Bagan (25 – 26 December 2014)
It was a really cold morning and the wind was not helping. I always try to avoid using umbrellas but this time I had to use one to block the wind blowing at me as the boat sped across the lake towards Nyaung Shwe.
Then it suddenly turned foggy. I could see this huge cloud as we approached northwards but did not realise that it covered up everything. It was like I had entered the twilight zone.
The fog was so thick that we could barely see more than a few metres in front of us. I was getting quite worried about whether we could get back to Nyaung Shwe in one piece. Or at least die with my body still in one piece. Despite the lack of visibility the boatman persisted on. That in fact added to my worries but I was taken to town safely. He was one heck of a boatman!
An almost familiar scene played itself out at Heho Airport. This time however there was some improvement. There were announcers with boards and loudhailers to call passengers to board whenever a flight was ready for boarding. They should do this at every other airport that did not have electronic displays and PA systems.
I arrived safely at Nyaung U Airport and met my guide M. It was an hour’s drive to my hotel where I checked in before starting my sightseeing. I was amazed that my hotel was right in the middle of the archaeological zone. So much for preserving the authenticity of an important ancient site that is practically the source of national pride.
Bagan was the first kingdom to unify the areas that would later form modern Myanmar. The rise and development of Burmese language and culture also started here. In other words the current identity of the Burmese people really has its foundations in this very place. Bagan has often been compared to Angkor but having been to both I think each should be appreciated on its own merits.
The glory of Bagan ended however when the Mongols came in the 13th century and sacked the city.
M brought me to the major monuments of Bagan on my first day. The problem with visiting so many temples all in one day is that it confuses me. It is hard for me to remember precisely what I had seen and where. I think the very first monument I was taken to see was the Shwegugyi Temple. We went up to the terrace on the temple where I got a good view of the surrounding area.
According to M, Ananda Temple was the most beautiful of all the temples in Bagan. I have to say that I could not disagree with his claim. The only problem I had was that they were restoring the facade of the temple with some help from the Indians at the time of my visit and the scaffoldings affected my view of the beautiful monument.
Although the Ananda Temple was built in the early 12th century, there are 17th century galleries that led to each of the four entrances to the temple. Of course there are also 20th-21st century additions but that is a separate issue. Besides four standing Buddha statues each facing one of the cardinal directions, the temple consists of two circumambulatory passages decorate with Buddha images and carvings depicting the life of Buddha from pre-birth to his attaining nirvana. M took me through these carvings and told me the life story of Buddha in brief.
There are also paintings on the temple’s interior walls but they are in bad shape. For some reason they were whitewashed at some point in the past and it was only in recent years that they were being restored. Only some of these paintings can still be seen clearly today.
An outdoor lunch was arranged for me under a tree in a quiet part of the archaeological zone. It felt somewhat romantic but so lonely to be eating like that on my own. Since there was so much food prepared for me I asked M to share it with me. I doubt that M enjoyed his lunch very much having to eat it with me. He was actually about to walk away to join his colleagues before I asked him to share my food.
My tyranny however allowed me to find out that before 1990 there had been a village among the archaeological remains. Then in 1990, which was also the year M was born, the military government forcibly relocated the residents of that old village, now called Old Bagan, to New Bagan a few kilometres away. The official reason for the relocation involved the need to conserve the national monuments. The villagers of course know very well what the real reason was.
We continued sightseeing after lunch. Near our lunch area was the Dhammayangyi Temple. This is the largest and also the best preserved temple in all of Bagan. It is so well preserved not because the people in power had suddenly attained enlightenment but this was all thanks to history and superstition.
The temple was built by King Narathu in the 12th century. He became king only after assassinating his father and elder brother. In order to atone for his sins, he decided to build the largest temple in Bagan. Even during the building of the temple however, Narathu’s violent nature continued. In order to ensure the quality of the temple’s brickwork, he ordered that if a needle could pass between any two bricks, the bricklayer responsible for those bricks would get his hand chopped off. If he was in the mood the bricklayer might also be executed.
Perhaps it was divine justice but the temple was not completed. Narathu was assassinated by some Indians, according to Burmese chronicles, before he could do so.
