Monday, March 2, 2020

Through the Hills of Honghe County


                                   by Jim Goodman                       

terraced farms in rural Dayangjie district
       The hills of Honghe County are part of Ailaoshan, the chain of mountains that begins in central Yunnan and runs southeast into northern Vietnam.  The range flanks the right bank of the Red River and averages 2500 meters in height.  In Honghe County, like its neighbors Luchun County to the south and Yuanyang and jinping Counties to the east, ethnic minorities inhabit the highlands and the landscape features rows of irrigated rice terraces stepping down the slopes.
       On my first excursion I took the road west of Yuanyang City (ex-Nansha) along the Red River.  The valley is fairly broad and villages and farms line the way, interspersed with groves of tamarind, banana and lychee.  The people are the same animist Dai La branch in the valleys of Yuanyang County, and live in flat-roofed, mud-brick houses, drawing water from an adjacent stream to channel through the village.
the lower neighborhoods of Honghe City
       Several kilometers before the county capital the road begins ascending slowly past a rather barren, uncultivated slope until the lower end of Honghe City.  The buildings here were all modern, even back at the end of the 90s, and residents all Han.  But remnants of an old town, the main markets and administrative centers were further up the hill.
      Near the market by a small pond surrounded by old houses a walkway took me up to the top of the slope.  It ended in a park, dominated by a Qing Dynasty tower housing an even older bronze bell.  A view tower stood nearby, looking south across the hills.  But the hills beyond had no terraces, forests, villages, pastures or anything—just lumpy shapes against the sky.
old town remnants in Honghe City
       Somewhere over the crest of those visible hills, however, lived the Hani, the ethnic minority I had come to visit.  I was especially interested in the Yiche, from photos I’d seen of the women’s traditional clothing--short-sleeved black jackets over extremely short pants, with no leggings, plus a plain white peaked cap.   
       Especially when worn by the young women, it was altogether the sexiest outfit in Yunnan.  In meeting several Hani sub-groups already in neighboring counties, I found the females overwhelmingly preferring to dress in their traditional style.  I was hoping the same would hold true for the Yiche. 
       Told they lived somewhere near Langti, 67 km southwest, I took an early minibus there next morning.  After about half the distance we crossed over those barren hills and the landscape changed, with steeper hillside slopes, forests, terraced farms and villages.  Langti lies alongside one such slope, though the townsfolk themselves are mostly Han. 
bell tower at the top of Honghe City
       I arrived mid-morning on a market day.  Most of the villages in the vicinity are Hani, some Yi, and market day drew two Hani groups.  The majority belonged to the Rani sub-group.  Their women wore cotton, indigo-dyed, long-sleeved, side-fastened jackets with some trimming along the lapels, neck and hem.  Plain black trousers and a brightly colored hand towel-headscarf completed the outfit.
        Some of the young girls wore a hat shaped like a sitting chicken, like that of the Nisu Yi in Yuanyang County, but studded with little silver half-globes.  The ancient origin of the hat narrates how a voracious ogre was chasing Hani girls (or Yi girls, for the Nisu tell the same tale) through the hills very late at night.  Just before it caught up with them, a cock crowed to announce the coming sunrise.  Because the demon could only be active in darkness and was powerless in daylight, it stopped the pursuit and hurried back to its lair.  To honor the chicken and commemorate the event, the girls designed the hat and wear it as part of their tradition.
Hani child in Langti wearing the 'chicken hat'
Rani and Yiche Hani in the Langti market
