We knew we wanted to visit Myanmar (Burma) ever since August 2015, when we sat around a table with Christy & Paul Penley in Colorado Springs and learned about all that was unfolding in the newly opened country. However, our contacts there were limited and so we tentatively only reserved 9 days in the country and planned to take it day by day to see what would unfold. The trip to Myanmar would follow our time in Thailand and we thought we’d be flying from Bangkok to Yangon. However, after more research on the history and areas of Myanmar, we decided that it would be especially important for us to visit the ancient city of Bagan.
This would change our original plan of flying into Yangon and set us back a bit as our flight from Bangkok to Mandalay would mean and overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, then a flight to Mandalay, then finally a three-hour bus ride to Bagan. It would be our most extensive and demanding travel in some weeks and thankfully, our hosts in Bangkok, the Tuggy family, welcomed us back for a short two night stay, which broke up our trip and allowed us to find the much-needed energy for the next chapter.
We hailed a taxi in Bangkok and set out for the airport, found the line to Mandalay, got our tickets and boarded our plane. The flight was short, about 2 hours. We landed and took an hour bus ride into downtown Mandalay. Then hopped on a short bus for the final three-hour stretch to Bagan. It was through the windows on that bus that we would catch our first glimpse of Myanmar.
We noticed that the infrastructure was simple and the poverty was striking, yet not offensive. The people were extremely friendly and welcomed us with big smiles (which may also have been a response to Craig’s grandiose mustache). Both men and women were dressed in traditional longyi and many of the women had their hair up and a wore yellow paint on their faces, which we later learned was made from tree bark. We quickly learned the “traditional” Burmese greeting, mingalaba, in hopes that the locals would sense our desire to connect with them. During one of our first interactions at a roadside stand we were well taken care of by three Burmese women who served us our first meal. It was spicy, simple and delicious.
A little history about Bagan, Myanmar. Officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar but also known as Burma, has an ancient history involving the intertwining influence of both Indian, China and Thailand. And, although historians don’t always agree on the original history, many agree that the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people, were potentially the earliest inhabitants of Burma. They were heavily influenced by trade with India, importing Buddhism as well as other cultural, architectural and political concepts. It is said that in the 1050s, King Anawrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom and that the kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Pagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao (Southern China).
It is also said, that Bagan was visited by the Buddha himself during his lifetime, and it was here that he allegedly pronounced that a great kingdom would arise. Buddhism stuck and Theravāda Buddhism (literally “school of the elder monks”) is the branch of Buddhism that is practiced in Myanmar. It uses the teaching of the Pāli Canon, a collection of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts, thought to have been written directly by the Gautama Buddha himself, composed in North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE. The text is believed to contain everything needed to show the path to nirvāna (or heaven).
During the Kingdom of Pagan’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in about a 40 mile radius, with 2200 still standing.
In its hay day, the city was a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies, specializing in Pali scholarship in grammar and philosophical-psychological studies as well as works in a variety of languages on grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and legal studies.
After the collapse of the Pagan Empire, the city underwent centuries of changes and has maintained a humble presence as a religious pilgrimage, as well as, a one of the countries main historical tourist destinations with an average of over 300,000 international tourists each year.
It was late in the evening when we arrived to our May Kha Lar guesthouse, ($50USD per night for 2 rooms) where we planned to stay for one night, as that was all we could afford. It would be a short visit but we planned to make the most of our time. We woke about 8am, ate a lovely breakfast, went across the street and rented two electric scooters for $8 each and began to make our way towards the Pagodas. We didn’t have an exact route planned but rather followed our noses.
The Pagodas, traditionally a funerary monument containing Buddha associated relics, were usually built to honor a notable person, or bring lasting remembrance to an important family. They sprinkled along the roadside and fields, allowing us to stop frequently, exploring the in’s and out’s of the structures.
Originally, the bell-shaped brick structures were set on a square or octagonal base, and rose to a gentle peak gilded with metal (usually gold) and jeweled tops with a sacred parasol-shaped decoration called “hti”. Over time, however, the structures have lost much of their facades and most have weaned down to the original brick. All were four-sided with an opening on each side and each side had a large gold leaf painted statue of Buddha in a crossed leg sitting position. Some of the Pagodas had a tunnel that connected between the four sides and some of them didn’t. Some were old ruins and some recently renovated, like the Shwesandaw Pagoda which was built in 1057 by King Anawrahta. It has a bell tower which rises from two octagonal bases and is topped with five square terraces. This was the first monument in Bagan to feature stairways leading from the square bottom terraces to the round base of the pagoda itself and this pagoda supposedly enshrines a Buddha hair relic brought back from southern Burma.
After stopping off for a quick-lunch and seeing more Pagodas than we could count, we decide to seek out some of the famous temples. We learned the temples also known as “gu” were inspired by the rock caves of Buddhist. Different than the surrounding pagodas, the temples were larger multi-storied buildings and were places of public worships that included rich murals with sacred shrines and images that could be worshipped. All of them slightly different in design but most built as square or oblong structure with outer terraces representing Mount Meru, the symbolic home of the gods, and surrounded by a thick wall to separate its realm of the sacred from the outside world.
