This is not a blog about everything you should do when visiting Bagan. There are no recommendations on hotels or restaurants or which temples are the most austere. There are plenty of those blogs already written.
There is an old women. She looks 80 but a life of labor probably means she is closer to my age of 59. She rolls cigars for a living…rolled from corn husks and filled with a mixture of tobacco and chunks of palm wood.
This is a blog about the way Bagan Myanmar makes me feel. A feeling I find difficult to describe or explain. Nonetheless this is me reflecting on Bagan.
The more I travel the more I find myself conflicted about travel…all the while also finding myself needing to travel more. It’s an addiction plain and simple. This insatiable desire to get at the nerve of a place and really feel it’s soul.
Hunched over a loom she makes cloth from cotton she has grown, dyed and spun into thread. She spends her days weaving to sell to the tourists and to provide the traditional skirts both men and women wear.
I’m conflicted because I don’t want to contribute to “over-tourism” – one of our current catch words of the decade. Though I practice conscientious travel my nomad life has me often seated in a jet airplane, frequently drinking plastic bottled water when no other options present themselves and participating in a growing global tourism culture in places few people have ever been until recently.
Thus here I am reflecting on Bagan.
Since before puberty she has worn the brass rings around her neck as one of the unique women of the Kayan tribe. Now later in her life, removing the rings could kill her. She has spent 50 years bound this way and even when the tourists stare she is proud.
I stand at a temple (a place where you worship Buddha inside) or a stupa (a usually dome topped monument to worship from the outside) and I find myself thinking much more about human life than about ancient structures. As I have gazed on the pyramids at Giza (Egypt 4500 years), the Mayan Temples of Guatemala (3000 years), the white marble Taj Mahal (India 400 years) and the Roman Road of the Camino de Santiago (Spain 2000 years) I see people more than structures.
In my reflection I’m less inclined to convince more visitors to come here than I am to search for meaning as to why I have been called to be here? Why has my life led me to witness.
I want to remember and honor and understand the remarkable human beings who walked this same ground I’m on, yet thousand of years before. Who were they? Young or old? Did they have families? Were they hungry? Happy? Whole?
I am fascinated at the thought of workers and slaves who by force or by faith built the great structures of our world. The precise stone monument of Machu Picchu (Peru 600 year), the precariously placed mountain top Sri Lankan fort of Sigiriya (1500 year) , the astonishing stone carved temple of Lalibela (Ethiopia 1500 years) or the massive and sprawling city of Angor Wat (Cambodia 900 years).
Beyond this curiosity about these ancient societies I also find myself drawn to more recent history. Meeting a tiny little cigar puffing 80-year old Burmese woman and wondering what she feels about the changes here over her lifetime. Eighty years ago Burma was a British Colony and the native people were suppressed under British rule. They cultivated the fields all around these more than 4000 ancient temples with little knowledge or awareness to understand the history that happened here. Making sure they knew where their next meal was coming from was more important.
Twenty years ago tourists began to come to the newly named country of Myanmar. Seven years ago a new government began to really push Bagan as a tourist destination and four-months ago Bagan became the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A lot of changes in a few years. And though a UNESCO designation will breath new life into conservation and preservation efforts it will also bring a vast number of more tourists and continue to change the ancient way of life.
For me I find people and their cultures more fascinating than structures. The history of life. The culture of 4000 years ago and the culture of 100 years ago hold the same fascination for me. I think about the farmer who for generations planted his fields around the giant stones laying on the ground that we now know as Stonehenge (England 5000 years). Or the farmer in China just out digging a new well less than sixty years ago who discovered the incredible archeological site we now know as the Terracotta Warriors (2000 years). Or a British explorer looking for one thing and stumbling upon the ancient buried city of Ephesus (Turkey 1000 years). Just real everyday people discovering remarkable antiquities in a world fascinated with ancient ruins.
A beautiful young woman wearing the traditional thanaka paste on her face sells fans and postcards outside the temple. She uses her English to engage with visitors and her smile to enchant.
As I am reflecting on Bagan I want to embrace and honor the culture of the place, all while knowing much of it is gone or going with the influx of visitors like myself.
An old woman invites a stranger into her courtyard and serves them tea – expecting no donation or payment. This is her culture and she preserves it. She chats away in a language we don’t know and puffs on her cigar. She cackles loudly showing cigar stained teeth. She firmly grasps my hand as we depart with a well worn paw that has seen decades of labor. Her gesture is genuine, lovely, and will disappear likely in the next generation.
I don’t know where this leaves me, except in a quandary to do my best to show respect and reverence to the remarkable cultures I am so very blessed to touch, if only briefly.
Conflicted in Bagan. Beautiful, precarious, real Bagan.
Reflecting on Bagan.
Learn more about ancient and changing Bagan on Wikipedia.
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