Monday, February 11, 2008

Bagan - lost in a scenic past

Our Yangon Airways flight from Yangon (Rangoon) touched down early in the morning on the tiny airstrip of the Nyaung Oo Airport. We were collected by a representative of our chosen travel agent in Myanmar and whisked away to our hotel just inside the crumbling ancient walls of Old Bagan. The ride through the flat, lightly forested jungle was a bit eerie with glimpses of the tips of temples and shrines with the orange glow of early morning sunlight on them.

We had finally arrived to a place we had been dreaming of visiting for most of five years.
Bagan has some 2,500 temples, pagodas, and shrines spread over a 16 square mile forested area. Many of the temples date back to the golden era of Bagan in the third century. During this period, more than 13,000 temples, shrines, and other religious structures were built. Over time, the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River has washed away about a third of Bagan, and with the ravages of wars, looters, and earthquakes we have what remains today.
Many of the structures have been repaired, some even rebuilt, and there are even a few new small shrines being erected in the name of influential, probably military, families.

The Ananda Temple (background), soaring 51 meters into the air, was completed in 1091 A.D. by King Kyanzittha and is modeled after the legendary Nandamula cave in the Himalayas. It received its golden gilding in 1990 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of its construction. Contained within the temple are four great statues of the Buddhas representing the four ages. Kakusandha faces north, Konagamana faces east, Kassapa faces south, and Guatama, the most recent Buddha, faces west. We made daily visits to the Ananda and I'm wishing I were there today.

Dhammayangyi is the largest temple in Bagan and is a spectacular sight especially at sunset.

Traveling around the dusty dirt paths was done easiest by horse cart.

Hot air ballooning is probably a great way to see the area. We however, did not pay the $600+ dollars for a 40 minute ride at dawn or sunset. Ballooning over Bagan was run by a French company and I'm not sure how much of the money they collected went to the local people.

Unesco has tried unsuccessfully to designate Bagan as a World Heritage Site in recent years. Unfortunately the Military Regime has haphazardly restored some of the ancient stupas, temples and buildings, ignoring the original architectural styles. There are however many structures which remain relatively unscathed by the military reconstruction.

The decision to visit Bagan was not an easy one. We've all heard the reasons why we shouldn't go.
Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to go. The government has used forced labour to reconstruct and build tourist-related sights and services, and international tourism can be seen as a stamp of approval to the ruling Military junta.

But aside from the visual splendors of the place, there are genuine reasons for visiting. By going, we could help to support the local merchants and artists, and keep a vital link open between the Burmese people and the rest of the world. Human-rights abuses are less likely to happen in areas where the international community is present, and all the local people we encountered wanted us there.

Our trip to Bagan was in the spring of 2007, before the troubles of last September. We do plan to return some time soon.

The people we met in Bagan were some of the friendliest we've met in all of Southeast Asia; poor by many standards but still unspoiled by the ugly side of tourism.

Bagan, Myanmar time

**Memories: Wandering on dusty paths, magnificent temples and shrines, warm friendly people everywhere, and coconut rice.

**Visits: February 2007


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