We, as most other travellers arriving in Bagan, were drawn by the beautiful photos of sitting high atop a pagoda, quietly watching as the sun set behind the thousands of temples within the forested plains. But it isn’t just the scenery here that is captivating, it is also the local people.
Unexpectedly, our encounters and moments spent with the locals enriched our experience and made Bagan even more unforgettable.
Opening of Bagan
Ever since Myanmar opened their doors to the world a few years ago, tourists have flocked to Bagan to see their untouched culture and uniquely preserved temples. However, since the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 and due to an increased amount of tourists, many temples/pagodas have been exposed to unwarranted structural damage.
For that reason, the Government and Department of Archeology have decided to gradually prohibit climbing on the temples for issues of safety and to better preserve these monuments.
In an attempt to discourage tourists climbing on the temples, an observatory tower was built in 2005, rising 13-stories high. In order to better respect the temple conservation rules and regulations, we decided to watch our first sunrise in the observatory tower. The view, although impressive, was far away from the temples, therefore it could not provide the true feeling of immersion in Bagan.
Therefore, we decided to start our temple hunt in order to find a temple which permits going up without risk of damage.
An unexpected local temple guide
We were wandering around between temples today, when a young Burmese man approached us on his motorbike, and asked us if we were searching for a sunset spot. He offered to bring us to a temple that is opened to climbing up. However, in the past days, we have already encountered many Burmese merchants who offered their help but always expected you to purchase something at their shop. And particularly after the whole The TukTuk Scam Incident in Thailand, we were suspicious behind the true intentions.
In my mind, when you want to help someone, it is by kindness and there shouldn’t be an expectation for something in return. we had a feeling the intention wasn’t pure, but we were so lost, that we decided to tag along with him.
He brought us to an isolated temple 5 mins away where the view was spectacular. By then, we engaged in a deeper conversation with him, and he wanted to share a bit about his life.
His name is AngAng and he is actually quite similar in age to us, at 25 years old. Having graduated from a College Arts program in Bagan, and being inspired by his whole family into Arts, he was able to escape the traditional fishing business to pursue painting. It was only in the past few years as tourism grew that they were able to improve their economic situation by selling their paintings for a more reasonable wage.
However, in 2019, UNESCO plans on protecting the temples as a World Heritage Site, which in turn will prohibit the local merchant businesses surrounding the area. AngAng express his fear of loosing his business and he does not want to go back to fishing. He also would not have the opportunity to go outside of Myanmar as the government strongly controls these permissions.
In an attempt to lighten the conversation, I asked him what the local people like to do for fun on the weekend or after work.
His answer was: “Nothing…”
It broke my heart to hear that these hard working people don’t even have the privilege to enjoy their life. This young man of our age cannot even choose his own future or have the opportunity to explore the rest of the world.
Buddhism in Myanmar
He told us that the Myanmar people believe deeply in Buddhism. Everyone has a Buddha at home and they pray every morning. The people follow religiously five main principles:
“do not kill”
“do not steal”
“do not lie”
“do not rape”
“do not get drunk”.
They believe strongly in Karma and the consequences of their actions. Every Saturday, the local people pick up the garbage around Bagan in order to keep the site clean, but also in the belief that those who help build/preserve the temples would earn the merits from Buddha.
Also, despite the poverty in Bagan, people are so generous to give everything they can, whether food or money to the temple and monks.
At the temple, there is a corner altar for each day of the week. Depending on the day you were born, the local people offer food to their day of the week in order to have blessings. In turn, this food feeds the numerous stray dogs that wander around Bagan.
A circle of good-deeds.
We were profoundly moved by how the people sincerely follow and believe in their value and religion, making the local Burmese people very pure-hearted.
8 Days in a week? What’s your name?
Another interesting fact is that in Myanmar, instead of the usual 7 days in a week, there are 8 days. Wednesday has been divided up into Wednesday morning, or Wednesday Evening, with the latter being considered ‘bad luck’, and the former considered ‘good luck’. Depending on the day you were born, you were attributed one of 3-4 Alphabetical options.
For example, this young man was born on Wednesday morning, which permits his name to start with the letters “A”, “T”, or “N”, so his parents named him Ang Ang. Therefore, once you know a Burmese person’s name, you will also be able to figure out which day of the week he/she was born. Cool eh?
It was fascinating to learn so much about AngAng and his culture, and we regretted not having taken a picture with him. In the end, despite our strict carry-on backpack weight limit, we still bought a painting from him to help his business.
To future travelers to Bagan: you will encounter Burmese locals and vendors trying to sell you souvenirs at the temples or tourist sites. Please be kind to them and don’t mind about the hassling, they have no bad intention. They are simply trying to make a living and survive under difficult circumstances. And please respect the rules so we can preserve this sacred site.
I really hope the growing tourism will help this country and more importantly these people.
One day, the Burmese people will have the same opportunity as us, and their smiles will be even brighter.