Myanmar 5: Bagan... & some reflections

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March 20th 2011
Published: March 28th 2011
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Kyaung of BaganKyaung of BaganKyaung of Bagan

There are Kyaung (Stupa's and associated temples) 'everywhere'.

Myanmar Part 5

This 'blog' is the fifth (and last) describing our time in Myanmar (Burma to some).

If you missed earlier 'episodes' in this series, you can find #1 here , #2 here , #3 here , and #4 here .

As posts in the previous 'episodes' noted, when in Myanmar, we had the 'trouble' of very slow internet speeds. Given this, we were unable to add pictures to the previous 'blogs' in this series. Interestingly, when we were at the Yangon airport, we were able to access the internet with very fast speeds. It appears that very fast internet is available only to those 'related' to the Junta.

As we have returned to Australia, the various pictures have been uploaded to this blog.

As always, if you want to 'see' more detail in an accompanying picture, Left Hand 'click' on it to enlarge.

* * * It is perhaps appropriate to recite the final two paragraphs from our previous 'episode' so as to 'set the scene' for this, our time in Bagan...

"At the Bagan airport, we were asked to present our passports. For a domestic flight, we'd assumed this was unnecessary. But, then, this is a Junta state! When
Thatbyinnyu PahtoThatbyinnyu PahtoThatbyinnyu Pahto

A temple built during the 'middle' period of the empire.
giving the passports we were then asked to give US$10 each. We protested, they flicked our passports at us, so we picked them up and walked out. We secured the last taxi to take us the the town of New Bagan and our pre-booked accommodation. As we settled into the back seats, a man ran over to the driver and said something. The driver told us we had to pay the $20 before he could take us. After some conversation, where we remained resolute, the driver went and sat under a big tree and began talking to another.

After a while (now around 9pm), we figured that the Junta would not let him drive, and as the town of Nyuang Oo was some 2km away we ought walk there and try our luck for a taxi. As we left the airport, a motorcyclist approached us and asked if we wanted a ride. We arranged for another to join him and together we'd go to New Bagan. Just as the other motorist arrived, a Junta 'man' came to warn them off. We continued walking. We noticed several Junta people come by. Eventually we got to Nyuang Oo, and went under

Earthquakes over years, and especially in 1975, have wrought their toll. Here is an example of refurbishment paid for by European nations.
a shoplight to look at Lonely Planet for directions to an hotel. The shop owner came out seeking to help. Just then, a Junta man arrived and went into the shop. Something was said and the shop owner went back inside. As we departed, we noticed a shady entrance to a property and ducked in there. We were afraid that every point of contact would be denied. We wanted to book into an hotel before the Junta man arrived. That way, we could get some sleep. Eventually we scurried out and down a laneway to try and avoid being followed. We must have given them the slip as we were able to get our way to a comfortable hotel (without hassle), book in and get a good night's sleep."

Friday 18th March 2011.


After breakfast, and the Junta 'front' seemingly quiet, we went to the hotel lobby to book for another 3 nights and organise 'affairs'. The booking paperwork had a section for the number of the $10 'Archeological Site Visitation Fee'. The manager insisted we had to pay this fee, or he'd have to increase the room price accordingly, so
Tharabar GateTharabar GateTharabar Gate

On each side of Tharabar gate are a nat. Here, also, is an example of a pony express; Bagan style. Note the ribbed rubber 'tyres' to allow traction in the (often very) sandy tracks.
we couldn't avoid it. A tax is a tax, but this fee left a bad taste as we are told by locals that it merely goes into the pockets of the Junta.

In many towns we'd visited in Myanmar, we'd seen pony carts used as public transport vehicle. Knowing that they were used in Bagan for tourists to look at the (largish) historical area, we figured we'd await Bagan for a 'try'.

With the 'all clear', and being early (to avoid the bulk of tourists) we hopped aboard the 'pony express'. As it transpired, it certainly was no 'pony express'.

