Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Burmese Days (4): The Pagan Plains and Mount Popa

What is now called Bagan has at other times been named "Pagan". I'm not sure if that's happenstance or a Western judgment of this sultry plain strewn with a multitude of brick temples and raised plinths dedicated to an un-Christian god. Regardless, I couldn't resist the alliteration.

Day 6:

Sandy tracks proliferated among the brush and temples, sucking at the ravaged tires of our bikes. Vendors, today's temple guardians, stick close to their fount of spirituality and present-day wealth. Sand paintings, postcards, and the usual assortment of contraptions that clueless tourists buy. Considering Myanmar's closed economy, a vital string of potential sustenance for people who have no other strings to pull.

At one magnificent pahto (full-blown temple with interior circuit) squirrels clung to crumbling crenelations. Hop-scotch across sun baked stones became necessary--we shed our shoes on crossing into the temple grounds, including the outer courtyard. The peace is interrupted, and a meal, when I'm backing up to try and get a picture that can encompass the height and breadth of the temple. A hiss interrupts my thoughts of composition, and an angry snake left off wrestling with a dazed gecko. The snake quickly disappeared into a chink in the temple wall, but the gecko remained sitting upon the brick of its almost-doom. Dazed, perhaps, or just wary of this new bipedal savior.

The next temple is accursed. Spires rise from the burnt-umber plain, blunted. Unfinished. A cruel and hated king of ancient Myanma built this place. That king had decreed that the bricks should be fitted so tightly together that not even a pin could be pushed between them. Slots in the walls supposedly are where the king had laborers' arms chopped off--slashed from living bodies that hadn't managed to build the temple to the king's exacting standards. Some years into the construction the king was assassinated and the interior of the temple bricked up. Sealed with its evil memories inside. Coincidentally, Kiera's bike went completely flat (one tire broke open along a lateral seam) while we were inside the cursed temple. We scuttled back to the hostel, defeated for the moment.

Another sunset watching the Bagan plain. After nightfall we biked along unlit roads towards the most famous (and most touristed) temple, Ananda Paya. We walked in just minutes before closing and got a guided tour from one of the caretakers. Bat flit in the cavernous interior; a 10 m Buddha carved from a single pine tree trunk (hardwood trees of such splendor must be long gone from Myanmar) gaze down at us, mingled apathy and bemusement in those eyes. So I've always felt. Mini-Buddhas occupy the hundreds of niches that interpose each giant, cardinal-point Buddha.

Day 7:

We got up very early to start the first of two pilgrimages we undertook while in Myanmar. We chartered a minibus with two European couples. Outnumbered by the Europeans, I fear Kiera had a difficult time keeping up with the chatter. These days in China I don't get so many chances for quasi-scholarly conversation. Our conversation took us past the bumpy miles of washed-out road leading to Mount Popa.

Mount Popa's veneration predates Buddha, going back to the pantheistic nature worship that prevailed in Myanmar before the arrival of saffron-robed monks from the Indian subcontinent. Mount Popa is the home of the remnant, Nat spirits. Are they angry that they're no longer the sole gods of this golden land, or just grateful to be given any sacrifice, any attention? As with other Asian cultures that took up Buddhism--but didn't wish to forsake their native religion--the Nat pantheon was given a place as servitors of Buddha, using a theological loophole. A compromise that allows them to remain revered.

Mount Popa is a spire of shriven volcanic rock, a core from while all the dross has been eroded over the ages. The palace of the Nat rests upon its brow, much as fabled Olympus. Whether or not the Nat actually reside there, simian servitors certainly do. A horde of monkeys awaits on the winding stair that ascends the cliff face toward Nat heaven. The excrement and piss left by unrepentant monkeys exceeds the alms left by penitent pilgrims. And we had to climb the mountain barefoot!

Pilgrimage should never be without trial or treacherous obstacle, however. As it is, the cement and iron re-bar path, carpeted in parts and tiled in others, is too easy on the foot. I can only imagine what manner of rocky, sandy path and bamboo ladders might have once existed here as access and egress from the home of the gods.

Knowledge of the Nats, unfortunately, was beyond our ken--we didn't hire a guide--and as a result, the full effect may have been lost on us visitors. The Nats themselves were mannequins dressed in fairly ordinary clothes that would look at home in any Asian mall, rather than this sanctum sanctorum. They all had a pissed-off expression molded into their plaster faces. I suppose they have reason. "Damn you, Buddha! You fat bastard." You'd think that all the (admittedly nearly-worthless) Myanmar currency deposited around them and pinned to their clothes would mollify them a bit.

The panoramic view from the top: dry lowlands crisscrossed by pilgrim trails to one side; a high, volcanic rim sheathed in fog and monsoon forest on the other side. Once upon a time this must have been a true Olympus, aloof from the earth beneath and insulated from the troubled country beyond. Now, a Disneyland kitsch and the overall ease of the ascent detract from the spiritual ambiance. What Mount Popa does have, is the steady stream of very real, very devout pilgrims that come here. The worship of the Nats and the mercurial natural world they represent (see above: monkeys) yet lives on.

On my descent, a monkey napping in the rafters was disturbed by my passage, bared his fangs, and made to jump at me. Who is the Nat of Monkeys that I should placate?

Day 7 1/2:

Another dreadful twelve hour bus ride through the Burmese night, past the stolen wealth of Nay Pyi Daw. Epic sore butts. Our bus left us on the shoulder of a deserted stretch of highway outside the town of Bago. Three o'clock in the morning. The next adventure began there.