History and architecture aside, as a person who questions the motives of empire and any really establishment, religious or not, I’ll admit it was hard to make sense of it all. It seemed very focused on wealth and prosperity, which seemed quite the paradox in this noticeably impoverished land. For instance, the outer courtyards were filled with vendors, making their honest yet demanding plea for passerby’s to buy their products. Inside the Temples the walls were lined with multiple offering boxes and filled with cold hard cash and later we would learn about temples in the southern region that were made of solid gold, jewels and gems. As an ascetic however, I did appreciate the offerings of simple objects such as a lit candle or oil lamp, burning incense, flowers, food, fruit, water or drinks.
While at one of the Pagodas a man was selling his traditional/religious art. He spoke english and seemed open to us asking him questions. He helped us understand that the material offerings were meant to nurture generosity and virtue, as well as, deepening one’s commitment to the Buddha’s path. After seeing all of the full offerings (money boxes) it became apparent that nurturing generosity and virtue were held in high regard for the Burmese people. But, after seeing all of the poverty around us, the skeptic in me, wondered where exactly all that money went. None the less, I knew I didn’t have the whole picture so I shelved my need to seek justice and resolved to seek out more information about what the Buddhist leadership might do with these offerings.
We made our way to one of the most famous Temples, called Ananda. Said to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period.
Legend says that there were 8 monks who arrived one day to the palace begging for alms. They told the king that once, they had lived in the Nandamula Cave temple in the Himalayas. The King was fascinated by the tales and invited the monks to return to his palace. The monks with their meditative powers, showed the king the mythical landscape of the places they had been. King Kyanzittha was overwhelmed by the sight and had a desire for building a temple which would be cool inside in the middle of the hot Bagan plains.
After the construction of the temple, the king executed the architects just to make the style of the temple so unique. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter the Temple because it was closed for a private guest tour. Word on the street was that Bono was there. So, we hung out in the parking lot, which also doubled as a place for vendors to sell their wears.
A young woman approached me. I wasn’t really interested in buying her clothing but felt compelled to talk with her. She had fantastic english and as we sat there for the next hour, she shared her story of growing up in a little village along a river and losing everything in Cyclone Koman. With no government infrastructure to deal with the devastation she along with her large family fled to Bagan to find work. For months they drifted, homeless and shelterless and then finally found work/shelter guarding one of the temples. She and her sisters are no longer in school but rather they sell clothing at the temples to support their family. As we spoke I was taken by the thought that just five years ago this conversation would have never even been possible as the border to Myanmar had only just opened to the outside world. I was taken by her spirit and zest for life, her initiative to learn english by engaging with foreigners and I encouraged her to consider seeking opportunities to use her language skills to advocate for her people. Only 19, she smiled and thanked me for the words of encouragement. Swindled or not, I decided to use my tiny pocket-book to purchase her clothing. She suggested a traditional longyi and allowed me time to leaf through all of her choices. We exchanged e-mails before leaving and honestly, I haven’t stopped thinking of her.
As we turned to go, I saw Craig standing at the side of a truck filled, actually jam-packed with people, both young and old, waiting for who know what, in the hot sun. I realized as I approached the truck that they were absolutely enthralled with his epic mustache. They all sat staring at him, giggling with sheer delight for a good fifteen minutes as he stood by smiling, allowing them this simple pleasure.
From the Ananda temple we made our way to the Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sunset (which in and of itself is a good enough reason to visit Bagan). On the way, Craig’s electric scooter got a flat tire and we had to seek help from a local vender who happened to have a cell phone for us to borrow. We called the lady who rented us a bike and with in the hour her husband rode up and exchanged our bike for his. Luckly, the bike debacle didn’t cause to much of a set back and we arrived about an hour before sunset.
We could see the Dhammayangy Temple, also known as the Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’, in the distance and decided to take the off-road trails to get to it. This massive structure was built by the cruel King Narathu in the 12 century and was said to be cursed because of his ruthless reign.
We started to make our way but found that the sand trails were over-cumbersome for our mopeds and began to doubt our decision. We revved our engines and tried to push through but finally after a comical and somewhat dangerous drive we finally found our way back to a main road. We were covered in sand, sweat and our belly’s hurt from laughter. We never made it over to the Dhammayangy Temple. Instead, we stuck the road and made our way back to the Shwesandaw. We climbed up to the top and although it was crowded with tourists the view was spectacular. We didn’t end up getting any photos of the actual sunset but we did get one of this little darling, the sun glowing on her skin.
After the sunset, we made our way back towards our guesthouse for dinner but found on our way that my bike battery was running low. We struggled to make our way but the battery didn’t last the whole way. Graciana, who was riding on the back of my bike, ended up having to use both of her legs to aggressively push us along. We were laughing hysterically and I’m sure quite the site and as we neared a busier part of town we began to hear cheers and laughter. Her fortitude and my steering finally found us pulled up in front of the moped rental where we exchanged the bike for our final hour in Bagan.
Our last stop was the Black Bamboo restaurant, which combined a wonderful array of French and Burmese cuisine. It was a real treat to be sure and offered a bit of a respite from our sandy, sweaty day.
After dinner, we dropped of the bikes, picked up our luggage, which the guesthouse had been minding, and made our way to the bus stop for a long night of travel. We were exhausted but so pleased as to all that had transpired over the past twenty-four hours.
We still didn’t have answers to some of our questions but we left Bagan with more understanding of the common people and our hearts were full.