The driver took off, only to deviate after 5 minutes to go and get some horse shoes. Then, by the time we were 'back on track' some 1/2 hour later, the driver made HIS way to the sites. Trotting past one of the initial sites we'd asked him to visit, he became irritated when we indicated we wanted to visit there. As it transpired, the site was Tharabar Gate, where locals go and give an offering to the nat to be protected for the day/journey. A nat is a spirit (there are 37 of them in Myanmar),
Gawdawpalin PahtoGawdawpalin PahtoGawdawpalin Pahto

An example of a 'late' period Kyaung.
and while the nat is not part of Buddhist culture they are said to represent a pre-Buddhist belief in animism. Maybe the driver was one of those devout believers (here Buddhism) who will do all to deny the veracity of others' beliefs.

After a couple of hours wandering in and around various Stupa's dotted across the landscape, we eventually hit the main road. By now, we had developed a 'sense' for the area. The scale upon which the Pagan 'empire' built structures on this fertile plain was immense. There are Kyaung - a grouping of Stupa &/or Temples to represent an important Buddhist aspect dotted everywhere. We'd read that though the area had been occupied by Pyugan society for over 2000 years, the 'golden period' was some 1000 years ago and lasted merely 300 years. Apparently, the transition occurred as the then king of Pyugan society adopted Theravada Buddhism over the incumbent Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. And, to 'prove' the validity of the newly adopted religion, a building spree was undertaken in earnest. From what we've read, the demise of the Pyugan 'empire' appears to have centred on an inept king fearing the potential of the Mongolian Kublai Khan. To shore up defences, many of the religious buildings were torn down for the bricks in order to build a defensive wall. That, apparently, spelt the beginning of the end as far as it being a centre for religious and administrative power.

We couldn't quite follow the logic of the joint use of the term pagan and Bagan. One source said Bagan was a derivation of Pyugan (Pyu people), while another suggested Bagan is a modern name to avoid the now stigmatised term pagan. We understand that the word pagan comes from the Greek (meaning rural or rustic), and it was not used by Christians to denote atheistic beliefs until the middle ages (around 1200AD). So, there may well be truth in the view that Bagan is a modern term.

Back to our 'sightseeing'... At some bridgeworks, with a by-pass down into the dry creek bed area, the horse appeared to refuse to go forward. We offered to walk across so that the driver could manage without us. The driver suggested we go look at a couple of sites, and he'd meet us at the last one.

After wandering around for quite some time, we could not
Abeyadana PahtoAbeyadana PahtoAbeyadana Pahto

Inside this temple are both Hindu & Buddhist portrayals.
find the driver. We looked around some more at other Kyaung - a grouping of Stupa to represent an important Buddhist aspect - we decided the driver must have given us the flick. Being not far from New Bagan, we decided to go there for lunch and take in the other Kyaung along the way.

At one sight, we 'discovered' that on the interior walls of ediface were paintings attributable to Hindu, Mahayana Buddhism as well as Theravada Buddhism. Though the 'keyholder' said no photography, we could ever only see using the flash of our camera. That bats were hanging from the roof, we figured that taking a photo with a flash would do less harm than the bat population.

Eventually we got to New Bagan, and quenched our now considerable thirst with a freshly squeezed, sweetened lime juice drink. We stumbled across the Munich couple we'd earlier befriended, so we all went to a cafe for a chinwag. Later, we headed for the nearby Ayerwaddy River and a light lunch; it was far too hot to contemplate looking at Kyaung!

Later, we caught the local bus - a utility 'truck' - back to Nyuang Oo. Along

Late era temple.
the way, the pony cart driver yelled to the attention of the 'conductor' to stop. Upon seeing him, we exchanged some 'pleasantries' and eventually paid him some money. Seems he had a completely different version of where he'd meet us than where he told us - like 3 miles back from the dry creekbed!


...wind and heat!!!!

