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The Magic of Bagan

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Bagan is one of the places that neither words nor photos could ever accurately describe. I have definitely seen some amazing photos that do represent it well, but nothing prepares you for the breathtaking moment that the sun rises over a red landscape absolutely splattered with temples, stupas and pagodas.

Luckily for us, our very first encounter with the expanse of the Bagan plains happened just like that, in the wee hours of the morning. Our overnight bus from Yangon arrived shortly before 4 am and we had the option of paying half price for a room for the extra hours that morning, or paying the same amount to take our horse cart (horse cart!) and driver to see the sun rise. Out of sheer cheapness and the opportunity to both kill time before check in and view a Bagan sunrise, we chose the sunrise.

According to Wikipedia, during the 11th and 13th centuries when the Kingdom of Bagan was at it’s height there were approximately 10,000 structures built on the plains, of which only 2200 remain due to attacks and earthquakes. It is the iconic images of the Bagan plains which many tourists think of when they dreamily plan a trip, and is often compared to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Having seen both, I would gladly say that the entire experience of exploring Bagan from the back of a horse cart, or the seat of a bicycle was much more interactive and personal than that of tourist filled Angkor Wat.

Walking around New Bagan is like taking a step back in time. Horse carts and their drivers carry tourists and locals back and forth between Old Bagan (site of the old Kingdom) and New Bagan (where locals were forced to relocate to after the government kicked them out in 1990). While the biggest form of economy in Bagan is tourism, lacquer-ware production comes close in second place. Shops and stalls selling lacquered bowls, plates, jewellery boxes, jewellery and a multitude of other miscellaneous objects can be found all around the major temples and even some of the smaller ones. My biggest fear for these Bagan plains is that, just like Angkor Wat, they will become overrun with touts who are absolutely lovely and helpful, but desperate to sell their product. More than once we were surrounded by children offering to sell us hand drawn postcards of temples, or women showing us around a temple in the hopes that we’ll buy something from her shop afterwards.

In true Burmese style, they were lovely and helpful in order to get the sale, but personally I’m worried that they’re going to get jaded and it’ll be people running after your horse cart just like in Cambodia where they surround your tuk tuk the instant it stops.

Future fears aside, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Bagan; from the clip clopping of horses down the dusty streets, to the cutest old man selling us the coldest beer in all of Burma, to the multitude of temples that we visited throughout our three full days’ stay.

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Bagan to Mandalay via the Irrawaddy River

I think I got my sea legs quite early on, as a young girl the most exciting part of the 8 hour drive to my grandparents was the 45 minute ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory along Lake Huron on the MS. Chi-Cheemaun. So when Eira said that I could plan our trip through Burma but her only requirement was a day long float down the Irrawaddy river, I was only too happy to oblige.

Sunrise on the bow of a boat. Couldn't be happier.

Sunrise on the bow of a boat. Couldn’t be happier.

After waking at an ungodly 4 am, that was supposed to be 4:30 + snooze thanks to my phone  alarm clock still set on Thai time, (Burma is 1/2 hr behind) we set off for the jetty. I thought that “jetty’ “dock” and “pier” were interchangeable, but what we pulled up to was a boat literally anchored beside the shoreline with a wooden plank for crossing.

Villagers waving at our boat

Villagers waving at our boat

So after precariously balancing from shore to boat, we set off into the sunrise seated firmly on the bow of the boat watching fishing villages rise and get ready for the day all along the shore. As the day progressed and the heat began to rear it’s ugly head, and more and more fisherman happily waved as we passed, we readied ourselves for a long, hot day of little more than lounging, reading and catching up on writing.

Typical home along the river

Typical home along the river

However, tensions are rising along the river, something that we were oblivious about while we merrily sailed down it. The government is starting production of 7 major dams that will allow them to export electricity to China. While this is something that may be good for the economy, the fact of the matter is that it’s causing fighting and hostility between builders and displaced community members all along the river. Not to mention environmentalists concerned about the damage that will be done to the ecosystem when the flow of the river is controlled due to China’s electricity requirements, as well as the possible fate of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. I learned about this after seeing a t-shirt stating “Save the Irrawaddy,” and am glad that we had the opportunity to peacefully sail down the river despite a possibly doomed future.

To read more about the proposed project, the Kachin Development Networking Group keeps an updated list of all developments surrounding the proposed dam sites and villagers reactions.

Recently I’ve been staring at the sky…

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More often than not a camera simply cannot capture the beauty of a moment. Half the time I don’t even bother reaching for my camera, but this time I was lucky. Floating down the Irrawaddy river as we approached Mandalay, the setting sun peaked through the clouds. After a day of reading and writing on the bow of a boat, the perfect breathtaking finale to a peaceful day.

I almost kept this for myself, for a private memory of a lovely reminder how magical the sky can be.