Monday, 13 February 2012


30th Jan - 1st Feb 2012

View over Old Bagan
Bagan, previously the Burmese capital city from 11th to 13th centuries, was originally known as Pyugan, then Pukam after which the British called it Pagan and finally the military ‘junta’ switched it to Bagan. The barbaric Imperial Jap Army might have called it Nippan for all I know. One problem in this country is deciphering the original, intermediate and new place names. It gets most confusing because the names change depending on their context and who you are speaking to or what books you read. For example, Mrs Michael Aris ( aka Aung San Suu Khi, the popular local politician ) still refers to the country as ‘Burma’ not ‘Myanmar’ because she believes that the military junta had no authority or legitimacy to change all these names whatever the historical rights and wrongs. 
The ‘Royal’ capital of this country switched location several times. Over the past 1000 years it shuttled between Bagan ( Pagan ), Ava ( now Inwa ), Taungoo, Mokesebo ( now Shwebo ), Sagaing, Amarapura and finally Mandalay before the British deposed the Burman monarchy in 1885 and established the new capital in Rangoon ( now Yangon ), and the latest government has moved it yet again to a new city called Nay Pyi Taw somewhere up country but which is out of bounds to foreigners. It is all a bit muddling. I shall refer to Bagan as Bagan. I didn’t know it as anything else.
On the east bank of the Irrawaddy river, about 90 miles south of Mandalay, Bagan now consists of three seperate areas;  Old Bagan, New Bagan to the south and  Nyaung U to the north. It is remarkable because the kings between the 10th and 13th centuries went on a fanatical non-stop Buddhist temple/stupa/monastery building binge. In an area of 42 square km ( 32 square miles ) over 5000 temples were constructed of varying size and opulence. These were built of brick and stone and some marble whereas the palaces and houses were made of wood and have as a consequence disappeared. Following a big earthquake in 1975 many of these temples were either completely flattened or damaged.
There has been a vigorous programme of reconstruction since and there are now 3122 standing and the figure is growing! There has been some international ‘heritage‘ criticism of the standard of this rebuilding. Some of the reconstructed sites are already looking a bit dilapidated and some have not been very tastefully done. Whatever your viewpoint the scale of this over-the-top ‘temple-fest‘ is quite incredible. Wherever you look there are stupas and pagodas sticking up, most within 100 yards of each other. On a conducted tour of the area, to which I was subjected, it is adviseable to wear easily removable footwear. The shoes on/off ( and socks please ) routine here goes into overdrive. The view ( above ) gives a poor impression of the landscape which is crowded with temple and stupas.

I was booked into a very pleasant hotel, the Thanzin Garden ( reception area right ). Bagan area now has lots of hotels and restaurants due to an increasing tourist trade and is, as a consequence, bumping up it’s prices considerably. It has a rather captive market. A beer here costs twice as much as in Rangoon. The internet works, but very slowly and sometimes various ‘servers’ cannot be accessed. My AOL system seems often to be blocked. Some experts know how to download and use ‘proxy’ servers which gets around the problem but I have failed to manage this. I expect any schoolchild could do it.

Left: My rustic looking but very comfortable 'chalet' style room.

I will not even begin to describe individually the loads of temples, stupas, monasteries and squillions of Buddhas I was guided to see but I think this was the biggest ( right ), the one with the gold stupa, the Schwezigon Paya ( that ‘schwe’ word again ). They all have names, often including ‘schwe’, but I soon gave up trying to record what they are. If you are that interested buy a copy of the Lonely Planet.

....and this ( left ) was taken of another which I took because I thought it made a decent photograph. Talking of photographs, I have been amazed at the enormous size, and probably cost, of many of the cameras and lenses that so many tourists lug around with them. Some of their equipment looks as if it requires wheels. I expect they might produce marvellous photos but the hassle and effort of carrying these hefty and easily breakable ( and stealable ) bits of kit around without a team of porters, must be considerable. I use a little point and shoot thing which fits in my pocket and does the job. I mean, most people only want photos as ‘souvenirs’ with which to bore rigid their friends on return home, or put in a blog. I doubt so many require the quality of image necessary to fill the pages of National Geographic. 
Some tourists travel around the area by pony and trap, some by oxcart, some by bicycle and some, the idle ones like me, by car. Some structures you can climb up via crumbling stonework, some you can’t. Some have rooms and steps inside, some are solid. Right: A troop of the oxcart brigade.

