Apr 10, 2014

Visiting Bagan, Myanmar

Today Pagan is known as Bagan. From the 9th to the 13th
centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. During its glory days there were over 10,000 Buddhist temples and monasteries; today only about 2200 remain, even so it is the premier tourist destination in Myanmar rivaling the ruins in Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The once thriving city may have had a population of 200,000 at its peak and drew scholars from India, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and other countries. The empire collapsed due the Mongol invasion in the 1200’s and today Bagan is a small village that exists on tourism. Late
one day we climbed one of the temples to watch the sun set which is a popular thing to do. The sun set like a bright orange ball but before that I enjoyed watching the farmers herd their white cattle across the field between the ruins.

The Bagan area is also known for its excellent handicrafts.  It was impressive watching lacquer ware being made.  There are so many steps in the complicated process. In Myanmar the lacquer comes from the sap of the varnish tree that grows wild in the forest.  The light yellow sap turns black when exposed to the air. When it is applied to a plate, box, or other item it makes a hard, glossy surface.  We have seen sinks and bathtubs made of lacquer ware. We also visited an area where making pottery is a cottage industry for many of the families and one day we saw a boat
transporting jars gliding down the Irrawaddy River. One of the most impressive workers I have seen were the gold pounders which operates as another cottage industry.  Many of the Buddhist statures and pagodas are adorned with gold leaf.  Liquefied gold is turned into sheets then cut into small pieces and placed between layers of bamboo secured by two wooden blocks. The gold pounders standing upright and using a six-pound hammer beat the block for about 30 minutes. The process continues with some variations for three more poundings after which the very thin gold leaf is cut into two-inch squares, placed between straw paper and it is ready to be applied. The gold pounders work long hours for a little more than dollar a day.  

We stayed at the lovely Amazing Bagan Resort where, from our
window, we could see hot air balloons passing over the ruins. It is an expensive but popular activity in Bagan.  After viewing the ruins from the ground we cooled off in the hotel’s beautiful pool and in the evening we enjoyed a traditional puppet show with our dinner. 

One day a staff member from Amazing Bagan Resort took us to the Jetawan Buddhist Monastic Education Center
where we visited an English class.  The teacher, Daw Mya Mya Win, spoke excellent English and so did her students. We were impressed. “Daw” is used for older women who are in a senior position.  English has become an important connecting language so no matter where we go in the world we can find English speaking people.  With tourism growing exponentially in Bagan the people who speak English will have an opportunity to get a better paying job in the tourism industry. The school has grown from 46 students in 2006 to 375 this year. I loved the wise sayings on the wall. “The golden jar of learning cannot be stolen.”