A Burmese Bar Mitzvah in Bagan

Buddhist temples are to Bagan, Myanmar as Starbucks coffee shops are to New York – there’s one every few feet. Or so it would seem.

Bagan is a quiet little village in central Myanmar. If Yangon is the Manhattan of Myanmar, Bagan is the Poughkeepsie. At one time is was a major political center of the region that would become modern Burma. Around the 11th and 12th centuries, people starting building temples here to beat the band. They’re everywhere.

Temples as far as the eye can see. There are over two thousand in Bagan.

Temples as far as the eye can see. There are over two thousand in Bagan.

But my comparison with Starbucks and New York is off by a factor of about four hundred. There are said to be something like two hundred Starbucks in New York to caffeinate the city’s eight million inhabitants. Bagan has more than two thousand temples to provide solace to its two hundred thousand residents. In other words, this is the equivalent of having over EIGHTY THOUSAND Starbucks in New York. Now that’s a lot of Enya CDs and frappa macchiatochinos.

Coming to Bagan wasn’t exactly easy, but it was nevertheless necessary. We asked our friend Robert, who lives in Yangon, what one thing we shouldn’t miss when visiting Burma, and he strongly suggested that we include Bagan in our plans. The problem is that we have grown lazy, or maybe just tired. There are two ways to visit a place you’ve never heard of and have no idea what to do in. One is inexpensive and a royal pain in the patootey and one is more expensive, but pretty easy. I’ll give you no guesses about which option we went for. For one thing, it’s damn near impossible to book online air travel to Bagan. While there are no less than four little putt putt airlines that fly here from Yangon, none of them seem to have functional websites, and Orbitz or Vamaya will send people to your house to laugh at you if you try to book a flight there. Thus, if you want to buy a ticket to Bagan, you need to pick up a telephone and start calling the various airlines to compare prices and flight times, and hope that you make some headway. Hotels are a little more straightforward, but then you have to figure out what you’re going to do when you get there. Or you can just get yourself a travel agent and let them do all the dirty work. They picked us a nice hotel and arranged air travel on that famous airline, Mann Yadanarpon Airlines, for the trip to Bagan.

I have certainly flown on worse airlines, but I have to say that I have never been served a meal as off-putting as the one they served on Mann Yadanarpon.

I'm an adventurous eater, but I draw the line at poop on a bun.

I’m an adventurous eater, but I draw the line at poop on a bun.

I was heartened to learn, however, that the airline just bought a second plane.

Yay! Another plane!

Yay! Another plane!

For the flight back to Yangon, we were booked on Golden Myanmar Airlines, which is Burma’s first budget airlines. Can you imagine flying on Myanmar’s version of Easyjet?

We flew up to Bagan and were met by a very nice fellow named Min Min who was to be our guide for the day. We checked into a perfectly nice hotel, which we liked despite the fact that pigeons seemed to be roosting everywhere. It gave Janine, who really doesn’t much like birds, the heebie jeebies, but we were there to see temples, and temples we saw.

We saw big temples and little temples. There were golden buddhas and marble buddhas. We scaled several steep pagodas and admired the view from on high. Min Min would walk us through the temple and give us a little background on each place and leave us to scamper around in our bare feet and take pictures.

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Two of the many beautiful Buddhas in Bagan.

Some people don’t like having guides show them around, but I don’t mind. We’ve been making so many decisions these days that it’s kind of nice to just put things in the hands of a local. It’s also nice to get local intelligence.

Dhammayan Gyi Temple, built in 1170.

Dhammayan Gyi Temple, built in 1170.

Min Min mentioned that the following day, in which we’d be left entirely to our own devices, there would be a monk initiation ceremony parade nearby. A few boys would be initiated into a nearby monastery, where they would have their heads shaved, put on robes, and learn about Buddhism for a week or so before resuming life at home. Min Min said that it was like monk summer camp. We might think of it as a Buddhist Bar Mitzvah. And so the next day, off we went. We rented electric assist bicycles and made the 10 km trip to what is known as “New Bagan” (people used to live above an archeological treasure trove in “Old Bagan” but in 1990 the government forced residents to move to the new village a few kilometers away). It was quite a thing. The boys were conveyed through town atop a pair of elephants (Min Min said that they cost $1500 a day each to rent), and there were musicians, lots of kids and adults in their best dress, and a real sense of excitement and spectacle. You don’t see something like this every day.

A little boy and an elephant. They cost $1500 a day to rent. The elephants, not the little boys.

A little boy and an elephant. They cost $1500 a day to rent. The elephants, not the little boys.

Getting to Bagan was a royal pain in the ass, but it’s a still-unspoiled part of a still-unspoiled country. It’s clean, quiet, and there was almost no traffic. It was hotter than blue Hades, as my mother likes to say, but it was a stunning change of pace from the chaos and grunge of the city. All it takes is a couple of plane rides from just about anywhere in the world to stand among a few thousand Buddhist temples and imagine what life was like a thousand years ago. The world is indeed flat.

Going Around in Circles in Yangon, Myanmar

When we decided to go on this trip, I put Myanmar, which used to be called Burma, up at the top of the list. I had a feeling that it would be the Cuba of Southeast Asia, for good or ill, unsullied by outside forces. And for good or ill, it is.

We were joined at the Bangkok airport by our dear friends Chris and Marianne for the trip to Yangon (which used to be called Rangoon). We stayed at a guest house called Bamboo Place Yangon, which is run by a woman named Nwezin, who may be the face of the Burmese revival. She was extremely hard-working, infinitely friendly, and she’s making a go of her new venture. It can’t be easy. For one thing, her family lives on the premises, which is a lovely colonial-era building, but it appears that most of the rooms are set aside for the guests. One evening I wandered through the front room (where the guests hang out during the day) and found her young daughters spread out on the floor under a mosquito net, hunkered down for the night. Other relatives appeared to be bivoaking in the hallway. Can you imagine waiting for a bunch of foreigners to get out of your sleeping area before being able to go to sleep? Me neither.

In the face of these challenges, the service was gracious and amazingly accommodating. One night we didn’t feel like going out, so Nwezin prepared a traditional Burmese dinner for us, which included a deeply satisfying chicken curry, some fried noodles, watercress salad, sautéed green beans, and a lovely clear soup of some kind. The meal came to ten dollars for the four of us. For breakfast, which was included, you could have eggs and toast or a traditional breakfast of spicy noodles from the Shan region. In my twilight years, when what’s left of my mind turns to paste, I will still remember these noodles. I attempted to extract the recipe from our hostess, but the best she could offer was that I should fry some chicken in onion, and add spices, noodles, and soy sauce. Oh, well. This is what the internet is for.

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An absolutely delicious home-cooked Burmese dinner.

Yangon is a fascinating place. Myanmar was a longtime British colony, with Yangon as one of its major cities. As often happens, the colonizers built buildings that reminded them of home, whether or not those they’re particularly suited to the climate. Many of these buildings are still standing, if only barely. Some look like they’re being held together by mold and mildew. Others are starting to be rehabilitated and are being turned into, among other things, art galleries and hipster bars. One night, Chris, Marianne, Janine and I did a four-part Yangon happy hour pub crawl, where the evening’s bar tab for four people might have topped out at about sixty bucks. Take THAT, Brooklyn.

I love tourist attractions for the catastrophically lazy traveler. This is why I love the hop on hop off buses that wend their way through most major cities. For twenty bucks or so, you get on some relatively nice open top double decker bus and you drive past most of the sights worth seeing. It’s not cheap, but it’s remarkably efficient. You get a lay of the land and you can pretend that you saw a city. Oh, and you don’t have to move a muscle. It’s like the choo choo train that circles Disneyland. It’s fun and it’s efficient and I refuse to apologize for my sloth.

The hop on, hop off bus has not made it to Yangon yet, thank goodness. (Neither, for that matter, has McDonald’s or Starbuck’s, but that won’t hold.) For one thing, it would never get anywhere. In the three or so years since Burma opened up to the west, one of the major changes has been the influx of cheap used cars from Japan. This has made driving in Yangon a challenge for three important reasons – 1) the city roads were not constructed with a lot of traffic in mind; 2) there are still very few traffic lights and other means to control how traffic moves; and 3) since very few people owned cars until now, nobody really knows how to drive. Can you imagine setting many thousands of student drivers out on the roads with no traffic lights? That’s what it’s like to drive in Yangon. We regularly came to an impasse at an unregulated intersection in which the cabdriver and some other driver would struggle to determine how to proceed. It was entertaining, if a little unnerving.

Thus, one of the great ways to take in the city is the Yangon Circular Railway.

(A brief digression. The train was recommended to us by our friends Robert and Ana, who have lived abroad for many years, and in Yangon for the past year. Our kids were friends in pre-school in DC, and we haven’t seen them since they left the States in 2003. On our first night in town, they invited us over for dinner, and it was just fabulous to see them again. It reminded me that travel can be a great way to meet new people but that it’s also a great way to re-connect with people who no longer live nearby. While I’m at it, we hadn’t seen Chris and Marianne for five years because they’ve been living, of all places, in Yemen, the Republic of Georgia, Thailand, and now Pakistan. Thankfully, they were available to join us in Yangon, which has been such fun. Reconnecting with them has been a real highlight of our journey.)

Anyway, back to the railway. By contrast to the hop on, hop off bus, the circular railway has real passengers who are living their lives like normal people. (Tourists, on the other hand, live their lives like abnormal people. They walk around in circles, get in people’s way, and they dress funny.) The railway was built by the British more than a half a century ago, and it’s the lifeline for the city’s regular folk. I have a sneaking suspicion that with the exception of advertisements for cell phones and the like on the walls of the trains, a time traveler would not notice much difference over the years. The train putts along at about thirty miles per hour and circumnavigates the city in three hours or so. It passes though the center of town and then works its way out to the northern suburbs, although you won’t spot any soccer moms or minivans out there.

I was eager to give it a go. We found the funky old station, bought our tickets, and climbed aboard for our journey on a rolling metal time machine. We chugged through the city, which is gritty, dirty, and desperately lacking in modern infrastructure. After about a half hour, the train became a cargo vessel and filled with goods from the market, headed, one would assume, for the city. Soon after we were in the countryside, where farmers hip deep in flooded fields harvested watercress, which is a staple in the Burmese diet. There were rice fields, tea fields, and thatched roof shacks.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

It was a hot, sweaty, stinky ride, but endlessly fascinating, and you couldn’t beat the price – a ticket on the circular railway will run you a grand total of two hundred Burmese kyat, or nineteen American cents, or 6.33 cents per hour. I read that there are plans afoot to modernize the railway, which I’m sure will make it more efficient but a lot less charming. I hope they find a way to keep it affordable for the people who rely on it to move their goods from place to place. Without this creaky, pokey, rolling wheelbarrow, life for lot of people would be even harder than it is.

One thing that is decidedly not poor is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This temple, which dates back in one form or another to about 600 BCE, is said to hold relics of the four Buddhas that attained enlightenment, and is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is also just a bewildering collection of priceless religious art and architecture. The pagoda is covered in gold – not just gold leaf, but actual plates of gold. The top of the pagoda, known as the umbrella, consists of half a ton of gold alone. I was just as interested in the pilgrims themselves. There are monks of all ages, including children who look five or six years old. There was a little boy in elaborate dress who was being carried by one man and shaded from the sun by another. It was The Last Emperor, Myanmar edition. Then there were people who may have turned up for some peace and quiet – I saw more than a few people curled up in a cool, quiet corner of a prayer hall, snoozing away.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

This is a fascinating city. It’s more or less as I imagined it – it evokes every bit of the faded glory I had expected, although it’s always worth remembering that a certain amount of that so-called “glory” was colonial. I was also reminded that, while we are always eager to wander among the stalls in the marketplace and take the decidedly un-spiffy circular railroad, we also don’t turn up our noses at a good ‘ol pub crawl in refurbished hipster havens surrounded by scrums of expats. We want screamy fast wifi to go with our ancient culture. Can a country upgrade itself enough to attract tourists and foreign investment without selling its soul? I certainly hope so.

Yangon has a long way to go. The infrastructure needs to be built almost from scratch. Most businesses have diesel generators to deal with the regular blackouts. Untreated sewage runs in trenches next to the sidewalk. There was no trash collection to speak of that I could find. And through it all people are busting their bippies to make a living and a life, and doing it with remarkably good humor. I wish them very well.