Thursday, September 1, 2011

Day 83 - Bagan Temples Part 1

There are two popular ways to view the temples in Bagan – either by horsecart with a tourguide or by bicycle. I opted to rent a bicycle so that I could go at my own pace, and because I was running out of Myanmar Kyat currency.

There are three sections of Bagan to explore – Nyaung U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan. Most of the more popular temples are situated near Old Bagan, which used to be where many of the locals lived before they were forced to relocate to New Bagan by the government when it was developing tourism.

I decided to take the popular route from Nyaung U to Old Bagan, stopping by whatever temples that caught my eye. Many of the temples have “key-keepers” who take care of the temples and hold the keys to the gates at the entrances to the temples. I found most of the locals to be extremely friendly, being tour guides when I entered each temple. Of course, they also wanted to try and sell me some of the merchandise that they had, ranging from lacquerware to sand paintings to tee-shirts. I didn't find it to be too distracting as their friendly demeanor made up for it.

Many of the temples had upper levels that weren't accessable due to restrictions by the government, but I did come across some that I was able to climb up. Once up top, the view was even more incredible, with thousands of temples sprawled across the small city in every direction. The terrain was flat, so there wasn't any sort of obstruction of my view of the many temples surrounding me.

Most of the temples were built in the 13th century, and many of the paintings are still originals inside. Some of the Buddha statues have had to be restored though, and there was a major earthquake in the 20th century that destroyed many of the temples completely.

The city of Bagan is one of the biggest tourist draws in Myanmar, but many of the temples I visited were empty. Near the end of the day, I settled on one of the temples that I could climb and just enjoyed the moment by myself for the next couple of hours. While there, a sand-painting seller came to the temple to try and sell me some of his paintings. He was a humorous, and good-natured salesman and we had a chat about the country, all while he cracked jokes.

After telling him I wasn't interested in buying the paintings, he said:
“OK, I give you present (sand painting), and you give me present ($$$)”

After telling him that I had already heard so many people saying their would give a “great price” for the paintings, he said:
“OK, I give you Wonderful price instead!”

He asked me if I was happy, and I replied that I was just “OK”, so he said:
“If you were happy, I sell for $15, but since you are just 'OK', I give you discount!”

He was pretty open about his dislike of the government. He said that he was only able to talk about it so openly on the tops of these temples, and if he said anything in the streets, he'd be handcuffed and led to prison. I asked him if he participated in the protests in 2007 and he said he protested everyday...but “in his dreams”. He said most of the money that was made in Myanmar ends up in the governments' pockets and in their families' pockets.

There aren't any private of government jobs in Bagan and most of the villagers have had to resort to selling merchandise to tourists to make any sort of income. You could either own a restaurant, work at a hotel, be a horse-cart driver, or sell merchandise. There isn't enough restaurant or hotel work, so the only other feasible way of making any money is through souvenir sales. And tourism has waned in the past couple of years, starting with the protests in 2007, and then a cyclone that swept through the country in 2008, then the protests in Thailand that closed down the airport for a while (Bangkok is one of the most popular cities to fly to Myanmar), and now the US Dollar is not worth much in exchange with the Kyat... It's a pretty depressing scenario.

But this young 22-year old salesman continued to be in good spirits throughout our conversation, and I could tell he got through the struggle by cracking jokes and talking a lot. There were times when he did get serious and I knew he hurt inside, telling me how hard it is to sell a painting, and how he'd come home and his mom would ask him how his day went, and how his silence was enough of an answer for her to know that he was unsuccessful for the day. He said most people made around 40K kyat each month, and if he were to move to Yangon, where the opportunities were better, that he would make around 60K kyat. This was better, but it would only be enough to support himself in the city, and he would be somewhere where he couldn't take care of his family or see his friends, so this wasn't an option.

It's times like these that make me think about how these people survive here...The government doesn't seem to care enough about its people to make the living conditions better, or to provide jobs, and internationally, most countries have sanctions that prevent any sort of business to enter the country that would help the locals. He said the key to everything was with China. The country has strong ties with Myanmar, and that is where the country gets most of its support. If China put some sort of pressure on the government to change things around, maybe things would be better... a sobering thought, all of this.

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