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Bagan

Temples. More temples.

Bagan is deservedly one of the most famous archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. And owing to its location in one of the least popular countries in Asia, it's one of the least visited.

From most any point in Old Bagan pagodas fill your line of vision. There are presently 2,224 monuments from the original 4,446 that existed at the end of the 13th century. These monuments date from Bagan's "Golden Period", 1044 to 1287.

A common question travelers ask is "How does Bagan compare to Angkor?" or more specifically, "Which one is better?" I would give the nod to Angkor with minimal thought, but there are travelers who will cite many a good reason why they prefer Bagan.

Bagan sees far fewer tourists than Angkor, and as I visited during May - the low of the low season, I had nearly all of Old Bagan to myself. While no one structure can compare to the magnificence of Angkor Wat or even any number of the lesser Angkor temples, the appeal of Bagan is of a much more subtle nature that comes from the endless collection of small temples extending across the plain. And as there are but a couple of dozen monuments that attract the majority of visitors, sometimes a seemingly insignificant no-name structure can yield satisfying discoveries as well.

Bagan has its drawbacks - I found the interaction with many of the locals that hang around the temples to be a tiresome experience which I will comment on further down the page. And unlike Angkor, in Bagan visitors are restricted from climbing on or around many of the temples and shoes must be removed outside *every* temple. Still, Bagan is a must-see. If I did my trip again, the only thing I would change is to put Bagan at the beginning and not the end of my itinerary.

I spent two days in Bagan, my first day I rented a horse cart and driver, the second day my hotel provided me with a bicycle. Both are pleasant ways to get around.

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Old Bagan - images

Ananda Pahto, Bagan's most famous temple.

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So, I didn't like the locals at the temples. What's up with that? I accept that a reality of travel is that in the eyes of the local population - we foreigners are rich - really rich. Beggars, souvenir sellers, con artists of every ilk - they find us, follow us, annoy us. Should Bagan be any different? Of course not. But Bagan rates as one of the worst I've seen in Asia for having a local perception that sees me as nothing more than a walking fruit tree of dollars - come pick me clean.

As we were leaving my hotel, one of the first things my horse cart driver warned me about were "businessmen" that hung around the temples. My driver told me that I could expect to be approached with offers to buy gems and antiques. He cautioned me that the gems were fake and the antiques were anything but antique - buy at your own risk.

Sure enough, at almost every temple, one or two, sometimes three young men did just that, first engaging me in polite conversation. The questions were always the same - my name, my nationality, perhaps further questions about my marital status, length of time in the country, and so forth. So far so good until the person began their offer of 'gems' or 'antiques'. While I'm no expert on either one, a quick look at any of the wood carvings would prove their age to even the most novice of eyes. Most looked as if they had been carved yesterday and rubbed around in the dirt for a few minutes to make them appear dirty and old. Further requests to give them a 'present' - a pen, a tee-shirt (one asked for the shirt off my back!), or money - often followed the sales pitch. By lunchtime my first day I had already been through this dance fifteen or twenty times.

What bothered me most is that the conversations had nothing to do with friendship or desired contact with someone from the outside. They wanted my money and were happy to rip me off to get it, wasting my time with their meaningless conversations. They weren't the least bit interested in me, or where I came from. And they were difficult to avoid. They followed me up, in, and around temples, waited for me outside, and followed me on their bicycles.

But these so-called 'businessmen' were not the extent of my displeasure. There is no shortage of younger 'gimme presents' kids who also follow you around, often using the same conversation pattern as the older 'businessmen'. Furthermore, I found that many seemingly helpful gestures by a local - i.e. shining a flashlight into a dark corner, pointing the way to an interesting but hidden fresco or carving were almost without exception followed by requests for a 'present'. Kindness for kindness sake? Not in Bagan.

I have absolutely no problem with the selling of souvenirs or any honest attempt at make a living off tourists. Locals should make money off tourism - as much as they possibly can. I am also well aware that the Burmese people live in a very difficult situation, but this does not excuse the kind of behavior exhibited by many of the young residents of Bagan. I am not an ATM.

The girl pictured below, I met at Nanpaya. She followed me around demanding presents and devising assorted schemes to get money out of me. One of the 'games' this girl and her friends played was to beg for foreign coins. They concocted this story of how much they like to collect coins from countries all over the world, and oh, what a wonderful, meaningful thing it would be to add a coin from your country to their collection.

They aren't collecting anything but money. No sooner do they collect a coin from one foreigner that they're off trying to exchange it with another foreigner for hard currency (US dollars) or local kyat. Keep this in mind when a kid asks for a present of a coin from your native land. This is nothing short of an elaborate begging scheme. They don't want the gift of a nice foreign coin. They want money.

I feel this photograph conveys this girl's personality with extraordinary accuracy.

After getting rid of this girl (taking the photo did the trick) a young boy approached me. Having already said earlier that I live in Thailand, this boy produced a few Thai coins he wanted me to exchange. I wouldn't do it. An hour and two temples later the same boy rode up on a bicycle (how'd he find me???), "Hey mister. I got some more Thailand money. Will you change it for me?" he asked. He had over 100 baht in coins. I considered exchanging them at some extreme rate like 50 to the dollar (at the time the Thai baht was about 38 to the US dollar), but decided to just leave him with his useless pile of coins.

So, do you think I kick small children and dogs, too?

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Yangon / Mandalay / Hsipaw / Inle Lake / Kalaw / Bagan

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.