And so we arrive at Bagan, the centre of tourism in Myanmar, for this is Pagoda Central. From the 11 – 13th centuries, Bagan was a huge city dedicated by its various rulers to Theravada Buddhism, which was celebrated by the building of over 13,000 pagodas, monasteries and stupas. Amazingly, 2200 survive today, despite the sacking of the city by Kublai Khan – he of the stately pleasure dome – and innumerable earthquakes, natural erosion and decay.
Marco Polo, too, wondered at the exquisite site of Bagan’s temples ‘built of fine stone, covered with gold a finger thick, so that the tower appears to be of solid gold. Another is covered with silver… They make one of the finest sights in the world’. Some of the pagodas are still covered in gold and silver today, and are quite a spectacle.
Cack-handed restoration by the military government has denied Bagan UNESCO world heritage status, but there are signs that with the opening up of Myanmar to tourists and investment, this may be reversed and restoration improved.
We stay at the Tharabar Gate hotel, which has a lovely pool for the heat of the day, right by the old town, handy for seeing monuments, by both bus, horse cart and electric motor scooter (John and Hilary braved this adventure – it ran out of juice and it took them an hour to wheel it back!).
The splendour of Bagan is best seen from the air – and NOT from the handful of temples that offer sunset views, which we find slightly alarming with hundreds of people jostling for position a hundred feet or so up – and so some of us take an early morning hot air balloon ride: there are 18 balloons being launched that morning, so it’s quite an industry!
Ross and I are both slightly anxious about what to expect, especially on landing, but we are pleasantly surprised at the silent smoothness of the ascent, the gentle floating sensation, punctuated by the occasional hot blast of flame to keep us afloat and then the gentle bump as we land into the waiting arms of the ant-like crew, who race to the landing area in anticipation of our arrival. And then, music to my ears, the pop of champagne bottles, perfectly chilled, to greet us. Brilliant!
Aside from the magnificent pagodas, our highlight in Bagan is visiting Phwasaw Village Primary School, which Ghi Ghi sponsors. Armed with exercise books, pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, soft drinks, sweets and the polaroid camera, we spend an enjoyable hour or so with the kids, disrupting their lessons (no one seems to mind, and it is impressive that several of the kids continue their copying from the board). Such discipline! The children are all immaculately dressed in their uniforms, girls with thanaka on their faces, four classes in one big room. The calm soon dissipates with the advent of the polaroid snaps…even the local Downs Syndrome boy is summoned for his moment of glory; he is thrilled. The children are very sweet, although some of the boys get a bit over-excited and rambunctious, in a good way. Ghi Ghi tells us she has chosen this school as it not one of the ones that normally befits from sponsorship.
Bagan is the traditional centre of lacquer-making and we visit a workshop where we buy extremely high quality pieces to take home. The best quality is made from bamboo and sometimes horsehair, and 13 layers of lacquer are applied to make it water- and heat-proof. Some are even lined with gold leaf. Many of the items sold by the hawkers are made from plastic and have fewer layers, so you have to be careful. Fakes are the order of the day – poor old Amitav Ghosh would be a multimillionaire judging by the numbers of The Glass Palace that are changing hands…
The market is humming with activity too; there is a tourist bit, offering the best prices for all the normal tourist stuff, but good quality – lovely table mats, lacquer ware, antiques, longyis (sarongs), sloppy beach pull-ons and tee shirts – but also an area where fruit, vegetables, thanaka, pan (betel nut), dry goods and fish and meat are on sale. It is quite splendid and we have to be dragged away.
We also eat the best food of the trip here, in a small vegetarian restaurant, Moon, right by our hotel. Ostensibly dry, beer and wine are served in black bin liners on request. Diego decides to join in the fun and brings some ‘Scottish tea’ in a black bag – the finest malt! The staff is highly amused.
So while Bagan is a must-see, it is difficult to avoid the crowds. For future visitors, make sure you brief your guide (if you have one) about trying to do things off the beaten track; with over 2000 temples to choose from, and a wide variety of transport, I reckon it is possible to have a quiet and hassle free time away from the hawkers – who are still at the charming stage, if persistent – employing your own transport and being directed to the more remote places.
From Bagan we depart to Inle Lake, home of the unique leg-poling fisherman, and subject of the next blog.