Bagan: Beauty with Baggage

‘A must see for anyone traveling to Myanmar,’ you read, countless times. And then you see breathtaking photos of sweeping plains, with thousands of temples scattered all the way to the horizon. In these majestic images, scores of balloons dot the multicoloured sky, and you think, ‘Well, yes, I do believe it would be a crime not to visit Bagan.’

And so visit Bagan we did. It was the low season – dry, even with half the country flooding, windy, and hot. The balloons stop blasting during these months, although we did see one launch, then fly a bit, then drop. Testing, perhaps.

The district was made up of four parts:

Old Bagan

We spent very little time in Old Bagan, just passing through briefly to look at a handful of temples, and having a lady coax us into her shop for a free application of Thanaka and to sell Caroline a traditional cotton shirt.

Thanaka is worn as sun protection, and also a statement of beauty. It's made by rubbing wood (there are several different types of wood) on an abraisive surface while adding small amounts of water. The resulting paste is applied, and changes colour as it dries to a brighter yellow.

Thanaka is worn as sun protection, and also a statement of beauty. It’s made by rubbing wood (there are several different types of wood) on an abrasive surface while adding small amounts of water. The resulting paste is applied, and changes colour as it dries to a brighter yellow.

Old Bagan was a quiet place, and for good (or terrible, depending how you look at it) reasons. In the early 1990s, the military junta that controlled the country (the military is still somewhat in power, under the guise of a pseudo democracy, but that’s a whole other story) forcibly removed the local inhabitants of Old Bagan and sent them to a barren location 7km away. This area was called ‘New Bagan’, and was where most of the local inhabitants now lived.

The reason for this removal, was that Old Bagan was in the archaeological zone, and the military government were attempting to secure a listing for Bagan as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The listing would boost tourism numbers, and increase prestige for the country. The locals were (presumably) given the boot to keep the area clean and free from damage or development. However, several well-connected businessmen were allowed to build four big hotels in Old Bagan, and in the middle of the actual heritage site built a towering glass and concrete viewing area – and a golf course.

Bagan was getting closer to being listed as a heritage site, but was not quite there yet. Another delay in the process was the fact that ‘restoration work’ was carried out using modern materials. In some cases people painted over original artwork inside the temples, and built wrongly shaped structures atop pagodas which had lost their originals. This incorrect restoration work drew criticism from World Heritage experts, but a compromise may have been reached. Most of the work was carried out by locals, and fit in with the traditional history of merit-making. In this case, labours of love on holy sites could be a merit goldmine. Therefore these ‘incorrect’ restorations were simply part of the historic culture, and could be forgiven.

New Bagan

Again, we didn’t spend much time in New Bagan. And this was probably for the best, as far as the locals were concerned. Think about it: if your job involved having to constantly pander to loud, often insensitive foreigners, then you’d probably want a reprieve too.

Nyaungu

This little town contained most of cheap and mid-range accommodation, and was therefore the busiest and most colourful area. It was a typical stretch, like we’d seen elsewhere in Myanmar, but occasionally there’d be a street with tourists in mind, containing pizza joints and glass-fronted souvenir shops. Many restaurants attempted to cover all bases, promising ‘Chinese food – Italian food – Myanmar Food – Thai food’ and so on.

Horse-drawn carts were a popular way to get around, and were used by tourists and locals alike. This meant that whenever large, bonnetless trucks weren’t rumbling past, you’d hear the clip-clop of hooves. The roads were sandy at the edges, but sealed, and the traffic was a mix of locals on motorbikes, tourists on bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters, the usual smattering of taxis and private vehicles, and of course, the horse carts. The call of women carrying huge baskets of goods on their heads could be heard through the noise, which was, for the most part, an orchestra of honking. For a typical Myanmar driver, sounding the horn was a sign to let everybody know that “I am coming,” and to “Please move aside or be run down mercilessly.” Dogs, cows, pigs, chickens, and goats running across the road were commonplace, but never, sadly, all at the same time.

A large portion of the businesses in Nyaungu were aimed at tourists, but because there were so many locals running these shops, there was a need to cater to Burmese tastes too. This meant plenty of cheap eats, good tea, and friendly Myanmar people who loved to ask us questions. The tea joints where we had our meals contained an exclusive clientele of men. The only women present were either cooking, or Caroline (a recurring theme in Myanmar.) The entertainment was usually WWE wrestling, which nowadays appeared to be mostly muscle-bound hipsters verbally bitch-slapping each other, and occasionally performing impressive circus flips and angry-looking dances.

We stayed in Nyaungu at the Shwe Na Di guesthouse. On our first night we (and I imagine everybody else) were jolted awake at 1.30am by the loud squawking of British people. They had returned from somewhere, and were having what they must have imagined to be a very poignant conversation about ‘the terrorists’. Their words, which were not quite loud enough to discern, were delivered with the concrete certainty that only a drunken asshole can have. I tried to remember my meditation teaching (nothing is permanent; it rises, it passes away) as their bottles clinked. It didn’t really help.

We moved to the A1 guesthouse the following day, which was much smaller, had friendlier staff, and seemed to attract people who had learned about the novel concept of ‘respect’. It was also cheaper, and was opposite a good tea shop. The price included breakfast. Caroline had a genius moment and asked, “Myanmar breakfast?” hopefully. The owner said, “No,” but then seemed to click.

“Oh, you like Myanmar breakfast?”

We nodded eagerly.

“Really? And even you?” He looked at me doubtfully, and my nodding grew more enthusiastic. It seemed to make him very happy. And so it was that we sat outside the following morning and ate our Myanmar breakfast (fried rice and chickpeas, with fried potato and onion fritters, and some other things that I don’t know the name of, and can’t explain the taste of), while the other guests sat inside and ate whatever they normally serve tourists. My guess is bread and jam.

The Bagan Archeological Zone (which technically includes Old Bagan, but I’m listing it as its own thing)

This is the part of Bagan that contains all the beautiful, ancient temples. The towns mentioned above are set around the outside, and all entry points into the district (road, rail, air and sea) are monitored for incoming tourists, who are charged a $20 fee that allows full access for five days.

There are several very large and popular temples, but if you want to be on your own it’s easy enough to explore one of the other 2000, often empty temples. Tourists are not allowed to ride motorbikes in Bagan, but they can rent bicycles or e-bikes. We rented an e-scooter, which, apart from a soft electric buzz, was silent. I loved the fact that everyone had e-bikes etc., because it kept the whole area mostly quiet of human-made disturbance, allowing the multitude of animal noises to be heard clearly. The roads were sandy, sometimes deeply so, and during one downhill roll I fell over, tipping Caroline off in the process. Luckily sand is soft, and neither of us were hurt.

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The experience of riding around reminded me of being in some weird desert. The sand and the heat helped give this impression, as did the multitude of cacti (I really, really want to write ‘cactuses’), thorny shrubs, and herds of goats. The ‘weird’ part of my weird desert were the hundreds of decaying temples, the trinket stands at the larger sites, and the occasional distant rumbling of a tour bus. We (I) tend to enjoy choosing paths that aren’t paths at all, and this often led to hideously bumpy rides over hardened, ploughed ground, or through scrubby thorns and bogs. One such misadventure involved me driving near a protective cow and her calf. The cow snorted, and charged at me (Caroline had already disembarked, and was chatting to a nearby villager). As the cow ran at me, huffing through its cow-snout, I weighed up my options:

– Reverse? No, that doesn’t work on a bike.

– Get off and run? No time, and the cow is clearly faster.

– Drive forwards with a turn? No, there’s an unpleasant drop either side. And also there’s no time.

And so my only option was to be murdered by the cow. Accepting my fate, I honked the horn uselessly and waited, but when the cow was one metre from me it stopped. I hadn’t noticed a rope around its neck, and it had reached its full length just in time, stopping the animal’s charge and preventing my trampling. The cow, furious, kept snorting and trying to kill me by tugging at the rope. I quietly (there is no other way on an e-scooter) drove around it, apologising profusely.

At night in Bagan, the sunsets were spectacular, and people flocked to a few key temples to clamber up and witness the sky darken. We managed to find a tall temple all to ourselves, and climbed up high for a spectacular view.

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Tourism (which we are knowingly and willingly participating in) has some well-known negative side-effects. People who make their living from tourist dollars begin to treat foreigners quite differently than they might have before, and this leads to an uncomfortable culture of dislike and mistrust between both parties.

In our (admittedly short) time in Myanmar, we’d met many genuine, friendly people; people who were interested in who we were, and what we were doing in their country. People who wanted to tell us all about themselves, and feed us, and teach us their language, and loved the fact that we were attempting to learn it. Our natural reaction was to be initially wary, after being conditioned in other countries by locals hiding their true intentions, but we quickly came to realise that a friendship in Myanmar didn’t seem to come with a price tag. Many people just wanted to talk to us, and didn’t have an ulterior motive.

Disarmed by the genuineness of the Myanmar people, and also polite (possibly overly so) by nature, I became a little disillusioned in Bagan. As soon as we stepped off the train, we were swarmed by taxi drivers. Unfortunately, we hadn’t done enough research beforehand, and had to believe them when they said Nyaungu was, “Very far.” There were seven of them, two of us, and the only other people who had disembarked – a group of Myanmar people – had already left in a little van. Caroline held out for a long time, but the seven of them eventually broke me, and I convinced Caroline to just agree to their price – ¬†twice the normal amount, we later discovered.

Yes, I know, taxi drivers always rip off tourists. There’s nothing new here. We learned a lesson, and looked on our exorbitant taxi fare as a ‘donation’. I’m sure all seven of them had a meal on us, which is a nice thought. (And the taxi had ‘Chanel’ seat covers so, you know, it was high-class.)

But it was a surprising change for us, to go from the ‘lovely Myanmar person’ to the ‘Myanmar person with an ulterior motive’. Three times we were spoken to in friendly ways by Burmese people, only to have them eventually roll out their sand paintings (always identical – the paintings and the spoken delivery) and spread the guilt on thick, looking sad if we didn’t buy something. “This is my own original piece,” said one, displaying a picture that we’d seen elsewhere. Once, a man approached a temple we were looking inside of, and said, “I’ll unlock the door so you can go on the roof.” He did, we went up, and when we came down he said bluntly, “Give me money.”

There’s a known scheme in Bagan, where children will ask you where you’re from, then tell you they’re ‘collecting foreign money’, which they later sell. After being asked a couple of times, we just began to ignore all kids who approached us, driving away and not responding.

And this is the problem. It’s a downward spiral where a visitor wants to enjoy a beautiful place, and maybe even learn a bit about the culture by interacting with the local people. The enjoyment drops quickly as the visitor is made to feel guilty or even angry as they meet sellers and schemers, and any tolerance they had can fast become annoyance, which can in turn be outwardly projected as rudeness. This can make the locals think that foreigners are rude, horrible people, and they start to become jaded and indifferent. Sometimes even bitter, or demanding.

Of course, not all visitors start off polite, or want to befriend the locals and learn about (or even respect) the culture. A lot of tourists are just plain dicks from the start. But in the end it doesn’t matter who annoys whom first, it’s a slippery slope once the distrust, distaste, and disillusionment begins.

I say all this, but I must include that the Myanmar people in Bagan have not yet reached the ‘hard sell’ point, and will eventually (usually) graciously accept if you don’t buy what they’re selling. So although a visitor may be made to feel guilty, or annoyed, at least they’ll not feel threatened. Yet.

Tourism is doubling in this country every year.

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Just an ordinary train