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Published: March 26th 2012
In this deeply religious nation, it is unsurprising that Buddhism has inspired the country’s most beautiful monuments. One of the more famous is Golden Rock on Mount Kyaiktiyo, where a massive boulder’s precarious position on a ledge is attributed to it being held in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair. The most economical means to Golden Rock is by bus, and attending the ticket outlets tested my resolve as their ceilings were infested with dusty cobwebs, denoting that my feared spiders were nearby.
With seats guaranteed, the following morning saw me at an animated bus station. Clusters of young women with faces ornamented with sun-protective yellow paint derived from tree bark offered an assortment of sweets and fruits. I was surprised to see a young man with a swarthy complexion and long ebony hair carrying a poster of Aung San Suu Chi and her father, the military hero Bogyoko Aung San. The lad sauntered over to my location and whilst pointing to the smiling picture of Ms Suu Chi asked “What does the world think of her?” Knowing that conversations in places such as Myanmar can cause problems for all parties, my reply was simply, “They like her very
much.” The young man nodded his head with a thoughtful expression and departed apparently satisfied with my response.
The military-backed government in Myanmar has been criticised for suppressing political opponents and their followers, yet public support for Ms Suu Chi was occurring without any apparent reticence. This was just one indication of the changing times; immediately prior to my arrival in the country, Myanmar was chosen to host the 2014 ASEAN summit, and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited the county as evidenced by a colour photograph of Mrs Clinton meeting with Ms Suu Chi on the newspaper’s front page. Thus it is little surprise that Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party is openly contesting by-elections this coming weekend (1 April 2012).
My first bus journey in Myanmar confirmed that this country, along with Ethiopia, has the worst road infrastructure of my travels. Distances that appear insignificant on a map take hours due to being laboured with poor roads and an equally poor state of many vehicles. After journeying for two hours, the bus paused at a roadside eatery, where the corridors to some particularly putrid toilets were smothered with more of those sinister, dirty
Upon arriving at the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo, I boarded a massive lorry that hurtled up the steep roads towards Golden Rock. One most bare down tightly on the metal benches for the truck’s swerving action at each bend caused those crammed onto the benches to slide onto their neighbour. My tightened body and buttocks relaxed when the lorry finally halted, and from there, I proceeded on foot along a steep serpentine road populated by refreshment stands. It was possible to procure a porter to carry my backpack or to lavish myself by being borne on a palanquin, but these were politely declined. The sunny conditions become gradually warmer the further I climbed, but a covered shortcut, conveniently lined with souvenir shops, cooled me sufficiently to arrive at my hotel on the mountain top in a respectably dishevelled state.
Buddhist sites are best viewed near sunset and sunrise, so the final 15 minute walk to the Golden Rock was completed at these times. After paying the Foreigner Zone Fee and removing my shoes at the appointed location, I was greeted by the sight of hundreds of pilgrims relaxing, praying and posing for photographs, with some child monks
even operating remote controlled cars. The majestic Rock was indeed perched on a most peculiar angle, thus accounting for the tales it has spawned, but access was only permitted by males, so I approached this place of intense devotion to witness a constant passage of men praying whilst placing a papery square of gold leaf on the Rock. Upon leaving, I passed praying worshippers interspersed amongst transparent donation boxes brimming with local currency. Why such enormous sums of money are expected from adherents does question the motivations of those running this site, for such fiscal demands were never required in Buddhism’s earliest days.
With sunset imminent, the crowds blossomed with worshippers praying, burning incense and placing offerings of food. The sunset was tremendous for its colour, and as the ribbons of coloured light slowly melted below the horizon, bright orange lamps that illuminated the revered Rock burst into life, and these lights, like many of the pilgrims, would continue their vigil until the morn. I awoke before sunrise the following day to observe further prayers in the pre-dawn stillness that was more tranquil then the previous evening.
I embarked on the return passage to Yangon, and as expected,
walking down the mountain was far simpler, and the lorry ride far quicker. The original plan was to journey by train, but after arriving at the station on the back of a motorbike, the station master announced that the train was not expected for hours, thus contradicting the departure times sourced from the Internet and guidebook. So I was forced onto a second bus journey, including another interruption at a roadside cafe, complete with more disagreeable toilets and cobwebs.
I now commenced a clockwise journey around the nation’s major attractions, with the first destination being one of Myanmar’s most remarkable regions. The plains of Bagan are littered with 800 temples, shrines, pagodas and stupas, with transport choices involving either an 80 minute flight or a 15 hour bus ride from Yangon. Given my aversion to buses, the decision was predictably easy, despite needing to check-in at the airport prior to sunrise.