It is said that a curse was laid on the temple that if any person in power should try to rebuild the temple that person would die. That definitely deterred the Myanmar authorities from doing anything to it and prevented it from suffering the same fate as all the other monuments in Bagan.
Dhammayangyi Temple definitely looked different from the other temples. It does not have a spire on top of it for one and it actually looked old. All the other temples were rebuilt or renovated, as M called it, by the authorities for the sake of turning Bagan into a premier tourist destination. I think the idea of earning merit from doing up a religious building also figure somewhere in there.
There had been plans some years ago to put the monuments of Bagan on the UNESCO world heritage list but it was next to impossible to justify the renovations that destroyed the authenticity of those monuments. I do not suppose those soldiers understood that the proper restoration of historical monuments actually entailed respecting history.
I did not enter the temple however. M said that the giant structure was now a home for bats and its interior was therefore covered with guano. In any case there was nothing very interesting to see in there except for a statue of two. Upon hearing about the guano however I accepted M’s suggestion to not go in. I did not really relish the idea of walking barefoot on poop.
The interior of Sulamani Temple was much more interesting. The structure of the temple looked pretty new but its inner walls were covered with beautiful original wall paintings.
I think the wall paintings were supposed to have been fully restored by now with UNESCO’s help but the military junta for reasons I cannot now remember chased them out before work could be completed.
The two young monks in the photo were told to pose for some photographers and I am embarrassed to say that these photographers were probably from Singapore judging from their accent. They had wanted to take some shots of the monks before a statue of Buddha. The monks were told, through a local guide at that, to put their hands together like they were praying. The whole affair just sounded so condescending and culturally insensitive that I was absolutely appalled. M pointed out that it was not a nice thing to do to the monks. And to my horror he could tell that the photographers were Singaporean. I still hope to this day that maybe they were Malaysian after all.
It was almost sunset and M arranged a lead up to it. The plan was for me to take a ride on a horse cart from Thatbyinnyu Temple, enjoy the view of the archaeological zone in the light of the setting sun on horse cart and then end up at the top of one of the temples to see the sun set over the area.
The cart driver arranged for me looked young but was obviously an experienced guide. He made it a point to stop and let me watch a procession that he told me was part of a novitiation ceremony but I did not see any young novices like I did in Innwa. What I saw though were many elaborately dressed people who looked more like they were putting on a show for the tourists or on their way to a costume party.
After all the excitement it was time to enjoy the quiet late afternoon in the dry wilderness of Bagan. Despite being such a popular tourist attraction, the area was unusually but blessedly quiet at that time. I think everyone was either preparing for dinner or on some temple waiting for the sunset. I also got to see more monuments.
The horse that pulled me was a five year old boy. I asked the driver why he had a flower on it since he was a boy. I did not quite understand the driver’s explanation but I suppose he must have thought that it would make an attractive decoration for a horse whether boy or girl.
Finding a spot to see the sunset reminded me of how popular Bagan was as a tourist destination. The temple that M had originally wanted to take me to was overrun by foreigners. He had to take me to the one next to it. In time however, the one I went up to became crowded as well, but at least I already had a spot for myself.
To be honest I was more interested in the scenery around me. The whole “the pasture is greener on the other side” mentality took hold of me and I kept wondering if I could have had a better view on the other temple.
I think the group of Brazilians sitting next to me were more excited about the whole experience than I was. I did find the sunset pretty but I was simply not that excited by it. The Brazilians clapped after the sun had disappeared below the horizon and thanked the sun for the show. I suppose that is how happy people live their lives. They appreciate wholeheartedly the simple things in life and do not allow imperfections to get to them. I will need to learn to do those things.
It was a lovely and thoughtful end to the day in Bagan.
The next morning was to be spent at Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with an elevation of 1,518 metres. Fortunately they did not arrange for me to climb the volcano. Instead, I was going to the area to see a nat shrine. The most important nats are said to live on Mount Popa.
On the way to the nat shrine, we stopped by a palm plantation. The owners of the palms make jaggery and palm wine from them. There was also a demonstration by a man of how he collected palm sap by climbing up the palm tree. It was all petty fascinating. So fascinating that an Indonesian visitor forgot his manners and unceremoniously pushed M aside so that he could get a better view of the man on the tree.