       Yi women in Langti also wore side-fastened jackets, but in light, pastel colors, tied with a belt that hung down in the back, with flowery embroidery at the end of the tabs.  The other Hani group was the Yiche, from villages to the north.  But the only traditional clothing they wore was the plain white peaked cap.  The market ran along the main street in town and ended in a large square.  Stalls lined the way, selling cloth8ng, shoes, vegetables and fruits, chickens, snacks, herbs, etc.  A pony market was near the square and a few stalls sold turkeys or rabbits and one a couple of big snakes, which the seller probably caught himself.
terraces near Langti
       In the early evening two Chinese friends turned up, here for the same reason as me.   According to a Yunnan festivals book the next day was supposed to be Guniangjie, the Young Girls Festival of the Yiche Hani.  Surely we’d see the famous traditional short-shorts then.  Our Yi lodge manager knew nothing about it, but directed us how to get to the nearest Yiche village. 
       After about a 90-minute hike early next morning we reached a Yiche village of mud-brick, tiled houses in the central Yunnan style sprawled across a ridge.  We didn't spot any festival activity or anyone wearing traditional clothes, other than the cap.  Soon a man appeared on our path and invited us to his home.  Over a round of tea we told him of our intention to see the festival.  Well, they didn’t hold it in this village and anyway it was six days earlier, on a monkey day.  The book was wrong.
Yiche Hani village
       As for the clothing, he said the Yiche stopped wearing it in the Cultural Revolution.  Besides condemning it as a manifestation of  “little nation chauvinism” the Red Guards denounced it as immoral, provocative and looked stupid.  But after the Reform Era, unlike all other Hani groups, the Yiche did not revive wearing their traditional clothing, other than the cap.
       The outfit originated with the sub-group’s eponymous founder Yiche.  After escaping a fire in the mountains set by his enemies, most of his clothing tore or was burned away except enough to make himself this skimpy outfit.  But later, after the Yiche had safely settled in the area, women took up the costume as a fashion.  As for the white cap, it dates to their time of troubles.  It was designed to fool enemies when the Yiche retreated to their fields or forests to hide amongst the white camellia flowers.  The enemy would only see these caps and think they were flowers and not people’s headgear. 
Honghe County Yi
Yiche girls in the early 60s
       Our host didn’t think anyone in the village even had a full traditional costume.  Not the shorts, anyway.  He did introduce an older woman who had a traditional jacket.  Waist-length, deep indigo blue, it had seven layers with overlapping hems, symbolizing their rice terraces.  But the village didn’t have a complete traditional outfit to even photograph, with or without a model.  The festival had passed and so after buying a turkey from our host and enjoying an afternoon meal, we left.  My friends returned to Kunming and I stayed on in Langti another night.
Yiche bride and attendants, early 60s
       The following year I returned to Langti earlier in the calendar and after a night headed for Dayangjie, the center of Yiche land.  With its promontories, ridges, steep, terrace-filled slopes and pocket valleys, the district is much more scenic than around Langti.  It was goat day, market day in Dayangjie, and local folks were setting up their stalls as I arrived.  
       Most were Han or Yiche, though the market drew a few Yi, Hani from Langti and another sub-group from further south.  Their women wore wide black trousers and a short jacket, usually light blue or white, with appliquéd patches on the hems and corners, and a belt with long end tassels draped over the buttocks.  On their heads they wore headscarves or black turbans festooned with silver chains and pendants.  The Yiche wore their white caps and drab modern clothes.  The older ones donned deep blue caps and once in a while I saw a single-layer indigo jacket.  Never mind, the next day was Monkey Day, Guniangjie, and surely they’ll dress up for that. 
market day in Dayangjie
