Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Burmese Days (3): The Road to Bagan

Day 4:

The murderous tropical sun caused Kiera to lament for a parasol--boating along the dockside shores of Yangon was out, then. The sampans on the Irrawaddy lay bare to the heat. Would we travel up to see the gems museum--but avoid buying any of the gems for sale in the attached Junta-run gems market? No, we opted to get cheated out of about $30 by a black market money changer instead.

On our way to the train station, I allowed myself to be beguiled by an offer of 1,000 Kyat on the dollar. Kiera, by contrast, was the voice of reason, and I should have listened to her. We were led to a darkened stairwell next to a youth hostel at the Sule pagoda's roundabout. The moneychangers split the stack of money they were trading for my 'Benjamins' into two sections--asking if I wouldn't like to trade more than just $200? I counted one stack, handed it back to the fellow (see the mistake?) and counted the other stack. They then proceeded to kick up a fuss about the annotation of the notes--HB on my notes, but CB notes have often been refused in Myanmar due to a counterfeit 'superbill' that had circulated some years back. I stood up, ready to take back my dollars and walk out (I had the kyat back in hand), and they backed down. So here the darkness, the fact that I was planning of leaving Yangon for the countryside that day, the diversionary tactic, and the fact that kyat are so devalued that it is unwieldy to count an entire stack of 200,000....

Oh well, it could have been worse. I decided to change *only* $200 (and kept back another couple hundred). Palming off 30,000 Kyat ($30 at the exchange rate they claimed they wished to give me, or about $22 at the exchange rate given at our hotel) from a stack of 100,000 kyat was about the limit of what they could possibly take, given the circumstances. So let all future travelers beware: Exchange your dollars with neither tourist-area black market exchangers or the Myanmar government--both are reliably criminal.

An old city train--probably British-era--encircles Yangon. The train cars were battered, rusting, with wooden planks for flooring more commonly seen in a barn. Creaking as it swayed on mangled tracks beneath us, the train carried us onwards as we pushed through curious, helpful crowds of Burmese. Piles of fruit and small goods lay about the train car, strewn like turds behind a horse. An area at the back of each train car is roped off. This might be called first-class seating--instead of sitting on our haunches among the holloi polloi, we needn't even knock elbows in the section reserved for low-ranking soldiers, police, and tourists. These three groups are the only forms of VIP likely to be stuck on this trundling mode of transport. At least we were getting value for our overpriced $1 ticket fee.

3:00 PM - 4:00 AM

The bus ride to Bagan really did take that long, eating its way across the dusty central plains of Myanmar. Scrub brush and prairie grass as far as the eye could see--not exactly what one pictures when thinking of tropical Burma, but reality rarely does fit itself to the distant predictions of armchair wanderers. Bumpy, cramped, uneventful.


Sometime around midnight, the unlit darkness pared back to reveal multitudes of sodium lamps borne on their poles like the slim palms of a Hollywood boulevard. That demonic, vermilion glow was appropriate illumination for the newest creation of a junta gone mad with money and numerological paranoia: Nay Pyi Daw. The brand-spanking new capital city of Myanmar.

Is Nay Pyi Daw a developmental oasis in an otherwise parched and unlivable section of the country, or is it a mirage that will eventually become just another ghost town in a county dotted with the projects of power-mad kings? Analysts around the world tried to parse the decision in 2005 by Myanmar's junta to relocate the government from downtown Yangon to an area of barren fields some 200 miles north of it. Some said that the Iraq invasion inspired the paranoia of Myanmar's junta, Yangon being more susceptible to seaborne invasion; some said that astrologers and numerologists had precipitated the move by playing on the superstitions of the generals--most of the now-rotting capitals of Burmese kingdoms past were built for similar reasons; and the generals themselves claimed that Yangon was too constrictive, not spacious enough to allow for expansion of the government. Any or all these reasons could be true.

What is also true is the unimaginable amount of resources it cost to construct--in a country where electricity blinks on and off constantly, public utilities in even the largest, most urbane city of Yangon are crumbling, and the vast majority of its population lives in abject poverty. Can a capital be a crime?

Triple rows of unblinking lights cast light on ostentatious sculptural effigies; flower gardens sprouted from dessicated earth; massive new boulevards sketched wanton runes of oppulence across the dark, empty plain. Spas, malls, and mansions clustered like torpid zombies by the side of the highway. This place built for SUVs and gated communities--a new Versailles or a new Beverly Hills?--fawned upon by every infrastructural advantage conceivable. Whatever other conclusions one might draw about Nay Pyi Daw, the most obvious one was just how insulated the ruling elite would be from the mundane difficulties experienced by their subjects. The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis would be but the first of many horrors that these McMansions on the road to Mandalay would be able to ignore.

We arrived in Bagan around 4:00 AM, the stillness of the early-morning dark cloaking both village and the wonders beyond it. Avoiding the touts, we walked across the road and onto unlit sandy lanes. Both stillness and darkness were occasionally punctuated by the chug of generators and the filaments of light that they supported. I think we walked past our intended hotel (which had neither generator nor light) several times before a helpful local cast a high powered flashlight across its entrance for us.

Day 5:

We woke at noon. A batch of Indian curries served on palm leaves dispelled the last vestiges of fugue from our stomachs and minds. The owner of the restaurant was once a gem salesman in Myanmar's center of ruby mining and trade: . He appraised the ruby of Kiera's engagement ring: real, but apparently rubies of that size used to cost only $1, back in the day, rather than the much more expensive price I paid for it. Nonplussed, I hired a couple trishaws (bicycle rickshaws common to Myanmar and other parts of SE Asia) to take us to Bagan's UNESCO treasure trove. Kiera's driver was so old, wheezy, and decrepit, we were concerned that he might up and die as he strained at the peddles of the trishaw.

Bagan: A vast, dry savanna dotted by hundreds of ancient brickwork temple spires. A mere skeleton of its ancient grandeur, when the cruel kings of old sought to placate the divine with the building of these temples, Bagan is still easily one of the wonders of the world. Like Angkor Wat, but more numerous in its spires, and much more dispersed. No one picture could ever possibly encompass or capture the breadth of this place. I tried to do just that, of course, if only in microcosm.

We shed our shoes and climbed up to the roof of a lonely pahto (pahto: a type of temple containing an interior as well as several accessible decks on its roof) sited well off the main road and halfway to the greasy, green waters of the Irrawaddy. Dusk closed slowly upon us, rapine clouds descending to steal the sunset's ruddy glow from us and every other tourist upon the plain.