March 14, 2009

Bagan, Myanmar

My bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan put me in the good company of Pascal, a solo French traveler who mentioned how pleased he was with our nice-looking bus as we waited at the station together. Looking at the fairly new painted stripes on the side and what seemed like upholstery from this decade, I felt quite hopeful as well. But in the haze of early morning, I somehow let “Traveling in Myanmar” slip my mind and the saying “looks can be deceiving” never even entered.
Body checked against the window by a full-to-capacity backseat, I tried to settle into my new spacially compromised position for the seven-hour bus ride that lay ahead. Once we were out of the city, the spectacularly varied landscape became a metaphor for the extreme contrast under which this country operates.
From my window I watched as open fields of lush and fertile land, which grew everything from fruits, beans and vegetables slowly turned into dry deserted plains of sand, dust and the occasional tree. There were tomato plants that grew next to cactus and oxcarts that rode next to motorbikes and buses. Sandy palm trees which looked as though a camel should be tied to it’s base stood next to branching banyan trees that felt as though you could sit under it’s shade and drink a cool glass of summertime lemonade.
The natural contradictions seemed to echo the unfortunate social ones, which as scenery remained beautiful and as public policy became quite ugly. Myanmar is a place of rich agriculture and yet the farmers have the commodity of food heavily controlled by their government and neighboring countries making the possibility of a decent living from their efforts nearly impossible. Myanmar also has oil, but you cannot find a proper gas station anywhere and people have to buy and sell petrol in one-liter liquor or water bottles. Myanmar, with it’s mountains, rivers, beaches and culture, has the possibility to generate a healthy income from tourist dollars but because of an oppressive government, the locals usually cannot tap into this potential industry and even the road that I was traveling on to the most popular destination was an unpaved, bumpy disaster. To me, Myanmar seems to have everything and yet nothing, all at the same time.
As I was reflecting on all of this, our bus rolled into a small village for what seemed like a normal break, but soon the rumor of our engine failure was confirmed. We would have to wait three hours for the mechanic to come from Mandalay.
The sun was hot but Pascal and I made our way along the dirt path to a food stand where we sat for lunch and quickly became the neighborhood’s spectator sport. As we dined on rice mixed with unidentified salads, I remembered the monks from Mandalay because I felt, well, like an animal in a zoo. We had a crowd of twenty or so people around us and we were all exchanging wild hand signals, scraps of language and a lot of laughter under many pairs of curious eyes.
After three hours we were told the mechanic was a no-show. So, they started working on fixing the engine themselves, which took another three hours. Our reliable looking bus, with it’s colorful stripes and updated interior, turned out to be just like it’s other friends on the road – a real clunker.

Bagan, which is Myanmar’s main historical draw, is a collection of over two thousand temples in various stages of preservation, spread out over miles of land and built throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. Pascal and I set out on bicycles before the afternoon heat to explore this incredible heritage site and after a few hours, much like the inevitable Pharaonic Fatigue that one starts to suffer from in Egypt, we were officially Buddha Bushed. The other exhaustion that quickly sets in is having to repeat the sentence “No, I don’t want to buy a painting” over and over again, as the locals have all gotten a hold of cheap reproductions of the temple sites that they claim are from the strokes of their own hands. But after a full day of riding around in the heat a persuasive young kid I met was able to break down my wall of resistance with his charming personality and I eventually caved and formed an attachment to my new painting right under the watchful eyes of two big Buddhas.
Waking before dawn with the intention to watch the sunrise and to take some time to quietly pray in an open temple, I headed off on the bicycle. I was cycling along, happy at last to be exploring without the constant requests to buy something, when a young boy started to cycle next to me.
“Good Morning, where are you from?,” he said.
“Good Morning to you, I am from America,” I replied.
“You are up early,” he said.
“Yes, yes I am. I am looking for a temple where I can meditate for an hour. Do you know of a good one?” I asked.
“Yes, but first, would you like to buy a painting?”
“But it’s only 4:30 a.m!” I shouted.
I realized that, along with the rest of the country, even Bagan is steeped in contrast as the push to acquire more happens right inside old temple walls erected to honor a figure whose teachings call for less. I found it ironic that in a country where there are so many people praying for balance, that so little of it exists.

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