       No.  The only action resembling a festival involved a mixed group of youths hiking up to a small hill a few km distant and having a picnic beside three old trees.  Some market stalls stood next to them and an old man occasionally rang a gong.  By one o’clock it was over.  The presence of a gong hinted it was a vestige of a festival, now vanished like the adolescent dormitories of the past and the components of the traditional female attire.
       Later I learned that the last time the Yiche dressed up for a full rendition of Gunaiangjie was for a film company several years earlier.  The company brought the outfits themselves and didn’t leave them behind when finished filming.  So nobody had one anymore. 
       Back in Kunming, a Hani teacher I knew who had written a book about the Yiche insisted I had gone the wrong time.  It was two monkey days later.  He hadn’t witnessed it and didn’t know whether the girls dressed up for it.  I couldn’t stay that long, but the following year I made one more attempt.  Those in Dayangjie who knew anything about any festival thought something happened last month somewhere.  That corresponded to the time of my previous visit.
older Yiche woman, Dayangjie market
another Hani sub-group in Dayangjie
       Nevertheless, I didn’t mind coming again.  Walks out of town to admire the scenery and friendly encounters with the people made it worth it.  Instead of returning to Langti I took a minibus on a newly cut road west to Yuanjiang.  After keeping along the ridge for about forty minutes, the bus then slowly wound down to the Red River, passing the most desiccated hills I’d seen in the province. 
       Yunnan doesn’t have a true desert, but this area is the closest to one.  There must be a hole in the annual monsoon clouds overhead, for the slopes were barren of vegetation, fields or trees.  A couple of small hamlets lay on the hill, but I didn’t stop to find out how they made a living in such an environment.
Yiche Hani on the way to the fields
       Two winters later I made a fourth excursion to Honghe, this time going from Mojiang to Dima in the far west of the county.  Dima was reputedly the site of the oldest continuously inhabited Hani villages and the only Hani community with a record of violent conflicts with neighbors over land and water.  Dima town was just a small administrative center with a modest marketplace and a single guesthouse.  Villages lie on ridges in the vicinity, about 25-30 mud-brick tiled houses above their irrigated terraces.
       Dima’s past pugnacious attitude and suspicion of strangers had long ago disappeared and my reception in the area was quite positive, though I was probably the first foreigner they ever met.  The closest and biggest village was a short walk over to and up the nearest hill.  With a splendid view ahead, I passed men plowing with buffaloes in the terraces and women walking on the roads. 
       The traditional women’s outfit consists of indigo-dyed cotton jacket and slacks, trimmed in light blue at the cuffs and collar, with silver coin buttons.  They braid their hair and add colored yarn to lengthen it, wrap it atop their heads, and wind an embroidered band of cloth around the lower part.
Yiche Hani village and terraced farms
Dima Hani weaver at her loom
       When I arrived I saw a weaver at work on a loom just outside her house.  It resembled the stand-up Akha loom in Thailand, producing a strip about 25 cm wide.  Its reed featured many inscribed decorations and looked very old.  One of her neighbors invited me to her house for tea.  Besides my limited Chinese, we could converse a bit in Hani.  Unlike the Yiche dialect, the one here was closer to that spoken in Luchun and Yuanyang, where I had picked up a lot of common words and phrases.  That dialect in turn was similar to that of the Akha in Thailand, of whose language I already had a working knowledge. 
       About weaving and clothing and even farming I knew the vocabulary, so we talked about that.  My hostess invited me for dinner and then summoned neighbors to meet a foreigner who could speak Hani—a double phenomenon.  And when I ran out of Hani-Akha words I could fall back on my rudimentary Chinese.  For the hill people Chinese is a second language, too, so they were not likely to trip me up on unusual vocabulary or grammatical constructions.
Hani women chatting on the road near Dima
Dima Hani woman
     
