Thursday, September 21, 2017

Old Bagan’s unusual vibe: temples of rock?

A pina colada in my hand, Orwell’s Burmese Days resting open on one knee, I gaze out toward the low ridge on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady River as the sun sets over Bagan. Birds chirp, riverboat engines hum. Curiously the scene, almost stolen from Kipling, has its own live soundtrack heartily provided by Iron Cross – a rock band.

A late afternoon haze surrounds Old Bagan as the sun goes down. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar TimesA late afternoon haze surrounds Old Bagan as the sun goes down. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

Something is misaligned in Bagan’s atmosphere.

Do not misjudge me: Seeing the Arctic Monkeys at a music festival remains a perfect memory for my 18-year-old self. I love rock music; it does, however, seem more than a little incongruous to have a heavy metal performance among Pagan era pagodas steeped in Buddhist spirituality.

But then, Myanmar supplies a veritable mass of incongruous juxtapositions, and why should Bagan be any different? Pagodas and concert stages; bullock carts and Ferris wheels; incantations and bass riffs; maroon robes and black leather jackets; meditation and rave.

It turns out that my visit had coincided with the annual Ananda Pagoda Festival. During the lunar month of Pyahto, villagers from the surrounding countryside flock to Old Bagan. The occasion serves a dual purpose: providing donations of food and money for the monks and for the pagoda’s maintenance, and hosting a buzzing marketplace for the villagers, who also need to be entertained.

When the reality of a situation does not match one’s expectations, a period of reflection occurs. The Ananda Temple, “the beautiful one”, was built by King Kyansittha in 1091 AD. Situated just outside Old Bagan’s city walls, it remains an active hollow pagoda. Its whitewashed façade and intricate crenulations are a photographer’s dream, and its gilded pinnacle features in every tourist’s panorama. An architectural spectacle – however, within the courtyard, another show awaited me.

A female pop singer, whose name I never discovered, had drawn a crowd. Singing in Myanmar and accompanied with a synthesizer and a keyboard player, she performed on a raised platform. The crowd loved it – or not; it was hard to tell. There was no dancing, only blank faces peering back at the singer, limbs remaining motionless. The growth of the audience seemed to indicate approval, and a man I asked responded with a nod and a thumbs-up. Anyway, where was the tranquility I was promised by the guidebooks? I suppose I should have checked beforehand, but who would expect concerts in Bagan? My first warning of impending hard rock came when a taxi driver eagerly informed me, “Iron Cross tomorrow!” Not wanting to be a part of a crowd as dead as the previous day, I fancied grabbing a cocktail instead. The nearby thudding music wasn’t half bad, but there were no fangirls screaming, loud cheers or audience participation. It had even wrapped up just after 9pm like most “night events” – not exactly my idea of a rock concert – but the evening’s ambiance had been altered.

Luckily it’s still possible to peacefully explore the 42 square kilometres of pagoda-strewn plains. I ventured into the dusty inner region with a genial horsecart driver, and few large groups make the effort to visit these equally ancient pagodas. Another jaw-dropper requires a 5:30am reveille. The rising sun was an unforgettable sight, but I had to try twice as the first time a combination of clouds and power lines conspired to spoil the view. Sadly, once the sun rose, the loudspeakers crackled to life.

The convergence of new and old, of religion and fête, was bizarrely intriguing. It dismantled my image of a staid, dusty site populated only by lifeless brick stupas, and on reflection the buzz brought the pagodas to life. Their old crumbling exteriors brightened from the light and cheerfulness of the festival. And to be true, it was all in the timing. The festival is fleeting, and Bagan has already returned to a more sedate pace, recovering from the shock.

Worryingly, Bagan’s soul is threatened by more longterm problems. The larger hotels and resorts have capacity to house significantly more tourists, and The Myanmar Times has previously highlighted the scar of litter and the curse of the e-bike. If a UNESCO World Heritage Site classification is truly sought, such liberal use of the area strikes me as fundamentally counterproductive. I worry that Bagan’s quasi-mystical aura could be at risk, and what a shame that would be.