I Left My Heart in Old Bagan: The Magical Kingdom in Myanmar

30 Jun

Ananda and Dhammayazika Pagodas

It has been three months, since I returned from my trip to Burma. Now called Myanmar, I still call it Burma, as that was what it was back in the day! I had chosen this particular tour as it would allow me to see the country before the developers took over and it became just like many of the other Southeast Asian countries. Burma has been closed to world for much of the last half century. On March 2, 1962, the military took control of the country through a coup d ètat and the government has been under either direct or indirect control ever since. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the General Ne Win. A  new  constitution was adopted in 1974, but until 1988 it was a one party system. It was during this period that Burma became one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

In 1988, there were widespread Pro-Democracy Demonstrations against the government for economic mismanagement and political oppression. Thousands were killed including many students,  others though, were fortunate enough to escape into neighbouring Thailand. Alice, a Nursing Professor at the University of  Alberta was one of these people and I spoke with her both prior to and after my trip. Another coup d ètat resulted in the formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. SLORC declared martial law and changed the country’s official name to Myanmar. May 1990 saw free elections for the first time in 30 years and the  National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, won 392 out of 489 seats. The junta refused to cede power and continued to rule. Aung San was put under house arrest. In August 2007, an increase in the price of diesel and petrol led to a series of anti-government protests, called the Saffron Revolution, which was led by Buddhist Monks, hundreds of whom defied the house arrest of  Aung San Suu Kyi to pay their respects at the gate of her house. The government finally cracked down on them on 26 September 2007. The crackdown was harsh, with reports of barricades at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and monks killed. A General Election to be held in 2015 to determine where the country will go.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, the site of some of the protests during the Saffron Revolution in 2007

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Gate at Aung San Suu Kyi’s Home

Burma is a land of unbelievable sights and warm, gentle people. My favorite stop on the tour was in Bagan, about one hour north of Yangon (Rangoon) by air. We landed at the airport one hot morning about 8:ooAM and boarded our Big Blue Bus. It was taking us to the Bagan Archaelogical Zone, about which I knew nothing. I didn’t anticipate the MAGICAL KINGDOM I was about to experience and how it would grab my heart. We got off our bus on the dry dusty plain and walked about a half mile to a temple from which we could get an overview of the area. Climbing up some narrow stairs, we emerged onto the platform and it is impossible to describe the sight before me……..a vast expanse of Temples and Stupas as far as the eye could see. I was mesmerized!!!! I felt as if I had been deposited in another world….and I guess I had.

The BIG BLUE BUS

The BIG BLUE BUS

Archaelogical Zone on the Bagan Plain

The ruins of Medieval Bagan are scattered over 26 Square miles. This ancient capital was once inhabited by 100,000 plus people. It flourished between Anawratha’s conquest of Thaton and its destruction by Kublai Khan in 1287. We visited so many temples on the tour, I got to the point I couldn’t remember one from another. They were all unique and beautiful in their own way. I especially liked the ones constructed with red brick and which had arches of all types. Think I have 1000 pictures of arches!!! Maybe I was a monk in another life and I walked these very corridors during meditation time.

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Tight Fitting Bricks

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Ghosts of the past are all around

The Dhammayazika Pagoda was built in 1196 during the reign of King Narapatisthu.  The pagoda is circular in design, and is made of brick. The King ruled that the bricks were to be so close fitting that a pin couldn’t pass between them. Woe betide the worker who failed in his task. Considering this structure is nearly 1000 years old, it is amazing what good  shape it is in, given that this area is subject to such devastating monsoon rains that wash everything away each summer. It was wonderful to be able to explore these ancient structures and be the only tourists present.

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Buddha in his arch

 

The Ananda Phaya Temple, a masterpiece of surviving Mon architecture (1091),  is built in the shape of a Greek Cross. It was severely damaged in the 1975 earthquake and restoration is still ongoing.  There is much international concern that the Myanmar Government, in an effort to get temples restored, are doing it quickly and with unskilled workers. These projects are time consuming and require a great deal of money which the country does not have. The UN has refused to giver Bagan World Heritage Status.

Ananda Phaya

Ananda Phaya

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Buddha covered in gold leaf

There are 4 buddhas facing the cardinal directions

 

 

 

 

Our accommodation was at a resort along the Ayeyarwaddy River.  It had a large garden area, a beautiful pool and an outdoor dining room. Too bad we didn’t have much time to enjoy it……we were always on the go! I could imagine myself staying here for a month or so, just to be able to fully explore the area. It is also the boat dock for river boats, so one could also enjoy time on the river.

