Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Sky Thoughts, Bagan Archaeological Zone and Ngapali Beach

When I decided to go to Myanmar my original plan was to go to Yangon take the boat up the Ayeyarwady River, stop at Bagan and then continue up to Mandalay.  Upon our arrival, Samantha and I found that time constraints would not allow this.  Also, Sam’s health was slowly failing (flu or something awful), and that we both needed down time on a warm weather beach.  To solve the first problem, we decided to fly to all our destinations, next we eliminated Mandalay from our itinerary and replaced it with Myanmar’s best beach, and on our way to the airport for Bagan we stopped at a clinic so Samantha could see a doctor.  One strong antibiotic later and we were on our way. 

At the airport, in fact at every landing and departure, although we were within Myanmar’s borders, we were required to show our plane ticket and our passports.
At one point we got off at the wrong stop, Heho the gateway to Inlie Lake. We were immediately whisked back on our plane for our Bagan debarkation.   Although Sam disagrees, when we embarked on our next flight, Bagan to Ngapali, I believe they must of made a note about our previous error, as we were the only passengers who were squired to seats (all flights are open seating) at the front of the plane and told not to get off until the last destination.   The other interesting fact about these flights is they were all propjets.   The Stewardesses were dressed in cute 1950s outfits; on the first flight they even wore matching little caps, and served a little tray lunch.  On all the other flights we were handed rapped supposed chicken sandwiches.  The bread was a white bread bun, which had no opening at all, so I can only guess they used a hypodermic needle to inject the chicken inside the bun.  Certainly a meal I repeatedly chose to miss after my initial bite.  On some flights, they changed their flight plans from what was stated on our tickets.  This, I read later, was because occasionally dignitaries needed to go somewhere and flights were changed to accommodate them.  Sure enough on the one diverted flight we experienced, there was a gentleman being fawned over at the airport by the locals and sent off in a fanfare of friendship.

I really don’t remember when I first heard about the Buddhist temples of Bagan, but I know going there has been on my agenda for at least five years.  I had no concept of the type of architecture or the terrain, and was quite shocked to find a dry, barren plain full of square block-like temples almost Italianate in design.  The dynasty that had this temple building mania survived a relatively short time but left a fine hisAppleMarkfile:///Users/bobbielauren/Desktop/IMG_4128.JPGtoric legacy.

In 1044, King Anawahta began his reign, and consolidated the area into one country.  At the same time, he also became a Theravadan Buddhist.  It was then, he began building Buddhist Temples on the dusty Bagan plain.  The kingdom lasted about 200 years and it is thought that during that time 4400 Buddhist temples were built.  Finally, leaving the country broke because of this fervent temple building; the last king was unable to protect the country from the ravishing of Kublai Khan’s forces in 1287.  

In 1975, an earthquake hit the area and damaged many of the temples (I read the government used slave citizen labor to rebuild and repair some of the damage), and in 1990, the government forcibly moved the villagers out of Old Bagan to New Bagan, about 3 miles away.  Today the area is designated as the ‘twenty-six square mile Bagan Archaeological Zone.’   Except for a few extremely pricey hotels in both Old and New Bagan, Old Bagan has a number of uninteresting guesthouses and restaurants, while new Bagan has two very nice little hotels, one, Thiri Marlar Hotel, the other Kumudara.  The later has a swimming pool and views at night of the lighted Temples.  There is a restaurant-row along the Ayeyarwady River with our favorite being The Green Turtle, which we later learned was one of a chain, although we never found another Green Turtle through out our travels. 

Each day we went in a pony cart with a driver going from temple to temple, overwhelmed by the number and beauty of them all.  Many had murals.  Some murals were historical, while others were religious paintings. We were allow to photograph some, others had signs; no photography allowed. These brutishly block shaped buildings of all sizes with their added spires carpeted the landscape like shells and pebbles washed up by an early morning sea tide onto the beach. 

