Monday, March 23, 2015
Where it all Bagan
The door of the plane opened with a burst of heat. On its heels came a sense of relief at being on tarmac again, for I am not a good flyer at the best of times, and had been a bit nervous to violate a maxim that had until today been etched in stone: 'Never fly third-world airlines.'
I had flown with the newest of Myamnar's nine (!) carriers for a short 90 minute hop out of the Yangon haze. The pilot seemed to be following the Irrawaddy north, and it was little consolation that his view of the river had been little better than my own. In fact, the sky over the whole country was filled with dust, and for the rest of my time in country the air never seemed to clear.
The sky above, the land below. All was a dull brown, with rainy season over two months away. The aforementioned heat was pretty miserable -- 38 to 40 degrees most afternoons -- an unfortunate reality around which my days were built. Rise early to take in a few sites, struggle through the endurance test that is lunch, nap through the afternoon, then back out for sunset. This first morning I made my way to Ananda Phato, considered the most important of Bagan's nearly 4000 temples. Over the 230-year reign of this first of Burma's many dynasties, it is thought that one new temple went up every two weeks, a rate perhaps met by the construction of present day Yangon.
Unlike the city down south, in Bagan, life moved at the pace of an ox-cart. Shops lined the corridors leading to the main Buddha halls, but their hawkers seemed too defeated by the heat to push their wares too brusquely. (The Burmese in general hadn't yet caught up with the rest of Asia in pushy sales technique.) One old woman sat on the cool earth, sucking a cheroot of a size that would impress Bob Marley. The towering statues within (and in fact all across Bagan) were newer, one pair from the 15th Century and the other from the 19th. The older ones had much kinder, more refined faces. No one is sure what happened to the original 12th century statues, but they may have been destroyed by the invading Mongols.
Bagan was infamous for 'vandalism' of a more recent sort. The 1975 earthquake did a great job in damaging the majority of temples, but it could be argued that the restoration had done greater damage in that many of the frescoes had been concreted over, and that the over 1300 stupas completely rebuilt from former piles of rubble (an admittedly admirable feat) are not necessarily historically accurate.
Vandalism of a more political sort has also occurred. To the eastern end of the plain stands a tall viewing tower that looks quite out of place, built by a former general and now completely shunned due to those same military connections. It is perhaps a subtle act of revenge for the abuses the locals have experienced here. Over the subsequent 700 years after the dynasty's fall, they had lived in and around the old temples. Yet with the restoration, they had been forcibly removed to the swampy river banks, an area infested with snakes. My guide had refused an offer to buy land here for that very reason, but was now kicking herself as land values have risen ten-fold over fifteen years.
Despite all this, Bagan is absolutely mind-blowing. It was well worth the time exploring those temples both famous and anonymous, and I was glad I had brought my torch in order to observe the subtle details of the artwork in the former, and to look out for the snakes that sometimes curl up in one of the latter to escape the heat.
Though at times I felt that I'd chosen the wrong season to come, that very heat contributed to some pleasant sights. Of a trio of sparrows squabbled in the shadow of a crumbling brick wall. Or the bamboo thatch shelters that offered shade to a cow herd, the young cuddling couples, and the foreigner enjoying a sandwich and a good book. Other foreigners made their way around the plain by rented bicycle or motor scooter, though the preferred means of transport by far was the covered horse cart, which of course, made its own mobile shade.
The rise and fall of that generator of heat helped germinate the best memories. For one sunset, I climbed atop Shwesandaw Paya, along with a few hundred other foreign tourists and monks. Most faced the river, snapping away, in particular the monks with their selfies. But the light to the east was even more spectacular, framing the temples far and near. The lazy shuffle of a bullock cart added the right touch.
A good alternative choice was to cruise the Irrawaddy up river. A few of the larger tourist cruise boats had moored while on their way to or from Mandalay. One boat had set up tables on a sand bank for sunset champagne. Amidst all this, working boats steamed upriver, the coal from their boilers adding streaks of color to the sunset. As I went along, I found myself once again comparing everything to what I have already seen on previous journeys, and wondered if I wasn't getting a bit jaded. As I tend to think of my life in Japan too as travel, I suppose I have been on the road for over twenty years. This thought made me suddenly feel weary, as I lazily rode the Irrawaddy's flow, atop water turned orange in the fading of the light.
But perhaps the best thing about Bagan was the balloons. To ride over the temples at sunrise is pure bucket-list material. The old buses we rode to the site added to the charm. These buses would also serve as balloon chasers, accompanied by young men in identical T-shirts. This was a massive operation, as each of the ten or so balloons had a team of at least a dozen in support. They cheerfully waved at us as our baskets lifted from the earth, their smiles helping me forget for a moment just how terrified I am by heights. But soon the views from 1000 meters helped sweep away even the fear. It was magical to swoop down upon a temple, or drift horizontally toward another, rising at the last minute above the poiny brick spires. The normal ride was about 45 minutes, but we wound up with 30 minutes more, having been forced into a low altitude well beneath the winds, due to the impending arrival of some government VIP at the nearby airport.
Upon landing, we were treated to champagne and croissants by our support crew. Our descent had also attracted various hawkers, who prowled about our seated circle, pressing, but never pushy. Some of them were quite young, picking up some additional cash on their school holidays. They seemed to favor T-shirts over traditional blouses, and their smiles were less the shy grins of their parents, and more the practiced, flirtatious grins of Hollywood.
Then they moved on, hard at work, going from place to place until regrouping again at Shwesandaw at day's end. I too, hard at travel, went about my own routine, which like theirs, followed the arc of the sun.
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Irish Folk"
On the nighttable: Emma Larkin, "Finding George Orwell in Burma"