Old Bagan revolves around sunrise and sun set. It’s when thousands of 12th century pagodas are basked in a warm orange light, providing a perfect photo opportunity for snap happy visitors. At 3:30 a.m., the streets of Nyaung Oo, the town just outside of Old Bagan which is dotted with more affordable guest houses, are pitch black and the only people awake are those just arriving off the night bus from Inle Lake. Half asleep, Paul and I revel in the novelty of loading our backpacks and our weary selves onto a horse-drawn and carriage which takes us to our guest house for abut $4. The novelty wore off about half way through the ride when we saw the driver roughly slap the horse with a bamboo stick and when we realized we could probably walk as fast. We politely declined the driver’s offer to take us to the sunrise temple, instead opting for the faster option, push bikes. At 4:45 a.m., a group of five of us rode off through the dark, deserted streets, resembling some sort of punk kids’ biker gang. About 20 minutes down the road, there was a non-descript dirt track and eventually a sign leading us to the Shwesandaw Paya pagoda with the best view of the sunrise. We climbed up the steep steps carved into the side of the pagoda, using our hands to guide us in the dark, and we discovered about 15 other tourists already at the top, and more to come, many armed with tripods and telephoto lenses. We waited under a thick blanket of stars for the sun to slowly drive out the night and bring the ancient temples into existence. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to 13th century. During the kingdom’s rise, the king commissioned the building of over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, almost 3,000 of which are still standing today, despite the land being rocked with numerous earthquakes. However controversy surrounds some of the questionable restoration work, which some archaeologists have criticized as shocking deviations from the original structure.
A silver sliver of crescent of moon hung in the air, even as the horizon began to lighten to bands of pale blue and coral pink. Soon the pale light touched the pagodas, impossible to count across the desert-like plain. The stone pagodas were shrouded in a mist that made them look like they were floating and as if they could all disappear as though of a dream.
There must have been about 40 people perched on the east side of Shwesandaw Paya but no one spoke as the sun rose, as if they were rapt in a quiet reverence for a long-awaited honoured guest. No one had to say “wow, this is beautiful,” because we all knew that it was. As the brimming orange sun breached the horizon, the pyramid-shaped Dhammayangyi temple the most prominent amidst the plain of pagodas, more than a dozen hot air balloons floated into the sky, as if someone had opened their hand releasing the balloons toward the sun. I’m sure many people were wishing they had forked over the $300 to be one of the lucky ones in the balloon but most of us were satisfied with the unforgettable view.
My friend Paul and I were too exhausted to bike around Old Bagan to see the temples so we decided to treat ourselves to a dip in the Thwante Hotel pool, which was unmitigated luxury compared to our budget accommodation at View Point Inn, whose quaint name defies the dingy rooms and cold-water only mildewy bathrooms. As the sun dipped down and the day was freed from the grip of stifling heat, me, Paul, Laurie, the boisterous Queenslander and Greg, the American from Colorado, headed to a pagoda for sunset.
Other friends had recommended this lesser known viewing point so we could avoid grabbling for west-facing space among the tripod toting tourists at more popular locals. When we arrived, the pagoda was deserted, except for a stylishly dressed Burmese youth hanging off a parked motorbike. When Laurie and Greg couldn’t find a way up, Koko, the aspiring young tour guide, sprang into action. He led us to two narrow stone staircases, shrouded in shadow, the steps covered in dust. I instinctively headed toward the one on the right but he put his arm out and firmly said “No, danger, this way” and led us, stooping and crouching, up the other staircase. At the top, he showed us the danger, a huge bee hive, swarming with hundreds of bees, hanging just before the exit to the staircase. Koko looked younger than his 21 years but he often spoke in a grave, serious tone, looking you in the eyes which stood out amidst the thanaka face paint he was wearing to protect his skin from the sun. As we clambered further up the pagoda and then around the narrow ridge toward the west-facing ledge, Koko warned us to be careful on the aging rocks. To underscore his point, he grabbed a small stone stupa at one of the corners and gently pushed it so it lifted off the base. Then, before the drooping sun could extinguish all light, Koko started his sales pitch. He unrolled a large canvas that was strapped to his back like a sheath of arrows. He unfurled about 15 sand paintings, where rich colours of gold, burgundy and azure formed into images of monks doing pilgrimage, the revered Buddha meditating or Burmese women dancing. It seems every pagoda is territory to guides who carry the mass-produced paintings and sell them as “originals.” Even through his serious nature, Koko was a really likeable guy and we enjoyed talking to him.
He said he’s studying at university and wants to learn history so he can be a guide in Bagan, which is indeed becoming an increasingly prosperous profession in a city tat is welcoming more and more tourists by the day.
“In Myanmar, many, many changes, so many tourist are coming,” Koko said.
While the tourism boom would certainly bring more money into the hands of those in the tourism industry – guest house and restaurant owners, taxi drivers, tour guides and souvenier sellers – Koko said it’s not good for everyone.
In 1990, the military forced thousands of villagers out of their home, pushing them three kilometres south to New Bagan to so the government could build a hotel, effectively labeling the sacred territory of Old Bagan for “tourists only.”
Koko said his family were among those relocated. Although he wasn’t even born at the time, his family still talks about it bitterly.
“It’s sad for the people, but good for the tourists.”