I’m on top of an old temple, waiting around for the sunset with a bunch of German and French. About 20 minutes before, I am on top of a different temple, with a bunch of German and French. They are digging in early for the sunset views of Bagan. When the sun finally starts to descend below the hills, I hear the continuous clacking of camera shutters. I take out my camera and take a few shots, realizing that neither the camera nor its operator is capable of capturing a world-class shot of Bagan at sunset. I sit and enjoy instead, the sun’s rays reaching over and between the reddish ruins dotted across the plain.
The overnight bus from Yangon is as early in arrival as obnoxious during transit. A screen in the front plays music videos all night long, the sound blasting throughout the bus. When I arrive around 5 AM to my hotel, I’m greeted by the drowsy man at the front desk, who tells me to go upstairs to use the wifi. He lies down on a table in the lobby for more sleep. Obviously the wifi doesn’t work, and a time later I’m awoken from the table I had my head on to be asked if I want breakfast.
Bagan (previously Pagan) has been called “Little Angkor” but unfortunately is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of some of the restoration efforts the government decided to undertake, rendering some of the structures untrue to their historical original. Yet another characteristic blunder by a government that is obsessed with the grandeur of Myanmar while having no idea of how to actually practice and represent said grandeur. Not having the UNESCO stamp of approval will cause the tourism industry, and the people that depend on it, to lose out big time.
Nonetheless, Bagan is a fascinating place. One can go to the more obscure sites and not be confronted with vendors and tour buses, but just quietly walk around, and on some even climb up and into the ruins.
My second day in Bagan, having already explored the ruins on a broken electronic-bicycle, I board a minivan to visit Mount Popa – home of the 37 Nats. In all religions, there are local beliefs and rituals that linger and are never extinguished from that culture completely. In Myanmar, these are the nats. They are like local saints, or interpreters of spirits. Often these men would dress like women, dance, and drink. These 37 great nats met violent deaths. More here. Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi provides a fictional, but accurate depiction of nat worship in present times. In Bago, I did see a real live nat, dressed in drag, dancing, encouraging visitors to take long swigs from a bottle of rum, and then offering them predictions for the future and guidance.
I climb the 777 steps that lead up to Mt. Popa, passing frequently by men “cleaning” the stairs and asking for donations. When they see you coming up the steps, they move their rag a few times. In this country it is not proper to simply ask for money, because Buddhism teaches one to only take what is offered. That being said, sometimes the difference between gratefully accepting and asking for charity is simply a matter of semantics. It’s like having your windshield cleaned at a stoplight in LA and the guy demanding to be paid. Even in a place like Myanmar, where you have the odd sensation of actually trusting complete strangers, opportunism presents itself in the face of tourism. I wonder what Thailand was like all those years ago.
The top of Mt. Popa is underwhelming. Various shrines with Buddha statues and statues of Nats are decorated with offerings of fruits, cash, cigars. The view is little more than some brown landscape, the ubiquitous pagoda here and there.
Even in this part of Myanmar, perhaps the most touristed of any, it’s still easy to witness day-to-day life. Motorbikes zoom around, people sit drinking tea and laughing, men are constantly spitting in the street from chewing betel leaf, kids are kicking around a ball. It’s easy to lose your sense of place when you are going around looking at ruins of old empires and historical monuments. But then you turn your head, or walk a block down the street, and you see more of the daily grind.