Jewel of Myanmar

Bagan,with its mystical ruins, is also home to an independent-minded people fiercely protective of their land and history.

by Jaime Ee | Photos by John Heng

HISTORY feels sandy around the toes. The debris of ancient civilizations mingled with modern dirt crunches underneath as you pad barefoot - according to strict custom - around the pitch-black confines of the 12th century Thitsawady temple, wondering: could the Buddha be so against any form of protective footwear? Ouch.

"Insects have destroyed the paintings that were on these walls," our guide Khin Maung Aye is saying, aiming the high beam of his flashlight at faded scratches etched into the cave-like interior. "In the old days, they made cement out of glue from buffalo skin, ground tree bark, sand, lime and palm sugar. The insects liked the sweetness."

It's not yet dusk, but already we need his artificial light to guide us up the narrow stairs leading to an open terrace where we will perch and await our Kodak moment - when the fiery sun sets over the crumbling, mystical ruins of Bagan, Myanmar's archaeological jewel.

It's nice here. Quiet. That's why Mr Aye picked this place even if it lacks the gilded Buddhas and detailed frescoes in the tourist-riddled likes of Ananda, Shweizigon or Dhammayangyi.

Away from the hordes, only our voices crack the serenity of the green plains before us, studded with temples and stupas that hark to Bagan of the 9th to 13th century - when kings ruled Burma and both rich and poor constructed these brick tributes to a higher being for merit and a smooth transition to the next life.

Did it work? The kings are long dead, their empire decimated by Kublai Khan and his marauding Mongols in the late 1200s; their legacy left in the hands of generations to come - sullied now not by battle but by souvenir stands and tour buses.

Are the kings writhing in the afterlife, at the sight of these foreign invaders climbing their sacred monuments, gawking and clicking to satisfy their Instagram urges? Cringing at the tourism-minded military junta's brash restoration spree in the 1990s, blithely crowning the artifacts with shiny new tops and resurrecting from the earth stupas long flattened to their foundations, with little regard for historical accuracy?

Therein lies the conundrum that faces Bagan today even as Myanmar eases slowly into democracy to take its place in the world. Struggling with its military past and warily hopeful about the future, Bagan is more than an Angkor Wat wannabe just a 90-minute plane ride from Yangon. Behind that romantic facade is a fiercely independent-minded people protective of their land and the monuments on it, often at odds with the leadership that controls it.

From our vantage point at Thitsawady, the greenery below looks benign, hardly alluding to the strife that forced the division between old and new Bagan more than two decades ago. Mr Aye remembers only too well the fateful elections in 1990 when Aung Saan Suu Kyi's party won and she was held under house arrest for the next 20 years. The backlash against the people who voted for her came swiftly in Bagan - a staunch supporter of democracy. People were driven out of their homes - some at gunpoint - forced to settle in wild, uncultivated land that would eventually be known as new Bagan.

"We couldn't do anything because they came with guns," recalls Mr Aye. "I only see in the movies - the Germans showing their guns and telling the Jewish people to move - why do we have to suffer like that?" Each family was given a small plot of land, divvied up from large tracts acquired from farmers for pittance. "There was no water, no electricity. We lived like bushmen for three years. There were no trees - and many snakes."

With little choice, the displaced tore down their own houses to re-assemble in new Bagan, building new lives for themselves in the process. Nobody lives in old Bagan now, which has shrunk to just one square mile, says Mr Aye, housing just the local archaeological department buildings and a couple of hotels originally built by the government in anticipation of tourism dollars, until an international tourism boycott put paid to that idea.

Now that a legitimate democracy is in place, tourism numbers are up, which is good news for people like Mr Aye, who worked in Bagan's archaeological department before joining the local office of Unesco tasked to oversee the restoration of the temples. When the government's cavalier attitude towards restoration saw Unesco withdrawing in 2002, Mr Aye lost his job, but rather than go back to the archaeological department with its military links, he switched gears to become a licensed tourist guide and mentor to his young ilk who can't match him for knowledge or living experience.

He spent much of his career trying to protect Bagan's monuments, believing in the principle of 'preserve and restore'. "That is the archaeological way." But there is no temple that has remained untouched except for one - Dhammayangi - "because the king who lived there was assassinated so maybe it would not be good luck to touch it", he muses. Where there used to be around 3,000 temples in Bagan, that number is growing, as temples once razed to the ground rise again with the help of modern bricks, not necessarily with the same facade they started out with. "You've heard of money inflation? Here, we have pagoda inflation," quips Mr Aye.

It is for this reason that Unesco is depriving Bagan of world heritage status as a whole, although it might still consider it with specific monuments. As the country puts more store into what the world thinks, maybe things will change. In the meantime, the tourists continue to come, but rather than be fearful of what damage these outsiders can inflict, Mr Aye is more concerned about what's already been done from within. Besides, he says, "The foreigners are very respectful - they don't litter or damage anything. It's more the local pilgrims that do that."

The erudite 55-year-old shifts his legs painfully, looking older than his years as he glances at the sky and beckons us to leave.

"The sun is not fine," he says, as the clouds diminish any hopes of a picturesque sunset. We ask if he is ok, whether he is worried that he may have been too outspoken in his views with us foreigners.

He thinks a while, then breaks into a wide smile. "No, no. We are a democracy now, we won't get into so much trouble."

For his sake and that of Bagan's - no, Myanmar's - future, we sure hope so.

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