Angkor What? Buddhist Field of Dreams in Bagan, Myanmar…

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One of many ruins around Bagan…

The first thing you notice on the bus up from Yangon to Bagan is that the entire countryside seems empty. As Gertrude Stein put it so aptly when describing Oakland, CA: “There is no there there.” Now this may indeed be the new road, so avoiding the population centers directly, but still: in Thailand every available parcel of land would have a ‘For Sale’ sign before the road was even finished, and there would be new developments springing up as fast as the equipment could be trucked in from China…

But when we finally do get off the main road and into some villages, then you see why. It’s poor, dirt poor. If Communism stopped a clock for those countries that only began ticking again in 1991, then ‘Burmese socialism’ stopped a clock which is only now beginning to tick some quarter century after its Commie neighbors in SE Asia. Better late than never, I suppose…

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Burmese life…

But you’ll see things here that have long been rendered obsolete elsewhere in the world, like horse-drawn carts—for locals! At reasonable prices! And ox-carts, too, in the countryside. And taxis in general are reasonably priced, for that matter, no small miracle in a non-Uber part of the world. And those teak-wood storefronts that you occasionally see in small outback Thai towns are still de rigueure here, where almost all houses in small villages are still that stilted wooden variety…

The town of Nyaung Oo serves as support base for the nearby ruins of Bagan, but there isn’t much to it, truth be told, just a long strip of funky shops, banks, airline offices, hotels and tour guides that feel like they landed here from another planet, which they did, I suppose, after the government ran all the locals out of what is now called ‘Old Bagan’, the densest core of ancient temples and ceremonial structures…

It’s all pretty loosely organized and if you’re serious about temple spelunking, you better hire a guide. Otherwise, you can wander around on bicycle or e-bike and just get a sense of the splendor of it all, which is what I did. It lacks the intricate detail of Angkor Wat in Kampuchea, but makes up for it in sheer size and scale of the 42 sq. mi. splay of antiquity. If you want the money shot of ‘Balloons over Bagan’, then you might need to ride in one yourself, but it likely won’t be cheap…

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Mt. Popa

Aside from the field of dreams itself, Mt. Popa is another convenient and nearby excursion for pilgrimages to the mountain-top temple and its nat-filled haunts, full of local pilgrims and a few tourists, too. Now I don’t know what you’ve heard about Myanmar/Burma’s emergence onto the tourist scene, but I assure you, it ain’t too late. No, it’s not the cheapest place in SE Asia, but neither was Vietnam back in 1995 or Laos in Y2K. That takes time, and by then it’ll be overrun and the locals will be jaded…

Get it? This is the last domino to fall, and Old Asia will be just a pleasant memory, of coolies with canvas sacks on their backs, water buffalo plowing fields, crowded ‘wet’ markets piled high with produce and dry ones with clothing and crafts and antiques and such, women—and men—with balance beams across the small of their backs with two heaps of something or other in baskets carefully balanced so as not to kill the messenger…

This is Burma. This is Asia. This is planet Earth. This is 2017. Everything changes, not some of the time, but all the time, and the things that are gone will not come back, except in memory. There’s only one catch: without those memories, you’re limited to your immediate field of sensory perception and nothing else, and that’s poverty, my friend, poverty of the worst kind—unless you’re Buddhist, and/or lost in meditation. Word to the wise: see Burma before it all changes and something classic is lost forever…

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