Barefoot in Bagan, Myanmar

October 19-23, 2009

Hot air balloons drift over Bagan at sunrise.





At the popular temples a ring of kids surround every tourist, the youngest pleading with foreigners to buy a strip of postcards for $1, older boys carry a roll of "sand paintings" (cotton canvases coated with fine sand, then dotted with acrylic paint), and carefully unroll them, one-by-one, copies of murals and art found deep inside the temples: Buddha's footprint, nine women forming an elephant image, abstract designs. Twenty year olds latch onto us, suddenly becoming our guides, older women offer clothing, laquerware, soft drinks. Everyone is clever and bright, friendly and sweet, but desperate for our dollars.

Trying to avoid the heat, we opt for pre-dawn visits to the shrines. By 5:00 am we are up and away, pedaling our creaky single-speed bikes to nearby temples. When we arrive at Temple 394 (not named on our map) it is deserted, no tourists in sight. A 14-year-old boy sees us and quickly pedals to the temple, clutching his roll of paintings under one arm. We all slip off our shoes and he guides us up the brick temple to a small platform where we watch as the incredible landscape is slowly illuminated by a big red globe over the eastern horizon. As we talk, we suddenly notice a clump of grass that seems to be rising from the steeply sided temple, and our new-found friend starts to laugh. A tiny 6-year-old girl (his friend's little sister) is trying to surprise us, she is giggling and excited, happy to play and forget the postcards she carries in her little shoulder bag. We spend an hour or more playing and talking, looking at pictures and reading words in our Lonely Planet dictionary. By 7 am the sun-furnace has kicked in, so we all head down the steep stairs, and start pedaling home on the dirt track. But when a horse cart rounds the corner carrying two tourists, the girl and boy wave goodbye and quickly pedal back to the temple, hoping to make a sale.

A three-generation family lives at the base of Thabeik Hmauk Temple. The daughter speaks no English, but carefully guides us up the dark and twisty interior staircases, illuminating the head-bonker ceiling and broken brick steps with her wind-up flashlight, waiting with us as we watch the sun slowly set over the Ayeyarwady River. From our vantage point on the upper platform we look down on her family's carefully tended fields of soybean, sesame and stunted corn, and watch as her mother sweeps the dirt around their bamboo shack, keeping leaves from accumulating while chickens peck all around her. When we go back down, her mother and and young son are waiting; they are delighted when we give them a bag of roasted peanuts and some packaged crackers, and the mother places a frangipani flower behind my ear as we say goodbye.





Inside the temples, narrow brick corridors lead up steep stairs to the higher levels, this one lit with candles.


In 1057 King Anawrahta started a temple-building frenzy on this plain along a bend in the Ayeyarwady River that lasted for 230 years. This intense religious fervor coincided with the decline of Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs and the adoption of Theravada Buddhism, which continues today as the dominant religion in Myanmar. Over 4400 temples were built before Began's decline and subsequent conquest by Kublai Khan from Mongolia.

Over the years looting and erosion have taken their toll, and in 1975 a 6.5 Richter earthquake caused major damage to many structures. But there are still a seemingly endless number of red brick temples dotting the plain, surrounded by farmland and small villages. Most contain Buddha figures, and many have ancient paintings and hidden passage ways that lead into dim interior spaces. A few have been popularized by tourists (like us) wanting to find the perfect sunset or sunrise viewing platform. Sitting barefoot in the shade of the central stupa on one of these raised terraces while watching the last rays of the sun turn the spires delecate shades of gold, orange and finally purple and blue is an unforgettable experience.



From a distance, the 2418' peak of Mount Popa looks like a rock tower topped by a golden city. And (of course) this core of an extinct volcano is a sacred place in Myanmar and is the site of several important Buddhist and nat shrines.

We leave our shoes in a locker at the first level and climb many steps up covered walkways to the summit. Since we had an early start timed to catch the sunrise, it is just us three (we are traveling with our new friend Didier, from Belgium) ... and the monkeys! Bands of threatening long-tailed macaques roam the stairs, climb over our heads in the rafters above us, and prowl the rooftops. We were warned not to carry any food and secure all possessions so the monkeys won't ambush us.

From the top, the view out over the surrounding plains is stupendous. And through binoculars, the tiny dots of Bagan's temples and the misty line of the Ayeyarwady River are clearly visible.

