Going Out With A Bagan!
So how I came to pick Myanmar on my trip is a little random. I saw a two week trip (to include a river cruise) to Myanmar from one of the gay travel companies that I get email from. Two weeks is too much, but I clicked on the link and it got my mind thinking. Obviously I wanted to go to Yangon since it was the former capital and biggest city. But once I saw pics from Bagan I knew I had to add to the itinerary. So that's why I was at the Yangon airport at 0445 in the AM. After one of the most scariest taxi rides in my life, I swear he was either high or couldn't stay awake, I checked into my Air KBZ flight to Bagan. Air KBZ, you mean you've never heard of it? Yeah, me either. It's one of about four domestic airlines in Myanmar. And the only quick way to get to Bagan. And my intinerary is packed, to say the least, so Air KBZ it was. The flight was a little over an hour in a ATR-72. A 100 person prop job. But it was fine.
Landed in Bagan, got my bag, and found my tour guide waiting for me. I had a little over 24 hours in Bagan and I wanted to make the most of them. Before we left the airport, I got my ticket to the Bagan Archeological Zone (BAZ). We went to my hotel to drop my bag and then it was off for a full day of touring temples and stupas (or pagodas). According to Min (my guide), a temple is something you can walk into, while a stupas (or pagado) is a solid monument. There are close to 4000 temples and stupas in the BAZ. Yes, 4000. Just on the drive from the airport to the hotel we saw dozens. Over 800 were damaged in the big earthquake last year, so that just left 3200 for me to visit. And no I didn't really try to see them all. I put myself in my tour guide's hands and just went along for the ride. He did a great job!
From the airplane, looking down on Bagan (well technically Nyong-U which is where the airport is) the countryside was dry and oddly familiar. Dry, dusty, some open fields and some small groups of trees that provide much needed shelter from the hot sun. Oh, now I remember, it reminds me of Kenya. Seriously. If it weren't for the temples, I could easily have been in Kenya. When I was in Angkor, I did my tour via tuk-tuk which was fine. But most of the roads around the BAZ are dirt roads and I would have been choking on dust the whole time so I was glad for the air-conditioned car. Touring by e-bikes is also popular, but with the dust, pass.
Most of the temples and stupas were built between the 11th and 13th century during the height of the Kingdom of Burma. Some of the temples are huge with multiple Buddhas in them and some are really small little buildings with a single small Buddha in it. Most of the larger temples have four Buddhas facing each primary direction. There are four different types of Buddhas. There is the sitting Buddha (most popular I think), then the standing Buddha, the reclining Buddha and then the traveling Buddha. When Min explained that to me I realized that I hadn't seen a traveling Buddha yet. So in one of the temples, we found one. It's basically a standing Buddha with a cape and his hands are grasping the cape. Kind of interesting.
The temples and stupas here are different than Angkor Wat as they didn't really use standstone at all. Almost all of the temples here are built with red bricks. And then for some of the larger more important temples, the brick is covered by plaster so they could paint on the walls. In addition to the damage from the earthquake and from the villagers (wait for it), the damage from ants is pretty significant. Why ants? Well the plaster was made with sugar, so the ants would try to extract the sugar from the plaster ruining the plaster and paintings as they go along.
The BAZ was created in the early 1990s by the military running the government who recognized the need for hard currency from the tourists while they were under various sanctions from the US and the West. The villagers used to live in Bagan itself, but the military kicked them out and moved them to New Bagan. Which was kind of harsh, but the villagers had also been stealing the bricks from the various temples and stupas for years, so it actually helped preserve the area. Interestingly enough, UNESCO came through in the early 2000s and declined to make the BAZ a world heritage site mainly because they didn't approve of the restoration techniques that government was using.
As we drove around looking at temples, you could see the temples under reconstruction or being repaired from the earthquake. Many of the tops of the temples were covered in bamboo scaffolding (which looked cool but definitely not safe) that was held together by rope made of coconut husk fibers. There was a big team from India at one of the temples helping to do the restoration. As the home of Buddhism, the Indians send money and personnel to help restore some of the important temples in Bagan.
After lunch, we hit a couple of more temples and then I needed to go to the hotel to rest a bit. It was hotter than hades and I just needed some serious AC. After our mid-afternoon break, it was back for more temples and then we went to one of the minor temples to climb it to watch the sunset. So this was a better experience than Angkor. There were other people on the temple (thought it definitely wasn't as packed as some of the major temples), but for the most part they were quiet and it was nice to just watch the sun sink into the humidity and haze on the horizons. After sunset, I went back to the hotel, jumped in the pool, had a cocktail and dinner and then crashed.
So I think ending the temple touring part of my trip here in Bagan was a great way to close out this part of my trip.