The Buddhas come in a variety of sizes and are made of differing materials. Where a rectangular temple houses up to four ‘big’ Buddhas ( one on each side ) they normally have lots, hundreds in some cases, of alcoves holding smaller Buddhas. Following on are a selected few.
Left: The girl here was deputed by Mr Tun to show me around for a bit while, I suspect, he went off for a smoke break. She was very pleasant and as you can see wore rather a heavy layer of the thanakha make-up.

This ( right ) was one of the larger ones. It reminds me of someone; other than Buddha I mean. Bernie; you looking?

and ( left ) this one’s mouth intriguingly changed from a straight line close up, to a broad smile as you walked back from it. I am now aware of the difference between Indian, Burmese and Chinese Buddhas. I’m sure this knowledge will come in handy one day.

There was never a shortage of collection boxes. It was explained that each box is to collect money for a different purpose, ie. electricity, building, monks’ food, cleaning, security, rat traps etc. etc. Not whisky and wild women one supposes. Who is responsible for collecting and distributing this money was not made clear. An honest and sober senior monk perhaps.
I resisted the temptation to put the rat on the desk in front of this little Buddha before which several people were fervently praying. I was getting a touch bored by now.
I spent the day being escorted around and was told that to cover the whole site would take about three days! To be honest I’d seen more than enough blasted temples etc. before lunch. It was taking a lot of effort to appear interested in the elaborate descriptions of Buddhist buildings, history and ‘legends’ given by my most enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Mr Tun, plus the non-stop tedious shoes on/off routine.
I was by now more than well aware that most Burmese are devoutly religious ( superstitious one might say ) when it comes to the Buddhist faith, but I gathered quickly, and this was confirmed by Mr Tun, that they have another equally and obsessively observed religion; English Premier League Football. Mr Tun is an avid Chelsea supporter. It is expected that if you come from England you have a comprehensive knowledge of all the Premier League teams and their goings on. I have had to start making notes on this because I am somewhat ignorant in this direction. It is simply not accepted that you are not a devout supporter of one English team or another and know all the players in it. Almost on a par with the Lord Buddha are David Beckham, Alex Ferguson and, curiously, Alan Shearer plus some others of whom I hadn't heard. They, the Burmese I have met who speak English, wax lyrical about English footy teams and all support one team or another. They are much more knowledgeable than me. The main 'sects' of Burmese Footy worship seem to centre around Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. I mentioned Newcastle..."Aah, Alan Shearer very good" is the inevitable response ( hasn't he retired?; but then so has Mr Buddha ).
For reasons I never really fathomed, the soles of Buddha’s feet play an important role. These ‘feet’ ( left ) were ancient ( 11th century ) paintings on one of the ceilings. Maybe this is the connection with football. I never thought to ask.
By the time we got to the ‘fabulous sunset viewing’ from the summit of the final pagoda or temple or whatever it was ( right ), I was suffering from a serious temple/pagoda overdose and just wanted to go home for a strong drink. I could not imagine spending three days here, unless you are a fanatical temple viewer. Frankly, once you’ve seen a couple you’ve more or less seen ‘em all. I was absolutely ‘stupa’d’, pagoda’d and well nigh Buddha’d by the end of the day which was marked by climbing up this precipitous temple amongst loads of other camera wielding tourists to take a photo of the area looking towards the Irrawaddy at aforementioned sunset ( photo at top ).

Left: Tourists wielding their big bodies and long lenses at sunset.

Right: It was a steep climb down and, having got to the top, there was a big queue in front. It was almost dark when I got to the bottom. They will need to build a few more temples of equal height, and they probably will, if the tourist market booms further.

The weather here, especially in the afternoon, was bazzing hot. I believe that all of the central plain of Burma becomes a semi-desert with temperatures soring to the mid 40s ( degrees C that is ) in March/April before the monsoon rains come.
The other thing for which this area is renowned is it’s cottage industry for lacquerware. Some of it looks very pretty but I have no way of knowing the quality. The fact that Bagan is a tourist magnet has led to an overpopulation of temple-side stalls flogging the stuff, plus other tat and junk. I have a horrible fear that these will soon take on Indian proportions but, as yet, the Burmese are far too polite to be aggressive hawkers and touts. The problem is that due to the meagre wages people earn on the land or doing hard manual labour, they only have to sell a tiny amount of ‘souvenirs’ to generous tourists to get more money for comparatively little effort. 
Onwards tomorrow. Up the Irrawaddy by boat to Mandalay.

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