A Handful of Dust

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March 1st 2007
Published: March 16th 2007
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Bagan SunsetBagan SunsetBagan Sunset

The sun sets on another hot, Bagan afternoon, silhouetting the spires of temples out on the plain. © L. Birch 2007
Acre upon acre of temples, scattered across a dusty plain in the very heart of Myanmar - that was Bagan. Last of the ancient 'lost cities' that we had still to see, it captivated us in a way that Cambodia's Angkor had been unable to do. Perhaps because it was not over run with visitors and there was still space to breathe and enjoy a spiritual moment but it was also an amalgam of things; the dry desert climate - hot by day, cold by night. Cactus bushes and acacia trees. Days spent wandering or cycling among temples where, apart from postcard sellers, you hardly saw another soul. The blissful sensation of being able to sleep at night without need of a fan. Crisp, cool mornings and empty star filled nights.

One of our favourite pastimes was to climb a secret stair case and sit atop one of the temples just outside of town. With the Irrawaddy River on one side and the town on the other, I often felt overwhelmed by a sensation that I had not experienced for sometime: the feeling of being somewhere both exotic and remote. Other tourists were usually conspicuous by their absence - partly
On Her Way to MarketOn Her Way to MarketOn Her Way to Market

A Burmese woman passes Te-Gu Paya temple as she heads for the market at Nyaung-Ou. © L. birch 2007
because they were unaware of its existence but more likely because they were on time constraints and eager to see the Big Ones; the Shwesandaw, the Ananda Pahto and Thatbyinnyu temples - among others. All three were undeniably more spectacular but I still liked 'our' little temple - Te-Gu Paya, the locals called it - because it was unknown.

An earthquake in 1975 had done terrible damage to many of the temples out on the plain, some had collapsed altogether. But whereas many had lost their external stucco covering, ours still retained its original plaster coating - decorated with little embellishments like floral designs and fancy patterns around the windows. Most of all, we just loved that view from its roof. Enter the main hall with its giant seated Buddha statue and hand painted frescoes (in themselves, something of a rarity in Bagan), and you could duck into a little niche - tucked into a side wall - where a flight of brick stairs took you up onto the rooftop. Surrounded by a low crenulated wall, rather like a battlement, and studded with pointed chedi spires, the roof provided perfect views of the Irrawaddy, the vast expanse of its
Bagan OverviewBagan OverviewBagan Overview

Temple spires dominate the views at Bagan. © L. Birch 2007
dried out sandbanks and the countryside beyond... far beyond. We were rarely alone. Village children often joined us, hoping for some money or sweets, and birds wheeled constantly around the rooftops; swallows, white-rumped swifts and chirruping bee-eaters.

Te-Gu Paya was not even marked on the tourist maps that you could pick up in town, not especially surprising since there are something in the region of 4000 temples - in varying states of repair - dotted over the central plain. Built between the 8th and 14th century, many of the temples and several magnificent frescoes have survived remarkably well - thanks no doubt, to Bagan's dry, desert climate. Locals attribute the fall of Bagan to the Mongol hordes of Kubla Khan who were said to have swept across the country ransacking and destroying everything in their path. Whatever the reason, Bagan was abandoned and not recolonised again for nearly two centuries - largely because local superstition had it that the city was haunted. Nowadays, you are likely to see as many local pilgrims at the temples as foreign visitors, a good indication that locals have lost their fear of the city's ghosts.

Bagan however, was not just about temples.
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Monks would be out collecting alms early in the morning. Offerings of rice, cakes, fruit and small amounts of money usually provided their daily needs. © L. Birch 2007
Basing ourselves in the small dusty town of Nyaung Ou, for us it was also about the simple, yet pleasurable interactions with local people. The longer we stayed, the more we became recognised. Locals seemed both amused and pleased that we had so taken to their little town. "Mingala-Ba" ("Good Day") they would say as we walked past, laughing because we were still around long after most visitors had moved on. There were other simple pleasures too, like walking the dusty backstreets with shafts of sunlight piercing the dust and smoke of early morning fires. At such times, it was just pleasant to stroll and observe the world around us; women off to the market, baskets balanced on their heads. Crimson robed monks collecting alms, horse carts 'clip clopping' by, children on their way to school. We would stop for cups of sweet tea at a tea shop near the market, making other customers laugh when we greeted them in their own language or thanked the boys who brought us our steaming cups of tea.

And finally, at the end of another long, hot day - there was the sunset. Climbing up onto the terrace of a Bagan temple
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A lone figure cycles toward the Thatbyinnyu Temple on Bagan's central plain. © L. Birch 2007
- the stones still hot beneath our hands and bare feet - we would stand in the last golden rays of the sun and watch as it sank below hills to the west, the crumbling spires of a dozen chedis silhouetted against an orange sky. Dust and golden light. Acre upon acre of temples, scattered across a dusty plain in the very heart of Myanmar.


As travellers, passing through, it is all too easy to view life in Bagan as a rural idyll, but it's as well to remember that it's still in Myanmar.

In 1990, as part of a drive to 'tidy up' the country in preparation for opening its doors to tourists, the government ordered the relocation of a local village that stood within the confines of the old city walls at Bagan. The villagers were given just one week's notice to move themselves and all their belongings to a new site - a former peanut field some 3km to the south. There was nothing in place for the move; no water, no power or infrastructure. Neither was any financial compensation or support provided to the people evicted from their homes.
Getting to Know the LocalsGetting to Know the LocalsGetting to Know the Locals

Young monks on a pilgrimage to Nyaung-Ou's Shwezigon Temple, were eager to practice their English and pose for photographs. © L. Birch 2007

Local sources informed us that the evictees created a large tent city out on the plain at what is now known as "New Bagan'. Conditions however, were harsh. For weeks, food and water shortages led to hunger and - in some cases - a number of deaths. Conditions of poor health and sanitation also compounded the problems faced by the villagers.

Big government run hotels charging upward of $600 US a night now stand on the land once occupied by the villagers of Old Bagan. Sadly, in Myanmar, such stories are all too common.


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