A new dawn in Burma
When I visited Bagan, farmers in its surrounding fields were beginning the peanut harvest – yanking up the plants by hand, bashing them with bamboo sticks to remove the peanuts and then winnowing them, one basket at a time, by standing on a tripod of bamboo poles and tipping them into the breeze.
In its heyday, between the 11th and the 13th centuries, Bagan was a rich and cosmopolitan place which had links with Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and China. Its wealth was invested in its religious buildings. Only a fraction of the original city remains, but in their age and scale, the ruins are reminiscent of the Angkorean temples of Cambodia.
Cycling along the dusty paths, you are quickly lost among the thousands of pagodas that cover the plains beside the Irrawaddy. They’re all of different sizes – from just a few metres in height to more than 60 metres. Many are shaped like bells, but others are more outlandish: Thammayangyi is a pyramid with stepped sides like a Mayan temple’s, while Ananda’s central golden stupa resembles a Fabergé egg. In the delicate 11th-century frescos within Loka Hteik Pann pagoda, the faces and postures of two dancers reflect the area’s historic links with India. And inside the old city walls lie the remnants of a single Hindu temple.
At sunset, the red bricks of the temples at Bagan turn a fiery pink against the backdrop of acacia and cassia trees. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the wind freshens slightly and bells on the golden umbrellas above the pagodas begin to tinkle.
It hardly needs saying that increased tourism will not solve Burma’s problems. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi’s desire for more visitors is one of many hopeful signs. This is a country of rare loveliness. It deserves to be better understood. And its emergence from the shadows is a cause for celebration.