28 February-4 March 2013. Bagan is all about the temples and pagodas, but I’ll start with the puppets, and the people.

Marionettes, string puppets, first became a form of entertainment in the royal court in the 1700’s and the art form flourished for about a hundred years under royal patronage, until British colonization in 1885. It was revived in the late 1990’s under the patronage of one of the generals of the ruling Junta. Apparently it is as popular with the people of Burma as it is with tourists. The same characters appear in each troupe, and it was interesting to see many of the same characters in the puppet shows as we saw in the traditional dance performance in Yangon. And what a cast of characters! Kings, queens, princes and princesses, the alchemist, the old man and the old woman, the monkey, the ogre, the Prime Minister, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the elephant and the spirit medium! and many more. They are a form of pure whimsical entertainment, and the puppets were used then, as now, to convey political messages, since the puppets can say and do things a person may be punished for. It can be a clever covert way to broadcast a message of discontent or rebuke.

We saw a performance with a full troupe of puppets and puppeteers in Mandalay. A smaller troupe performed every night during dinner at our hotel in Bagan. Apart from being delightfully entertained it was a great opportunity to finally get some good photos. The first two were taken at the show in Mandalay in a darkened theatre, the following three in daylight in the open-air dining room of our hotel in Bagan.

The Princess

The Alchemist

The Ogre

In Mandalay we’d walked to the theatre and had taken our headlights with us knowing the return journey would be after dark. By some miracle we found a trishaw driver who actually had his own headlight strapped around his head. Mostly they ride in the dark with no lights, and nothing much in the way of streetlights. Sigh. Anyway this guy had a headlight. He said a tourist had bought it for him. When we pulled out our headlights he doubled up with laughter. He’d never seen anything like it. Tourists with their own headlights! Honestly I thought he was going to choke on his betel nut. He was literally doubled over and trying not to dribble. We never did understand why it tickled him so but it was pretty funny seeing him laugh like that and not lose his wad of betel nut at the same time. Trishaws in Burma have two seats, facing back to back. Our headlights have a bright white light at the front and a flashing red light at the back. Don sat facing forward, and I sat facing backward with my headlight on backwards thus becoming the flashing red tail light of our vehicle. Only one scary moment when I thought a motorbike was going to drive right up into us but swerved at the last minute. A frisson of adrenaline there for a moment.

The trishaw driver told us that a couple of years previously he’d been caught with a fifty dollar bill that he’d been given by a tourist. He was jailed for two months. He said that now it was okay for him to have US currency. Tourism has grown so much, just in the last two years, that things like that are no longer considered suspicious.

We had a day in Bagan to be flaneurs. We set out from our hotel with a map, and figured if we just kept walking “that way” we’d come to the river. We got to the end of the road, we had to kind of duck around a building and under some trees, and there we were at the river, at a village on the river bank, at a whole other part of Bagan, at “real life” Bagan as opposed to tourist Bagan. A lovely man came and spoke to us, and took us into the house of a relative who showed us photos of a long-deceased relative who must have had gigantism; as much an anomaly in their world as ours. This woman must have been well over seven feet tall, and they showed us her sandals that were about eighteen inches long, and a photo of her hand with a normal sized adult hand holding it. The woman showing us all these things didn’t speak any English. She was soft and gentle. Her house was wooden, and a bit messy and cluttered. The man asked us to give her a small payment for showing us her unusual relative.

We sat by the river with him for a while. He said he was an artist. Then he took us to his father-in-law’s wooden house where he painted, and where he lived with his wife and child, only he slept in one of the thatched buildings nearby. The house was cluttered and lived in, with a dresser messy with stuff, a motorbike inside, a small generator on the floor, and in this same room he did his sand paintings, squatting down close to the ground. He was hoping we would buy one of course. The one we wanted was the partially finished painting of the Buddha’s feet with all the traditional symbolism on it. We wanted it as a gift for dear friends in Vancouver. He stayed up all night to finish it and brought it to us at our hotel early next morning just before we left for Inle Lake.

Down by the river

Around Bagan

The next generation

The pagodas and temples of Bagan

On our last evening in Bagan we climbed, just before sunset, to the top of one of the biggest pagodas. Everywhere you look, in every direction hundreds and hundreds of pagodas dot the landscape. More than 2200 temples and pagodas as far as the eye can see. It’s breathtaking, bewildering, puzzling, beautiful, a fairy tale. Who would build all these religious monuments? So many of them! The mind can hardly take it in; the sheer numbers and scale of it.

For about 250 years, between the 11th to 13th centuries, when the Bagan Empire was at the height of its power as the kingdom that unified the regions that would become modern Myanmar, its rulers and wealthy subjects built over ten thousand pagodas, temples and monasteries in the Bagan area. Bagan, the capital of the empire, was a thriving cultural and scholastic centre, home to 200,000 people, and religion was a dominant force encompassing various schools of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism (Nat, or nature spirit, worship). Of those ten thousand temples, pagodas and monasteries, mainly due to earthquakes, “only” something over two thousand remain. Well let me tell you, two thousand is plenty. Two thousand is mind-boggling. I can barely conceive of ten thousand. Several of the temples have been in continuous use and so are well maintained, many are not much more than a pile of rubble, but most dot the landscape like something from another world, both insistent and ethereal.

Our first introduction to the temples had come two days earlier when we’d hired a driver with a horse and buggy to take us around for the day. Here he is:

He is 82 years old. His daughter also came along for the ride, and to alert him to approaching traffic. I think he and his horse knew where to go just by feel, but a little help telling him what to avoid was also needed. He hardly spoke. He chewed betel nut all day. I got him to smile even with betel nut in his mouth 🙂

We rode around for hours from temple to temple, exploring inside and out, some of them so dark we were provided with a light bulb on the end of a long lead to carry deep into the temple so we could see the thousand-year-old murals and carvings. There was great variety in size, shape, architectural style, and materials, some white, some gray, most a wonderful rusty ochre, and even a pink one. A day-long exploration into another world that filled our senses with its grace and beauty.

The next two are Don’s photos

Next post: a journey to Mount Popa, the Nat/Buddhist temple at the top of a butte, and another, yes another ceremony to welcome baby (sometimes literally) monks into the monastery – on horseback!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.