Horse, Buggy, and the Best Lit Photos of Bagan
Day 3 in Bagan, Burma: October 7, 2012
Bumpy Road, Broken Bicycles, and Buddha Images in Bagan
Bagan Day 2: October 6, 2012
Mark and I decided to downgrade our room at Kaday Aung Hotel http://www.kadayaunghotel.com from superior ($45USD) to standard ($30USD), which better suited our budget. After breakfast we exchanged our rickety bikes for what appeared to be much better ones…but they weren’t. Nonetheless, we were ready for a day of cycling around to see temples. There are just so many!
Maybe it was because we were hungry, thirsty, and sore from cycling over a million bumps, but there was a strange feeling at this temple. I didn’t take pictures of many people, but there were a lot of people begging for money and trying to giving us ‘presents’ we didn’t want so we’d buy something from them. It was the only temple that felt like that, and the sketchiest people we met in Burma outside Yangon. The expression on the face of the monk above gives you an example of the not-so-welcoming atmosphere.
By the time we got back it was dark, and we were exhausted, but still okay for a refreshing dip in the pool and a couple more Mandalay Reds to send us to an early slumber.
Buddhist Temples, Benevolent People, and Boat Rides in Beautiful Bagan
Day 1 in Bagan: October 5, 2012
After being in Yangon and its surrounds, Mark and I took the night bus to Bagan. Bagan is a city in Burma known for having more than 3,000 remains of its ancient Buddhist temples. We’d seen stunning pictures, but no picture could compare to the vast amount of beautiful temples it offered all in one place.
We arrived at 4:00 am hopped in a jalopy and headed down dark and bumpy dirt roads to Kaday Aung Hotel http://www.kadayaunghotel.com/ in New Bagan. The staff was extremely friendly and set us up in a superior room ($45USD) upon arrival. We slept until around 8 am and got up for a complimentary breakfast in the outdoor dining room. Mark cracked me up by going barefoot and saying, “Whop, whop, whop, whop an, Panyaden style.” (Panyaden is the school where we work in Chiang Mai. Throughout the day neither teachers nor students wear shoes in the classrooms, and usually not outdoors either. It’s healthier for the feet.)
After our leisurely breakfast we got maps and information from the hotel staff, rented mountain bikes that looked sturdy, but we soon found were not strong enough for the bumpy roads, and were off to see the temples.
Much like in Thailand, in Burma the day of the week you were born is culturally significant. Each day of the week is associated with different symbolism, in Burma, it’s an animal. In this temple you make an offering to your animal, and then switch on a light.
The Shwedagon is not a Burmese Deodorant
The Shwedagon Paya is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma. It is an ancient structure originally built between the 6th – 10th century, though has been rebuilt due to earthquakes and other disasters. In its enormous golden form it contains relics of the Buddha, over 2000 rubies, and over 5000 diamonds, including one 76 carat diamond at the top. Needless to say, it is an impressive sight.
Mark and I arrived during a rainstorm in the late afternoon and stayed to see it lit up after sunset. The storm had cooled off the tiles under our bare feet. I enjoyed finding Monday, the day I was born, is the tiger in Burmese tradition. In Thailand, and apparently Burma, it is important to know which day of the week you were born. There are different Buddhas and colors in Thailand, and in Burma, the were also different animals that represent each of the days of the week. I poured water over the Monday Buddha image, gave it my flower offering, and bowed before it.
My pictures should give a fairly good visual sense of what it was like, without its sheer magnitude. Here is a little text to go with the photos: Golden temple beauty was available from every angle. I was enchanted by the pink robed novice monks and how the older children looked out for the younger ones. An adorable little girl liked making the sound of the temple bells, “Gonnnng.” The volunteer cleaning brigade swept the temple as swiftly as if they were line dancing. The psychedelic/shlockified Buddhas had lights that danced around their enlightened heads. The bright golden stupas looked magnificent lit up against the darkening sky. It was time to leave when it felt like the monk was getting a bit too friendly.
Mark and I joked that Shwedagon or Sweat-be-gone would be a great name for a Burmese deodorant – strong enough for a Buddha, made for a man.
If you go to Burma, it is well worth the trip to visit the Shwedagon in all its golden grandeur.
Democracy Now? A Preposterously Brief Burmese History
Today, as I breathe a far away sigh of relief to see the words ‘President Barack Obama for another 4 years’, it reminds me of just how lucky I am. I have the luxury of voting, the luxury of choosing to live in another country, and the luxury to travel to almost anywhere in the world freely with my US passport.
