Bagan, the glory of magical Myanmar


Myo Myint

No history of Myanmar is complete without recounting the greatness of the Bagan period (9th to 13th century AD). So also for foreign tourists, no visit to Myanmar, however perfect, it may be is complete without seeing the ancient landscape of Bagan bedecked with the spires of over 2200 pagodas and temples within a radius of about two and a half miles, a sight unparalleled in the world that will always remain in the visitors’ memory.  So also, for a Myanmar Buddhist, life is not fully lived unless he/she has worshipped in the famed ancient pagodas of Bagan and seen for themselves their ancestors’ strong faith in Buddhism.
Lured by Bagan’s glorious history, legends, its pagoda-studded landscape, thousands of Buddha images and stone inscriptions of pagoda donors, royal and humble, I have travelled there three times, with a gap of about a decade after every visit. The first visit was in 1991, the second in 2004 and the third a couple of weeks ago. The first visit was made memorable entering dreamlike the old city through the ancient Tharaba gateway at twilight, with the awe akin to that of a country boy first setting foot in the mystical royal city, the centre of one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia during its heyday.  Two and a half decades ago, when I first set foot in Bagan, most of the pagodas were still untouched and unrepaired by eager merit seekers. There were few tourists and still fewer hotels, the most well-known being the Thande hotel located romantically on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady River and within reach of many of the famous, or in Myanmar terms, the potent pagodas. The second visit saw the ghastly renovations done to centuries old pagodas by inexperienced and ignorant labourers funded by the donations of equally ignorant but wealthy donors hungry for merit to atone for their many sins.  The third and most recent visit, after a gap of another decade saw further changes. This time it is the change wrought by the huge influx of hotels in faux-Bagan architecture, some of them of international standard, and glass-fronted restaurants some built close to archeological sites. At one time, the road leading from Nyaung Oo to Pagan was an almost empty narrow tarred road with just a few horse carts transporting the handful of tourists around the city during the day, and with unlighted ruined pagodas doting the roadside, at night the road looked ghostly in the pale moonlight. Now the road is in a much better condition, probably because it has been widened, and it is lined by liquor-serving restaurants, some with foreign sounding names, shops selling lacquer ware souvenirs, and bicycle and motorcycle renting services.  More lanes have now been added giving easy access to some pagodas that had been inaccessible before. Those who have visited tourist resorts like Bali, and the famous beaches of a neighbouring country will be reminded of the atmosphere of some parts of the places, while they make their way in sedans to the numerous pagodas in the heart of Bagan. The touristy atmosphere is enhanced by the sight of mostly Westerner tourists, practicing economy, making their way from one pagoda to another on motor bikes and bicycles. The number of horse carts seems to have declined; obviously, the carts drawn by weary horses have given way to vehicles with engines of a variety of horse powers.
As we attempt to visit as many pagodas as possible during the limited time available, we catch sight of those pagodas that have been renovated during the past decade which stand out like sore thumbs among the thousands of ancient pagodas of a variety of sizes, heights and architectural styles because the modern bricks made in the style of the broad Bagan bricks that have been used in the renovation have still not lost its modernity and does not merge in too well with the ancient bricks. Fortunately, most of the pagodas that has undergone renovation are minor ones and not the highly venerated ones.  Still, one sees here and there, the touch of modern civilization and convenience among the pagodas which unfortunately has affected their unique architectural beauty and will in the long-term probably affect the stability of the ancient pagodas. One such edifice is the Alo Taw Pyay Pagoda which attracts thousands of worshippers drawn by its name, meaning wish fulfilling. The windows of the pagoda have been fixed with clumsy looking glass panes, electric lights and air conditioners with ugly air-conditioning pipelines running within and outside the pagoda (now switched off) have been installed and the floor carpeted. One can see no logical reason for the modern contraptions and additions (unless it had delighted some VIPS who came there to recite long prayers to grant their wishes for longevity, prosperity and glory) because the Myanmar architects of more than a thousand years ago, with their local wisdom and knowledge of the prevailing weather conditions have designed many of the religious buildings in such a way that they are serviced with adequate natural light and ventilation.