I was given less than a mouthful of palm juice to try. It was sweet and a little sour. I felt somewhat suspicious that it even tasted sour. M was given less than a mouthful of palm wine to try but he was hesitant to taste it. He gave it to me instead and I decided to taste it hoping that maybe the alcohol would kill whatever had caused the palm juice to taste sour, in case it was not supposed to be sour.
I have no idea what connection it had with the palm trees but there was also a demonstration of how they ground peanut for oil. It was nevertheless an interesting sight as it was obviously not a mechanised process.
Along the highway towards Mount Popa were a few tombs and M took the opportunity to tell me a little about how the locals treated their dead. I was a little surprised that they did not always bury their dead in cemeteries. It was also unnecessary for the Burmese people to visit their dead regularly like the Chinese. They would visit once a year only for the first three years after the deceased’s passing and then the tomb would be left all alone.
The ones we encountered were rather well made and obviously the deceased persons were from the more well to do families who could afford more concrete.
I asked M if he would be afraid travelling along a road such as this at night knowing that there were tombs there. He replied that he would never do so alone. He also advised me to shake the dust off my flip flops before I got back onto the car.
We entered the little village just below the iconic Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug that juts conspicuously hundreds of metres from the ground, and realised that it was already quite crowded at the village. It was the holiday season and people had come to worship at the temples in the area and the monastery on the top of Taung Kalat itself.
As we approached the nat shrine, vendors all along the street were selling bottles of champak flowers. These were meant to be offered to the nats according to M.
I would have thought that those were some local beverage.
Despite the crowd on the street outside, the nat shrine I went into was surprisingly quiet.
There are 37 main nats or spirits that the people of Myanmar turn to when they require supernatural help. There are of course many more nats and there seems to be one for almost everything. For example, a village is likely to have a guardian nat. There may be a nat protecting a mountain or a forest. But one of the Bagan kings had decided on an official pantheon of 37 about a thousand years ago.
People seek nats for help in almost everything, be it for a successful business or a good marriage. I do not remember seeing any bottles of champak flowers being offered at the shrine I visited but there were definitely loads of other flowers, coconuts, bananas and money. According to M, people used to offer animal heads to nats, but one day they decided that it was cruel and so started using coconuts instead. There were also quite a few bottles of wine offered to this particular nat who apparently loved to drink when he was still human.
The nats were mostly spirits of people who had died violently or maybe unjustly. I am still puzzled as to why they had become able or even willing to help people merely because of the way they had died. Maybe their untimely deaths had aroused in them more sympathy for the needy. Or maybe it had made them more needy of people’s offerings.
I wonder if a refund of the money offered will be made if the wish is not granted.
There are also nats of Hindu origin among the 37. I did notice Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant’s head, among them.
I have to admit that I felt slightly uneasy being at the shrine. I am never at total ease when I am at a place where spirits are worshipped. It was on the other hand an interesting insight into the local culture. And I was almost tempted to make a wish or two myself!
There was the option of climbing up Taung Kalat after my visit to the nat shrine. However, the idea of climbing up 777 steps did not appeal all that much to me. There were also monkeys around the area. They were macaques and I have already seen plenty of these in my lifetime.
For some reason there are frequently macaque monkeys left to roam free and even dominate and misbehave at will in religious places in Southeast Asia. No I do not really find them adorable.
Anyway I was quite happy to merely look at the start of the 777 steps. I did like the elephants very much by the way.
Since my introduction to the nat culture had ended it was time for lunch. This was at the restaurant of the the Popa Mountain Resort. This is a lavish hotel on the slopes of Mount Popa and has a wonderful view of Taung Kalat and the surrounding area.
As we were walking out of the Popa Mountain Resort to our ca, we came across a plague on the wall commemorating the opening ceremony of the resort. Some general had officiated the ceremony. M pointed out to me that the resort was in fact owned by someone in the military. That kind of left me with an unpleasant feeling. I had just given money to some Myanmar military officer. What about my hotel then? M confirmed that it was owned by another general. So I had given even more money to someone else in the Myanmar military. That was lovely.
Before leaving Mount Popa, we stopped for a while to take a look at a row of fruit stalls at the foot of the mountain. Custard apples were in season and there were plenty of them on sale.
It was back to more ancient temples after Mount Popa. There are some temples in the Minnanthu area that are no less interesting than those I had seen the day before.
The Payathonzu Temple consists of three adjoining temples and contains some of the most exquisite wall art I had seen in Bagan. Too bad I was not allowed to take pictures in the temple. I kept wondering why only this temple had the no photography rule, but decided to respect the rule especially since I had a guide who would insist that I did.
The next temple I visited however allowed photography in it. Tayoke Pyay Temple had some pretty wall paintings in it too. There were also some rather fine stucco work on its exterior.
The name of the temple, Tayoke Pyay, commemorates the king Narathihapate who is said to have fled from the Mongols. Although it was the Mongols who had come conquering, the word “Tayoke” refers to the Chinese. Narathihapate is known as Tayoke Pyay Min or “the King who Fled from the Chinese”. He was also the last Bagan king.
We took a short walk towards Minnanthu Village and along the way we saw piles of stones on either side of the road. Apparently these were to be used to pave the road but work could not start because the authorities lacked the budget to do so. Maybe if they had paid the generals a little less they could have done something for the road. I think the money I had paid to my hotel for my two-night stay there might have been enough to pave a few hundred metres of the road at least. They should start using that money on ways that actually benefit people other than themselves. And I suspect they could gain more merit spending money on real people than on rebuilding historical monuments.
The Lemyethna Temple which is just outside the village of Minnanthu is this miracle of whiteness in a sea of greens and browns in the dry landscape. The villagers still worship in the temple and take pains to maintain it. The temple was only given its new coat of whitewash just a month earlier when I visited. I poked at a corner of the blindingly white building and the whitewash started cracking a little. I told M that we needed to run.
M had told me that what the villagers had done to the temple went against all the rules of conservation. However, he said that he was not going to be the one to tell them that as the villagers might kill him.
The temple was in fact part of an ancient monastery complex. The other buildings in the complex are however in ruins now.
The wall paintings of old are however still quite well preserved in the temple.
One archaeological remain that is perhaps often overlooked in the area is this huge water tank near the Lemyethna Temple. It is big enough to be a swimming pool but people in the past used it as a water source.
M took me for a walk through Minnanthu Village. The villagers had just harvested their sesame and piles of them could be seen everywhere in the tiny village.
The villagers were apparently the same people who would allegedly kill M if he should ever find the gall to tell them to stop renovating the Lemyethna Temple. When I met them however they seemed like really lovely people. Religion can indeed change a perfect Dr Jekyll into a hideous Mr Hyde at the snap of a finger.
I did my own sightseeing after I got back to my hotel. The Aye Yar River View Resort is in fact quite a nice hotel with large airy rooms and I really had no complaint with my stay there. However I did feel a little uneasy allowing a member of the military junta to profit from my holiday.
But that was not all, for as mentioned before the hotel lies right in the middle of the archaeological zone. In fact, the hotel had claimed one ancient monument as its own and it is now a mere garden folly and modern decorations had been added to it.
Belonging to the right clique does open many doors in Myanmar. The owner of the hotel was allowed a massive plot of land in protected area, and in a prime area by the Ayeyarwady River I might add, to build his hotel on. Not only that he was allowed to absorb an ancient monument which is practically a national treasure into his property. He was even able to get gold medallist traditional musicians to provide background music at his restaurant.
The same unfortunately could not be said for the peasants in the land. While the people in power lived it up, the people not in power had to slog their guts out for a decent day’s wage. I saw a snippet of how people slogged when I took a walk by the river just outside the hotel that late afternoon.
Looking at the huts by the river reminded me of a story my Mandalay guide had told me. The King of Norway had come to Myanmar for a visit some years ago. The Myanmar government in a bid to impress removed all the residents and their huts by the river before the king went on his river cruise and replaced them with flowers. When the king found out about what had happened after he had gone home he was understandably quite upset.
I would say that my time in Bagan had been well spent, although I would have preferred having another day there. The monuments did live up to the hype except that I am still unsure of the extent of their alterations by people who did not understand conservation. I got quite worked up when I witnessed the ignorance and selfishness of people who purport to have the ability and mandate to rule and the poverty they had created. But at the same time the wealth of the country in its history and culture moved me immensely and this wealth no stupid soldier can really take away.