The day opened up hot, and the wind was quite strong - even at brekkie time. Knowing that most of the Kyaung are in/around dry and dusty areas, we decided being sandblasted wasn't our idea of a holiday. So, we just relaxed with 'time out' for us. It turned out to be good decision - the afternoon temperature was hot and we were told over 42C.

That evening, we ventured to a Stupa in Nyuang Ooo close to the Ayerwaddy River as we'd heard it was a good site to see the sun set. When there, we found that the 'platform' that may have enabled an advantage point had been closed. So, we went in search of the river itself to look at the sunset. Following a track towards dwellings, we were approached by
Shwezigon PayaShwezigon PayaShwezigon Paya

Being close to Nuang Oo, this Stupa receives much attention (and gold paint) from locals.
a local wanting to 'help us'. This treasure not only took us directly to the river via the only path leading there from the village, but wanted to stay with us as we enjoyed the sunset.

Accompanying us back up the river bank, we were directed along a path that just happened to run past his home (what a coincidence)! All the houses were made of woven bamboo 'panels', and contained within the small lot by a woven bamboo fence. Ushering us into the 'yard', this treasure signalled for the old man resting on a bamboo 'reclining' chair to vacate for us. Aside from the fact that the old man was his father-in-law, we'd have no part of it. Instead, we signalled for the old man to stay. We were introduced to the family, the neighbours, and the various animals. within seconds, most of the neighbourhood seemed to be in the 'yard'.

Before us was a 'shanty-house' much the same as neighbouring houses. The one small floor area of the house served to accommodate all members of the family. There was no doubt to us that privacy was not possible. Body & clothes washing was done at the river, and water for cooking/drinking came from a communal tap in the street.

Compared to the wooden houses in the 'Main' street, this was a shantytown. Though we were the 'attraction', whenever a comment was made (amongst the locals) it seemed everyone became 'engaged' with the subject. Given the circumstances, it appeared to us that everyone seemed to be on good terms with each other.

The contrast between this friendly shantytown and the Australian suburb could not be overstated. Australians are well off, yet adopt a defensive and insular approach to neighbours. Mmmmmm!!!


...Mt Popa

With the overnight temperature hovering above 30C, we thought it wise not to further explore the remaining Kyaung in the dusty plain, but take a taxi to Mt Popa.

Sharing with others to reduce the cost, the taxi driver ventured eastwards. Once out of town, the flat plain was periodically crossed with sand rivers. No bridges here, just a sand track. It appears that in the wet season, the rivers spew the sand filled waters towards the Ayerwaddy River. When trafficable, motorists venture across the sandy river bed. Maintenance is merely the grading

The brick chimney reveals the primary purpose - producing sugar from the sap of the palm trees (behind). Note the ladder up the palm. In the wet season, the background land will be a green 'sea' of peanut plants.
of the sand bed to remove the accumulated bulldust. Being dry season, the sand road was now metres below the river 'base'.

The agriculture of the plain is primarily palm sugar and peanuts. Our taxi driver stopped along the way to allow us to look at the production process. Locals 'tap' the sugar from palm trees - many of which are quite tall. They use bamboo ladders to get to the top of the palm, and cut the end of both the male and female flower stalks. Then a 30cm pot is tied over the cut end to collect the slowly dripping palm fluid. The fluid is collected and boiled down. Inside palm leaf houses, a brick hearth enables cow dung to be burnt. The heat is 'harnessed' horizontally - where there are several large holes for woks. The palm liquid is here boiled down into a heavy syrup. The ingenuity used to harvest the liquid and make the syrup surprised us. It just goes to show that we who live in the 'modern' world aren't necessarily that advanced!