Those fortunate enough to travel to Bagan in their car will be able to get to the many isolated pagodas and temples standing close to cultivated land among tall toddy palms and thorny plum trees and connected to the main road by dusty unpaved country lanes. From afar, one is struck by the rustic picturesque scene vying for attention with finely architectured multi-tiered ochre coloured pagodas, lanky palm trees and clear blue sky until one gets closer to the pagoda and is shocked by the unsightly piles of garbage among the bushes close to the pagoda dumped by god knows who.  So also, pilgrims and tourists are, and also if the spirits of donors of the religious edifices were still floating about would be, much troubled by seeing small pagodas with unknown titles being utilized as storage places for baskets full of goods and rickety bicycles, and as places to take a nap. Having being born in the vicinity of countless numbers of thousand year old pagodas, the dwellers of Bagan are not awed by, and are less respectful to the smaller pagodas. The state of some of the bigger pagodas does not seem to be too different. They seemed to have been turned into temporary residences for caretakers who have placed old makeshift wooden beds  in the interior of the pagodas right under the eyes of massive Buddha images.  Moreover, the presence of too many stalls selling souvenirs, food, local products and their by-products, the piles of rubbish, affect the charm of the magnificent edifices.  Lack of hygienic restrooms at the pagodas is one of the difficulties, pilgrims, and local and foreign tourists face which needs to be redressed quickly because many of the visitors are old. Tourist information centres are another facility that should be set up in places highly frequented by tourists for the convenience of those who go sightseeing without guides. One of Bagan’s attractions I miss is the simple traditional Myanmar restaurants with thatch roofs, in their rustic setting, serving authentic Myanmar food with their generous owners rushing to put in more curries even before the plates have become empty.  In their places, now are Myanmar buffet-style restaurants in places that are more frequented by tourists, but served by less friendly and less generous staff. Still, I am happy to see foreign tourists tucking into the dozen or so Myanmar style dishes set before them.
It must be said that Bagan amply makes up for the lack of certain modern amenities, with its uniqueness, grandeur, beauty and charm and the unrivalled breathtaking views of the city of pagodas from pagoda terraces at sunset, and the friendliness of its people. It is certain that as transportation and communication improve within the country and more people abroad learn about the fame of Bagan, the number of visitors both from within the country and abroad will certainly double and triple. For those government officials and entrepreneurs keen to exploit Bagan’s attraction as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, there is much work for them to do as there are many rival attractions in the ASEAN region managed by more experienced entrepreneurs, such as the Borobudur in Indonesia, the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ayutthaya in Thailand. But when entrepreneurs think of further developing it into a tourist attraction, they must bear in mind that Bagan is no ordinary archaeological site, but it is the site of the largest collection of ancient religious buildings in Myanmar much revered by Buddhists all over the country.  I have no doubt that a survey of the people of Myanmar will reveal that they would rather see Bagan as it is, than see its cultural and religious values degraded as a recreational place for tourists. After all, there are enough beaches, mountain resorts and other attractions in Myanmar to generate income from the tourism industry.  Hence, if Bagan is to be made into a tourist attraction, entrepreneurs must ensure that its religious, historical and cultural dimensions are respected and remain unspoilt.  In addition, both the government and entrepreneurs must not forget reinvest a generous portion of the income from tourism back into the conservation of the pagodas, and the development of the facilities needed for the convenience of tourists. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of the income must be utilized to keep the ancient city clean, green and attractive and reach the standards of other archaeological sites in the region and educate the people of Bagan to take pride in their city and take good care of it. Entrepreneurs must also find other attractions in Bagan so that tourists can be channeled to other areas reducing pressure on the ancient edifices and causing less degradation to them. This is not a difficult task as Bagan is sited close to the Ayeyarwady River and there still remain many untapped sources such as riverine cruise along the Ayeyarwady River, and rest and recreation by the river, and visits to local cottage industries.
On return home, a few miles from Bagan, we catch sight of groves of toddy palm trees and the huts of toddy palm product sellers. One shop draws our attention as in front of the huts was a traditional oil extraction device with the labour of a cow being used to operate it. Just before we stop in front of the shop, two coaches, one loaded with Japanese tourists and another with French tourists stop before us and the tourists get off. They take keen interest in traditional oil mill, as well as in the demonstrations on climbing the toddy palm tree to extract the juice and the production of jaggery from the toddy palm juice. I silently praise the entrepreneurial spirit of the owner who is helped by the whole family to run the business.  The many customers, both local and foreign, also enjoy the toddy palm drink with deep fried quail.  It makes me happy to note that there are also hardworking and creative people in the countryside, and hope that many more will follow suit and hasten the development of the country and lift the people in the rural as well as urban area out of the economic hardship they face.

Writer’s address: (not to be published) No. 39, Shin Saw Pu Pagoda Road, Sanchaung Township, Yangon

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