The horse plodded along daily leading her cart on the both the paved and dusty dirt roads delivering us to each of the temples.  She waited patiently under the shade of the nearest tree as we explored the facades and interiors and avoided being accosted by the barrage of souvenir sellers and the ragged post card selling children at every stop.  At some temples the sellers had even set up their wares inside the temple itself.  Inside one temple a young man observed, “You have nice teeth.” 
Surprised at first by his observation, I thought, ‘Well that is certainly true.’
     “Look at mine, they are really white.  I take care of my teeth.”
     “They are lovely,” I responded.
     “That’s because I take care of them.  I don’t chew betel nut.”  He continued.  I don’t want brown stained teeth.  I want American teeth.”  He said with a broad smile, proud of his pearly whites. 
      “Great,” I responded again.  “Good Job.” I smiled back and went on my way.  ‘American teeth’ another great export idea.  Obviously, it must be our really white teeth that make us great.  Thank you American Dental Association. 

Upon returning to our pony cart, I looked at our driver’s teeth.  Twenty-three and he already had brown stained teeth. I had observed a couple times when I had ask him a question that he had not responded and had to ask again.  It was the betel nut, of course. There was a little bag attached to the handle of his cart.  Every once in awhile he dipped into it and took out the crushed betel nut as well as the leaf.  Said to be a stimulant, it also gives the chewer a sense of wellbeing and euphoria and among other sensations, a heightened capacity to work.  I decided his state of euphoria was obviously the one at work here. I ask him about it and he said he chewed it to get through the day.  When I thought about it, it occurred to me that driving a pony cart to the same places and answering the same questions day in and day out was probably pretty boring for an intelligent 23 year old.

He told me his family owed two horses and carts, and previously both his mother and father had been cart drivers.  But they had now both retired and had turned the business over to their two sons.  He and his brother still lived in the family home. He had a cell phone and a motorcycle, for young man in Burma, he was doing well.
“ I don’t see as many soldiers as I thought I would,” I mentioned as we sat in the cart waiting for my daughter. 
       “They don’t need that.” He responded.  “There are informers everywhere.   I’m a university student.  Our country has a high level of literacy.”  He added as he intermittedly chewed his betel nut.  “University students are all distance learners.  This way the government controls the gathering of student groups. They send me my books and once or twice a year I go to Mandalay and take a test.   But I think the government is loosening up. I think it’s getting better.” He continued.  “Of course they still have the guns,” cocking his thumb and forefinger as if he was going to shoot. “And we…” I waved my hand with a negative gesture, and his sentence drifted off.  At that moment my daughter, Samantha arrived and the conversation ended (no she’s not a spy, anyway I don’t think so. HA!  She just doesn’t like to talk politics).

So off we went and just like the day before, touts (both children and adults) were waiting at every Temple to sell, sell, sell.  As with most of the Burmese we had seen everywhere through out the country, these people put streaks of tan thanaka power on their cheeks and foreheads. Applied in streaks like the war paint of Indians of the old American West, I was told by the staff of the Motherland 2 guesthouse that it was their form of sun block and it was important to use everyday.

Post cards are for sale at every stop, and at one, a little boy was selling post card pictures he had drawn himself.  “Those are great, “ Sammy said as she pointed them out to me.  “Buy them Mom,” she requested and I did.  After all, great art should never go unappreciated.  Unfortunately, three other little boys came running after us with real post cards and the horse was so slow that the boys were keeping pace with us even as the cart crossed the road and into the next field.  So we stopped, and now I own enough sets of Bagan post cards too become a tout myself.  “These people are very poor.” Our driver explained as we pulled away a second time, leaving four smiling faces. 

The second day the horse had to work particularly hard as most of the roads were rocky sand and dirt.  A couple of times, we got out and walked so the horse could traverse the gnarled rocky path.  At the end of our second day, we ended up at the beautiful Pyathada Paya temple and it was here I saw the best sunset I have ever seen in my whole life.  Do I have a picture? No.  Ran out of battery just as it showed it’s magnificent shades of reds, drifting to oranges.  Guess I’ll have to go back, won’t I?

Note:  The Bagan area is also Myanmar’s lacquer ware making center; everything from small delicate bowls and miniature animals, chests of drawers to room divider screens.  Each decorated with beautiful individually designed patterns and motifs.  Because of the time necessary to make these handmade pieces, they can be highly expensive.  Bamboo is the base material used in making lacquer ware, and selling the bamboo to the lacquer ware factories is an extremely lucrative business.  The house of the man who owns the bamboo ‘forest’ used to make these lovely pieces was pointed out to us, and looked it out of place in its impressiveness in relation to the other little wooden homes we saw in the Bagan area.


Niagara Beach (0ur last stop)

Myanmar has a number of really nice beaches.  Two are touted in the guidebooks, Chaungtha, which has marionette shows, inexpensive fish restaurants and various other street entertainments along the beach.  It is used by locals and tourist alike but like most of the beaches is only accessible by a five to seven -hour bus ride.   Nagapali, the more exclusive, beautiful two mile white sand beach is set aside for foreign tourists with most hotels having high western standards; massive pools, business centers, spas, and room prices ranging from $120 to over $320 a night like the Amata Hotel. The clientele for all the expensive resorts are mostly Germans on pre-paid packaged tours. So it is not necessary for them to carry a great deal of cash. 

We stayed at the locally owned Royal Beach Hotel.  Our rooms at $30 a night were somewhat tacky.  Once we got there we found they had built a new wing nearer the beach, which were priced at $50 a night.  We certainly would have changed to that wing but there were no rooms available.  The location was lovely.  Cushioned beach lounges and towels were provided daily, the dining porch overlooked the beach and breakfast was included.  Would we stay at this hotel again, absolutely but in the new wing. 

 Behind the resorts, the road was dotted with a plethora of fish restaurants and an occasional gift shop.   Each evening we tried a different one but we found there was not much to distinguish one restaurant from the other. Probably our best meal was when we splurged for lunch two hotels down the beach at the Amata Hotel.   Along restaurant row, the local moneychanger (oddly, always a woman in each community we visited) was one of the gift shop owners.  Also along the road was a local medical clinic.  Under a covered parking area were four beautifully well-maintained charming snub-nosed white buses right out of a 1930s style Brit-com with whimsical green palm trees painted on their sides.  

On our last morning I walked to the little fishing village south of the resort and found wonderful photographic subjects who were so willing to pose.  In some countries, people have their hand out begging to be paid if you want to take their pictures.  Here everyone was delighted at my interest and one man riding his family on his tricycle-shaw, reached into his knapsack and gave me the gift of a large conch shell for taking his and his family’s picture. 

The Burmese are lovely, kind gentle people, who suffer many indignities meted out by an unkind government.  There are many small nomadic tribes who, although located within its borders, are not accepted as citizens by this government. Some are still at war with the government, while others have moved deeper into the mountainous un-surveyed northern interior.  The Mon people, who were probably the first settlers of what is considered modern Burma, are, now mostly located in a no-man’s land between Thailand and Myanmar.  These people are considered non-citizens by both countries and have been carrying on a mini war against the Burmese government for years.  If the government will not give them freedom from its control, the Mon would at least like citizenship, and the autonomy to carry on with their language and cultural traditions.  

Burma/Myanmar is a country sitting on much of the world’s natural gas, off shore oil, numerous minerals and the most rubies of anywhere in the world.  Yet it is still a major poppy grower and continues to be one of the world’s main exporters of opium. It has one of the world’s most feeble human rights records; reflected in the government’s free use of citizen labor, network of citizen informers and jail internment of its citizens for ‘subversive’ (disagreeing with the government) behavior.   Because of its poor human rights record, some guidebooks question the rationale for even going Myanmar.  But as I stated in the last section, I will definitely return.  Even though the government benefits greatly from the infusion of my American dollars, my presence gives people jobs and just as importantly a slight insight into an outside world that would otherwise be closed to them in their current society.    


Notes:   If you decide to visit Myanmar (Burma) it might behoove you to read the following: 
              The Glass Palace
              Finding George Orwell in Burma
  And G. Orwell’s three books:
              Burma Days
              Animal Farm
             The later two books are ban in Burma so although you may carry them within the country, you will not be able to buy them there.

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