By now I’m heartily sick of temples. There are an estimated 4 million temples in Myanmar and we seemed to have ridden past most of them. We have also ridden through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia all of which are riddled with the things. I mean I get how many of them are architecturally stunning, but once you’ve seen a dozen or so you’ve seen them all. To be honest it’s what they represent that I find distasteful more than anything. The subjugation and control of a people to serve the interests of an elite. Rather than using violence and compulsion to do this what better way than the promise of a better life, the catch being not in this life though, but the next one.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the ancient city of Bagan. Over 10,000 of the things were built over the course of a couple of hundred years beginning in the 11 th century. At the height of the building frenzy twenty or more monuments were being completed every year. Of these over 2000 remain.
We spent a day cycling around the ruins, which is probably the best way to explore them as long as you can handle the heat. They are quite spread out, and there’s lots of little tracks you can take to escape the crowds. Next morning we got to see them from another perspective. From above.
Although this trip is for the most part low budget (we plan on spending around $35 per day). However this is also our honeymoon so we are using the wedding present from my mother to splurge every once in awhile. And this was definitely a splurge. A balloon trip over Bagan. But oh so worth it. I was a little apprehensive as the glowing burners filled the envelope in the cool morning light. I don’t do heights very well and Kim is even worse. But we needn’t have worried the basket is very high and the experience so gentle I felt disconnected from the sensation of being high. Almost as soon as we became airborne we relaxed and settled down to enjoy the sensation of drifting over one of the great architectural sites in the world. It was wonderful the sun was rising and people going about their business below. We could truly appreciate the true size of the great City. However all too quickly it was over and we drifted down safely in a farmers field. And were left to contemplate the experience over glasses of champagne and breakfast.
Bagan certainly is an impressive sight, some of the ruins are still incredibly beautiful despite the ravages of time, earthquakes and the bungling repair jobs conducted by the military dictatorship. However like any other religious edifice on this scale I can’t help but think of the tremendous waste. Of resources, and energy and time and of course in the thousands of lives that must have been lost during the construction. All devoted to the glorification of something that doesn’t exist and not only that but something which had actively been used to prop up whatever bunch of corrupt and vicious cronies which happen to be in power at that particular time.
And the waste continues to this day. We had witnessed it first hand just before arriving in Bagan. Mount Popa situated around 50 km away is the most important site for the worship of Nats (spirits) in Myanmar. Nat worship, a form of animism predates Buddhism, but the two superstitions have merged and Nats still play an important role in Burmese life, especially in rural areas. As we cycled nearer trucks and minibuses piled high with pilgrims passed us on the road. However upon reaching the mountain itself I was disappointed in how deeply unspiritual the experience was. It seemed to be more about extracting as much money as possible from the devout who were flocking to pay their respects and their Kyats.
The site itself was pretty impressive situated as it was on a volcanic plug rising sheer out of the side of a huge mountain also called mount Popa. And from afar the collection of golden stupahs on top of the crag looked impressive. However upon getting up close the entrepreneurial focus of the site became apparent. The area at the start of the steps was filled with shops and restaurants, whilst the steps themselves were lined with stalls selling all kinds of tourist tat and religious trinkets to the crowds streaming up the hill. At the start of the steps proper the stalls stopped but the gouging continued. Every few hundred metres there was a room filled with statues with a box for offerings in each one, every few steps there was someone with a mop collecting donations for keeping our bare feet clean (ish). Every so often there was someone stationed collecting donations from people who could have their generosity immortalised on a hand painted blue plaque for a few dollars. At the top the money gathering became even more fervent. Each alcove with its accompanying statue was filled with piles of notes, people were stuffing currency into the Buddha’s hands, arms and balancing more on his stomach. Something I’m sure the Buddha himself would feel deeply uncomfortable with. As I headed towards the main building a couple of guys were furtively counting wads of notes. Upon going inside I was greeted by the sight of a line of low tables behind which were seated a half dozen robed figures with huge stacks of Kyat in front of them. They were scribbling furiously into official looking papers in front of them whilst discussing the contents with the pilgrims sitting facing them.
The extraction of cash had started long before we reached the mountains. All along the road in Myanmar there are groups of people with a sound systems shaking silver bowls for donations to build a new pagoda. After all that’s what the country really needs, having only around 4 million of them already. Kim commented if only they were collecting money to buy books for the local children. I know the temples do a lot of work in the local community but they also have a lot of gold……
Ironically one of the few things they don’t charge for on the mountain is entry for foreign visitors unlike most other temples and religious sites. And whilst we were walking back to our hotel I found a 1000 khyat note lying on the verge. So I must be one of the few people to visit Mount Popa and come away with more money than when I arrived. Except of course for the monks
The night before had featured the most unpleasant experience of the trip so far. Our friend Grum had warned us that the only hotel at Mount Popa was ridiculously expensive so I’ve went online and booked a place using Agoda which we found was consistently the cheapest option of the online booking options.
