“The People’s Desire” – it’s Bagan

NEVER let it be said journeys in Burma aren’t eventful. The overnight bus from Pyay to Bagan was pretty ramshackle, as was the road. At one stage, we may have driven across – or rather, through – the Irrawaddy River, which must be a quarter of a mile wide, although having looked at a map I can’t see why we would have done so. All I know is that in the wee small hours we went through about three feet of muddy water for a very long time, then got stuck in sand as the bus tried to get up a bank and half the male passengers had to get off and push.

Then we were woken from our half-slumber and dragged off the hot bus into a cafe where Jean-Claude van Damme was doing side splits on the large-screen TV. Great; it’s the middle of nowhere, they rely on a generator for their electricity, yet still they can find the power to inflict Jean-Claude van Damme’s turquoise Lycra-clad arse on us at 1.30 in the morning.

Bagan, also known as Pagan, is one of the biggest tourist sites in Burma: thousands of zedi and temples spread over 40 square kilometres. We arrived there at around 6am, and driving through this bizarre landscape in the early morning light was pretty trippy. The zedi are a thousand or so years old, and wear and tear along with at least one major earthquake had taken their toll. But in recent years, many have been restored, in some kind of UNESCO programme. It’s difficult to know whether this is right or wrong: I mean, Bagan must look pretty much as it did in its heyday (I doubt the countryside has changed much over 1,000 years), and the project has created hundreds of jobs for local craftsmen, who are using the same tools and techniques their ancestors would have used, but there is a real Disneyland feel to the place.

"People's Desire", Bagan.

“People’s Desire”, Bagan.

One of the first sights to greet visitors isn’t a zedi, though, it’s a massive billboard on the road into the historical zone, which proclaims – in English, note: “People’s Desire: Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views. Oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the state and progress of the nation. Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state. Oppose all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” There’s a matching one in Burmese, just in case the locals forget that these are indeed their desire, and there are similar boards around the country.

I rented a pedal bike. First, I hit the market, which was possibly just as scary as the totalitarian billboard: there was a sack of chillies which had clearly been gnawed by rats, then a big metal dish of grey stuff that looked like nothing more than a grey cat’s furballs collected together and coated in slime and sold as food.

Earlier, I’d asked Ne Lin about what kind of illnesses were common in Burma. “People are sick,” he said, miming retching. I could well understand that: 40 years of political isolation haven’t done a right lot for public health awareness, as anyone would agree if they too had seen a woman (in another market) squatting by a woven grass tray. She was in the shade under an umbrella but the sun beat down on the tray… and the entrails spread over it. Every so often the woman would turn the entrails with her bare (unwashed) hands, then scoop some into a bag for a purchaser.

Then there were the pots of water scattered around public places. The pots had covers, which would keep out solid nasties, but they also had a cup attached, which everyone would drink from.

Ananda Pahto from a distance

Ananda Pahto from a distance

After lunch with Karen and Ne Lin, who had gone straight to Bagan from Rangoon, I cycled round the archaeological zone. Some of the bigger temples are open to the public, and it’s possible to climb onto the roof for a panorama of the temples, although I found sunset a bit of a disappointment.

My favourite had to be the Ananda Pahto, this square white temple with a golden spire; nice from the outside, lovely inside, with a huge standing Buddha that is smiling from one angle and frowning from another; floral floor-tiles and wall paintings.

Even though the number and spread of the zedi and temples is impressive, I have to admit Bagan didn’t move me overmuch, and, in addition, I felt as though the locals saw me as a walking wallet rather than a person. If I hear the words: “You want horsecart?” (a common way of getting round Bagan – and many other towns and cities in Burma, for that matter) ever again in my life, it will be too soon.

That said, one experience taught me how much our money can mean to the locals. Some of them have stalls inside the pagoda, selling fabric paintings or the local speciality, which is lacquerware. Even though I had been asked umpteen times too many to look at paintings, souvenirs or lacquerware, I agreed (after a lot of badgering) to go to the home of one young vendor because I’d arrived at this one temple as it was closing and he was leaving. I didn’t want to go to his house: I was leaving town at 4am the following day, I hadn’t packed or bought my bus ticket, but I agreed to let him pick me up at 9pm.

What with one thing and another, I was half an hour late, but still he was waiting for me. I thought I would get away with spending five minutes with him. However, when we arrived at his house – brick-built, but with very little furniture – I found his father, mother and two younger brothers there to greet me, and that his mother had laid out plates of mango, peanuts, water and beer.

I wasn’t hungry, so I said I’d look at their lacquerware. “Naïve” is probably the best way of describing it, but one battered piece caught my eye. It was an old money box, and I agreed to buy it for US$10. K, the young man, was really excited – I was his first sale of the day – while his father kept saying: “Thank you, thank you” and shaking my hand as enthusiastically as if I’d turned up and told him he’d won the lottery. Yep, that’s how much $10 meant to them. They were lovely, genuine people and I stayed as long as I could; we ate mango while K’s father told me that civil servants earn about 20,000 kyats (about US$20) a month while someone with a ‘good’ job earns $100. I so wanted to stay longer, much longer, but I had a 4am bus to catch…

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