Bagan’s is infused with Buddhism; one late afternoon, I witnessed an extended line of Buddhist monks in New Bagan, with the most venerable leading approximately 50 others, each succeeding monk younger and shorter than the one immediately in front. This symmetrical arrangement proceeded leisurely along the dusty
street as people clasped hands in prayers before giving alms. Unfortunately, this was the only instance I ventured camera-less from the best valued accommodation in all of my travels, the truly wonderful Thiri Marlar Hotel
. This was a lesson learnt.
The most enjoyable method to explore Bagan is horse and buggy, and so I procured the services of a driver for two days. This more traditional transport mode is not as time efficient as contemporary motor vehicles, but reclining in a sluggish buggy, whilst listening to the clopping of horse hooves on bitumen is a delightful means of exploration. After visiting 18 sites over three days, certain favourites remain engrained in my mind.
Arguably the most famous temple was the 12th
century Ananda Pahto in Old Bagan, and understandably, it enjoyed a constant flow or visitors and worshippers. The soaring gold Buddha statues were particularly stunning as the atmospheric lighting ensured their luminescence from within darkened chambers. Since this was one of the more beautiful temples, it was accompanied by a plethora of souvenir shops and hawkers, which does detract from the experience somewhat. The further east one travelled from Old Bagan, the less frequented the temples and the fewer
the touts. The 12th
Century Sulamani Pahto was reached by crossing dirt roads lined with farmers tending to crops, it contained beautiful murals and statues within the vaulted corridors, and the overgrown garden within its walled enclosure provided a pleasant contrast to other sites. Journeying further along the same road became progressively rougher as trenches and goats would hinder our progress, but the effort was rewarded upon arrival at the 13th
Century Nandamannya Pahto, its humble size more than compensated by the finery of its frescoes, easily the best on Bagan.
Watching sunset from favourable vantage points is a popular pursuit, and thus some of the best vantage points can be so crammed with camera wielding visitors, that it does dilute the otherwise beautiful experience of observing the day’s final light. One sunset was spent at the Dhammayazika Paya, which was made more beautiful by the full moon arising in the dusky twilight. The better experience was at the Lawkananda Paya on the banks of Ayeyarwady River, and with only a few Burmese at this pagoda, it was possible to peacefully gaze at the silhouetted fishing boats gliding along the river from an elevated height, as the sinking sun concluded
yet another eventful day.
My final day was engaged in walking the seldom visited sites immediately north of New Bagan. The most impressive being the 12th
Century Nagayon Pahto, and though the central chamber was in good condition, the fuscous corridors were lined with thick, grubby cobwebs whose niches held Buddha’s smothered in a film of dirt. This site was restored by UNESCO, but their completed work must surely be dissolving due to neglect. Perhaps this is attributed to the poverty of visitors as no other tourists arrived during my hour here; and I commiserated with this temple’s stall owners as earning a living with minimal clients would be exceedingly difficult. However, this situation did allow me to settle in quietude and listen to the wind gently tinkling the bell from high upon the temple’s tower.
There was one temple experience though that easily surpassed them all. At 0430 one crisp morning, I boarded a buggy that travelled along benighted, empty roads and dirt paths until arriving at the Minyeingon Pahto. With my headlamp casting its beam on the inky surrounds, I entered the temple and climbed the irregular stone steps to the higher levels, where only a
handful of hardier souls then me were already awaiting the forthcoming sunrise, but numbers later increased as lines of photographers with tripods and cameras at the ready patiently waited. As the nascent glow seeped across the sky, farming families awakened and prepared for their day by firing cooking furnaces into life, causing plumes of smoke to rise and disperse amongst the trees and temples of Bagan, and diffusing the lower part of this scene in a blanket of haze. Wispy clouds were adumbrated by traces of orange, and when the golden orb peeped above the distant hills, a cacophony of camera clicks filled my ears. The sun’s rays pierced the settled smoke, causing the formation of shadowy shapes, but this magical scene concluded far too soon whereupon the sunrise’s final episode stanza occurred, when three hot air balloons rose into the now pastel sky. These deftly dancing balloons dropped and lifted above the elegant spires of Bagan’s temples and shrines. As the photographers dispersed and the balloons drifted from sight, the now fulgent sun fully revealed the magnificence of the countless timeless temples that grace this golden land.
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