In Bagan, a new look at Burma's ancient capital

BAGAN, Myanmar – The van, packed with our team of eight journalism colleagues, set out from the airport and rolled through lush green fields dotted with red-brick and white-washed Buddhist shrines and pagodas. An impressive silence descended on the vehicle as we took in literally thousands of the structures that dot one of the world’s most memorable, spiritual landscapes. To think that such grandeur and engineering was possible more than 1,000 years ago is quite humbling, to say the least.

But since that initial loss for words, we have managed to recover and shake ourselves back into the usual, caffeinated buzz of questions and ponderings that come when you assemble a group of journalists to set out on any journey.

Bagan, the capital of the Pagan empire which ruled what is now Burma from the 9th century to the 13th century, is now a major tourist destination because of these pagodas, shrines and temples that dominate its landscape. The area is the first stop on our journey to document the historic, social, economic and political significance of Myanmar’s historic capitals of Bagan and Mandalay as well as its more surreal, contemporary capital in Naypyidaw.

A quick drive through the area exposes why this portion of the country is so popular as a tourist destination. The archaeological views here are simply stunning. The ornate temples are nearly ubiquitous, located only a few meters apart in some cases. Some are fully intact with visible repairs to the brick and cement and others are crumbling to the ground. The restoration of these shrines and pagodas is one of the questions we are looking into on our trip, and it did not take long for us to realize that archeology here is political. We are increasingly becoming cognizant of the constant intersections of politics and historical examination.

On our first day in Bagan, we explored some of the more notable landmarks throughout the area.

At Mahabodhi Paya Temple we interviewed Soe Nyent, a man who serves on the shrine’s local committee. He said he has dedicated years of his life to renovating the temple, following an earthquake that scarred the region in 1975. The renovations Soe Nyent’s committee has made have proved controversial, as they’ve added neon lights, paint, carpeting and tile to the historic site. This has been done to the dismay of archeologists and officials from UNESCO who view such restorations as inauthentic.

Later on in the day we visited the Ananda Temple, a landmark that we were told plays a pivotal role in local Buddhism. The design of the temple is a work of sheer genius: the interior, for instance, features labyrinthine turns and passageways, along with centuries-old murals depicting Buddhist ontology.

Bagan on one hand seems to be a place that is preoccupied with honoring and remembering its past, yet simultaneously attempts to apply contemporary aesthetic standards to update its historic relics. During our last glances at the Ananda Temple, a few bats flying above us drew my attention to dozens of small sculptures placed within shelves cut into the walls of the temple, rising to the ceiling. The chance occurrence could serve as a useful analogy for Bagan: without being cognizant of the small details of this place, one could easily miss a lot.

Our last few hours here have been preoccupied with light. As a group we documented the scene of sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda, as dozens of tourists climbed the absurdly steep stairwell of the temple. Once at the top, most of the tourists crowded around the western base of the sikhara, the unique ridged top of the temple, and witnessed the sun fall behind the panoramic view.

The multitude of clay red and gold topped pagodas across the landscape, irradiated deep shades of orange and purple against the lush green trees, in which the tops of the pagodas appeared preternaturally placed. The beauty of the image was only momentarily tempered by thoughts of what effect the exponential rise in tourism might have upon this historic site and community.

As our time in Bagan continues, questions abound: How will the impending flood of tourism, following Myanmar's ongoing regime change affect this community and country? There have already been forced relocations as citizens living in areas that were most ripe for development were moved miles away.

Who ultimately will benefit from Bagan's growth into a major tourism destination? What should we make of the intermittent 9-6-9 stickers, which allude to a Buddhist movement that is known to be virulently anti-Islamic, emblazoned on bikes, cars, and storefronts around the area?

Hopefully our journey will allow us to gain some perspective on these questions as we continue to explore one of Burma's former capitals and what appears to be an integral location in the nation's ongoing entrance into the international community.