Belatedly, we read the guidebook and realized that we had ignored some very good advice.
Fifteen months ago, we took the sleeper train from Yangon to Old Bagan, a horrific 16-hour ride.
“Trains to Bagan are very slow and not very practical,” Lonely Planet says and, just to rub it in: “It’s often the same old train on the same old tracks… There are as many opinions of Myanmar’s oft-maligned train service as there are people riding it. For some, a train ride on narrow-gauge tracks is like going by horse, with the old carriages rocking back and forth and bounding everyone… on the hard chairs.”
Yes, 16 hours of that. It took advanced balancing skills to use the urinal. Plus, the toilet roof leaked; we brought an umbrella each time we went.
For my grandson, Raja, only 12 at the time, that train ride was the biggest thrill. Then again, he lives dangerously. It was he who earlier asked the tour van driver to please just go past the house of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi—another no-no for tourists, filed under “Don’t Implicate the Locals.”
I will never again take that train ride, but I’d do all the rest of that unforgettable week in Burma (aka Myanmar) at least one more time. Retracing our steps for this narrative, I am infatuated anew with this beguiling piece of the planet.
Burma’s political situation has kept it under the radar of most travellers. There are many reasons not to go, one of them expressed in a cryptic line by well-meaning guidebooks: “Writers and journalists should declare their dream jobs instead when applying for a visa.”
An outstanding reason out of just a handful that encourages visits is that the Burmese people are eager for conversation with the rest of the world, if only to be assured that they are not forgotten. “Keep in touch with new friends that you make there,” the traveller is urged—and this is yet another counsel that we failed to heed.
Raja has misplaced the e-mail address of Naing, a hilariously cheerful jewelry storekeeper in Aung San Bogyoke Market, named for “The Lady’s” revered late father. Naing’s jokes, delivered in impressive English, kept us coming back to his shop, more than the fabulous discounts he gave. “E-mail me our pictures,” he told Raja. “Even without pictures, you write to me, okay?”
The motivation for our trip was a lot more tourist-y and a little less noble. Old Bagan (or, more politically correct, Bagan Archaeological Zone) is home to an astounding number of centuries-old temples—4,400 across a 26-square-mile plain. Thus, it is said to rival Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex in terms of grandeur and bolt-from-the-blue factor. I had found it, in fact, while cross-checking facts following an intoxicating week in Angkor. “Siem Reap’s (Cambodian temple land) sister city,” was one website’s description of Bagan, a place I had never heard of till then. The posted images were enthralling, and I knew I would be going soon to see for myself.
Smitten with Shwedagon
It took a year to pull off this adventure with Raja and two other friends. We were so focused on Bagan, the ancient capital, that Yangon, the current one, seemed just an inconsequential stopover.
That changed soon enough. Stepping out of the international airport terminal was like stepping into an old movie set. We were immediately fascinated by the sight of men in sarong-like skirts called longyi, and the women sporting stripes and/or dollops of tree-bark powder, thanakha, on their faces.
None of us was prepared for the spell of Shwedagon Paya. Located north of central Yangon, Shwedagon (shwe means gold; Dagon is the old name of Yangon) can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, particularly its great dome, also referred to as a zedi (shrine) or stupa, estimated to be 2,500 years old. The whole temple complex, covering about five hectares, is far from being the remains of a magnificent place of worship. It is a magnificent place of worship still—alive and bustling with devotional rituals, sparkling and magical in escalating degrees from sunrise to sundown, no small thanks to 5,448 diamonds, 2,371 rubies and emeralds on the main dome’s crown or umbrella (hti).
Zedi are supposed to house relics of the Buddha. Enshrined in Shwedagon, we were told, are relics of the past four Buddhas, including eight strands of hair from the Gautama.
It is said that there is more gold plastered onto the sides of Shwedagon than in all the vaults of the Bank of England. For those sufficiently intrigued at this point, there is a whole legend woven into historical fact about this and recorded by major search engines.
In his book “Letters from the East” (1890) the British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote of Shwedagon: “A golden mystery upheaved (sic) itself on the horizon—a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim nor Hindu temple spire.”
Lonely Planet rhapsodizes: “It is the very heart and soul of this country… the reason for all the smiles in Myanmar, and witness to all of the tears as well. Once seen, it can never be forgotten.”
In Yangon, we also visited Chauk-Htat-Kyi, which houses a 65-meter-long reclining Buddha image. Elsewhere in the world, this alone could be the main tourist attraction.
Before our eventful 16-hour journey, we had taken a much shorter train ride on the city route, during which we felt right at home with the commuters who were not shy to communicate via sign language.
An old woman motioned for Raja to sit beside her, then pointed to my camera. Of course I took their picture.