Between the many palm trees, locals grow peanuts. The dry sandy soil meant cultivation was relatively easy at this
Boiling down the sapBoiling down the sapBoiling down the sap

Note the sandy floor, a surface upon which family affairs are played out every day.
time of year, and much was being undertaken. Once the rains come, locals have just one shot for a crop (per year). But, it wasn't the agricultural practices the 'got' us. Rather, it was that these people all rent the land from the Junta, and whatever benefit they derive from their labour is largely 'captured' by the Junta. Despite this, the 'labourer' families erect palm thatched dwellings, with water stored in large earthenware vessels. Sadly, there are no schools in these agricultural regions so children gain no formal education.

Eventually the road began to climb, and after a short while the taxi driver had us at a village at the top of a mountain range. The village services the Mt Popa 'community' (including daytrippers). Mt Popa is actually a volcanic plug sitting aside the volcanic rim that is the mountain. And, as is the case in Myanmar, the top of every significant hill/mountain has a temple complex. When viewing Mt Popa from the village, it is a massive rock outcrop with an equally massive temple complex sitting on top. And, up the side of the rock outcrop is a steep, covered access stairway.

As is usual, we removed
Mt PopaMt PopaMt Popa

This is a temple complex on an aged volcanic (core) plug.
our sandals at the stairway entrance and started on the long climb to the temple. Both sides of the stairway are cluttered with vendors, and along the way we were also 'harassed' by monkeys. Visitors buy packs of seeds to feed the monkeys, so they are constantly seeking food. Eventually we got to the summit and found a great view over the plain (below). Also, the breeze was decidedly cool after the heat of the plain.

While in the temple complex, we came across some Junta members. We'd earlier noticed a plethora of police cars in the village. While not now in military uniforms, the mass of sycophants hovering around clearly demonstrated the situation. It was sad to see the attending monks fawning to the Junta members, but in this very polarised society we suppose that's to be expected.

The return to Nyuang Oo was uneventful, the heat on our return highlighted the benefit of our destinational choice.

That evening, while sipping an ice cold beer, down the dusty road came a noisy procession. It was colourful, had so many elements, but no-one could explain to us what it signified nor what religion it represented.


...towards Australia

The flight out of Bagan revealed much about the landscape. Across the centre of the nation are a series of (generally) lowish blocking mountain ranges. The major rivers had long ago found a way through. But, the sediment filled plains that remain reveal the agricultural potential of Myanmar. If only a more organised way could be found to capture and harness the large annual rainfall, and utilise some of the modern technologies to farm more productively. Then again, maybe the currently labour intensive methods serve to distribute the limited wealth across more of the population.

- - - - - - -

Some reflections

With the exception of Japan, when we've travelled in an Asian nation we've found much to enjoy but have also been confronted with challenges that have tempered our pleasures. Our journey in Myanmar was no exception.

We can distill our experiences to those that gave us joy and/or excitement, and those that annoyed/frustrated us. Rather than end on a negative, we'll first identify those aspects that annoyed/frustrated us.

Personally, we were disappointed that the Junta had cordoned off so many areas from access. We were also disappointed that the freedom to move around Myanmar outside of cities has now been limited to a car with driver or a bicycle. We understand that about a decade ago, access to motorbikes by tourists was forbidden. We really missed that aspect.

We were also disappointed to see so many checkpoints on roads where both tourist vehicles and local people had to pay a fee (tax). That the Junta is exploiting the nations' resources to sell to China (and leaving little to the future in the wake of extraction) begs the question as to why it is also 'taxing' the people.

On a similar note, the price of petrol is some US$2.50 - $3.00 per litre. This serves to diminish investment into technology. With largish oil reserves (relative to demand), it is sad that most is sold to China. And with the continued 'problem' of electricity blackouts, that the Junta has allowed China to build a massive dam on the Ayerwaddy River for hydro power and all the power goes to China is indicative of the attitude by the Junta towards their nation.

