, as shops are scare. Take a head-torch if you plan to see sunrise or sunset over the temples… or if you decide to go on a highly recommended evening search or the locally brewed palm toddy!

Traditional Palm Toddy (photo credits: Peter Newbigin)

The larger temples have been a pilgrimage, and now tourist, destination for years. Market stalls surround them and, while impressive, are anything but peaceful. Over-eager venders stalk the tourists with remarkable determination that gets increasing maddening as the day heats up. While it’s certainly worth seeing one or two of the larger temples, the smaller temples are altogether a much nicer and more memorable experience. With so many temples, it’s possible to travel for kilometers without seeing another tourist, to contemplate quietly in total solitude, and wonder at the ancient architecture undisturbed.  Often, the temple guardians mysteriously appear to guide you for a small donation unlocking doors to reveal immaculately preserved frescos or cool inner sanctuaries. Most of the smaller temples are unlit and it’s worth having a flashlight to see the frescos in detail. The peace that surrounds these ancient monuments is unmistakable and welcome. Exploring a deserted, crumbling temple is thrilling.  If there are stairs or a lookout, climb up to a high vantage point to marvel at the plains, which are literally scattered with temples as far as the eye can see. It’s breathtaking.

Any historian or architect will enjoy seeing the change in architectural styles. With cultural influence as far afield as Kerala, India, many of the temples are unique displays of piety. As time progressed, the architectural style became more defined, resulting in the stupa and temple structure we commonly see today. At the larger temples, book sellers will happily sell you a variety of books on the subject, making for some fascinating, if often comically pompous, reading. Myanmar’s government is well aware of Bagan’s tourist draw and applied for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990’s.  Since the 1700’s, however, the government and local citizens had been carrying out hasty and inaccurate restoration jobs. In an area prone to earthquakes, damaged buildings were retrofitted with concrete, smeared over white wash, and restored with historically inaccurate architectural designs. For the board of UNESCO World Heritage, these restorations detracted so severely from the area, that they rejected Myanmar’s bid.

The poor restorations and denial of UNESCO World Heritage status aren’t the only problems to plague Bagan. For hundreds of years, villages had sprung up in the shadow of the temples. Some made their living caring for the temples, artists drew inspiration from the frescos and stories and children grew up scrambling amongst the ruins. The villages’ interaction with the temples was also detrimental as some pillaged the temples for building materials or items to sell to tourists. In the 90’s, the government forcefully evicted the inhabitants of ‘Old’ Bagan. Some say that the villagers had been given ample notice, but remained in their homes until the final hour in hope of a reprieve. Others say the villagers were given less than 24 hours notice to leave their homes and livelihoods. Whichever the case, the Myanmar army lived up to its notoriety, and the eviction was swift and brutal. The villagers were forcibly resettled a few miles up the road in New Bagan, a soulless town with two roads and little or no employment possibilities.  The government brought in tourist infrastructure, and a hefty $10 entrance fee to Old Bagan. Again, it’s impossible to get a straight answer about where the money goes. Does it go to restoration of the temples? Does it provide assistance for the re-settled families? Or does it go straight into the pockets of a government infamous for human rights abuses?

Bagan's ancient temples (photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

It is up to you- the visitor- to make an important ethical choice. Admittedly, the temples within Old Bagan’s ancient walls are among the most impressive.  You’ve come all this way; why not see the best Bagan has to offer? But visiting Old Bagan and paying the entrance fees condones the government and its actions. Sure, your new facebook profile picture will draw Indiana Jones comparisons from your envious friends. But at what hidden cost? With an army and government condemned for using rape, mock executions and torture as a means of controlling its citizens, that picture may have come at the cost of someone’s life, or at the very least, their ability to support their family. There are literally hundreds of temples outside of Old Bagan, many in their original condition. My question to you is, “Why risk supporting torture? Human rights activist Ginetta Sagan once said, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” So speak with your feet, don’t pay the fee, and find a private temple where you can respect Bagan as a place of acceptance, tolerance and peace, not oppression and torture.

And while we are on the topic of ethical decisions, remember that Bagan is still an incredibly important religious site for many. Modest dress is de rigueur in Myanmar where both men and women still wear the traditional variations on a sarong. For locals and foreigners alike, it is particularly important to cover up while in the temples so definitely no bare shoulders, stomachs or legs. If cycling in 40°C heat in a long skirt sounds like a nightmare, bring along a shawl or sarong so you can cover up in the temples and villages. Respect local culture by not climbing over the monuments, taking offensive or comic pictures of deities, or eating/drinking inside the temples. While it is against local custom to criticize, be aware that failing to be respectful will cause offense and resentment.

If you’ve had your fill of ancient temples or fancy a seriously bizarre daytrip, take a bus or taxi to Mt. Popa. Journey times vary with the mode of transportation but plan on an early rise regardless. Built on what appears to be a precariously balanced boulder on a mountain, Mt. Popa is a colourful pilgrimage site. Enjoy a fresh sugar cane juice or a hearty meal in the town below in preparation for the climb to the temple. Climbing up the hundreds of steps, you’ll pass shops filled with religious artifacts, bananas and children’s toys, crowds of devout pilgrims and deities with their hands stuffed with prayerful kip. The view is superb; the monkeys are everywhere, and the tottering old grannies making their slow way to the top rather admirable. Once atop the temple, join the crowds having a picnic in the temple grounds or simply enjoy the view.

Gazing up at Mt. Popa (photo credits: Peter Newbigin)

Whether you come to pray, to indulge in a love of ancient history, to marvel at the ingenuity of our ancestors, or to play explorer, Bagan is quite simply amazing. Enjoy the solitude, peace, adventure, history and beauty that pervade the place. Take hundreds of pictures, smother on the sunscreen, and be astounded. Bagan is an amazing place, almost beyond words. Its 2200 remaining temples are powerful monuments to an ancient civilization that flourished into a nest of learning and tolerance sadly missing in present day.

