Over a patchwork of green fields and red earth, flying from Heho to Nyaung U was a quick half-hour jaunt. Upon landing, the 25,000 kyat or about 18 dollar archeological zone fee required of all foreigners took me aback even though I’d known it was coming. Beyond feeling the sticker shock, I doubted much of the fee actually went towards the upkeep of Bagan’s ancient pagodas. Adding up how much money I’d inadvertently handed over to the military regime—the 50 dollar visa to enter the country, Inle Lake ecological zone fee, and government-owned airline tickets, for starters—was a sobering thought. A taxi whisked me through the town of Nyaung U, past the nearly thousand-year-old ruins of Old Bagan, to Ostello Bello Hostel in New Bagan. The popular hostel is known for its social atmosphere and parties, but a pair of earplugs did the trick for me.
In the evening, I joined a sunset boat trip down the mighty Irrawaddy River. Backlit stupas dotted the horizon.
The next morning, a tour group from Ostello Bello teetered off on a fleet of battery-powered e-bikes. Foreigners aren’t allowed to ride motorbikes in Bagan, and I can only imagine what type of bobble-headed incidents resulted in this policy. With a top speed of maybe 20 miles per hour, novice riders can still hurl themselves into a ditch, but with less velocity. Then there’s the risk your battery will die when you’re off-roading in the middle of nowhere. Above all, I’d recommend steering clear of older machines, especially those that look like they were jimmy-rigged from junked motorbike parts. These ones seemed quite reliable despite their Made in China label.
The first stop on the tour was the famous Shwe San Daw Pagoda, which can get very crowded for sunrise and sunset viewings. Travelfish, my favorite guide to Southeast Asia travel, advises on its “Where To Head for Sunrise and Sunset” page that in order to avoid “incidents of tripod-rage” at Shwe San Daw, get there early, find a different pagoda, or “even stay in bed.”
The magic of Bagan emerges in the sum of its more than 2,200 parts rather than any one individual temple. Most were constructed during the heydays of the Kingdom of Pagan, as it was then named, between the 11th and 13th centuries, roughly the same period as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The arid climate of Burma’s central plains makes Bagan a veritable desert island amidst a sea of Southeast Asian tropical rainforests.
Fellow tour participant Els, a teacher from Belgium, poses with young Burmese monks, called novices. It is common for boys to spend time in a monastery, usually a couple of weeks or months. As our charismatic tour guide Christopher explained, the experience is more like summer camp than a meditation retreat, with activities like soccer and hide-and-seek. Hearing this shattered any last illusions I held onto about Buddhist cultures in this region of the world. Before moving here, I would have liked to believe that meditation was widely practiced, but Buddhism and meditation are not synonymous. To what degree are Western approaches to meditation Orientalist—outsider interpretations of “exotic” cultural practices, repackaged as universal self-help techniques? And to what degree are Western practitioners earnestly trying to incorporate Eastern knowledge into the context of their own societies? (These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night.)
I asked Christopher how Burma had changed since the elections. He beamed in recalling how happy he’d been to cast his vote for “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, and vaguely stated that things were getting better. I wanted to press for more details but got the sense that the conversation was over. Immediately my memory flashed back to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Natalia and I recounted our day touring the killing fields and torture museum with the receptionist of our guesthouse. He was eager to talk with us and implied he held strong political views but wouldn’t tell us directly. He would nod in knowing agreement and point us in a whispered voice towards the work of people exposing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. When we asked him to comment on Cambodia’s current government, he said grimly, “I cannot say.”
Foreigners aren’t the only tourists in town; many Burmese pilgrims also flock to Bagan from other parts of the country. Here is the phenomenon I’ve been promising to show my readers for quite a while. The “let’s take a picture with the foreigner” photo is definitely a thing. Before Els took this shot with my camera, a family member of the woman beside me captured the same image on her phone. I suppose it’s the same sentiment Els had in wanting her picture with the monks.
A puppet vendor sells her wares outside one of the temples.
Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Clearly this building’s whitewash job is not a thousand years old. The restoration of Bagan’s historic ruins has been wrought with controversy. After an earthquake hit in 1975, the site became a priority for UNESCO. However, the organization pulled out of Burma in the early 90s as the military junta tightened its control over the project. Residents were forcibly relocated to New Bagan. Many of the “restorations” could be better characterized as renovations that bear little resemblance to the original temples. In one shrine we visited, the floor had been hastily tiled over with what might have been leftover materials from a new hotel construction. Some of the pagodas have been outright rebuilt from scratch.
A funny thing happened on the way to the sunset tour. Or at least it’s funny now. Close to forty people from the hostel rode off into the sunset behind two staff members. I ended up near the back of the line. As the group zipped along, I tried to convince myself that my fear of getting left behind was unwarranted. We exited the main road onto a winding dirt path. The guy just ahead of me hit the brakes at a junction, looking left and right. Sure enough, except for the five people who were last in line, everyone else was gone. Thinking it best to stick together, the three other girls and I had little choice but to follow this guy as he gallivanted off. But there was no sign of the others. Thus arrived the moment for the five random strangers brought together by fate to formulate a plan for survival, like we were characters in a horror movie and the scary parts were yet to come.
In a display of masculine bravado, the guy, who was quickly making himself out to be the unelected rogue leader, wanted to “follow his nose” to find a pagoda we could climb to watch the sunset. Always cast as the voice of reason in times of crisis, I vehemently opposed this suggestion, to no avail. Off he went with the four women reluctantly trailing behind him, twisting down a sandy track that got more and more faint until dead-ending in the middle of a field. Naturally, the guy wasn’t finished sniffing out the right pagoda and insisted on off-roading through the brush. As the sun slid down towards the horizon, we were no closer to locating a suitable vantage point. Three members of our scrappy expedition scurried up the nearest stupa and declared they couldn’t see anything. Having entered full-on worst case scenario mode, I strongly urged them to get the hell down from there so we could try to find our way back before dark. Anticipating the increasing likelihood we’d be camping out in a haunted pagoda for the night, it didn’t take much imagination to predict how this horror film was going to end.
Although the whole sunset tour escapade was a bust, at least the proverbial cloud had a couple of “golden linings.” Out of the dark sands rose the glowing stupa of Dhammayazika Pagoda like a Buddhist Dome of the Rock. A prayerful chant boomed over the loud speaker, beckoning us inside. Bamboo scaffolding can be seen on many of the structures in Bagan these days. Another major earthquake in July 2016 caused extensive damage.
The second positive outcome of our misguided foray was meeting Sara, a graduate student in International Development. Before coming to Bagan, her passion for human rights led her to Rakhine State in western Burma which shares a border with Bangladesh. Rakhine State has made headlines during the past few months because of intense violence against a Muslim minority known as the Rohingyas. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes as the military slaughters, rapes, and pillages their way through Rohingya communities in the northern part of the state. Aung San Suu Kyi has denied the severity of the issue, disappointing many of her international supporters. Surprisingly, Sara was able to obtain a government permit to visit Rakhine. She’d heard that asking to see both Muslim and Buddhist camps and playing dumb about what was occurring in the state was a strategy others had used with success. She didn’t know it at the time, but often one of two outcomes result from these permit requests: either you are granted the permit, or you are arrested. Sara and her photographer friend were assigned an interpreter and allowed to conduct interviews in the southern region of Rakhine only, which has not faced the same level of problems as the north. While before this trip she’d thought international reporting on the violence had potential to make an impact, she now sees its counterproductive effects. It seems the more reports are published, the more the government cracks down and restricts humanitarian access. The inquiry into the Rakhine situation by the advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan won’t be finished for months. Meanwhile, the pain of the Rohingya people is insufferable.
Sara invited me to join a few other people from the hostel who were going to watch the sunrise at a small temple the next morning. We were to meet a local who would lead us there. Our e-bikes glided silently under cover of darkness. We waited at the entrance to the path, but it was becoming clear that the guy might not show up. Most of us opted for Plan B, which was to follow the stream of tourists headed to a popular spot. It wasn’t ideal, but at least we could climb up to get a decent view and not repeat the mistakes of the night before. At first the colors were lackluster with too many clouds blocking out the light and we almost left early. But then the curtain gave way for the show’s opening number.
The hot air balloons lifted off.
Just when I thought the finale was over, a golden light burst through the sky.
We started back towards the hostel, but I kept glancing over my shoulder and seeing the beautiful photography I was missing. I pulled a U-turn and charged down a dirt road towards the light.
I chased after the balloons as they drifted into the distance.
Then I noticed a few bikes parked outside a temple and scrambled up to the roof, where a photo shoot was in progress. The sign outside said the name of the pagoda was La Ka Ou Shaung.
Mystical mists roll in over the ancient kingdom.
I don’t usually ask people to take my photo, but if they offer I might say yes.
I just couldn’t stop taking pictures.
I returned to the hostel for breakfast and then decided to cruise around town on my own. Outside of the temples, men hawking bootleg copies of Burmese Days and tourist souvenirs would often ask me where I was from. When I answered “the US,” they’d reply, “USA! Obama!” One added matter-of-factly, “Great country, great basketball.”
Ananda Temple is one of the most famous in Bagan. Is this the original façade? I don’t think so.
Htilominlo Temple in the mid-day heat
Gold leaf-guilded Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U, with its stupa covered, presumably because of earthquake damage
Sara prepares to take some sunset photos at the pagoda we were originally trying to go to that morning for sunrise. We rode here with a few other girls. After Sara told them the story of our botched sunset tour the previous evening, Jacqui responded, “Never trust a man who says he’s following his nose.”
The sun went down for the last time of the year. I popped in my earplugs and was out by 10pm, my favorite way to spend New Year’s Eve.