We arrived in Bagan by way of a four hour, somewhat bone-jarring back road drive from Mandalay. The drive gave us a view of the gorgeous Burmese countryside — carts pulled by horses and Burma cows, herds of long-eared, black-headed goats, and thatched houses along mile after mile of bright green farmland.
The picture is romantic but the people are very poor and the heat is oppressive.
Bagan is wonderous — 2200 brick-orange temples, pagodas, and stupas spread out across ten square miles of bright green valley. The original city is believed to have been comprised of 13,000 structures and was built mostly in the 9th century by King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism.
We toured the landscape for two days on silent and super fun electric bikes. (The hot air balloons were not in operation because of the weather). After my several visits to Cambodia, I couldn’t avoid comparisons to Angkor Wat, which is as dark and authoritative as Bagan is ethereal and accessible. Angkor Wat’s massive black and grey stone work evokes power and presence, where the spires and lacy brickwork of Bagan feel personal and godly. Angkor Wat is surrounded by deep forest. Bagan lies on a bright green plain dotted with airy acacias, palm trees, and fragrant frangipani. Angkor Wat is adjacent to the busy, touristed city of Siem Reap, while Bagan has small modest villages that line the roads through the park. And while Siem Reap plays up the fun on Pub Street, Bagan’s tourist brochures proudly explain that Bagan does not have any night life.
1200 years after King Anawratha, Buddhism remains a very obvious presence in Bagan. Everywhere we go, we smell incense burning in sand piles along the streets, see families praying before their favorite icons, and hear chanting from the temples.
Because there was a feeling of positive change in Bagan, I thought about George Orwell, who lived in Burma for many years as an officer in the British Army. He wrote several books about his experiences and his observations, which were critical of the British Empire as well as the subsequent Burmese dictatorship. Animal Farm and 1984 were banned in Burma for many years. It’s a sign of the times that you can now buy Orwell’s books in the temples and at bookstands. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/george-orwell-legacy-myanmar-burmese-days-2014323131115211118.html And also that the opposition party leaders are waving you down on street corners.