Is this proof of a God?

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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Bagan
February 3rd 2012
Published: February 28th 2012
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Once you have seen one temple, you’ve seen ‘em all right? WRONG. Bagan is famous for the ridiculous number of temples which dot the landscape in the most haphazard of ways. It’s almost as if a bloke with a bit of money came along, found a bit of land and built a pagoda, a huge temple or a stupa. A bit like Pokemon fads or even pogs (remember them? I was King of the pogs at school obliterating entire piles of them with my home made keeney) they come with a rush, one day one person has them and then before you know it, everyone is exchanging pokemon cards or fighting for them. Bagan reminds me of one of those fads, once one pagoda or stupa was built others decided to jump on the band wagon and start filling up the empty space; so obsessive with their construction industry, thousands were built.

I spent the first day on bike with my lungs heaving away; they have rapidly decreased in the last eight months since I have been unable to run. I say unable, I left my trainers in Cambodia by accident and it’s just too darn hot to do exercise; I promise I will start running again when I get back to England. As my little legs peddle furiously away in an attempt to turn the tiny wheels faster it shocks me that only ten months ago I ran a marathon; how can I have degenerated to this? But as I passed each temple I was mightily unimpressed. Sure some were lovely to see and others more grand, but nothing screamed “look at me I am beautiful and magnificent”! So I kept on cycling.

Disappointingly, the last ditch attempt was to find a quiet spot for sunset. I trundled off in the direction of a quiet temple recommended to me earlier by a Burmese chef. I got there early and scaled the deatheningly steep climb aided with a much needed hand rail. As I reached the top, out of breathe and again shocked at my lack of fitness, I turned to a marvel which left me speechless, breathless, and incredulous; I am pretty sure my heart actually stopped for a second or two. The site my eyes beheld was do I explain it? I’m not sure I can. All those pagodas, stupas and temples I saw up close which I felt nothing for earlier on in the day suddenly pounced at me in unison forcing my entire body overcome with such inexplicable emotion. As far as the eye could see, temples littered the panorama as they disappeared in to the horizon. I sat, in quiet and in peace admiring the handy work of man and the passion of those whose beliefs knew no bounds. As these temples, constructed out of blood, sweat, tears and terrifying amounts of love, glistened in the retreating sun, one can only consider the feats of mankind and the reasons why this number was built.

As the sun retreated behind the hills, the temples magically changed colours, mist rose mysteriously from the ground encircling the stupas and I waited with baited breath for some superior being to speak from the heavens. Buildings have never made me contemplate the idea of a God or catapulted me in to belief. I have only ever felt the numinous when studying the clouds or the night sky punctured with burning balls of gas. But as I sit here with the thousands upon thousands of temples shrouded in mist and smothered in orange luminosity, I can only but contemplate the powers of a God and the influence of religion upon man. I must say here that I am not religious, when I started my travels I was an agnostic and have written about this in earlier posts but I can assuredly say that I am a confirmed atheist now. I do not believe in a God, and not even a personal God. But I can still respect, marvel and admire certain religious traditions and practices which are harmless but beautiful. Bagan is one such wonder, an incredible feat of love and dedication to faith, but a shocking realisation of just how powerful belief can be.

I watched the sun fade, the most incredible sun set I have ever witnessed and one I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see. Sadly I was not alone; turns out I went to the wrong temple – I found myself watching the sunset with thousands of others. As I sat on one of the highest peaks of the temple, I got there early so had the best seats in the house, I watched the hundreds of European travellers on their Burmese Government tours attempt to clamber up the steep climb fearful one might fall to their death. The Koreans were the most worrying to watch with huge cameras swinging around their necks, ridiculous hats obscuring their vision and complete with baby attached to hip. Every so often, someone I call ‘The National Geographic’ turned up; he is dressed in trousers with zip off legs, beard, sweaty khaki t-shirt, large suede hat and humongous camera with protruding lens, massive tripod and camera bag which could fit a large baby in. I am jealous of this sort; I would love to be a photographer for the National Geographic and slyly observe them with obsessive interest.

With the sun gone, the Europeans and Koreans safely aboard their air conditioned buses, I took the opportunity to sit alone for a little longer and admired the beauty of the sheer number of temples. It is like watching a crowd of people; one person alone is uninteresting but hundreds of thousands of people marching together in peaceful protest, like the ones we have seen many a time throughout the Labour campaign in the UK is dumbfounding. One could liken it to a football stadium filled to the rafters cheering on in unison, or maybe a gig when the singer stops and points the microphone at the audience and every participator starts to sing the song together. Startlingly it can’t be dissimilar to a church audience during prayer or hymn when every member of the congregation chimes in harmony uttering the same words at the same time. Bagan is surely a remarkable city of temples, particularly when seen from high above; it is the sheer physical number when seen together which is overwhelming. A view which evokes tremendous religious or philosophical thought as well as devastating emotion when contemplating humanity and it’s past.

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I had great expectations of Bagan, particularly as so many people I had met on my travels boasted about this temple riddled land. The view from above was indeed glorious, it was remarkable and a vision I am unlikely to forget. However, the town was touristy, filled with guesthouse after guesthouse and a dust track road conveniently called 'restaurant row' - a bit like Siem Reap who cleverly names their tourist trap 'Pub Street'. I want to remark how sad this is, how it only goes to show the sample of clientele who dain to frequent those western establishments; and they are western, run by westerners in Siem Reap. Bagan is a little different, but I really hope they are not intending to expand in similar ways; Siem Reap was a hole with a few beautiful temples filled with too many disgusting drunk western backpackers with their bottoms hanging out of hot pants who clearly care little for the sensitivities of culture. I really hope this never happens to Burma.