“People in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.” Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech.
Nowhere does this seem more relevant than the country I just visited, Burma (Myanmar).
Burma’s politics are contradictory, backwards, confusing, and very difficult to explain. This is my interpretation from a variety of sources. I have tried to be as accurate as possible, but often it is difficult to know what is really happening there based on the news. I will skip its old history and start around 100 years ago.
After being a British colony from 1886 – 1947 Burma fell under the rule of U Nu and things started going downhill. In 1958 it fell under the horrible dictatorship of Ne Win for essentially 30 years and things got progressively worse.
1988 – On 8.8.88 civilians non-violently demonstrated against the government and at least 3,000 people were massacred. Aung San Suu Kyi had returned from England to see her ill mother. She spoke out at the protests on 8.8.88 and became the secretary-general of the National League of Democracy, who won general elections. The military would not relinquish their power and essentially quashed democracy for the foreseeable future.
Despite a continued military rule, Suu Kyi was/is seen as a hope for Burma’s future. In 1989 she was put under house arrest, where she remained for the better part of 20 years. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize.
(image from http://rlv.zcache.com/)
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, because Burmese government committed multitudes of human rights abuses on its own people, many foreign countries banned travel, investment, and any kind of economics in the country.
2007 – Prices of gas and petrol rose more than 200%, which made all goods expensive. This caused the ‘Saffron Revolution’, which was neither saffron nor a revolution but a protest by 50,000 monks (whose robes are burgundy in Burma). There was widely televised footage of the government killing monks in the street. At least 30 monks were killed.
2008 – Cyclone Nargis destroyed much around Yangon killing at least 140,000 and leaving many others homeless. When other countries stepped in to help, the Myanmar government refused any type of aid for its people.
2010 – ‘Elections’ showed that the military-backed party ‘won’. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days later. Since these elections, government reforms have started taking place. Burma’s military rule has been replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government. I’m not sure how different that is, but it sounds like a step in the right direction on the ‘roadmap to democracy’.
Now it’s November 2012 – Violence in Rahkhine state has been in the news for the past few months on a daily basis. Foreign investment has started happening, which could be good or go completely wrong.
I have read that Burma “warmly welcomes” President Obama’s visit next week. He is the first US President to visit Burma. He would like to encourage the country in its ‘democratic transition’.
Burmese leader Thein Sein said he would accept Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people vote for her in the next election in 2015.
So what will Burma’s future be? I don’t know. I just knew it seemed like a good time to visit my neighbor while in transition for what will hopefully be changes for the better. Travel restrictions have lessened in the main tourist areas, though special permits are needed for parts of the country and other parts are still off limits. In a few years Burma could be a very different place, some parts for the better, other parts could be worse.
Despite its horrible government, the people are absolutely lovely, the country is incredibly picturesque, and there was and air of innocence that felt a little bit like stepping back in time. It is hard to believe that in a place where people have faced such atrocities that they could be so genuinely kind, but they were. As with any country, especially Burma and the US, the government and the news do not paint an accurate portrait of its people.
I wish Burma luck on achieving democracy, stability, and peace. The people deserve it.
Is It Burma or Myanmar?
This is the country whose pictures prompted my desire to travel to SE Asia many years ago, but whose political situation kept me from visiting the country back in 2000-2001 when I traveled throughout the region.
So, what country am I speaking of? Is it Burma or Myanmar? Well, to answer that question, I will attempt to show why answering that question is more confusing than one might think.
After British colonial rule, and the dictatorships that followed, in 1989 Burma’s name was changed by the government to Myanmar. Apparently, the United Nations refers to the country as Myanmar for this very reason. However, the CIA World Factbook calls the country Burma.
NPR has this to say:
The U.S. is among the nations that choose not to refer to the nation as Myanmar. “Out of support for the democratic opposition,” and its victory in a 1990 parliamentary election — the results of which were annulled by the military rulers — “the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma,’ ” the State Department says.
“Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar. They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics. … If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says. …”
What? Burma and Myanmar mean the same thing? How did the locals corrupt the word so much? Burma and Myanmar sound nothing alike.
So, which one is it? Now that you have some information, I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Regardless of what you call it, I just traveled there for 18 days. The next several blog posts will be dedicated to Burma (or Myanmar), Thailand’s neighbor to the west. In case you are wondering in Thailand they refer to it as pratet pama ประเทศพม่า.