Thursday, March 6, 2014
Bagan in Photos
Bagan was our second stop on our Burmese vacation after Rangoon - it was once a long-standing capital, pockmarked with hundreds of temples, before (as all Burmese capitals seem to do) being abandoned and falling into disrepair, with only the temples still standing to mark the plain. Wherever the houses, public buildings, markets etc. once were, they're now gone, or at least effectively vanished from anyone who isn't an archaeologist.
We arrived in Bagan at 4am on the night bus (almost all buses are night buses in Burma - the locals seem to prefer it as it "saves time" but I hate it, simply because I can't fall asleep! I often get insomnia even in my own warm bed!) and promptly began shivering - it's cold on the plain - and arguing with taxi drivers who wanted to charge us a small fortune to go from the bus stop in Nyaung-U to our hotel in Old Bagan (in the archaeological zone). We finally agreed on a preposterous $7 US dollars for a ride of a few kilometers. It was just a bit too far to walk with our backpacks.
Because it was 4am, we were able to put our bags down, check in (but not get a room) and then rent cycles to go see the sunrise over the plain. It's also popular to take a balloon ride - shown here - but so expensive that we didn't bother. Sunrise in Bagan is a touristy affair, but thoroughly worth it.
On the first day we explored on our own - our feet got thoroughly caked in grime, as you have to remove your shoes to enter any temple, even one that is basically an archaeological site.
We enjoyed some great local food at Golden Myanmar - where you can get an assortment of curries and side dishes (the curries are usually meat, mildly spiced, a bit sour and very oily, and the side dishes are usually vegetables, fried chili flakes and chili-fish paste, with fresh greens and vegetables you can dip in a paste of chili and fermented beans).
You can enter some temples, but not others (and some you can enter, but they're so overgrown that you wouldn't want to with bare feet). Overall I expected a tropical jungle climate - you know, huge flowers, giant ferns and palms, I dunno, tigers or something - but during the dry season at least, Bagan is more like northern India - dry, dun-colored, dusty.
Applying gold leaf to Buddha images is popular with locals and tourists alike, After awhile the gilded Buddhas get a bit lumpy - and at some point they turn into golden lumpen snowmen. These guys are pretty early on in the process.
This post is full of temples&Buddhas&more temples, but every temple and Buddha looks slightly different - and some look a bit tipsy.
One thing I did appreciate was how knowledgeable and informed people were about the state of their country and government - with the opening up of the government and the influx of tourists, locals are more open to talking about their true beliefs and ideas (this used to be punishable by imprisonment or even death).
Usually in China, although most people are aware of the problems with their government - it's basically a plutocracy - you can still find some meatheads and brainwashed types happy to defend the Communist Party or the state of affairs in China. You can still find people who toe the party line, and some of them are even sincere about it!
You won't find that in Burma: either you're in the government, or you hate the government. The few people not in government who felt otherwise instead pointed to recent reforms and were of the opinion that they hoped things would continue to improve, pointedly not saying they were already satisfactory.
While in Burma we both read Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma (which I traded to a Burmese kid for a copy of Cryptonomicon after I'd finished it so I'd have something new to read) and it painted a very different picture from what we found: nobody laughed and pretended to not hear political comments (not that we made many) or openly avoided the topic: if anything, our horse cart driver in Bagan and the hotel "boy" (the owner's son, we think) among others were very open about what they thought of the state of their nation.