 

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Resort in Old Bagan

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Ayeyarwaddy River in the background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a local village along the shore just below our hotel. I walked down there to check it out and was amazed at what I saw. The houses were of bamboo and looked like they would blow away in a strong wind. Women were bathing in the river alongside boats which were unloading cargo.

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Women bathing in the river

 

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Unloading one of the boats used for transportation on the river

 

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Village below the hotel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday there was a Novice Initiation for Children into the Monastery. All children in this Buddhist country must spend a week with the monks learning about Buddhism They are very young, 5 – 8 years old. Our guide Win had indicated that, as this was a community celebration,  we were all invited to attend.  It began Friday night with a big party with loud music and dancing. Good thing my hotel room was on the opposite side of the hotel. Some fellow travellers got very little sleep. Saturday morning, the entire village was up at  6:00AM or perhaps they never went to bed. They gathered at the monastery in their finest clothes to walk  in the procession. Horses, Oxen and carts were decorated. The  novitiates all rode horses  which are led in the procession by a local man or boy. This parade through the villages can take several hours.

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Village women in their beautiful silk outfits

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Decorated oxen

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Young Novitiate beside his horse

Monk shaving boy

Monk shaving boy

Village women shaving girl's hair

Village women shaving girl’s hair

The morning activities finished with a big lunch and the Head Shaving Ceremony began at 3:00PM. The monks shave the boys heads, while a local village woman shaved the girls. After the ritual bath and robing, the children departed with the monks and everyone else packs up and goes home. This celebration can cost $5000 and so usually several families get together and split the costs.

 

Saturday is a big market,  so after the parade moved on, we headed into New Bagan to check it out. What can I say…..it is a fabulous place where you are able to buy anything from clothing and shoes to fresh produce, fish, meat and flowers.While there we encountered another Novice Initiation Parade. This one even had an elephant.

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Just like a Chinese Dragon!

Bagan Market

 

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Women were very friendly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did not buy much in the market as I had already met ThanThet a local woman who was selling clothing to the tourists. She had pushed the clothes through the bus window at our first stop and told me to try things on. She would meet me later to barter a price and/or exchange for Larger! sizes…westerners have so much more padding than the Burmese. Sellers are not allowed onto Hotel property, so I would go down to the gate to meet her.

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ThanThet, my local dressmaker.

 

Not a day would go by without a visit to a temple or pagoda. Today it was the Shwezigon Pagoda, an important pilgrimage site for the Burmese. While there, a Burmese lady from a rural area indicated that she would like to have her picture taken with me.  Guess I had the look of a foreigner. Before  I knew it, her whole family jumped into the picture. My fellow travellers were standing across the way and thinking, I am sure “What is Louise up to now?”

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Me and Big Mama are in the centre

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My tour group wondering what is going on?

 

Watching the sun drop in to the river

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food in Burma is a combination of Indian, Chinese, Thai and Burmese depending where you are in the country….and wherever it is delicious. Saturday evening we were wined and dined on a sandbar in the Ayeyarwaddy River. We were taken there by boat and then treated to magical evening where we could watch the sunset across the river behind the hills. Think I could have set up a tent and stayed on the sandbar overnight. It was so quiet out there with just the sound of the river going by….a perfect place to meditate. I am actually in a number of pictures taken by my fellow travellers. I was doing just that ……

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Sunset on the Ayeyarwaddy

 

 

 

Me in my “Covergirl Photo”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When in Bagan, one must not miss sunset over the plain. So after a Pony Cart ride to the temple and climbing steep steps to one of 5 platforms, each one higher and with narrower steps, we were treated to a spectacular, natural light show. The colors are amazing. The sky goes from pink to purple to orange….then the sun is gone and it is dark! Slowly everyone makes their way back down the steep steps. Another day is over……but the memories will last a lifetime.  I left my heart in that small corner of Burma. I hope one day to return and perhaps have more longyis made by my Personal DressMaker…ThanThet!

Pony Cart and Driver

My Private cart and driver

Climbing the steep stairs

I quit at level 2

View from the Temple Platform

The purple light of dusk over the Bagan Plain

 

 

 

 

Sunset in Old Bagan

And the sun goes down in the Magical Kingdom!

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