The Book

Bagan - A World of Wonders on the Central Plain

My visit to Yangon now over, I took a morning flight to Bagan on Mandalay Air, a private airline established as a joint venture with a foreign partner. Mandalay Air serves mainly foreign tourists on the most popular routes, and its fare is a little higher than that of the national carrier, Myanma Airways, which is infamous for its cancellations and delays. The state enterprises are known for their losses and poor service, but gradually more private enterprises are entering the markets. Bagan Hotel, privately owned, was an example of excellent service; they sent a car to meet me at the airport.

Bagan, located on the eastern shore of the grand Ayeyarwady River, is one of the world's major archaeological and religious sites and rivals similar well-known places such as Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu not only in size but also in beauty. Formerly named Pagan, the city's period of glory began in the eleventh century. King Anawratha, who founded the Pagan Dynasty in 1044, conquered the Mon and expanded his kingdom to a size that almost encompassed all of today's Myanmar; he also made Theravada Buddhism the main religion of the realm, and Bagan soon became the capital. Bagan at one time was composed of more than ten thousand buildings; however, in 1287, Kublai Khan's army invaded Burma, raided Bagan, and destroyed much of it. Today there are "only" 2,217 religious structures left.

Bagan is not a true city in that it has no dominating and thriving city center; instead, the area is a conglomeration of towns and villages studded with some two thousand temples, stupas, and monasteries. Most of the commercial activity takes place in the town of Nyaung U, some three miles (five kilometers) from Old Bagan, where I stayed for five nights at the comfortable Bagan Hotel. To the south lies New Bagan, founded in 1990 after the military government evicted most of the farmers and merchants from the old part and destroyed their houses. The evictees then had to bear the expenses of moving and constructing new homes.

For me, Bagan was love at first sight. I loved the wide-open country and the dark mountain ranges in the far distance, the cloudless ultramarine sky, the short trees and shrubs that barely concealed the yellow-red soil, and the hundreds of red-brick pagodas, punctuated here and there by a massive golden dome on a temple of lavish design and ornament. Soon I became aware of the silence that was lying over the land; there was almost no noise at all. Especially during the long, stifling midday hours, when the piercing white sunlight hurt the eyes and the stones and bricks became too hot to touch, the area fell completely silent; hardly a creature stirred. That was when I would retire to my comfortable, air-conditioned hotel room for a long rest.

And, indeed, the hotel was a wonderful retreat. Built on the riverbank, it comprised several new, one-story buildings, and, just beside the river, two beautiful, large, old stupas. Its striking old brick gates and the two stupas may once have been part of a larger temple compound. Opposite the entrance to the hotel stood one of the larger temples of Bagan, and across the small road, the archaeological museum, which was being renovated. In the late afternoon, seated on a wicker chair on the spacious green lawn amid the trees and the two red-brown stupas, I would sip a gin and tonic, read George Orwell's Burmese Days, and wait for the sun to set over the wide river. One evening, local leaders were hosting a welcome dinner for a government delegation from the Philippines. From a little distance away, I watched as the torches and spotlights illuminated the ancient stupas while musicians played traditional Burmese music and young men and women in colorful costumes performed folk dances. I thoroughly enjoyed these sights and sounds of Burma.

I had come to Bagan without preparation or plan, nor had I studied its history and architecture beforehand. I did not intend for it to be an educational trip; it was to be a leisurely tour, with perhaps a little unanticipated adventure thrown in. For excursions in and around Bagan, I could hire an air-conditioned car or a horse cart or rent a bicycle. On the first day, while exploring the neighborhood, I was approached by a young horse-cart driver who offered his services. He spoke English surprisingly well, with a Westminster accent. Inclined to turn him down, but needing transportation for the afternoon, I decided to hire him for half a day.

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