Burmese New Year: Happy Thingyan 2556!

The New Year is often seen as a time for new beginnings, gathering of friends, merriment and good tidings. In England, of course, it’s a night to shiver in sparkly dresses and watch the sky come to life with fireworks. Life grounds to a standstill as revellers take to the streets, pubs and parties. Families come together and celebrate. Resolutions are made, and sometimes, maybe, kept. In England, we’re mid-way through 2012. In Myanmar/Burma, however, the New Year has only just begun. It’s the year 2556 and for Myanmar/Burma, it’s hopefully a year of growth and change. With the world looking anxiously on, the government appears to be making steps towards a much brighter future. It’s far too little, and far too late, but it’s a start. Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, means ‘transit’ and experiencing it seems the perfect reflection of the country’s political changes.

Flooded streets in front of the

Flooded streets in front of the palace

Thingyan dates back millennia to a Buddhist version of a Hindi myth. After losing a wager to the King of Devas, the King of Brahmas was decapitated. His body, with the addition of an elephant’s head, became Ganesha. His own head was too powerful to be allowed to fall or rise. Six or seven devi princesses were charged with protecting the head, with the head changing guardian annually, at Thingyan. The first day, now set to April 13, is a religious day of prayer and offering. The first drops of water come down gently; sprinkled on idols in a purifying ritual. Monks and nuns offer blessings and young monks begin their tutelage.

For the next four days, however, the peace is abruptly shattered. Water is suddenly everywhere. For the previous week, racks of waterproof casings for phones and cameras have sprung up like the traditional padauk flowers. Many years ago, water was gently sprinkled on the heads of elders on the final day, cleansing and blessing them for the coming year. Now, it’s soaking wet carnage. The entire country, it seems, arms themselves with buckets, hoses, saucepans, cups, water guns…. It’s impossible to walk down the street without getting ‘cleansed’ repeatedly. In Mandalay, the main stages line the palace walls, and fire-hoses suck water from the moats to spray the crowds. In the blazing heat, tipping ice water on someone seems almost kind, but more mischievous sorts keep it on late into the night. Surprisingly, it all stays in good spirits. Thingyan is known for its practical jokes. From hiding chillies in the traditional mont lone yeibaw to rubbing soot on the faces of pranksters, everyone is fair game. And, for once, so is the government! Keep an eye out for elaborately decorated floats hosting politically and socially inspired rappers. Taking on everything from HIV/AIDS to corruption, it’s the public’s chance to take to the microphone and poetically vent.

Thingyan in Myanmar/Burma

Staying dry is a nearly impossible (and quite frankly, pointless!) challenge. All it takes is one soaking and you may as well throw up your soggy hands and accept you’re in for another wet day. Dress appropriately in fast drying clothes and avoid anything white or clinging. While Thailand’s Songkram may have a reputation for tourists in bikinis and boardies, Myanmar is far far more conservative. Cover up! Women in particular will only be more if a target if they don’t. Carry only what you need with you and keep it in a waterproof container, particularly your camera. That water in the buckets? If it’s icy, you’re in luck! Otherwise, it’s probably not purified and filled to the brim with the grimy reasons you’re told not to drink the water. Make sure you check regularly for any open cuts and keep them disinfected. If you do want to stay dry…. Forget it! While most people are prepared to accept ‘no’, the streets are flooded, hoses are spraying at random, and there’s always the one special person who just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Join in, have fun and, remember, you’ll soon dry!

All of the country, concerts are held. Whether watching traditional dancing or partying to the ubiquitous Myanmar cover bands (everything from ACDC to Justin Bieber), the entire population comes out to celebrate! The crush of humanity can become dangerous as people block thoroughfares with motorbikes and cars. Given what’s known of their human rights record, it’s a pleasant surprise to see the Myanmar army make a conscious effort to protect women and children. Pulling them out of the crush, they are greeted by a kindly army medic, water, and a steady supply of home-made smelling salts. If you are braving some of the more crowded areas, be prepared for it to get dangerously crowded. Stick together and have a designated meeting space. Ironically, given the amount of water, it’s easy to get dehydrated. An elderly man wishing to discuss ABBA and David Cameron advised me to ‘drink beer. The carbohydrates will keep you hydrated.’ But rehydration salts, readily available in Myanmar’s pharmacies, are the more standard means.

Getting blessed on the road at Thingyan

By mid-morning, some have reached a level of nearly unbelievable drunkenness. Every year, drunkenness causes death and injury, earning water festivals around South East Asia the sobering epithet ‘week of death’. Drunk and dangerous driving is the cause of most of the deaths. Most buses, trains and boats won’t run during Thingyan (something to bear in mind if you are planning to travel). But if you are on the roads, be careful. Young people race around the city on bikes and standing in truck beds, getting soaked by their eager roadside companions. Unless you are a competent driver, now is not the time to learn to negotiate a foot of water with another barrage from above! Just going for a walk is perhaps one of the best ways to watch the festivities; from the ancient and sacred to rock music and madness!

From the young to the old, everyone enjoys a good wet dance!

Children are in a state of near delirious happiness for a week. Free sugary sweets and normally sensible parents encouraging them to spray complete strangers with hoses must be a dream come true! Families come together to hand out traditional food and, like in England, make New Year’s resolutions. The country is filled with laughter and goodwill. It’s remarkable how involved everyone is. In this day and age, how often do we all stop, take time to wish well to complete strangers, dance in the street, and make steps towards a brighter future? Not often enough, I say. So roll on, Thingyan. We all need more buckets of water and joy in our lives.