Things started out badly and didn’t improve. The GPS coordinates given in the booking turned out to be wrong and the real location which we determined by asking some very helpful young woman at another hotel was actually 3 kilometers back the way we had come. When we eventually find the place a large and rather unkept looking man rose unsteadily to his feet and bellowed $35 to ice. I tried to explain we had already booked a room for less than $25. It quickly become apparent that not only did he not understand a word of English he was also very drunk. So drunk in fact that he was incapable of reading anything we brought up on google translate. His timid wife seemed too scared of him to want to get involved in any of the transaction. Eventually we managed to get him to understand the word Agoda and he replied with one of his few phrases of English “sit down please” and made a phone call. There was no reply and we continued to sit there for the next 45 minutes while he continued to make phone calls and telling us to wait please. Tired and sweaty after a long day cycling and becoming more angry that despite having already paid for a room we couldn’t access it we asked him what was happening. As we got angry so did he. While I didn’t treat feel threatened it was certainly unpleasant and we were no near a resolution. It was only when I was calling agoda customer service in the UK via Skype that he eventually must have gotten through to whoever he was trying to call and showed us to our room. To make matters worse the promised cable and satellite TV in our room turned out to have only one Channel which was set to some program about travel in Myanmar as opposed to the Manchester United game I was looking forward to watching. Luckily they were plenty of restaurants crowded with monks and pilgrims avidly watching the game. Now that’s one religion I can get on board with.
Of course the promised breakfast at the hotel also turned out to be a fallacy as did the Wi-Fi. Luckily after hearing of our experience Agoda customer service turned up trumps and gave us a discount of nearly half of half of the cost of the booking. We used it to pay for our next hotel and how different that place was.
The hotel in Mandalay was easily the best hotel we had in Myanmar in terms of service and value for money. The room itself with small but perfectly adequate and spotlessly clean. Indeed it was the only place in Myanmar where they cleaned the room made up the beds and changed the towels on the second night we stayed. The staff were extremely friendly and helpful and the breakfast buffet delicious despite it being one of the cheapest place we stayed in. Certainly a refreshing change to the high prices and indifferent service we experienced in most of the rest of the country.
We arrive there in some style to having taken the boat up the Irrawaddy river from Bagan. My rulers must have done a good job at inculcating there lies about their imperialism because the slow boat to Mandalay still countries up romantic images of Empire rather than the savage and bloody reality it should do. However as is usually the case the romantic images prove to be far more attractive than the reality. It pleasant enough but the river was too broad and its banks too flat to afford much of a view in fact the greatest excitement occurred barely an hour into the journey when with a clunk of metal and furious shaking the engine juddered to a halt. Upon closer inspection at the rear of the boat one of the planes of the propeller was a twisted mangled wreck after becoming closely acquainted with the button. It seemed to be quite a common occurrence as they had a spare propeller on board and a replacement propeller shaft which after changing the propeller they determined was also bent. We pulled up to the shore to make the repairs and after around an hour were on our way again chugging against the current towards our destination
This sight which left the greatest impression up on me was a large still ship being loaded with rocks from the riverbank. But rather than the mechanical devices you would have expected to see maneuvering such a heavy payload, this one was being filled by hand. All accurately by head. A swarm of people was gathered on the shoreline and they were lined up one by one grabbing a large stone placing it on a padded cloth on their heads and walking gracefully up the wooden again plank on to the ship. The contrast was stark between the scrawny figures on the riverbank laboring hard in the sweltering heat for a pittance and the chubby white people cruising past whose most taxing labour was raising their heavy zoom lenses to get a good shot of those toiling on the shore.
The Sun was setting when we reach the finest vista of the day low hills studded with golden stupas a long and intricately gurdered bridge a throng of coal barges chugging around the river and the pall of smoke that announced our arrival in Mandalay.
Mandalay was fine. A large rather polluted city. Most of it was destroyed in heavy fighting during the war so it hasn’t got the architecture of Yangon. But we wandered around the old palace and climbed the hill which gives the city its name. Unfortunately the view was rather disappointed consisting primarily of the golf courses so be loved by the generals who control the country. The city itself was obscured by the pool of smog. But all this was made up for by our lovely hotel and the staff who went out of their way to help us.