Bagan, built between the 10th and 14th centuries AD, is the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar. More than 2500 Buddhist monuments (pagodas, stupas and temples) sprinkled over a 30 square-miles area make this place a stunning archaeological and historical site.
Nothing beats seeing the sun rise over Bagan (easy if, like us, you just got there by night bus and it’s 3.30am). We walked and cycled around in the dark until we found the Bulethi pagoda, recommended as one of the best places in our guide-book. Along with a few other tourists, we waited for the sun to show up while sitting on top of the pagoda. As soon as the sun was out, we could finally admire this gigantic field of stupas and temples. At the same time, about 20 hot air balloons took off. Although these are only for tourists, we are happy that some people can afford it (not by altruism, of course, it’s just that hot air balloons look great on the pictures).
Bagain is also renowned for the mural paintings inside 300 of its temples, and we can only confirm their beauty.
Restoration or Reconstruction ?
It is hard to talk about Bagan without talking about how the archaeological site is managed by the government. Built on seismic zone, Bagan suffered numerous earthquakes throughout its existence, including a major one in 1975. In response to the damage caused by the latter, the military junta started a few “embellishment” projects which, unfortunately, do not respect international archaeological standards.
A few examples:
- A golf course was built in the middle of the archaeological zone
- An ugly modern panoramic tower was built
- Damaged temples were “restored” not according to their original design, but according to one of the few temples that had remained intact. This resulted in a uniformity that international experts find absolutely terrible
On the other hand, for a lot of Burmese people, Bagan is not really a historical site but a pilgrimage place. There are temples that are still very active where people come to pray. In which case why shouldn’t they get a more modern touch ? Air conditioning, carpets more comfortable than the hard stone, neon lights behind Buddha’s head to help with the concentration, etc…
The financial means used for the restorations also come in great part from the locals. Tourists pay a 25 000 Kyats (about 20$) entrance fee but there is absolutely no transparency on what happens with the 4 million dollars that are collected through this fee. It seems that most of it goes straight to the military junta’s pocket. This significant lack of funding leads to some questionable repairs made by local volunteers who sometimes come from far away (and don’t necessarily have the required skills). You often see piles of gravels on the side of pagodas, crevasses that have been filled with cement, mural paintings covered in plaster, etc…
Because of these unfaithful restorations, Bagan was refused entry into the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 1996. A second application was started in 2013, and this time UNESCO adopted a different strategy: to make Bagan a Wolrd Heritage site anyway in order to protect it from further damage and more unfaithful restorations. The application is still being processed right now and the definitive answer will be revealed in 2019. UNESCO experts are already working on site to help repair some of the damage, especially since the recent earthquake in August 2016 (6.8 magnitude).
Bagan’s tourist traps
We liked Bagan, but we were very surprised to see so many tourist traps in a place that sees relatively few visitors compared to other similar major tourist sites.
A few examples:
1) Since 2014, the bus station is not in Bagan anymore but 7km away, in the middle of nowhere. Even at 3.30am, as soon as you have one foot out of the bus, the taxi mafia jumps on you (rather aggressively) to try to coerce you into paying a ridiculous amount of money for such a short trip, and because they are all in it together, you can’t negotiate the price down. This is rather common in south-east Asia (we had that almost everywhere in Thailand), but usually you just need to walk away from the station for a bit and you can find cheaper local alternatives. This time, there is no other option as the taxi drivers put pressure on the local bus drivers so that they wouldn’t take foreigners. Frustrated to think that these guys could make more money with a few 15 mins rides than a doctor or a teacher in a day, and having 2 hours and 30 minutes to kill before the sunrise, we decided to walk. We hadn’t walked 50 meters that one of the taxi drivers ran after us to explain to us that:
“Yes, yes, it’s 7km, but it’s 20 km”
“Too dangerous, many many snakes, you’ll see”
This made us laugh and we went on our way on foot.
2) While visiting a temple whose entrance was lined with small shops, our shoes (left at the entrance like in every temple) were “borrowed” by sellers who had placed them in front of their shops. When you get out of the temple, this means you have to go on a treasure hunt to find your shoes, forcing you to look at all the wonderful cheap souvenirs on the way…
3) Another small scam we got to observe was that of the children playing at the top of the pagodas. When a tourist arrives, the child goes to him/her to start a conversation, before showing him his “collection”: an impressive stack of bank notes from all over the world. The child then goes on to describe each note one by one, giving the name of the country and the name of the currency. Surprisingly, there are no US dollars, no euros and no British pounds in the collection. In our case, he concluded by asking us if we had any “euros from France”. This is more sad than anything, especially when you see the number of kids that are using this technique to try to get a bit of money (which is almost certainly not for them).
4) The former bus station (the one in use before 2014) is now a zone where you can find all sorts of ticketing/travel agencies (to book planes, buses, boats, etc…). We had to contact someone specific over there to buy our tickets to go to Mrauk-U. As soon as we parked our little electric bike, every agency jumped on us to try to get us into their shops (without knowing where we wanted to go). We explained politely that we had someone specific to call first but they insisted, looked over our shoulders at what we were doing on our phone, listened to our phone conversation and tried to intervene. We learned later on that the concept of private space was different in Myanmar; if you do something in public, it’s public, hence a phone conversation in the street is open to everyone. As most sellers in Bagan tend to never let you go and always keep on insisting more and more, after a while the only thing they get from you is total mistrust.
Luckily, like everywhere in the world, there are great people that are truly honest and sincere, like the man who saw us go towards a dead end and picked us up to bring us to our hotel at 5 in the morning, or the young girl who told us where to go to see the sunset alone from the terrace of a temple.
All these thoughts about archaeology and tourism seem very distant when you look at the sun setting or rising over all these temples. Not everything is perfect, sure, but we think this place really deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, at least for its stunning beauty. We also hope that some agreements will be reached as to how best to handle the restorations and that Burmese people will still be able to enjoy this place and practice their religion.
Mrauk-U (pronounced “Miauw-Oo”) is a city that is not on the usual tourist path, something mainly due to the fact that it’s hard to reach. To get there, you need to either fly to Sittwe and take a 5h boat, or take a bus (24h from Yangon, 20h from Mandalay as a direct bus or 20h from Bagan with a change). A road linking Bagan and Mrauk-U has been under construction for a while to make the two cities a 5h drive away, but it is not operational yet.
The bus from Bagan wasn’t so terrible, and we just had to go through a check-point at 4 in the morning. Identities were checked, and the military came inside the bus to randomly check some luggages, their flashlights aimed at the locals’ faces. For once, we arrived in Mrauk-U at a decent time, 10am.
For now, only a few tourists arrive each day to this wonderful archaeological site that is very different from anything we had seen before. It is possible to visit the inside of the temples and pagodas (still in really good shape) and discover their little paths and spiralling corridors lined with Buddha images.
The stupas there have a peculiar and very pronounced bell shape, which differentiate them from everything we had seen in both Thailand and the rest of Myanmar.
Just like in Bagan, the sunsets and sunrises are moments that you really shouldn’t miss.
Once again, some “embellishment” projects have taken place. The temple with the 90 000 Buddhas (Koe Taung) for example, has had the honour of being surrounded by magnificent white street lamps (in a style not too far from football stadium lights). It probably stems from good intentions, but the overall view of the temple from far away (one of the most iconic views of Mrauk-U), is now completely ruined. You could think that at least now the temple is visible during the night. Actually, if you did try to go there at night, you would realize that after a 20 minutes bike ride on the worst road in the world in absolute darkness, you would reach the temple only to see that 1 street lamp is working out of the 22… This doesn’t remove the beauty of this temple though, and it is still well worth a visit.
The small town of Mrauk-U looks really cute with its central market, is dirt raods and its waterways. Locals seemed way more friendly than in Bagan, and the small number of tourists creates a very different atmosphere: indeed, it is in Mrauk-U that we got on well the most with other travellers. For instance, we met Richard (from Switzerland) and Christian (form Austria), with whom we went on a 2-day trip to the Chin villages along the river.
Les villages Chin
The villages in the south of Chin state are often visited in order to observe a peculiar tradition, the tattooed-face women. This practice started when a king long ago decided to kidnap a few women from this state to make them his wives. To avoid this happening again, the local people decided to tattoo the faces of the women to make them undesirable in the eyes of the king. This tradition was then kept until 1975, data at which the Burmese government banned the practice.
Although Mrauk-U is in Rakhine state and we were not authorized to cross into Chin state (our guide, Zaw Chay, explaned that there had been conflicts recently between the Rakhine army and the Burmese army), some tribes originally from Chin state settled along the Lemro river. We hesitated for a while over visiting these villages as were afraid of the human zoo effect, but seduced by a 2-day boat ride on the river we finally made up our minds and we don’t regret our choice.
We were 7 on the boat: the driver, one guy whose function we’re still quite unsure of, our guide Zaw Chay, and our group of 4 travellers. We went up the river slowly, stopping from time to time in a village (2 on the first day, 3 on the second).
Each time, we started by going to see the tattooed-face women. We sat down with them, talked for a while and took some portraits. Thanks to Zaw Chay, who is an excellent interpreter, and Richard, who has spent 18 months in Myanmar already and therefore can speak Burmese a little, we could have real conversations, which alleviated our fear of the human zoo effect. They told us that the tattoos were made at the age of 7 or 8, against the will of the young girls who did not want to suffer the extreme pain caused by the procedure. Quite often, the little girls had to be tied down so that they wouldn’t fight back or try to run away. The tattooing in itself sometimes lasted a whole week, followed by a month of barely being able to eat because of the swelling during the healing period. Paradoxically, they were extremely proud of their tattoos (they consider it is a mark of great beauty), and would have liked to see the tradition continue. Although the practice was banned, a few tattoos were done illegally until 1995. They then explained to us that today, this is not even possible because the Burmese army killed all the tattoo masters.
In Kone Chaung, the village where we slept, Ma Tin Moe (80 years old) stared at Tracy for a while before telling her through our interpreter: “You should get the tattoo too. You would be so beautiful with it !”
In exchange for the time spent talking to them and/or the pictures taken, it is expected that tourists give monetary donations. We had been told about this before and did not really know what to think of it beforehand. After these 2 days, we now think of it as a quid pro quo, especially considering the low number of tourists coming through these villages. Tourists can also make donations to the schools (they are not very well supported by the government so any equipment donated to the children will do a lot of good), or participate in the local economy by buying inexpensive scarves made in the villages.
We also spent a lot of time walking around the villages trying to talk to people and taking pictures. All, children and adults alike, were very happy to see their pictures on the screens of our cameras.
In Kone Chaung, the villagers were celebrating the end of a school period. They came to us and made signs of dancing to make us understand that it was a party, and gestured for us to come over. There was music, dancing, singing and a common meal. They were so generous and eager to please us that we had to try absolutely every dish. We ended up with out hands and mouth full of pieces of slow-cooked meat, having to refuse the more pieces they kept handing to us !
In all the Burmese villages we’ve been to, we were struck by one thing. Even though most of the time the only source of electricity is a small solar panel on the roof, everyone had a smartphone. Thanks to the arrival of cheap chinese phones and the lowering of prices for sim cards and 3G access in the past 3 years, this technology is now widespread in Myanmar. The consequence is that everyone has a smartphone and that everyone wants to take selfies to put them on Facebook 🙂
We met a few travellers/tourists who did not understand how they could afford such things when they did not have running water and cooked over a fire everyday. We personally think that the smartphone holds for them the promise of being connected to the rest of the world. In a country that has been completely closed for so many years, we totally understand the idea that having internet access is more important than anything else.
The two days of this trip in the Chin villages went by really fast, and we will keep wonderful memories of it.
A monk’s funeral
Back in Mrauk-U, we went to a monk’s funeral. If we hadn’t been told that this was a funeral, we would have never guessed ! It looked more like a funfair, with a live music scene, a carousel for the kids, small shops selling toys, food, etc. For more than 2 hours we sat down with the crowd to look at small rockets being launched horizontally into a nicely decorated bamboo and paper pagoda, without any obvious meaning to it all (it seemed they did not want it to catch fire as every time the rocket stayed lit on after the impact a group of 5 people rushed to smack it with wooden branches). Puzzled but determined to not get discouraged by our lack of understanding, we started to ask around us with Richard’s help if the pagoda was going to be burned or not. After a few very vague answers, we managed to understand that yes, it was going to be put on fire, at some point between 6 and 8pm. Around the same time, a few locals that had been staring at us for a while started to smile and came to us to ask where we came from as well as what the three of us were doing together (Burmese people seemingly had trouble guessing our respective ages: 70 years old for Richard who is only 50, 40 years old for Tracy and 20 for Clement. Some egos did not get out of there undamaged!)
As soon as all the small bamboo pagodas had been dismantled and thrown on the biggest pagoda, everyone gathered and eagerly waited nightfall. At 7pm, someone announced on the PA system (which volume was, as always in Myanmar, way too loud and with way too much reverb) that the final part of the celebrations was about to start. Fairly impressive home-made fireworks started a dozen metres or so from us, and a really big rocket was launched straight at the bamboo pile/pagoda. This time, nobody rushed to put out the fire.
Burmese food can be very good, but you need to be a bit careful where you eat. To make it short: try to stay away from the street-food. We got food-poisoning 2 times in 3 weeks…
A typical meal is composed of a small individual curry (fish, chicken, beef or pork), rice and a soup. The cooked vegetables (aubergine, cauliflower, chinese spinach, pumpkin, yellow lentils, etc…) are all put in small plates at the centre of the table so that everyone can share. The specialities we particularly enjoyed were the tomato and peanut salad, the tea-leaves salad and the Shan noodles.
Buddhism in Myanmar
Buddhism in Myanmar seemed slightly different than what we had seen in Thailand. The rules seemed to be followed less scrupulously by the monks. A possible explanation we found was linked to the military dictatorship the country suffered from: in extreme poverty, becoming a monk at the monastery was for quite a few Burmese people the only way to survive. As they became monks by necessity rather than conviction, their way of approaching Buddhism has been slightly altered.
It is a very complicated subject that we can’t comprehend fully (we don’t know enough about it), but it seems that the status of women in Buddhism has evolved differently depending on the countries. In Myanmar, women are clearly placed below men (they can’t get too close to Buddha statues and have to pray behind the men, they will need to reincarnate into a man first if they want to reach enlightenment, etc…). This doesn’t seem to be the case in all Buddhist countries.
Finally, it would be difficult not to mention the massacres that are being committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Muslim people are persecuted (mosques are burned down, people are chased out of their houses, there are refugee camps where people are parked and can never leave). Hateful speeches are also spoken by some extremist Buddhist monks who are calling for violence, going as far as spreading misinformation and showing fake pictures to get to their ends. It is very difficult to learn what happens exactly. One thing is for certain though, it is totally impossible for foreigners to see anything: all the roads leading to Rohingya villages are closed off and guarded by the army and it is impossible to get the permit to go beyond (especially when the chief of the “tourist police” is completely drunk at 10am). Luckily, not all monks are extremists, but if you do visit Rakhine state, try not to bring up this sensitive subject with the locals, you might face some serious hostility.
Being a foreigner in Myanmar
When it opened the country to tourism, the government made it very clear to the local people: tourists will not be held responsible for their acts, but somebody will. For example: it is mandatory to have a special licence to be able to host foreigners. If a local invites a tourist to stay in his house without having the licence, he can be severely punished afterwards. The same goes for farmers who might accept that a touring cyclist plant his/her tent in their fields. If a tourist files a complaint about something of his being stolen in a bus, the driver will be held responsible, and the military in Myanmar does not tend to be gentle.
The “positive” side of this: travelling in Myanmar is very safe, at least for the tourists…
The “foreigners fee”: There are always 2 prices (one for the locals, one for the tourists). This started with long-distance buses, hotels and historical sites but today it is applied rather freely by a lot of people (restaurants, small shops, local transports, etc.). You just need to accept it straight away because contrary to other countries where this might just be a question of negotiating, here it is considered normal. They will rather let you go and loose a sale than sell you something at the local price.
If you reached this point of the post: thanks for holding on and sorry about the length, we wanted to say a lot of things !
Myanmar is a fascinating country that truly deserves to be visited and explored. It’s a country whose population suffered a lot under both British colonisation and the subsequent military dictatorship. Nevertheless, Burmese people, who don’t have much, are extremely friendly, honest and sincere.
Myanmar is opening its doors to tourism, but it is doing so too quickly and with not enough precaution. We really hope that tourism over the next few years will not destroy the beauty of the country nor the heart of its people.