Before Bagan we went on a small excursion to Hpa An and Bago. They are in the Karen State. Myanmar is broken up in the most complicated way. There are seven “divisions” which have a primarily Burmese population and seven “states” which are named after the largest ethnic minority that live there. For the last 60 years there has been one sort of conflict or another between the various ethnic groups and the military government which makes it the longest running civil war in history. Honestly, a pretty depressing distinction to have.
None of this of course was apparent as we drove around. It is the mist full on jungle of anywhere that I have ever travelled. It is just barely held back. The jungle feels like this hungry beast that wants to devour anything manmade. It would take about three days for the jungle to reclaim the cities of Hpa An and Bago.
The jungle feels like this hungry beast that wants to devour anything manmade.
What we primarily did today was visit caves. There are a bunch. They aren’t empty of course. In Myanmar a cave is just an excuse to fill something with many many statues of Buddha. Most of them were a bit of a climb. Am I alone in climbing up hundreds uneven stairs in 95 degree heat and 100% ranking somewhat after a root canal in things that I enjoy doing. But the view after the climb was usually worth it.
I also discovered that spelunking is not going to weigh heavily in my future. As you venture farther back into Saddar Cave, in particular, the temperature climbs, the light diminishes, and the oxygen depletes. The air became still and I had to hold myself back from having a panic attack. The second cave was open to the air. Almost like a really large natural covered porch and was easier to deal with.
The air became still and I had to hold myself back from having a panic attack.
Bago is the ancient capital of the Mon Dynasty. Of course, as I have a had a western education I know nothing about the Mon Dynasty. Which means that there is a palace. Not an ancient palace so much as a reconstruction. Actually, we aren’t even sure where exactly the original palace was built or how it looked. What you actually see is more for demonstration purposes. The ancient teak pillars are actually more interesting.
One of the most frustrating things about traveling in Myanmar is the government’s (and perhaps the local’s, I am not sure) view on reconstruction vs. restoration. Scientists, archeologists, and museums in most of the world want to restore ruins and artifacts as much as possible. The authenticity of the object is what holds the value rather than it being in pristine shape. A two-thousand-year old building is going to look like a two-thousand-year old building. It just isn’t going to collapse and has been put back together as much as possible. In Myanmar there is less value placed on the authentic and more value placed on how something looks. Therefore, reconstruction. That is, rebuilding the structure with new materials often with little or no idea what the original structure actually looked like. Which is why 900-year-old buildings in Myanmar look as if they were built in the seventies. Essentially they were.
Then there was the usual parade of Pagodas. Aside from “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and “goodbye” the only word of Burmese that I managed to pick up was “Shew”. Gold. The Shwemawdaw Pagoda is technically the tallest pagoda in Myanmar. It doesn’t have the drama of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and so it is easy to overlook the fact that it towers over it (if they were next to one another, that is) by more than fifty feet. There are some worshippers but nothing like we have been seeing seen.
After while the pagoda’s sort of run together.
After while the pagoda’s sort of run together. This sometimes happened in Europe when you go into six or seven churches in one day and then forever after cannot figure out which parts that you remember belong to which church. For example, the Kyaik Pun Pagoda, which is dominated by four gigantic outdoor seated Buddhas. I liked that the clothing, makeup, hand gestures, and faces of each one was different while really blending into one whole stature. I can remember that but am unsure if it is at the top of a hill with a ton of steps or right off the driveway.
Any bare hill or mountain is seen as a lost opportunity and almost all of them seem to have a monastery or pagoda on the summit. Case in point is the Kyauk Kalat Pagoda perched on top of crazily shaped island in the middle of a lake. You can get up to the middle section but the very top is only accessible through frighteningly fragile ladders and has been abandoned. We climbed as high up as we could as could and relaxed as we watched the sun set.
What was particularly cool about this part of the trip was that we were the only tourists at every single site. Which is crazy! There were some Burmese taking a pilgrimage but we were it as far as foreign tourists go.