07 August 2013

life in central myanmar

this week we braved a myanmar commercial flight to finally get out of the yangon area and see one of the most famous places in the country: bagan. the ancient city is actually now referred to as "old bagan" to differentiate it from where residents are now permitted to live. it covers 16 square miles and at one time held an incredible 4,500 temples - of which 3,000 are still standing. the temples were built in the 11th through 13th centuries, when locals each built personal or family temples to express their devotion to buddhism. most of the temples are of a different style than the ones around yangon, notably built of exposed brick and mortar rather than covered in gold leaf, though the architecture and condition of the structures varies considerably.

the scale of the area and sheer numbers of temples are one of those things that are impossible to comprehend until you've seen them yourself. no photo or video can capture the awe of driving along a semi-paved road and seeing temple after temple after temple. literally every direction you look is an endless expanse of temples, a view only obstructed by the banyan and palm trees that grow in some parts. it's a temple forest, and we were on a "temple safari." i hate to sound cliché, but it was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience... i honestly don't know how to convey my astonishment.

before heading off to the temples, we visited a truly local market in the neighboring town of nyaung oo. the vegetables were beautiful and we saw rows of monks walking around accepting offerings from people. i identified the source of the absolutely vile smell that pervades parts of markets here: fish paste.

betel nuts.

i love the banana displays.

green tea.

the bark of these logs is used to make the face paste everyone wears.

my family stayed behind as i joined my grandparents on an extra jaunt through the meat-selling section of the market. i'm glad i did, because it's good to remind yourself where things come from, but it does require an "iron constitution," as my mom put it.

when they roll one of these big palettes through the crowded market, you'd better move out of the way.

bagan clearly has a much more developed tourist industry than yangon. the vast majority of myanmar's 300,000 annual foreign visitors go to bagan. the souvenir sellers were much more prevalent and aggressive than we'd seen before in myanmar, so we were constantly turning down bells and postcards with a twinge of guilt, recognizing the poverty they surely face.

sellers outside a temple; these probably cater more to local worshippers.

we also saw that poverty the second morning when we visited minnanthu village on the outskirts of bagan, it was the kind of completely uncorrupted experience that will be impossible after the influx of tourists in the next few years - authentic, uncommercial, like we'd just wandered into this little maze of thatched-roof bamboo houses and sandy paths.

chopping animal feed with a crazy contraption.

it was a bit too authentic, though, and i had a small freak-out because it felt like we were intruding on their daily life, just walking into their (completely open) home and treating them like circus freaks, no matter how hard we try to be culturally sensitive. yes, it's a friendly and opening and welcoming culture, but ogling their house and waving around dslr cameras felt intrusive. i'd hate to be those obnoxious tourists. it was a reminder that there's a fine line between observing another culture, which is extremely valuable for learning and connecting, and objectifying it.

inside the house; this makes it look much larger than it was. it was one room and only had three walls.

this is literally the bathroom and shower. the total lack of privacy may have been the hardest part for us to comprehend. 

weaving thread, from the front...

...and back.

di staff visit the nld.

seeing the village was a unique experience, though, and we learned a lot about their lives. we witnessed oxen plowing peanut fields, women weaving, and children playing. it's about as far from bethesda life as possible: no electricity, no privacy, no connection to the outside world. but there's still a wonderful common humanity.

grandad is great at making friends.

we even got thanaka - the tree bark makeup/sunscreen i've mentioned earlier. (i must admit, it was fun at first but later i was excited to wash it off.)

of course, any tourist destination worth visiting has picked its local handicraft to market and exploit. in bagan, that's lacquerware - ceramic-looking pots and other items that, it turns out, are actually made of bamboo that's covered with sap, carved, and treated with pigment. the intricate process takes months for each piece, including lots of drying time but also plenty of detail work. after the workshop, we were shepherded into the large store area where we dutifully purchased a few of the (smallest, cheapest) items as little gifts.

our family became valued patrons of the local vegetarian restaurant "be kind to animals the moon" (the name is kind of two names, or something) where we ate two of four meals during our 36-hour stay. if you're ever passing through the area, i highly recommend the spicy indian vegetable chapati wraps. :)

i like taking pictures of food.

taking shelter from the rain outside the restaurant. it never rains in bagan - except, apparently, when we're there - but they do appreciate rain when it comes.

i'm writing about the actual temples in my next post.

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