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The brilliance of Bagan

By Roy Hamric in Bagan, Myanmar
7 August 2006 13:30
Various forces threaten the integrity of this archeological gem, which deserves continued efforts to secure its preservation

On the first day of touring Bagan, one of the greatest collections of Buddhist temples in the world, you quickly learn the place to be at dusk is the top tier of Mingalazedi stupa to watch the sun’s evening glow paint the hundreds of surrounding temples and stupas in deep red and rosy hues.

What you’re not told is that the climb to the top is on tiny steps ascending at a very steep angle – it’s no place for dizziness.

“Il est grand, si beau,” – so big, so beautiful – whispered an elegant French lady, tightly gripping a steel handrail. For me, the only rival to the stunning, panoramic sight spreading across the flat, red plain would be a helicopter ride over the equally massive Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.

I came to Bagan with a mixed bag of emotions, which included a burning desire to finally see this ancient site up close rather than in glossy, inspiring photographs. But I also feared the ground level view would bring disappointment.

The delicate beauty of Bagan, unfortunately, is under threat. Angkor Wat, for instance, has a World Heritage Site designation from UNESCO which ensures it will be continuously preserved by trained professionals. The organization’s decades of efforts to achieve the same status for Bagan came to a halt in recent years, as Myanmar’s ruling military junta was unwilling to work with the international body on preservation and restoration work. Many Asian conservationists and art lovers around the world now see Bagan’s future as cloudy at best.

To make matters worse, there have been clear signs over the years that unskilled work has been carried out at the Bagan archeological site that could jeopardize its integrity and future.

Restoration experts have lamented misguided efforts at “improvements” such as the construction of new “cookie cutter design” structures on top of ancient ruins; ancient murals whitewashed out of sight; the use of bathroom tiles as material in repairs; the installation of inappropriate “crowns” or “tiers” on top of many pagodas; and the “selling” of some structures to donors, who then proceed with making improvements on the structures without the necessary skills to do so.

And yet the sheer size and beauty of Bagan still overwhelms the eye. Most visitors are not aware of the flaws and threats to the complex.

My first glimpse of Bagan came when the Air Bagan flight from Yangon banked westward and the chocolate-colored Irrawaddy River came into view.

The oldest temples lie nearest the river’s east bank. Old Bagan, with its crumbling brick and mortar walls surrounding what was once a moat, still serves as a port to tourist ferries and cargo ships. From the airport, the taxi ride to town costs US$14 and my driver, Maung San Hla, said I could hire his taxi for a day-long tour of the archeological zone for $20. Alternatives are to rent a bicycle for $5 a day or a cramped, horse-drawn carriage with flatbed seats for $7 a day. By early afternoon, Maung San Hla and I were zigging and zagging across dirt roads, weaving through green fields of cotton, sesame and maize.

There are more than 2,000 temple sites scattered throughout the Bagan archeological zone.
Several large temples loomed over the flat plain surrounded by hundreds of smaller structures. A survey in the late 1970s found there are 2,230 sites, a large number of them not excavated. Within these sites there were 911 temples, of which 347 had painted murals in various states of condition; 524 stupas; 415 monasteries; 31 other structures, including libraries and ordination halls; and numerous mounds of collapsed structures.

At most of the larger sites, tourists must run a gauntlet of vendors selling paintings, lacquer ware, Buddhist trinkets and postcards. Jobs are scarce in Myanmar so the vendors and postcard hawkers are tenacious.

The taxi and horse cart drivers who shepherd tourists through the vast complex are grateful for the income, but they speak guardedly about almost everything not directly related to the temples. After two days together, my driver finally loosened up. “All businesses and hotels are controlled by the military,” he said. “Most money goes away. If we say anything bad, it’s very dangerous, we get nothing.” Like many of the poor in Myanmar, Maung San Hla chewed betel constantly, making his English more difficult to understand.

“You know computers?” he asked on our final day together. “Big problem.” Maung San Hla invited me to his home, where he lived with his father and mother, two brothers and a sister, plus six or seven offspring. He wanted me to take a look at his proudest possession, a laptop computer recently given to him by a German tourist. Unfortunately, Maung San Hla didn’t have the necessary system password to access the machine.

The house sat on five-foot high wooden stilts. It was without doors, window screens or running water. Electricity came in from a wire strung from a neighbor’s house. Several nails and a few coat hangers displayed everyone’s clothes.

Maung San Hla’s dream is to connect to the internet, to see more of the mysterious outside world. He doesn’t own his taxi; he is only the driver for “a big man.”

After a glass of the standard dark tea, the children focused on the two cheap ballpoint pens in my shirt pocket. An oft-repeated refrain heard over and over in Myanmar is, “Do you have a gift for me?” With so few jobs, a basic diet is beyond the means of large numbers of the population. I left the family “gifts” that I hoped would perhaps bring them more food for a short time. Someday, Maung San Hla may even connect to the internet, and what a difference that could make in his life.

As we drove back to my hotel, we passed a 200-foot glass and concrete observation tower nestled among the temples, called the Nanmyint (royal tower). It opened in 2005 and sits adjacent to a resort complex under construction nearby. A project of the junta, the tower stands out as a strange and otherworldly sight, resembling a control tower for a large urban airport. It is meant to provide tourists with a place to view the archeological complex in air-conditioned comfort.

A little farther down the road is the 18-hole Bagan Golf Resort, which opened for tourists in 1999. A few years earlier, a highway was constructed through the archeological zone itself.

I left Bagan with a feeling that its future was at a crossroads. Unless UNESCO officials or some other responsible body works out a cooperative agreement with the Myanmar government, Bagan’s authenticity could be threatened. But looking at the state of Angkor Wat 30 years ago and seeing it today shows what can be achieved.

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