Ancient treasures in Burma
Ancient treasures in Burma

I sit surrounded by the spires and stupas of Bagan's 4000 Buddhist temples as the afternoon drowsily departs. These pagodas have dotted this rural landscape of Burma, with its small fields of beans, sesame and peanuts, its horse carts and bicycles on dusty tracks, since the 11th century.

These pagodas - boldly reverent, built of thin bricks, some stout, some narrow, all graceful, devotional and joyful - have become intrinsic to the landscape, just as the landscape is a canvas for them. This is a place of beauty, a beguiling thoughtfulness, hope and historic devotion.

Through tight corridors and up wriggly stairs, I have been brought to the flat top of a deserted monastery as the afternoon light turns first blonde, then golden, then to almost match the colour of the monks' saffron robes.

And the afternoon is soporifically still, warm air starting to turn to a pleasant coolness. The climate here, in February, feels perfect - warm, clear days and crisper nights.

People gather for that last gold of sunset - visitors from Brazil and America, Italy and France and all parts of Asia. In the whispering hush of the still death of the day, we are a small family up here on the monastery, for a while. People and spires are lit equally by the glittering candle of the sun.

Indeed, it is a place of gold.

The huge Shwezigon Pagoda is covered in gold leaf, giving an oscillating life to its beauty, as the sun's rays play across it. It was built in 1102 by King Anawrahta, who was very much the founder of Bagan as we see it today. He not only established Bagan as the capital of a great empire, but brought the Tripitaka Pali Buddhist scriptures here, along with monks and craftsmen. It was they who transformed Bagan into not only an administrative capital but also its religious and cultural heart. For the Tripitaka scriptures are the direct discourses of the Buddha, who died in 460BC. His teachings were collected in the first century and only this compilation of the Theravada school, written in Pali, a language close to Sanskrit, survives in its entirety.

King Anawrahta made Theravada Buddhism a state religion and built connections with Sri Lanka, a sepulchre of Buddhism.

Within 100 years, Bagan became a cosmopolitan, international fulcrum for those studying and following Buddhism. Monks and students from Sri Lanka, India, and the Thai and Khmer kingdoms were drawn here in a golden era of thought and devotion.

Htilominlo Temple, built by King Htilominlo in 1218, is in the shape of a Maltese Cross, with cool internal corridors following the square of that cross, and a Buddha building for four Buddhas looking out in the four directions. All of slightly different style and demeanour, they share stupendous size and all glow gold. Few of the tourists drawn may be theological devotees, but the spirituality of the place is so powerful that surely few could miss it.

After decades of isolation under junta rule, after international pressure over the incarceration, in one form of another, of its leading political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, after a new constitution in 2010 and elections and reforms, and the restoration, in January, by the US of diplomatic relations, Burma has become one of the golden travel tickets of the year.

And this is engaged travel - travel for the mind as well as the senses.

And Bagan, in particular, rewards the traveller. Not only with its pagodas and rural landscapes, and not just with the comforts of decent accommodation like the Thazin Garden Hotel, which has its own pagoda, swimming pool and local cuisine at candlelit dinners set on the lawn.

Not only with the area's lacquer ware - the dark gloss bled from lacquer trees - and locally woven fabrics, or its clean and vibrant market, where pale green gourds the size of footballs, popular for soups, sit alongside roselle, like leeks, and fried deliciously with onion, and every other manner of vegetable. Where nuns in delicate pink walk with little bowls to receive the daily gift of food from stallholders. A small scoop of rice and the slightest bow.

It rewards because it is the old dusty-track Asia that many of us so love. The old, clean, prideful, polite and welcoming Asia that existed before many became changed by mass tourism.

It is impossible and inappropriate to say that the trials the people of Burma have endured - the political imprisonments, the isolation from the world - have brought this benefit of making the old Burma a "new" and ripe destination for travellers, but it certainly has given the country world attention and substantial demand, to make of tourism what it will.

From waiters to the Thazin's "morning room boys" who leave floral patterns and happy "Have a Nice Stay!" notes on my bed, to every waiter with a smile and a grasp of enough languages to embarrass educated me, to our wonderful guide Thandar Aung, the commitment of young people to tourism, and the future it may offer them, is clear.

Tourism sits comfortably alongside agriculture as an employer, and is already having its effects. I am told that 100,000 people living between the temples were moved to new villages nearby.

At villages on the drive to Mt Popa, we see peanuts being crushed to paste in a bullock-driven roadside mill, and sap being collected from toddy trees to make a fudge, and distil to a local spirit.

After a steep but rewarding climb to the top of Mt Popa, a sharp bastion with a pagoda on top, there is a view over forest and small villages.

The roads are dusty. Bicycles pass, children smile. Many women and children wear thanaka - the paste ground from the theethee or wood apple tree; as sunscreen, for beauty, for culture.

And at Min Nan Thu village, we watch everyday life going on. Women weave and sell me cloths, and a man is shaping by hand a piece of precious teak wood. Men herd goats and a bullock cart passes us loaded with sesame. Mainly women carry water - up to 40kg of moving load in two buckets hung from a wooden yoke - and might make 10 or 20 trips a day. It is school holidays and children join in, with smaller buckets, loading them from the dam and carrying them through the village.

There is more work going on by the river. For Bagan owes much of its life and fortunes to the Irrawaddy River; 2000km long and flowing south to a big, silty delta on the Bay of Bengal.

Ayeyar Jetty, on the banks of the Irrawaddy, is another place to sit quietly and watch the tableau of local life.

The 16 high-prowed boats tethered here today are used by people needing to cross the river, with everything that needs to go with them. Motorbikes are lifted out by two men, one either side. A television set, produce, bicycles.

Nearby, sand reclaimed from the river is shoveled from another boat, and women carry it up the bank in a relay, baskets on heads. There is the crunch, crunch, crunch of men shovelling gravel unloaded from another boat into their dilapidated truck. Washing is spread on the gravel to dry, including a T-shirt bearing a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi. "The Lady" in text. The dawning of a new era.

And we are up in the dark to be driven to another pagoda, to shimmy up with chill, bare feet, and settle in to watch dawn come. To see balloons with guests on board drift through the morning. First there are just the vague ghosts of pagodas in the dark, then the purple-blue promise of day.

The temperature dips and the spires of Bagan's temples emerge, initially of varying grey and then awash in flaxen light that thickens to gold. Indeed, this is a place of gold. But today there is a single drop of ruby-red blood in it. The sun, behind a stupa.

·Stephen Scourfield travelled as a guest of Integrated Tourism Services.


  • fact file *

·Integrated Tourism Services' Burma tour for eight days and seven nights is $2950 per person twin share, or with a single supplement of $315 with a minimum of two people travelling together but having their own rooms.

It includes return airfares, flights in Burma, transfers, transport, accommodation and an English-speaking guide.

·Visit intour.com.au or 1st floor, 3 Rosslyn Street, West Leederville, or call 9381 7933.

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