Bagan’s Parade of Payas (2006)

Bagan’s Parade of Payas (2006)

The Mandalay-Bagan cruise in the Irrawaddy is the highlight of any trip to Myanmar. Flanked by sculptured mud-banks sprinkled with stupas whose steep spires rise skyward as if in prayer, the river is tranquility personified. The boat glides gracefully. Sunrise on the Irrawaddy is a magical experience. Almost every passenger on board is on deck, mesmerized by the silhouettes of the fishing boats against a blushing sky. The emerging fireball scatters a million golden stars that dance on the undulating surface of the water. The awed silence of the moment is rent by the clicks of hundreds of cameras hoping to imprison the moment for posterity.

Payas on the Horizon

As the sun travels up the sky, aquatic birds in huge flocks entertain you with their chorused virtuoso antics. Today there is not enough water in the river and the boat is in danger of being beached on the sandbanks. Two sailors sit on the foredeck with their graduated sticks that measure the depth of water as the boat sails along. The journey takes all of twelve languorous hours during which you unwind completely. The boat reaches Bagan at the twilight hour just after sunset. The region’s fabled payas line up in a parade of ceremonial welcome.

No Prior Bookings

I have no prior hotel bookings nor any fixed itinerary in Bagan and this is February, peak tourist season. But then, Myanmar is so perfectly geared to visitors that my week-long loosely-planned travels through that country go off with clockwork precision. The best way to see Bagan is to float breezily above the stupas in a hot air balloon, if you’re willing to spend 250 US dollars for a one-hour ride. You could also pedal your way around in a hired bicycle which is what many tourists do. I choose the third option – of a clippety-clop ride in a horse buggy and trust the driver to find me a hotel and take me to the must-see spots, which he does, with practised ease.

Bagan is Myanmar’s ode to Buddhism, as Borobudur is to Indonesia and Angkor Vat is to Cambodia. Situated in the dusty central plains of Myanmar, Bagan is literally a forest of stupas – more than 2000 and still counting. From the moment you land, there is a never-ending procession of stupas of different shapes, sizes, height, colour, materials, vintage. At first glance, the stupas seem to follow a single design, but on closer scrutiny, one finds many subtle and not so subtle variations to delight the eye. Many are made of brick, some of stones and a few grand ones like the Anand Pahto dazzle with their golden steeples.


Next morning, my guide-cum-cart driver takes me on a day-long ride through the various stupas, keeping up a constant chatter on their history and outstanding features. Thanks to British rule and now tourism, many Burmese can communicate fluently in English. Our first stop is Ananda Paya, Bagan’s oldest and most beautiful edifice. Its tower bears the unmistakable influence of northern Indian architecture. Built around the end of the 11th century, Ananda is perfectly proportioned and exquisitely symmetrical. The walkway leading up to Ananda Pahto is lined with stalls selling handicrafts. Exquisite lacquerware, so painstakingly handcrafted, dazzle with their aesthetic designs and colours. The frame is made of bamboo fibre and then it is plastered over and lacquered. I pick up a bowl and press it between my thumb and fingers. It is so supple that you can almost press the two sides together, yet so strong. It must have taken the craftsman several days to produce a single piece, yet because of the intense competition, the prices are ridiculously low. There are also very authentic-looking fake antiques, also sold for a song. But like all Asians, Burmese vendors love a bit of haggling.

Alms and the Nuns

Street cafes seem to be very popular everywhere in Myanmar, although in terms of size, you could discount the Burmese cafes by a factor of ten. Tiny plastic stools, all brightly coloured, cluster around equally tiny plastic tables heaped with platters of steaming food. You might even relish the authentic Burmese fare provided you have not visited the local market. I had taken a stroll through the bazaar the previous evening and was struck by live specimens of fish, snakes and all kinds of creepy crawlies as well as disemboweled snakes with blood congealed on them – all local delicacies.

From my room in May Kah Lar guest house I have a vantage of view of life as it unfolds in Bagan. It is bustling town. There is an incessant flow of traffic – ancient buses, some very modern ones too, horse buggies, trishaws, that quintessential Burmese version of the rickshaw and bicycles. There are lines of nuns clad in pink going about collecting alms. And there are shops galore, selling everything from electronic goods to groceries. One other thing that strikes you about businesses in Myanmar is that the distinction between home and business is somewhat blurred. Often, the entire family lounges around in the shop, each busy with the day’s activities – like cooking, sewing, cleaning, etc. Indeed, life in Bagan seems to move at a very relaxed pace; enjoying oneself seems to be much more important than making a sale.

Trishaw Terror

No trip to Myanmar will be complete without a ride on that unique Burmese contraption called trishaw. It is a bicycle with a side car attached and is designed for maximum discomfort as much to the driver as to the passenger. But it comes in cheerful colours and with delightfully loquacious drivers who can regale you with local lore. I foray into residential neighbourhoods, soaking in life lived leisurely outdoors. Pretty women with streak of sandal coloured paste on their faces smile indulgently at my curiosity.

During my three day stay in Bagan, I visited so many shrines that at some stage I thought I had seen enough for an entire lifetime! My feet are sore from climbing innumerable stupas and my shoulders ache, weighed down by the camera bag. Yet I cannot claim to have seen even a fraction of what this temple town has to offer.

(Published in The Hindu, July 2, 2006)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *