There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bagan (1), Temples, Lacquerware and more Temples: Part 4 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

Yangon Airport international terminal is a small but otherwise bog-standard airport terminal. The domestic terminal, however, is a step back to the seventies; no proper check-in desks, baggage tagged with ordinary luggage labels and hauled away by hand, and a waiting room rather than a departure lounge.

The ATR Turboprops of half a dozen airlines were all seemingly scheduled to leave at 6 am. Flights were called, literally, by a man standing at the only departure gate and shouting while his colleague paraded round with a placard on a pole.

We took three flights during our stay in Myanmar, and they all ran smoothly and on time – though not to the schedule we had been given before leaving home. At Mandalay we saw one flight boarding local passengers - it was to a region off-limits to foreigners - but all our flights were populated entirely by westerners, except for the occasional Buddhist monk who was treated with great reverence by both ground staff and cabin crew.

Wikepedia's picture of an Air Mandalay ATR-42 at Yangon Airport.
We took 3 flights, and Air Mandalay owns 3 aircraft so there is a 70% chance we travelled on this one

After our early departure, we reached Nyaung U before normal people had eaten breakfast. Nyaung U is the ‘capital’ of the Bagan region, a plain covered by temples and dotted with villages. The airport is tiny; no baggage carousels here, the ground staff wheel a trolley from the plane and through a garden and you just grab your bags.

We were met by Tin, a thin, friendly man in a long skirt. Yangon had been hot, but Bagan, Swe had warned us, would be hotter still and we should beware the strong sun. We arrived in a temperature of barely 20º, with drizzle hanging in the air and low-level mist. New arrivals usually go straight to the Dhammayaziki Pagoda, climb onto the roof and enjoy a panorama of the Bagan plain. Tin suggested we leave Dhammayaziki until tomorrow, and the weather gave us no choice but to agree. Here, though, is a photograph taken the next day, to give an idea of what Bagan is all about.

Bagan Plain from the Dhammayaziki Pagoda

Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, later Empire, from the 9th to the 13th centuries. At the Empire’s zenith anybody who was anybody built a monastery, temple, or at least a stupa. Over 2000 remain, but there may once have been as many as 10 000, suggesting that on average one was started every week for 200 years.

We drove to our hotel near Old Bagan’s Tharabar Gate. The city has long gone but inside the gate is the rebuilt royal palace; the foundations are genuine but the materials are modern and the design is pure speculation. It is routinely ignored by discerning guides and tourists. Hoping to kick-start a tourist industry in the 1990s, the military government also ‘repaired’ many of the temples, again using inappropriate materials and disregarding the original styles. Then they built a golf course. Expecting international approval they were roundly condemned as cultural vandals. Though much remains undamaged, the restorations have delayed Bagan’s accreditation as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Outside the gate is a luxury hotel, and a number of bamboo homes and restaurants, some looking more permanent than others.

The Tharabar Gate was the most luxurious – indeed, only luxurious – hotel we stayed in in Myanmar. It consists of comfortable bungalows in a lush tropical garden and we, for no particular reason, were upgraded. We had a sitting room and a bedroom, both with large screen televisions, a dressing room, a bathroom each, plus a shower room, which would have been ideal had the two of us ever have needed to take three showers simultaneously. Ironically it was our only hotel with a pool, and Bagan was the only place where it was too cool and rainy to swim.

The Hotel at the Tharabar Gate, Bagan
With 2000 temples to visit we did not stay long in the hotel. Letting Tin choose, we started at the Shwezigon Pagoda (not to be confused with Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda). Finished in 1102 in the reign of King Kyansittha it is a temple complex with golden stupas....

Golden stupa, Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan

acres of tiled flooring - lethally slippery in the drizzle -

Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan

and all the usual statues and storytelling paintings of a Buddhist temple.

Scenes from the life of Buddha
Swezigon Pagoda, Bagan
Less usually there were also statues of all 37 Great Nats.

The Great Nats embody the spirits of places and things, or of people who died tragically long ago. Nat worship, the local pre-Buddhist religion, has been incorporated into Burmese Buddhism just like Christianity co-opted pagan Roman festivals. Tin described the Nats as being good luck mascots for the uneducated. People offer them flowers and rice to ensure good fortune, but they do that to the statues of Buddha, too, and I strongly suspect the Great Teacher would have disapproved.

Two of the Great Nats, Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan
We continued to the Gubyaukgyi (Cave Buddha) Temple. More typical of Bagan’s smaller temples, this 13th century, Indian style construction, has a roughly rectangular central pillar and a room on each side containing an image of the Buddha. It also retains some impressive frescoes of the life of Buddha – though most were looted by a 19th century German archaeologist.

Gubyaukyi Temple, Bagan

The nearby Htilominlo Temple is larger. The Empire reached its height during the reign of King Sithu II (1174-1211) when laws were first codified and Burmese began to replace Mon and Pyu as the official language and script. Sithu had five sons, and chose his successor by lining them up in the sun, planting an umbrella in front of them and waiting until it leaned towards one or the other. And so Htilominlo became king and built his temple on the very spot where he was chosen. Tin believes there may well be truth in the legend but very much doubts that the umbrella was allowed to tilt at random.

Htilominlo Temple, Bagan

The general populace, if not the ruling class, were less cynical and were pleased to have a king chosen by god. Htilominlo concerned himself little with ruling, leaving that to his technocrats, but was the last of the great temple builders. His reign was long (1211 to 1234) peaceful , prosperous and something of a golden age, but it also marked the start of the terminal decline of the Pagan Empire. Unlike his forebears he did not expand the empire, but he did continue their practice of donating tax free land to religious establishments. The tax base steadily eroded, and by the middle of the 13th century his successors could no longer afford to pay their army or retain the loyalty of their courtiers. The Empire started to collapse from within, and when the Mongols turned up in 1287, it was all over for the Pagan Empire.

Seated Buddha, Htilominlo Temple, Bagan
His temple, though, is very pretty, the central pillar surrounded by four statues of the Buddha connected by corridors.

Connecting corridors, Htilominlo Temple, Bagan

Outside there are the predictable lines of stalls. At one the stallholder was selling his own exquisite sand paintings. Not unreasonably, he wanted quite a lot of money for them, but the problem with Myanmar is that there are no ATMs; you must guess how much money you will need for the trip and bring it all with you. Running out is not an option, so making substantial impulse purchases in the first week seemed unwise. Tourism is in its infancy in Myanmar and the atmosphere is generally relaxed, but some hawkers and even some stallholders are beginning to resort to the aggressive selling that mars so many major tourist sites.

That was enough temples for the morning, and as lacquerware is the major local product, we went to see it being made. It is mostly a cottage industry but we visited a small factory, though not a factory in the usual sense, there are no walls, just a roof to keep the sun off – not that there was any.

Making the article in Bamboo
Lacquerware factory, Bagan
Everything is done by hand from the very simple tasks – even the lathes are rotated manually - to the most complex and highly skilled. They start by making vessels from bamboo; these are then coated with lacquer – the sap of the varnish tree (melanorrhoea usitatissima) which grows wild in local forests – mixed with turpentine. Lacquer is brown when first tapped but turns black on contact with air and brushed onto the bamboo frame it forms a hard shiny coating. Drying can be done artificially, but for the top quality, as in this factory, they let it dry naturally for a week. Another coat is applied and then dried and this is repeated up to seven times.

Smearing on the lacquer
Lacquerware factory, Bagan

Patterns are scratched on – by hand - and colours can be added, also by hand, processes requiring extraordinary levels of skill.

Scratching on the pattern
Lacquerware factory, Bagan

The resulting articles are beautiful and practical, and given the time and skill involved in their manufacture, remarkably cheap. We bought this tooth-pick holder for 10 US dollars – all we need now is to find some toothpicks. Other lacquerware articles would find their way home as gifts.

A pleasing lacquerware toothpick box
containing exactly no toothpicks
It was now lunchtime and Tin asked what we wanted to eat. In an area with many tourists a variety of styles was available, but ‘local’ seemed the obvious choice. We went to a restaurant, another building with a roof but no walls, outside the Tharabar Gate. Typically, Myanmar restaurants do not have menus, for a flat fee (in this case 3000 Kyat each - £2.50) they bring you every dish they have.

We had chicken, pork, mutton, dried fish, pickled vegetable, fermented sesame seeds, fresh salad and much more. The meat dishes – known as ‘curries’ though they are very lightly, if at all, spiced – are covered with a film of oil, which makes them a touch greasy. That apart, we enjoyed the huge range of flavours, some familiar, some new. Even with the help of Tin we could not get close to eating half the food brought to us and we wondered what happened to it after we left.

Lunch near the Tharabar Gate, Bagan
By the time we had finished it was two hours since we had seen a temple. Something had to be done.

The nearby Ananda Temple, named after Buddha’s cousin, is contemporary with the Shwezigon pagoda.

Ananda Temple, Bagan
It is cruciform in shape with several terraces leading up to a ‘corn cob’ stupa. Damaged in the 1975 earthquake it has been restored and the stupa was re-gilded in 1990 to celebrate its 900th anniversary.

Serious Buddha, Ananda Temple, Bagan
Its four entrances face the major compass points and in each is a different standing Buddha. One of them, Tin pointed out, looks serious from a distance, but smiles (or, rather, smirks) from close to. The Buddhas are joined by corridors and can be shut off from the entrance halls by enormous teak doors, thus forming an inner sanctuary.

Smirking Buddha, Ananda Temple, Bagan

After Ananda we said goodbye to Tin, but not before he had organised a horse and cart to take us for a prolonged trundle through the Bagan plan.

A trundle across the Bagan Plain

Wherever we looked, little temples and stupas were dotted across every field. It would have been a wonderful ride but for two small problems.

Temples and Stupas dotted across every field, Bagan

Firstly, I am allergic to horses.

It is all right for Lynne....

I thought I would be all right if I did not touch the beast, but seated on the cart beside the driver I soon discovered that was optimistic. My eyes start to itch and swell, and before long it felt like they were full of grains of sand. Despite applications of anti-histamine and eye-drops they did not return to normal for 48 hours.

...but this is as close to a horse as I should get

Secondly, the drizzle that had threatened in the morning came back as rain. At the back under cover Lynne was sheltered, but I was soaked. Tin had observed that the crops, largely sorghum and maize, were behind this year as there had been too little rain during the wet season. Sadly neither they nor I were helped by this dry season deluge.

Through a village in the rain
Bagan Plain
On almost any other day – and with any other allergy - it would have been a delightful trip, but I was glad when it ended and I could shower and treat my eyes.

We pass a friendly local, Bagan Plain

In the evening we ventured into the bamboo encampment beyond the hotel. Most of the restaurants, we discovered, were lunch time only but a Rough Guide recommended vegetarian restaurant with the unlikely name of ‘Be Kind to Animals, the Moon’ had a few customers. We ventured into the courtyard of the bamboo shack opposite, where only one table was occupied.

We soon realised the table was occupied by the waiters, two boys in their early teens who rose as soon as we arrived and presented us with menus. Reassured that there were adults in the kitchen behind the bamboo screen, we ordered noodles with chicken (Lynne) and pork (me) at 1600 Kyats each - a light meal, we thought. First they brought us Chinese tea and crunchy sesame and peanut balls, then the dishes we had ordered, then soup, which turned up halfway through the main course in the usual Southeast Asian way, and when we thought we had eaten more than we could manage, they brought us bananas in syrup. It was as fine a meal as you can buy for £1.30 anywhere in the world.

Even without the puffy eyes I am probably not the person you most wanted to see
on a bed strewn with petals - but here I am

We arrived back in our luxury hotel in time to see our room sprayed with insect repellent and our bed turned down and strewn with petals. Then they brought a box of bite sized sandwiches, a basket of fruit and a bottle of complimentary wine (cheap Italian Merlot, since you asked, but gratefully received). Outside, the locals settled down for the night in their bamboo shacks. I wish I could enjoy luxury without guilt, but I felt my streaming eyes were, in some way, a penance.


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