Oxen are still widely used for tillage - the small Chinese universal tractor is deemed unaffordable for many. We were told of prices of around US$600 for an Ox, and about double that for the Chinese universal tractor. Central was that farmersfelt they couldn't afford the cost of fuel. As has been shown in other SE Asian nations, this Chinese universal tractor enables that level of efficiency such that farmers can get their family's heads 'above the water'.

We were also disappointed that like Vietnam, the Junta has educated the population to jack up the prices charged to tourists. The consequence is that one has to negotiate a price BEFORE buying a product; it is so time wasteful. A little is OK, a massive amount is offensive.

We couldn't help notice that two nations were benefiting from the Junta; China and Japan. In the case of Japan, there is a great demand for second hand Japanese vehicles - even though new Chinese made vehicles are lower in price. We assumed the Japanese gov't was helping with subsidies. In the case of China, the western nations should be ashamed. Adopting a critical stance of the Junta, their absence means they neither share in the sale of the Myanmar resources, nor are able to leverage influence that results from such trade 'relations'. Instead, china has no competitor and appears to be buying Myanmar's resources at bargain basement prices.

An oddity we found confusing is the 'drive' side on roads. We understood that when the Socialists came to power, they changed from (British) left hand drive, to right hand drive. However, the vast majority of both old and new vehicles are left hand drive (with all the incumbent problems that that generates). Given the preference for used Japanese vehicles, it appeared to us that the simplest solution would be to return to left hand drive. But, who are we to suggest logic in this nation.

Somewhere during our time in Myanmar we came to the view that this was still a feudal society. While the structure of a king or emperor and the attendant courtesans has been replaced by Junta and sycophants, the acquisition of resources by the controlling body for its own use remains as it has for thousands of years.

Perhaps the major difference is that in past times, the public were less knowing of other administrative possibilities than is the case today. But, in some respects it matters little. The key point for a 'successful' feudal society is that the rulers exact their rule harshly. The Junta has well demonstrated a harsh application of power.

In the dryish arid areas, life in Myanmar is hard. But as we saw in so many markets, there is no shortage of fresh food. The 'hardship' for most Myanmar people is the lack of financial capacity to access modern western goods that might serve to enhance their life.

~ ~

It is all too easy to compare one place with another. That Myanmar is but a feudal society, with its assets being (over)exploited by the elite (Junta) on a moral level it is hard to find attributes that allowed Myanmar to shine (over other places).

For us, Myanmar as both a place and a people has a special charm that cannot be 'rated' by comparison to elsewhere.

We liked the acceptance of multiculturalism. While everyone is firstly a Myanmar person, all those we talked to were quite happy to note their ethnic roots; Sth Indian, Chinese, Bamar, Shan, Rakhaing, etc. And, there appeared no negative portrayal by a member of one group towards another - despite the fact that Bamar are predominant.

Outside of the cities of Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay, there is a compelling quietude. Yes, babies cry, dogs bark, and people have words. But, we point to something else - life goes on quietly and the people generally appear not to make a fuss over matters. Put simply, things just are!!!.

Because of the (imposed) economic constraints in most people's lives, technical improvisation is the norm. We got much joy from seeing the different ways people innovated to inexpensively get around an otherwise major cost item. Seemingly complex 'problems' are often solved in simple ways. The most ingenious was a concrete mixer. How does one get enough wet concrete to make a slab? Maybe many small mixers, but what about blend ratio's? Maybe a 'readymix' truck, but what of cost, etc.? Answer? Get the barrel of an old 'readymix' truck, but without the drive motor. With that, install an oxen driven mill-wheel and a set of cogs and the old 'readymix' barrel is ready to go.

The irony of Myanmar is that in spite of the harsh feudal treatment by the Junta and the large proportion of people with next to no wealth, the 'ordinary' Myanmar person is incredibly giving and happy.

Is it possible that wealth and happiness is an inverse relationship? Or, could it be that the level of happiness is an outcome of the very entrenched practice of Theravada Buddhism.

Whichever, the Myanmar people have much to teach we westerners about relative happiness.




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