The reason why I am writing this little bit is because when I was in the planning stages looking for places to stay or any tips from other travelers I found very little. Burma is beautiful but many of the people who work in the tourist industry are greedy; they have hiked up their prices, rooms cost up to $20 or more and this of course is unforgiving on the purse strings, especially if, like me, you had envisioned less based on the posts of others and the guide books and brought with you an amount to suffice for those prices - be warned there are NO ATM's in Burma. Before I get emails of disagreement over the term 'greedy' it is indeed greed for many; as one hotel owner put it to me "there is not enough hotel rooms for all the tourists so because there is such high demand we can charge more". I told him that this will only serve to put us tourists off and we wont come back, or worse still, we will tell others not to come until they have enough money. He then tried to compare his hotel and prices with those of London. One can argue supply and demand, and I am pleased there is greater development for these people but as I had not predicted this hike-up of charges my money could not stretch far enough and I actually ended up having to leave early. If I had known about these charges I would either have prepared better and brought more money or I would have considered putting off my visit to Burma until I had enough money.

So, if you go to Bagan in high season, in fact anywhere in high season you will need to book ahead. Saying that, you can only book a day or two ahead as they will not take bookings three or more days ahead, they will tell you they are booked without even looking at their books. There are so many tourists visiting Burma now, especially on the tourist trail hotel rooms are suddenly in high demand.

Everyone find their own place to eat along restaurant row but I felt most travellers avoided the smaller establishments and would fill out the big restaurants which proclaim their write-up in the guide books in big bold letters outside. However, if you eat along restaurant row, there is a lovely little place which was overlooked by most travellers, the name escapes me but it is on the left handside as you walk up off the main road, and it serves Tibetan and Nepalese food. The food here was the best we had in the whole of Burma; it was incredible.

Another place to have a look (which served the best ice coffee in the whole of my travels of Asia) is a little establishment called 'Weatherspoon' names after the chain 'weatherspoons' in England. The guy who runs it was educated and lived in Bristol for a year and fell in love with the pub chain. It is nothing like weatherspoons but he was taught by a fench chef and the food is good. You cannot miss this place as it is just along the main road towards 'restaurant row'.

Additional photos below
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28th February 2012

Shame on these people for understanding supply and demand and causing you to pay 1/5 of what you would for a room in the west. Your prejudice towards western backpackers is disgusting as well. You need to look at yourself for a moment.
28th February 2012

Jason, this is not a forum for abusive comments. Please read my blog carefully, you have clearly misunderstood. Western backpackers who trollop around in hot pants and low cut tops off their faces is not pretty in the West and is even worse when seen in Asia. Those types of travellers give the rest of us who are culturally aware a bad name. This is not prejudice, though since you are using it you should probably look up the meaning of the word.
28th February 2012

The question is rhetorical...
but traveling around Asia where the people are much more attuned to the spiritual world does cause Westerners to reflect on our sole focus on the material world. Quite a few bloggers have been to Burma recently; possibly because the military junta seems to be granting their people more freedoms. When Linda and I visited Burma in 1974 (see [blog=616137]), we were the only tourists around. Imagine having Bagan all to yourself...but sadly those days are gone. I agree strongly with you that guests to a country should respect the customs in what we wear and say and do. Being polite is not prejudice.
28th February 2012

I envy that opportunity. Burma was incredible, and in all fairness there were very few tourists in comparison to other Asian countries. But it is high season and people are flocking there, and I am not surprised. It is a country which captures your heart. It was so beautiful and the people were so kind and generous. It is definitly one place I will go back to in a few years time and I can see myself frequently going back to visit.
28th February 2012

Critisise if you think it's warranted
We were in Burma 5 years back and things seem to have changed drastically already. Back then tourists were very thin on the ground and subsequently it was extremely cost effective. It is a question of supply and demand and guide books will need to hurry to keep abreast of price hikes for unsuspecting travellers. If you think something is worth criticising, then don't be gagged at the risk of upsetting someone. A blog overflowing with lip service is prostituting yourself. Try reading my next instalment on Hawaii in a day or so, man I give it to Hawaiin surfers.
29th February 2012

Thank you
Thank you for another interesting blog, with more great pictures. The info for people planning to visit Burma is really useful as we are planning to visit in 2013 - thanks for your honesty and for expressing your opinions so well. take care.
29th February 2012

What about transportation? how did you go from one place to the next one? Could you tell me your itinerary, please? I ask you all these questions because I am planningmy trip to that region. Thank you. Graciela.
29th February 2012

another great blog! I do admire women who travel alone... I wish I could but I'm not brave enough and I'll probably and sadly be one of those tourists inside an air-con bus! keep the blogs coming, I really enjoy reading them
29th February 2012

How is it that so many amazing sights in this World are promotion or result of belief in a God?...I can name a zillion...Bagan is clearly one of them. Glad to see Burma is open for business...thanks for that...all I need is to feel safe...the rest follows...never a dull moment...yep...put Burma on the list.

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