'Discover Burma' is the travel mantra of 2014 it would seem - in every list and travel guide we are being told to visit Burma whilst it's still untouched and before the hordes of tourists have despoiled it. Well, sorry to say folks, but Myanmar is well and truly discovered. Having lived in Mandalay the past few months during low season, the closest we've come to tourists is the usual smattering of German backpackers you find everywhere, mostly looking confused and hot on random street corners.
Come high season however, and suddenly they all come out of the woodwork (well, from Australia, France and Germany mostly). Fleets of coaches are suddenly everywhere, plus a surprising number of families with very young children. Whilst I admire any parent dedicated enough to want to travel with their kids, I'm not quite sure what four-year-olds are getting from a (presumably ridiculously expensive) trip to Myanmar. And having experienced the Myanmar medical system first-hand, it is not something I would think parents of young children would want to risk.
This morning saw us bleary-eyed and not at all bushy-tailed waiting for a flight to Bagan (thank goodness the 5am one had been cancelled
late last night and we had been moved to the slightly more normal time of 8am.)
I'm getting to be a rather nervous flyer in my old age. Even if I weren't, I don't think the state of Myanmar-owned planes would imbue me with much confidence. Travellers are warned to avoid one airline entirely due to it's dreadful safety record, and all the others seem to consist of reject 'planes from the 1960s.
After a rather bumpy landing in Bagan (the whole flight having been spent watching the rattling panel on the inside of the plane that was missing most of its bolts) it was straight off to visit the first of many (many!) pagodas. Uncultured peasant that I seem to be becoming, all I wanted was a hot bath at the truly amazing hotel we're staying in (in my defence it's been cold bucket-showers for three months so I am rather looking forward to a little bit of luxury!)
Starting with possibly the most impressive (or at least, the shiniest) was a trip to see Shwezigon Pagoda. Completely covered in gold leaf (a process that needs to be repeated every eight years), we had already seen
something very similar in Mandalay at the World's Biggest Book. And apparently there is another one practically the same in Yangon. It was the mid-point between the 're-leafing' period so it was suitably impressive without being ridiculous and tacky.
Bagan is unbelievably huge. When you're told you can cycle between all the temples I rather imagined a giant, dusty plain which (with some pedal power) could be covered end to end in a day. Honestly, I don't even know where Bagan ends as the 'site' is truly the size of a city incorporating several villages/towns, many resorts and proper roads between the never-ending temples.
The temples tend to end up blurring into one, apart from the largest 'signature' sites. Even the guides can't really tell them all apart - the little ones are simply numbered.
Despite the hoards of tourists Bagan remains a very impressive site. However, the saddest part is the lack of care and effort that goes into preserving the remaining temples. Considering half have already been destroyed by time, weather and visiting 'archeologists' you would think the government would make an effort to preserve what's left. Sadly, whilst encouraging tourism, conservation falls by the
And with so many tourists coming it can only get worse. Upon seeing a tourist having climbed directly onto the roof of a small pagoda, hanging onto the dome to get the perfect selfie, out guide could only politely ask him to take his shoes off before climbing onto religious buildings. Apparently there are so few rules that the guides are unable to tell idiotic people to get the hell off the already-crumbling constructions.
This was only further emphasised when we arrived at the temple for sunset. The main platform was large enough, there were stairs to an upper balcony but apparently this was not enough for most people and latecomers decided they would climb above everyone else onto the roof, incidentally covering the people below them with a shower of dust and loose stones. If this was the level of damage from one evening I dread to think what damage has already been done to that temple between then and writing this now.
So please, if you are fortunate enough to be able to travel to amazing places, take a moment to consider that getting that 'perfect' photo a metre or two above everyone else
really isn't worth damaging an ancient monument. And I can only hope that the government gets its act together in better regulating tourism and the conservation that this amazing site deserves.
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