A van in Bagan
Aung San Suu Kyi—who was portrayed by Malaysian actress Michelle Yeow in a bio pic—has been quoted as saying that visitors who “go around in air-conditioned taxis” are not really seeing Burma.
“If you’re in a hurry,” says the guide book, “try not to be.” We had two days in a land of 4,400 temples, so of course we were in a rush. As it was, we knew there was no way we could see even a tenth of those, even if many were really small pagodas, like personal prayer rooms, with even smaller Buddha images inside them.
The Manuha Paya (11th century) was a perfect first stop. “Paya” literally means “holy one” and can refer to people, deities and places associated with religion. Our guide Ye was quick to point out that it was still an “active” temple, like most of the bigger ones—and that devotees hold a big annual celebration here in February or March.
There are three seated Buddhas up front, but Ye’s obvious favorite was the huge reclining Buddha in the back. I wondered aloud why the images were in such tight enclosures. The explanation was that the pagoda was a memorial to an imprisoned monarch. But I would see later that huge Buddhas in small spaces were sort of the norm.
Near sundown, we had to decide where we wanted to watch the vaunted Bagan sunset from. Most visitors pick Shwesandaw Paya but Ye said there would be a lot of people there. He opted for the less crowded Lawka-Ou-Shaung (12th century), where we found no more than 20 tourists and local guides already waiting.
When the sun, with a gradual muting of its blinding light, signified that it was about to begin its descent, a slight chill and a hush fell on the small crowd. From our perch on the temple’s third-level terrace, we beheld a spectacular sight—hundreds of pagodas as far as the eye could see, in red bricks made to look even redder by the fading sun. Among these stood some of the most splendid structures of worship I had ever seen, their domes softly shining like tempered gold.
A great distance from where we sat, three hot air balloons glided across the plain.
No one dared break the exquisite silence on the terrace. I glimpsed more temples below, in the opposite direction, and next to me, faces gleamed as though in front of a fireplace, each one in a half- smile, exuding goodwill. Raja turned to me and said, “Thank you.” My cup ran over.
Next morning before dawn, we took a short walk from our hotel, the Bagan Thande, to Mee Nyein Gone (12th century), a wise choice for a sunrise “theater.” Ye said everyone would again be in Shwesandaw. It was very dark in this little-known, therefore almost deserted, temple and the steps leading to the second-level terrace seemed to have been made for toddlers. But there were a few other tourists already positioned among the stupas, and we had missed the first sliver of light. Already we could make out silhouettes of pagodas below.
If sunset was a prize, sunrise was a bonus. One by one, or in tiny groups, the pagodas presented themselves to the daylight, as though emerging from the ground, roused from sleep. I seriously thought I might be dreaming.
I decided at that point that I had seen everything I had come for. But more was coming.
At the Alo Taw Pyi (11th century) temple we joined devotees in a traditional festival and offering to the monks. Although we looked markedly different from the colourfully outfitted locals on account of our attire, we were soon feeling comfortable enough to join them in a scramble for lucky coins tossed by some officials from a tower. In an open reception hall, the faithful paid their respects to a “healing monk.”
Next we went to the market, which I had earlier seen on YouTube. I bought a beggar-monk puppet and a tarnished wooden Buddha head.
Shwezigon Paya (11th century), to our delight, was like a smaller-scale Shwedagon. Htilominlo (13th century) stirred up my most dreamy sighs but it was Gubyaukgyi (12th century), with its richly tinted murals that pre-date the Sistine chapel by at least three centuries that made me very proud, indeed, to be Asian.
Ye had pointed out Ananda Paya (12th c) to us on Day 1. At last we stepped inside its courtyard that was studded with souvenir stands but was still remarkably quiet. Perfectly proportioned, Ananda is the largest and best-preserved in Bagan, most dramatic showcase of the national enthusiasm for religious monuments. Also, at last, we set foot on Shwesandaw (11th century), which we had viewed twice from afar. We understood why Ye hadn’t taken us there for sunset or sunrise: The steps were narrow and steep. But the vast terrace could accommodate about a hundred people at a time without looking crowded. We were there at high noon, however, and it was delightfully deserted.
At the end of our visit, we had barely scratched the surface of this blessed plain.
Bagan, to be cliché-ish about is, is more than a destination; it could be the end of a search for many pilgrims. In 1996, a government campaign for tourists, “Visit Myanmar Year” was dampened by Aung San Suu Kyi’s impassioned plea to “visit us later.” Burma (before the recent elections that saw Aung San’s landslide win) is the longest-running military dictatorship, but the obstinate traveller is bound to ignore the political basis of such a supplication, of course.
The good news is that even the pro-democracy leaders who have consistently bucked the military government’s tourism efforts, seem to have softened their stance and are now agreeable to throwing the country’s doors wide open to the world.