On our journey to pick up the boat at Pakkoku taking us down the Irrawaddy river to Bagan, I asked our guide Wyn about a rather peculiar practice I had noticed with the locals in Myanmar. Every morning they paint their faces with a yellow substance, looking like very poorly applied make up, some add a circle on each cheek, others two broad square brushstrokes and a few cover their whole face. This is not limited to the women, male and female use the dye, young and old, even the toddlers have it smeared on them.
Apparently, the use of Thanaka is purely cosmetic and unique to the people of Myanmar. It is a paste made from ground bark and sold in shops and markets throughout the country in its raw form of a short but thick branch from the Murraya tree.
An early start on our first morning in Bagan, but the 4:00 AM wake up call was a small inconvenience for what promised to be a highlight not only of Myanmar and South East Asia, but the whole of our 10 month adventure. This was ballooning at dawn over the 3,000 temples and monuments of Bagan.
Until the 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck in August 2016 the small town of Bagan had over 4,000 monuments in its 42 sq km region. Temples, stupas, libraries, monasteries and ordination halls mainly from the 11th and 12th C. still litter the landscape and horizon of this magical place. So today we were to see those that remain from the air and the ground.
We met with Piers, our pilot for the morning, a frightfully British gentleman from Bristol, who gave up his job as an airline pilot to spend six months a year ballooning guests across Old Bagan. We were joined by couples from Spain, Korea and Russia for breakfast in the field where the balloon was inflated and there was a little nervous laughter around the table.
But once we were in the basket with the flame roaring above our heads as we rose serenely into the brightening sky any apprehensiveness disappeared as quickly as the ground below us.
It was stunning. The morning mist draped itself around the hundreds of temples and across the parched land, as we rose higher the sun broke through to give the scenery below a golden hue and all was quiet.
A couple of hours later we landed softly on the sandbanks of the broad Irrawaddy river and after a celebratory glass or two of champagne, allegedly an acknowledgement to the French inventors of ballooning, we were collected by boat and taken back to the hotel to start the day with another breakfast. My goodness what fun.
We met Aung our guide for the day, a lawyer and it seemed to me part time political activist who had campaigned hard for UNESCO protection of the area. He was a charming man, keen to debate the difficult issues the country has to address with a joint military and democratic government, but with an infectious giggle and an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and its monuments. I was keen for him to take us off the usual tourist route, he was not going to disappoint.
Aung explained that in 1990 the military forced the whole population of Bagan to move to a new Bagan outside the old city walls. This was only 10,000 people but nevertheless if, like Aung, it’s your home and family then it’s going to be pretty traumatic so they refused to move. The military cut off the water supply, then the electricity, and when that failed they threatened to open fire. Aung, his family and the remaining villagers left to set up home in New Bagan. Old Bagan where all the monuments are located was now deserted.
The military demolished all the shops, homes and town buildings to allow the building of hotels and private residences for the generals. They had taken ownership of potentially one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and were not going to let UNESCO interfere, they now charge overseas visitors 25,000 Kyat, about £13, to enter the Bagan Architectural Zone. It is rigidly policed – “show your prepaid card for the officer inspects in any time, the Culture Zone”, as it clearly states on the pass.
We visited the huge gold Shwezigon Pagoda built in the 11th C. as the prototype for all the stupa in the region. The building needs new gold gilt every six years costing $900,000 each time. Below the gleaming structure we found a room around five metres square and ankle deep in money, the notes were being counted and bundled by three kneeling women who couldn’t keep up with the bucket loads being thrown onto the floor by the men.
Maybe there’s not that much difference to the tall hand painted donation thermometers we see at home in the UK outside churches that need a new roof but the opulence and poverty in Myanmar do not sit comfortably together for me.
We mounted our scooters and hit a dusty trail that Aung promised was off the beaten track of tourists. After twenty minutes or so, with our eyes streaming and noses full of grime we arrived at what appeared to be a deserted orange brick temple about thirty feet square with the upturned bell like spire balanced on the roof. It looked neglected but in fairly good condition having escaped the effects of the earthquake.
Disappointingly the entrance was sealed by a wrought iron gate with a huge padlock, we peered through the bars into the darkness within.
‘In here is my favourite Buddha,’ said Aung.
‘We can’t see anything, Aung,’ said Helene, ‘Are there any lights?’
As the three of us squinted into the musty smelling entrance there was a sharp clanking sound making all three of us jump, it was quite eerie in this isolated spot. A small man appeared out of the darkness removing a large ring of keys from the waist of his longyi.
There were no lights inside the temple but as we found our way around the perimeter wall we entered a room with natural sunlight pouring in from three high openings in the walls above us. They were clearly strategically placed, for they shed a stream of light on the most beautiful seated Buddha we had seen.
In the gloom and the shadow that surrounded him his pale face shone with red lips and dark eyes looking down on us in a small smile. The remainder of his terracotta coloured body was swathed in a painted vermilion robe leaving one arm bare and hands in the enlightenment mudra position. It was elegant, dignified and stunningly beautiful.
‘You can keep all the gold stupas,’ said Helene, ‘this is by far the most exquisite of them all.’
Of course, she was right.
David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic.