Bagan, Myanmar

We travelled to Bagan, Myanmar in early 2016, a country both similar to the other Asian countries we had explored, and yet completely unique. Pagodas dot the countryside, testimony to Buddhism in this country. Myanmar proves to be the country least touched by tourism so far in our Asian travels. There were few other foreigners at this pagoda yet it was well attended by the Burmese, some kneeling, bowing, chanting and praying while others socialized noisily with friends and family. We seemed a novelty to some, ignored or simply greeted by others, “Mingalaba!”

This golden Buddhist temple perches on a hillside

This boy convinced us to buy his postcards and agreed to pose for a photo. We’ve had various explanations for the face paint which is very common among women mainly, but also men and children here in Myanmar: sun screen, makeup, cultural tradition … No explanation has fully satisfied me yet so I’ll keep on exploring. I am told that this substance comes from a tree, has a nice fragrance and is good for the skin.

As promised, I have discovered through further research that this white paste used on the faces and arms of many Burmese is ground thanaka bark, a tree that is indigenous to Myanmar and has the common English name of sandalwood. Now we know where it gets its reputation for being aromatic, as we are all familiar with the seductive aroma of sandalwood incense. Everything points to the paste having all the qualities that I was told it has by various Burmese sources — a sun screen, a moisturizer, however google has mention of other healthful effects. Apparently it is used antiseptically, as an antifungal and an anti-aging agent as well. Thanaka trees must grow for 35 years before being harvested, and their use has been a part of Burmese culture for over 2000 years.

Young boy selling postcards at a temple

Temples dot the horizon, shining in the first and last rays of sunlight.

Sunset, our first evening stroll in Bagan, Myanmar

The countryside around Bagan, Myanmar is stunning! Dotted by hundreds of pagoda temples, small and large, each has a Buddha statue (or more) inside. Some can be climbed for amazing views all around. 

Motor scooter is a common form of transport here in Bagan, both for locals and for tourists. Commonly seen, as in most Asian countries, entire families, chickens, goats, produce — all can be seen, seemingly overloading their mode of transport. We rented them on a few occasions to explore the area. Aaron is the early bird who caught the sun rising over land dotted with pagodas. During dry season, beyond the motor scooter, we see a local man pouring water on the street outside his shop to keep the dust down with the constant stream of traffic, mostly locals going about their business. Gatherings of locals, formal and informal, can be found at anytime of the day at these temples. Some stand in awed silence, their mystery kept within, while others socialize noisily — all becoming a cohesive backdrop to a mystical landscape.

We saw one sign at a temple that dated it in the 3rd century! We rode around on our electric scooters (called e-bikes in Myanmar) which are almost silent and easy to ride (well, kind of… There is a learning curve for those of us who’ve never done it). It is against the law here for foreigners to rent motorbikes, a smart move which decreases the chance of the country becoming overrun with noise and pollution, as this country becomes more popular with tourists. Of course, in 2022 with 2 years of world pandemic and a military coup in Myanmar, tourism is a moot point.

We stopped our E-bikes at the side of the road to reconnoiter and these two children ran out from their settlement, shouting to us, “Mingalaba”! Behind them stood the tarp town they live in, very poorly I believe, and they still had smiles for us. I couldn’t help but notice that  the hole in the little girl’s pants is in the shape of a heart.

As we explore the countryside, we discover yet more wife and husband teams, working together. I’m so impressed with this tendency in Asia for families to work together at a vocation — farming, construction, etc. The goatherds were using long poles to knock greenery out of the trees for the goats to eat. Very cool to watch – and we just happened upon them on a back road to pagodas on our e-bikes. There is a couple on the ox cart and they were chatting away in Burmese for the whole time as they passed.