On the way down we pass many smiling locals making their morning pilgrimage up the mountain. At one point a monkey jumps onto the shoulders of one of the ladies ascending the stairs, and clings to her neck. She screams and it takes a bribe of food from one of the stairway cleaners to get him to let go! After this, and our previous experiences in India, Liza wants nothing more to do with the evil monkeys ... but they look so cute!


One of the most bizarre and intriguing discoveries we made in Myanmar is the active worship of nats -- spirits or green ghosts, some who represent mankind's flaws and desires and died violent deaths, others who haunt trees, mountains and lakes, controlling a farmer's success, a village's survival. The Burmese appease nats by offering flowers, fresh food and water as a daily ritual and several times a year, the nats are honored with raucous festivals on Mount Popa, where transvestites embody nat spirits and channel their desires. (I really want to return in March to witness this festival!)

Worshiping nats pre-dates Buddhism, which arrived in Bagan in the 3rd century BC. When the newly crowned King of Bagan (Anawrahta) converted to Buddhism in the 11th century, he took extreme measures to establish The Golden Land (present-day Myanmar) as the land of Buddha. He sent his armies to invade what is now southern Myanmar and brought back 30-elephant loads of sacred Buddhist relics and scriptures (written on palm leaves, they are still housed in the library he built in Bagan), kidnapped the Mon King and a couple of important Buddhist priests, and decreed that pure Theravada Buddhism would be the one and only faith. He set about destroying nat temples and put an end to the ritualistic slaughter of thousands of animals at spirit festivals on Mount Popa. His subjects rebelled and the King, a very clever fellow, decided to merge the two religions by officially recognizing 36 superhuman nats and adding an all important 37th nat, Thagyamin, a Hindu deity based on Indra, whom he crowned the King of the Nats. Since in traditional Buddhist teachings, Indra paid homage to Buddha, voilá -- all 37 nats were now subordinate to Buddhism, the two religions were effectively merged, and peacefully coexist to this day.

We find nat worship is alive and flourishing. Beneath large banyan trees in almost every village, I notice little wooden houses with a nat image and fresh offerings; red and white cloths (the traditional nat colors of protection) are tied to trees and rear-view-mirrors; nat statues stand guard at monastery gates; and in homes and shops, I see bunches of ripe bananas placed next to unhusked coconuts adorned with red turbans (coconuts represent the always-popular Lord of the Great Mountain Who Is In the House.)


We cycle down the dusty main road in Bagan to Tharabar Gate, the former entrance of King Anawrahta's palace, and two beautiful Burmese girls are placing bunches of red roses before a statue of Lady Golden Face. All nat stories are twisted, confusing tales, but I'll try and summarize her story: There once lived a very strong, very popular, quite dashing fellow named Maung Tint De (Mr. Handsome). The then current King of Bagan felt threatened by Mr. Handsome, who went into hiding when he heard the King was plotting his demise. The King arranged to marry Mr. Handsome's beautiful sister, who persuaded him to come out of hiding for their wedding. Naturally, Mr. Handsome was immediately arrested and the burned alive. His sister was so distressed she jumped into the fire, and only her golden face survived. The two became spirits, haunting the King and his followers, until the King erected shrines to the brother and sister, which now flank Tharabar Gate.

Mount Popa is the birthplace of many of the nats, and is the most revered pilgrimage site for nat worshippers in Myanmar. At the base of the mountain two tiger statues guard a glittery building that houses mannequin-like figures representing the 37 official nats, plus a few extras. Shwenabay is a beautiful woman who married a Naga (dragon), her husband deserted her and she died of a broken heart; others died of despair, illness, or contracted malaria; one represents a novice monk who fell off a swing and died; another became drunk and was assassinated by his servant; another died from smoking too much opium. It's a vibrant spot, filled with worshippers trying to appease the spirits and avoid similar fates.


Nat statues at Shwezigon Paya, in Bagan.


Backyard nat shrine. Note the little ladder designed to ease the spirit's comings and goings.



The bustling entrance to Mount Popa's 37 Nat Shrine.



Where you from? How old are you? What day is your birthday? We are always asked these three questions. I was born on Wednesday morning -- very auspicious -- and to insure my continued good fortune, I place a little offering at the Wednesday shrine at the top of Mount Popa.