Myanmar has had a rather turbulent history since British colonial rule ended at the close of WWII. Beginning in 1947, the country enjoyed a time of independence and democratic government. It lasted only 15 years because in 1962 a military coup resulted in the establishment of a socialist state. This in turn ignited major protests such as the one in July of 1962 during which more than 100 Rangoon University students were killed. General unrest has continued sporadically until today.
To me personally, this country’s name will always be Burma, but in 1989 its new government declared that the country would henceforth be called Myanmar. Many time-honored city names were changed also. So Rangoon, for example, is now Yangon. The very city I had flown halfway around the world to visit was for centuries known as Pagan. Today it is called Bagan!
My China Airlines flight required 15 hours for the first leg to Shanghai and then five additional hours on to Yangon. I finally landed at Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar until 2006. As I exited the plane, beads of sweat had already begun to trickle down my back. I had been warned that the temperatures here were oppressive. The airport itself was typical of other third world countries, yet as I was deplaning, I noticed a tall, gilded building that seemed out of place in light of what I had read about the country. This structure was juxtaposed against other tattered and unkept buildings more of the type that I had expected to see.
Once in the city, I noticed many of the buildings are weathered and run down. In fact, the only well-kept buildings that I saw were government offices, Buddhist monasteries, and Temples. Buildings that once represented British occupation were fenced off with barbed-wire and left exposed and to crumble away at the mercy of the elements.
Another thing I noticed was the lack of English directions on almost every sign. Virtually all of the places that I have visited over my years of travel have had at least a few signs in English – even the impoverished countries of West Africa. In fact, when the signs in other countries are lacking English you can usually make a pretty good guess by looking closely at the Phoenician letters of the local language, but that practice definitely will not work in Myanmar because the letters here more closely resemble those you would find in Thailand or Laos.
Vehicles ply along the roadways on the right side of the road – just like we do. Many of the vehicles, however, sport a steering wheel on the right! Why? Because an eccentric general decided one day in 1970 to abandon the British Colonial direction of traffic (driving on the left side) in favor of the European practice. Unfortunately, his decree did nothing to relocate the steering wheels on existing cars. At the same time, however, Myanmar persists in using the other imperial forms of measurement. It is one of only three countries in the entire world that still employs the imperial units of measure. Which are the other two? Liberia and the United States.
I do not usually write about how I got to a particular place, but honestly this trip presented more challenges than I had faced since my several trips to central and Western Africa. My journey to the city with the most temples of any city in the world included an inter-Burma flight from Yangon to Bagan. This short flight was to be on something called Air Mandalay Ltd – which does not have a ticket office in North America. I did manage to find this tiny airline’s website, but there was no provision on it for buying a ticket. There was, however, an email address. After several email exchanges, I was able to book a non-electronic PAPER ticket that would be collected COD on my arrival in Yangon. There was no provision to pay for the ticket via credit card over the internet. Since the airline’s office would be closed for the weekend when I arrived after working hours on a Friday night, my new email friend agreed to drop off my “paper” ticket at my hotel. Despite this person’s kindness and willingness to help, I had some genuine reservations about this plan. I had plenty of time crossing the Pacific to wonder if I would sever get to Bagan. To my utter amazement, when I arrived at the hotel in Yangon, my hand-written, paper ticket was waiting for me at the front desk.
The next morning at 7:30 a.m. I made the one-hour flight to Bagan, which is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River about 250 miles north of Yangon. The city is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, and ruins in the world. Approximately 2,200 of these have survived, with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. Some archaeologists suggest that originally this city may have boasted as many as 10,000 of these structures. The shape and construction of each is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part having a specific spiritual meaning.
Often this site is compared with Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I once read this analogy: The ruins at Angkor Wat are like a banquet where the food is presented in spectacular servings but there is long wait in-between items; at Bagan, on the other hand, the food arrives in small bite-size servings, with the next course always close at hand. Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO does not include it on its list of World Heritage Sites because some of its temples were rebuilt in an un-historic manner. Nonetheless, the site is arguably, at least to me, as impressive as Angkor Wat. It is a dry, vast, open landscape dominated entirely by the religious symbols of Buddhism.
Many of the Bagan temples are shaped like inverted ice cream cones. One of the things that make the temples look so romantic is the process of graceful aging. The area is subject to occasional “micro twisters” that whirl loose dust particles at high velocity. This unusual weather-related phenomenon has served to erode many of the structures by peeling off much the stucco coating to reveal the underlying brick blocks. Consequently, the structures so affected often appear as rusty, reddish, and sometimes golden brown when illuminated by the sun.
The three basic building components of a typical Bagan temple are stupa (the actual temple itself – a dome-shaped structure), a block base, and a vestibule. The simplest structure starts with a stupa that resembles a chess piece. Often it contains a tiny piece of the remains of some relic of the Buddha. Some stupas have a single niche housing its Buddha icon, which can be viewed by the devotee from the outside. Over time, some of these stupas have evolved into more elaborate structures as additional niches were introduced. A few of these simple original gourd-shaped stupas are now large, complex structures that do not remotely resemble their original footprint.
Marco Polo once described Bagan as “one of the finest sights in the world.” Despite centuries of neglect, looting, erosion and regular earthquakes (the most recent, in August 2016, damaging 400 temples), this temple-studded plain remains a remarkably impressive and unforgettable place to visit. Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most visited tourist attractions.
Late one afternoon, my guide took me a lookout point on the flat roof atop one of the larger temples. The view from here, facing the setting sun, was a truly magnificent sight. There were scores of temples visible, some close in, others more distance. The area in which they stood was almost completely flat. The shadows created by the fading sun danced across my field of my vision. I counted at least 60 temples dotting the landscape in front of me.
Another morning, on advice from the Lonely Planet tour book, I put in a wake-up call for one hour before sun-up. I padded down to the basement of my hotel and found the bicycle renting station and set off, with a flashlight and a bottle of water, in the pitch dark, to watch the sunrise over hundreds of pagodas. It was only a couple of kilometers to the viewing spot recommended by the hotel manager – he said it provided a “world-class” view. The road was unpaved, of course, and very rough. After a few minutes I began to discern other flashlights materializing out of the darkness. Several other early risers had found the location. They were gathered on a slightly elevated rise that provided a commanding view out over a flat area that extended for a couple of miles or more. As the sun began to appear on the horizon I realized, perhaps in a way I had not previously, the magnitude of this place. Most tourists actually enter and examine at close range fewer than 20 or so of these structures during a typical visit, so witnessing the collective mass of them at a distance at one time is truly a sight to behold.
Yes, it is very hot here. Yes, the ruling military council routinely commits human rights violations and other atrocities. Yes, this tiny country is halfway around the world. But despite all of these factors as well as the excessive pollution, wide-spread poverty, and political unrest, I would encourage you to consider a visit. Putting aside the presence of so many ancient temples, of all the places I have been privileged to visit, I have never experienced such friendly, content, and smiling people as those in Myanmar. Everywhere you go, children and adults will wave and call out a warm greeting. Some of the more curious folk will even want to take a photo with you. Should you ever have the opportunity, go!
Next time: “Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia”