We arrive in Bagan, site of 4,000 crumbling pagodas, stupas, pavilions and temples mid-morning after a 6:00 AM flight from Rangoon. The weather is still winter and gorgeous – mid 80’s — but the locals are bundled and wrapped in blankets. Bagan is dusty red earth with a high desert feel and for the first time we are besieged by peddlers. Word has gotten out that Americans will buy anything and at crazy prices. To be fair, we are also happy to be giving money away, essentially, which does not stop us from bargaining hard for fake antique amulets, wind chimes, lacquer-ware, puppets, purses, sand paintings, bracelets. Somewhere in the midst of ferocious haggling (it’s a game that we are all playing well) it occurs to me that I do not need three bracelets for $15 and know they are only worth $5. Just give them the money!
Unfortunately this attitude ripples through the ranks and the message gets passed along either by cellphone or ox cart or moped: Come on down! And come on down they do, swooping in from the last bus stop to the next to finish the deal they didn’t quite close. I find the incessant peddling increasingly annoying and it will only get worse as tourists descend.
Bagan is poor – unlike other parts of Burma, with minimal rainfall, and, until recently, neglected by authorities until it became a World Heritage Site. Families were kicked out of the crumbling pagodas and restoration has been going gang-busters – perhaps too enthusiastically as some are being tarted up with sparkly lights and looking a little too new. Nonetheless, it is astounding to see literally hundreds of stupas on either side of the dusty, unpaved roads in all shapes and sizes, red domes in the red earth. At night they look like UFOs randomly fallen in the fields.
The origins and purpose are murky – they are Buddhist from the 11–13th centuries and at one time numbered 13,000 over 16 sq. miles. Built by Indian temple architects they have a vaguely Angkor Wat feel minus the elaborate carvings. They have been repeatedly damaged in earthquakes – in some cases virtually destroyed.
We have come at the right time – January is ideal weather – hot days cool nights. By April the temps climb to 110-115. We stay in the Aureum Palace Hotel which has taken up a staggering amount of land and built a 9 story viewing tower from which the panoramas of the entire site are gorgeous, framed by the Irawaddy river and mountains beyond but the tower itself is ugly and hopefully is not a preview of development to come. While the Aureum chain is supposed to be privately owned, it sure feels like a land grant from someone very connected to the bad guys.
We go for a sunset drift on the Irawaddy River, the mighty river of Burma and very much like the Mekong in its wide shallowness. On the banks there is the usual array of shanties and children racing to meet our boat, holding up strings of beads and the one book we see over and over again – George Orwell’s Burma Days. (A not flattering portrait of British Burma or of the Burmese).
None of these children are in school despite their assurance that they go to school at night; they are all working to support their families. They do not take no for an answer and stick like glue. If you buy one thing from one because you feel guilty, they smell blood and close in with – buy 2 more! Good price. You buy one I give you 3! Lady lady good price! Then their three friends with exactly the same stuff wail that you bought from her but what about me? Not lucky not lucky! I feel like shit even though I have bought a ton of worthless junk. It’s hard to imagine what this feeding frenzy will look like once the tourist gravy train really gets going. But by then, maybe there will be real jobs and these kids can put their English, French, German and Italian skills to better use.
We take a sunset pony cart ride through the fields (the stupas are inaccessible otherwise and I figure the horse must know if he’s anywhere near a snake which I do not and am not willing to chance). Every time I have to remove my shoes to enter a darkened temple I keep a sharp lookout for snakes. Arthur and I have a pact that we will leap into each other’s arms if we see one, which will leave both of us flat on our asses on the ground. Our guide assures us that there are no snakes but I know my National Geographic statistics and Burma has the highest incidence of snake bite in the world.
The cart driver tells me that is 29 and would like to get married but he can’t leave his grandmother because she depends on him. I don’t know if this is scary or sweet. Probing, it turns out that he has 9 brothers and sisters and 17 aunts and uncles all of whom live nearby and his grandmother has dozens of grandchildren. So why does the grandmother depend on him when there are so many other family members? “What if you wanted to leave this village and get an education or a good paying job? “I can’t” he shrugs. “I am the only one living in her house.” Well ok then, that explains it.
We stroll through a local village, Phwar Saw, which I know is real but feels like it’s about to become the equivalent of Plymouth plantation. No one else in our group shares these sentiments, except cynical me. The oxen are tied up next to the houses, drinking out of their hand carved wooden troughs. The houses are on stilts so the animals can stay below and people sleep on the second floor where it is cooler and they are safe from floods. (Floods? It’s dry as a bone. I rest my case about snakes). Children run about and play, watch TV (yes there is TV even if there is no running water) and houses are very carefully swept out – which seems impossible as the floor is dirt. Everything is pretty much made by hand – chairs of rattan and local wood, roofs are thatched with palm leaves, woven cradles look like Moses in the bulrushes. Water must be collected from the communal well every day and it can be a 2-3 km walk. Water is usually collected by women and children (which makes it pretty hard to go to school). There are no books. Children do not read. (Why? Not a cultural value. Same thing in Laos).
In some of the front yards men cut wood and bamboo with a hand-rigged chopper. I tell Detlev that I bet they will pull out a chain saw as soon as we are out of sight. (They do). It’s a curious thing that we are so charmed by the rest of the world living in conditions that we would never, ever consider. I overhear several people say that they would love to stay here. Not even close.
Soon afterwards we drive into New Bagan and find a novitiates procession in full swing. Several small children are being initiated into their Buddhist training as little monks to be. Sort of like a Bar Mitzvah – and just as expensive (the average family can spend up to 25,000 to entertain the village). The child is dressed like a prince with his head shaved and is paraded on horseback under a parasol held aloft. Today I am a man and I’m only 4 years old. The children are heart-breakingly adorable and incredibly poised. The procession is delightful – thrilling actually – a cacophony of colors, music from megaphones atop trucks, lines of young girls (must be virgins) dressed in wild colors with baskets of flowers as gifts for the Buddha. Everyone lines the streets and cheers. I am loving it.