On the first of two days in Bagan we experienced one of the most magnificent sights certainly of this trip so far, possibly of any we have ever seen in the world we have traveled. We visited the Thapyinnyunt Temple and we climbed over seventy steps to a terrace from where we had a panoramic view of the Old Bagan area.
This ancient city, dating from the 11th century, at one point had over 4000 pagodas and temples, built by kings and commoners alike and in every shape, size and degree of decoration. An earthquake in the last century had destroyed or damaged almost half of these but we were still looking over a valley containing over 2000 teak or brick buildings.
UNESCO had started a major renovation here but the last military government eventually disagreed with their methods and/or interpretation and they were thrown out. Now the Ministry of Culture in Myanmar is working alone to maintain those that are left and perhaps re-build others. Clearly it is an enormous task and the guide suggested that the new government may invite UNESCO back to help.
In order to help the preservation process, all the people who had lived in the old city were removed to New Bagan, although they could maintain their small plots of farmland. The result for the visitor is a vast vista of clean, green area with these wonderful 1000 year old structures dotted throughout. At mid-morning, from the vantage point of the temple terrace this was a truly awesome sight – one that alone was worth the visit to Myanmar. As we have on so many occasions and in so many places around the world, we were amazed at the architectural and engineering skills involved in the construction of these temples – as well as at the cultural and spiritual level of the people who dedicated them, in this case to Buddha.
Our next stop was at the Ananda Temple, which is regarded as the masterpiece of Bagan. Here murals and frescoes inside the building are the main attraction. Many of the paintings (no photography allowed) lining the hallways and small rooms date from the eleventh century and the colors are remarkably bright and fresh to this day. Many have been cleaned, but we were assured that no additional painting has occurred so we were looking at 1000 year old art, much of which tells the story of everyday life of both royalty and commoner.
Following lunch back on the boat, we had time to relax before our 4pm excursion to a lacquer ware factory (apparently concentrated here in Bagan) before viewing another temple (Manuha) and the Shwesandaw Pagoda for a sunset view across the city.
On Friday we sailed further downstream on the Irrawaddy River making one stop in the morning to visit a local village and another late in the afternoon we stopped at a larger village called Saley, which we were told had about 500 families – relatively large for this part of the country.
Saley is home to several monasteries, temples and stupas, each beautifully decorated and painted and in good condition. How a group so small could afford to build and maintain such a range of buildings is difficult to imagine and it must be yet another example of the generosity of the Myanmar culture in this largely Buddhist country.
Saley is also home to a number of colonial homes and buildings and, for the first time since Mandalay, we saw architecture that would have been the image that I had of Burma before coming here. We visited one of these homes and, although significantly more Western than the bamboo homes prevalent in the countryside, it was still rather basic and somewhat bare. This may be a reflection of recent military government rulings or simply the end of the colonial era and its influence.
The ship set sail on Saturday morning from Saley but was docked again in Pha kha Nge village by 9am. We had an hour to walk through the village and meet several of the local people. It was interesting to see village life (especially on a Saturday when most people weren’t working) without the backdrop of stupas and temples. Not that these didn’t exist here (we saw dozens as we sailed away from the village) but they were not included in the tour. Instead we met the village pharmacist, the doctor, a school teacher and a mid-wife as well as three 80 year old sisters who came out of their home to greet us. Our guide said what we had already observed – Burmese people look either very young or very old; there appear to be no 40 to 60 year olds. They are there of course, but rapidly change from youthful to elderly so there appears to be no middle age.
Back on board we had a talk by one of the program directors on Myanmar Today, essentially covering the period of British rule (mid-1800s to 1943) and the subsequent Japanese occupation – which led to Post-War Independence. The period since then has seen various shades of democracy and, more recently, military rule. The latter allegedly ended five years ago but, as we were told, it was little more than a change of clothes from uniform to civilian and now the country is controlled by a few very rich ex-military who own virtually all businesses in the country.
All in all, things appear to be in a rather undisciplined state which will probably take a long time to change to anything we would recognize in the West. Despite that, the people seem very happy and, as the country opens up more to visitors and tourism, perhaps things will improve. Even today, electronic technology (cell phones, television, the internet) is ubiquitous so influences from other parts of the world are surely being felt.
We sailed for several hours in the afternoon and arrived in the city (400,000 people) of Magway in time for a late afternoon shore excursion. This was a tour of the city by trishaw (a bicycle with side car). The trishaw seems to be designed for two passengers but for us it was one to a bike; presumably our size and weight were enough for the (very fit) local who had to pedal.
We made a couple of stops, one to visit another pagoda, but otherwise we were driven around the city on the “bikes”.
On Sunday morning, five monks came to the ship to bless it and its passengers and to go through a Buddhist service. It was interesting to watch but would have had more meaning if we had been given a better introduction to what the chanting and prayers were about. The overall sense, however, was that there were readings, a “sermon”, prayers and blessings – not at all dissimilar to a Christian service. The major difference would be in the offering; the monks were given robes, food for the day and money as part of the service, once again underscoring the reverence given to these men as well as the generosity of the people.
Mid-morning we were each given $1 in local currency and an assignment to purchase a given item in a local market – from vegetables to (in our case) shampoo. It was an exercise that we would not have chosen, but it turned out to be interesting; if not for making the purchase, certainly in getting the flavor of a real local market.
In the afternoon we sailed again for a few hours to dock at Minhla for a visit to a fort built to protect Royal Burma from British Burma. The architects and engineers were Italian. This was at a time (1860) when Lower Burma was ruled by the British but Upper Burma was still under the control of the Burmese Crown. The whole country did not come under British rule until 1880.
The fort is a substantial brick construction on two levels and had, on the ground floor, a total of 21 rooms for the 500 garrisoned there. The canon have been removed (we saw one outside the Royal Palace in Mandalay) but otherwise the fort must look pretty much as it did 150 years ago.