Mandalay to Bagan

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Fifteen westerners had the run of a huge luxury cruiser that set off at dawn and chugged down the Ayerawaddy for eight hours. At first we thought we’d been segregated, then we realized the only locals on the boat were the crew. Burma has so few tourists that I saw the same people at each stop, and here I ticked off several faces in my private game of Falang Bingo. There was a festive atmosphere as we settled into this plush boat after days of chicken buses and dingy guesthouses.

We glided past stupa after golden stupa. The Burmese have no money for roads, schools, or hospitals, but they do not stint on gilding pagodas.

I had never heard of Bagan before visiting Burma, but it rivals Angkor Wat in splendor. (Unfortunately, my appreciation was somewhat blunted by the fact that for the first time on this trip I ended up in a hotel room with a TV. It was hot outside, and it took longer and longer each day to drag myself away from Indonesian MTV and the air-conditioner. Bad tourist!)

Hundreds of huge, perfect temples rise from a plain of misty greenery. Nature and architecture exchange places here, and ancient trees look like upstarts next to thousand-year-old stupas. From a temple roof at sunset, Bagan is a strange enchanted forest, and I half-expected the monuments to slide gently back into the earth as it grew dark.

The temples were built in a 200-year span, at a time when my forebears were illuminating Latin bibles and the English who later colonized both countries were living nasty, brutish, and short lives in the European Dark Ages. The Burmese kings built the monuments of a great civilization, and carefully noted on stone tablets each donation of slaves that fuelled the effort. One tyrant laid down that he should not be able to insert a needle into the spaces between the bricks of the temple he had ordered up: his perfectionism paid off for posterity if not for populism. Bagan reminds you that these were once a conquering people.

And now? Riding my bike down dusty paths to visit out-of-the-way ruins, I was pursued by ragged boys selling cotton paintings of scenes copied from temple art. Most hadn’t sold anything in weeks and they were desperate. They outnumbered the tourists hugely. Beneath the serene elegance of longyis and silky-haired beauty, the Burmese are struggling to buy rice that has gone up in price three-fold in a year. They need dollars to hedge against their frail currency that makes visitors comparatively richer each extra week they stay. Their own Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked tourists to stay away. But in Bagan they beg us to tell our friends to visit next year.

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