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Feb 25, 2012
Myanmar, All Mine - The Wall Street Journal
[BURMA] Herman van Heusden

SHRINE ON | A view over Bagan

Manuha Temple had a simple whitewashed exterior, a small door and a surprise: Ducking through the entry, we found ourselves staring into the lap of a three-story-high Buddha that filled the space like a ship in a bottle, smiling benevolently at something far beyond his cramped cell.

The 11th-century sanctuary is one of some 2,200 temples spread across a Manhattan-size desert plain of Bagan, in the center of Myanmar. Manuha is thought to have been built by the local Mon king who was held captive by the country's great conqueror and temple builder, King Anawrahta, and seems an apt symbol for Myanmar's state of affairs for the past half-century. Since the military seized power in 1962, it has kept a vibrant, spiritual and entrepreneurial people in a dingy chokehold while neighbors like India and Thailand went roaring into the 21st century.
Tour Mandalay

Manuha Temple


But after last year's appointment of a civilian president, the release of some political prisoners and a landmark visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December, travelers have fewer qualms about this colorful and culturally rich country. Even Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi two years ago reversed her call for a tourist boycott.

Still, some thorny moral issues come with venturing to a country like Myanmar. When I visited with a buddy last summer, we got around the problem of whether to drop any kyats into the junta's coffers by staying clear of government-owned businesses. It was an easy option and a far more pleasant one. For every concrete government monstrosity, Myanmar seems to have a dozen family-run inns that are far more charming.

About a millennium ago, King Anawrahta, Myanmar's unifier, brought the best builders from around his empire to establish a capital on the Ayeyarwady River. Two centuries of construction later, Bagan rivaled Cambodia's Angkor Wat in grandeur. But foreign invasions spurred the city's abandonment and, like Angkor, it was left to the mercy of the elements.

I had braved the intense crowds at Angkor Wat, and longed to see Southeast Asia's other great ancient religious city. Long isolated by Myanmar's xenophobic rulers, Bagan is still unmolested by hordes of fanny-packers. What's more, the area's flat playa made it possible to explore by bicycle.

A one-hour flight from hypermodern Bangkok took us to the crumbling British colonial outpost Yangon, on Myanmar's southern coast. From there is was another short, guilty hop (Air Bagan, though private, has ties to the regime) to Bagan.

[BURMA] Herman van Heusden

Young Buddhist novices

As we approached, we saw the temples lined up below our little turboprop like giant chess pieces. Centuries of wind, brick-bleaching sun, earthquakes and the occasional marauder seemed to have merely sanctified their survival. The shrines were begging to be explored by Boeing-loads of tourists—after we'd left, of course.

We had hired a guide to give us an introductory tour. The energetic Mr. Muang picked us up at the airport, dragged us through a half-dozen temples, pointed out a couple of cafés and dropped us off at the family-owned Kumudara hotel. On the darkening horizon, strings of lights adorning the larger temples were coming on, giving them the appearance of fantastical ghost ships.

"The best things in Bagan are found when you're not looking for them," Mr. Muang told us in parting.

The next morning we mounted a couple of sturdy mountain bikes provided by the hotel. Bagan's temples are surreal in their more-than-you'll-ever-be-able-to-digest-in-a-lifetime number and diversity. Biking among them and randomly darting into the cool darkness of their sanctuaries—deserted save for carved Buddhas—became an extended meditation, where names, temple styles and carvings became a holy sum.

In contrast to Angkor's jungle setting, Bagan's open spaces emphasized our solitude. It felt surreal to bike up to an intricate stone pagoda, only to see that it was dwarfed by a forest of other even grander temples behind it. Or to bring our flashlights into the darkness of an inner sanctum to gaze at an Uffizi-load of statuary and murals, with only our steps breaking the ancient silence.

"Angkor must have felt like this to those first French scholars who hacked their way to it," my friend said when we had gotten lost for the umpteenth time in the maze. King Anawrahta had allied himself with distant Ceylon, which sent architects to Bagan, and we learned to use their gleaming, bell-shaped gold domes as markers amid the weathered stupas and broken terraces.

We weren't always alone. Around midday, the blast furnace heat became almost unbearable. "Natural petrol!" announced a teenager named Tiger, as he handed us glasses of sugarcane juice squeezed with a hand-cranked presser. The second night we shared the sunset from the upper terrace of Shwesandaw Temple with a busload of Italian shutterbugs. We were also met with persistent gaggles of preteen postcard sellers. But the fact that after a day these urchins cheerily called out our names when we rode past emphasized how few other visitors were around.

The final day, I took a solo bike ride to Thamanpaya Temple, whose towering platforms promised heart-attack views. The afternoon sun had heated the bricks to egg-frying temperature and I faced the dilemma of whether to brave them barefoot. There was no one around and I'm Presbyterian, but recalling the centuries of deference that had preserved these shrines, I kicked off my sandals and tap-danced up the outer galleries until I was gazing across a desertscape of temples dueling in the shimmering heat as if in a Buddhist Sergio Leone movie.

My reverie was broken by the arrival of a half-dozen orange-robed monks in a beaten-up minivan (in Myanmar, there doesn't seem to be any other kind). Up they came to enjoy the view. When they spotted me hopping around in my bare feet they giggled; they had all kept their sandals on.

Later I came across a flock of scrawny water buffalo grazing amid the temples. Their shepherd wore only a longyi—the traditional Burmese sarong—and his worn feet looked like giant raisins. But the old guy kept cheerily singing in a raspy voice—no doubt taking a Buddhist long-range view of things, the perfect attitude for the setting, and probably the country as a whole.

THE LOWDOWN: Bagan, Myanmar

Getting There: Visas are required for U.S. citizens, and the process can be unpredictable. Apply with Myanmar's embassy or U.N. mission, or through a travel agency. Tour Mandalay ( ) arranges visas ($30 handling fee) and is sensitive to visitors who want to avoid government-owned businesses.

Many Asian airlines fly to Myanmar, including Air Bagan and AirAsia, which connect to Bangkok. Air Bagan offers multiple flights a day to Bagan from Yangon and Mandalay.

Spending There: Myanmar has a cash economy; bring everything you plan to spend in new dollar bills. Expect even a slightly blemished bill to be rejected.

Eating There: Burmese food is a blend of Indian and Thai cuisines, without being as good as either. Cafés and restaurants are plentiful and safe around Bagan and its hotels.

Communicating There: International cellphone coverage is rare and Internet access limited and censored. Wi-Fi is available in the lobbies of big hotels.

Staying There: The Kumudara (from $30 per night, is a privately-owned hotel with a decent restaurant and a pool overlooking the temple plains. Rooms are simple, elegant and clean; the thatch-roofed bungalows by the pool are especially cozy. Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort (from $70 per night,, on the river, has more upscale (and blander) digs. Ask for a villa room instead of one of the shabbier standards.

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