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On a steeple chase in Myanmar

An adventure behind the curtain of Myanmar leads to Bagan. This ancient city features hundreds of Buddhist temples that rival Cambodia's Ankor Wat.

August 12, 2007|By Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

BAGAN, MYANMAR — Bagan, Myanmar

My body was already a waterfall, and it was only 10:15 a.m. in the oven of Bagan, former imperial capital of Myanmar. Standing on the pedals of my rented one-speed girl's bike with a leopard-print seat, I dripped up an incline, passed a couple of bullocks on death's door pulling an ancient wooden cart and then swerved off the asphalt into sand as an air-conditioned bus filled with grinning foreign tourists blew by.

The backdraft stirred up a storm of dry-season dust, and as it settled, I could make out a surreal spectacle from the top of the rise: a sea of otherworldly steeples dancing in the heat waves -- some conical, others topped with doughnut-shaped rings, some with glinting golden umbrellas, some sculpted into immense bells. Despite the heat, it was not a mirage. The sci-fi skyline is the legacy of a mysterious building boom that turned this central Burmese savanna astride the Irrawaddy River into one of Asia's most sprawling but least-known extravaganzas of religious architecture.

Bagan, Myanmar: In the Aug. 12 Travel section, a map of Myanmar incorrectly located Bagan. The city is just east of the Irrawaddy River, not west. —

Angkor Wat, the famed Cambodian monument that has a shared Hindu and Buddhist past, contains 200 temples. Bagan, formerly known as Pagan, boasts 2,217 Buddhist temples and monuments, and once had more than 4,000 sites. Strewn across a couple of dozen square miles, this forest of brick and stone towers was triggered by a templemania that reigned from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the capital of the Burmese empire. Sacred edifices went up by the hundreds, housing giant Buddhas and wall and ceiling murals the likes of which would not be seen until the Sistine Chapel.

I rode through the maze of devotion, hoping to understand the compulsion behind the building spree. On my journey, I would also encounter more recent construction, part of a controversial restoration campaign by the military government of Myanmar, known as Burma until the regime renamed it in 1989. The rehab is designed to fuel tourism, particularly from China.

UNESCO and archeological experts have denounced the government's rebuilding of ancient sites, and the construction of a mammoth 197-foot viewing tower that has been open for two years and an upscale resort in the middle of Bagan's antiquities.

Not that Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council -- the latest incarnation of a junta that has sealed the nation off from the rest of the world for the last 44 years -- is going to lose sleep over some old bricks. Although a world pariah for its gulag of political prisoners, bloody campaigns against ethnic minorities, suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, and for keeping Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, elected president of the nation, under house arrest on and off since 1989, the regime isn't deterred by public censure.

Or boycotts. International trade sanctions and a tourist boycott designed to restore democracy have kept Western products and many travelers out of Myanmar. But trade is flourishing with China and non-boycotting Asian nations, making the sanctions moot. Some supporters of Suu Kyi, who endorses the boycott, charge that anyone who travels to Myanmar funds the generals. Others argue that tourism helps job-starved Burmese -- taxi drivers, food stall operators, postcard hawkers and artisans. As one guide told me, "If sanctions were 100% honored, I would say stay home, but since they're not, tell your friends to come. We need jobs."

I considered the arguments and decided to go last year, steering clear of government hotels and viewing towers. Boycotts almost always hurt the little guy and seal off societies from outside eyes.


Across the road, I spotted a staircase leading up the rickety bricks of the Somingyi temple and headed over for a scenic outlook. As I reached the stairs, a young man in a checked-green longyi, the traditional wrap-around sarong worn by most men here, pulled up on a motorcycle and introduced himself.

"Sir, remember the feet," said a grinning souvenir salesman.

(To protect the Burmese in this story from the government, I have not named my sources.)

I should have known the drill after a shoeless week at Buddhist sites around the country. All temple visitors must go barefoot anywhere on the premises, even the roof. It's a sign of respect.

From the second-floor terrace the scene was surprisingly African -- sporadic acacia trees, scrubby amber grass -- except the big game here is spires. Dozens of temples and bell-shaped towers called zedis, ranging from 30 feet to 200 feet high, point to the heavens like ancient missiles. Zedis,the most evocative symbol of Myanmar, dominate town and village landscapes and loom above farmland.

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