The most memorable part of our conversation came after I had described the Akha in Thailand and how, except for the farming, much of their way of life and belief resembled theirs.  My hostess then commented that the Hani and the Akha were children of the same mother.  As their representative, so to speak, I was promoted from friend (yitso in Hani) to family (menum).  So here were the Dima Hani, with a past reputation for extreme isolationism, embracing the far away Akha people as family relations.  It left me with a very positive assessment of the Hani of Honghe County.  The ethnic revival in Yunnan had enhanced consciousness to embrace a wider tribal identity and solidarity.
rice terraces next to Langti
                                                                        * * *   
       

                  For more on Honghe and the Hani, see my e-book The Terrace Builders.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Between the Mountains and Plains: the Karen of Northern Thailand


                                                                 by Jim Goodman

weaving on the back-strap loom and dressed in traditional style
       The highlands of Northern Thailand are home to several ethnic minorities, collectively known as the ’hill tribes’—the Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, Lisu and Karen.  The Thai never settled there, preferring the plains and valleys.  In fact, until the early 19th century, when the Karen began settling in the lowlands along the western border with Burma, the northern highlands were virtually uninhabited.  A century ago only a handful of villages of the other hill tribes existed in the far north.
       The major impetus for migration came in the 1960s, when various ethnic minorities in Myanmar began armed struggles against the government.  The resulting chaos of armies contesting control of villages led many hill residents to flee the country and settle in the remote mountains of northern Thailand to live a peaceful existence far from the insurgencies. 
old-fashioned houses in a Karen village
       As the wars in Myanmar gradually wound down (though still not entirely) migration into northern Thailand eased.  The hill tribe population today is nearly a million, half of them Karen, and the mountains are the site of so many settlements that the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural system is no longer viable.  Most farmers now rely on cash crops like cabbages, tea and coffee that don’t require new fields every two years.
       As recently as the early 1980s many mountain villages also cultivated opium.  Tourist literature promoted visits to the hills to meet minorities and see the opium fields.  By the late 80s, thanks to new roads cut into the hills and aerial surveys, the government had eradicated all but the smallest private fields. 
Karen village in Mae Satiang province
       The Karen in Thailand were not involved in commercial opium cultivation.   For one thing, they occupied the foothills, rarely as high as 1000 meters altitude, and opium only grows successfully here above 1000 meters.  Opium was not part of traditional culture.  Families living higher up above 1000 meters might grow a little for medicinal use, but rare was the Karen addict.
       Like the other hill tribes, the Karen originated from remote mountainous regions north of Thailand and Myanmar.  They migrated into Myanmar at least 800 years ago, settling along the Salween River and the border areas next to Thailand.  The dialects of their language are part of the Karenni group, but linguists debate whether Karen dialects should be included in the Tibeto-Burman group of Sino-Tibetan languages or classified as a separate group of their own.
elderly Pwo Karen woman
Karen man and his pipe 
       Karen dialects are not mutually intelligible, a factor in their development as relatively autonomous villages that were not linked in anything resembling a unified state.  Just as the Karen never had hereditary kings, it had no nobility or privileged class.  It was an egalitarian society.  Even the family inheritance was divided equally among the surviving children.
at ease at home in Mae Khanat, Lamphun province
       A headman assisted by a Council of Elders managed village affairs.  The council was all male, but women had a high status.  When they married, instead of all their children becoming part of the husband’s line,  only the males did.  The daughters became part of the matrilineal line.  Important annual rituals were jointly conducted by the headman and the senior woman of the oldest matrilineal line.
       Their religion was animist, accented by strong notions of omens, propitiatory rites and the dangers of unknown spirits.  Very early in their history they adopted the use of bronze drums.  These were very large, over a meter diameter, with the top inscribed with concentric designs and often decorated with animal figures, especially frogs, on the rim.
       During the height of the dry season people beat the drums to summon the monsoon rains.  The sound resembled thunder and aroused the frogs, also associated with rain, and thus encouraged the rain to come.  They also beat them at important ceremonies to frighten off nefarious spirits.
Karen girl, Mae Sariang province
Pwo Karen girls dressed in their best 
       When they migrated into eastern Burma the choicest plains locations were already occupied by Burmese or Mon.  So they settled away from these areas to the far edges of the plains and into the lower slopes of the hills.  Those on the plains grew wet rice, tobacco, betel, and various fruits.  Those higher up grew dry rice, yams, tea, chili, vegetables and cotton.
mahout directing an elephant's work on the Salween River, 1977
       In the surrounding forests men hunted boar, deer, squirrel and lizard.  Women and children gathered frogs, mushrooms, insects and larvae, honey, field crabs and medicinal herbs.  The village goal was self-sufficiency.  That was nearly impossible to fully achieve, but they relied on the market for very little of their everyday needs.
       They stayed as isolated as possible from Burmese administration, carried on feuds with each other, making raids and counter-raids, and periodic conflicts with their neighbors the Lawa.  Changes came with the British colonial period in the early 19th century.   In terms of taxation and corvée labor, the Karen found the British much less demanding than the Burmese and did not resist the new system.  The British sent missionaries into the Karen villages and because the Biblical stories and Christian precepts often coincided with some of their own ancient legends and traditional values, many Karen villages quickly converted.
Ruammit, the Karen village for riding elephants
       Some missionaries, upon discovering these similarities, began persuading the Karen that they were one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel.  They may even have believed it themselves and outlined a migration route from Israel after the Roman conquest, up through the Caucasus, across central Asia, the Gobi Desert, then down through the snow-capped mountains of southwest China and Tibet and finally into Lower Burma.       
       The Christian British also treated their Karen subjects the same way they did their Burmese subjects, an equality imposed by colonialism.  This also influenced the decision to convert.  Later on the British introduced schools, educating both men and women.  This had an unintended effect of stimulating pan-Karen nationalist sentiment.  When the British prepared to withdraw, Karen nationalists were ready to campaign for a high degree of autonomy within the coming independent state of Burma, if not their own separate state entirely.
Karen mahout near Samoeng
feeding the elephants near Samoeng
       Supposedly the Burmese leader Aung San was sympathetic to their demands.  But after his assassination the new government refused to consider Karen autonomy.  War broke out between the two sides.  Many of the Karen fighters had served in the British army during the war with Japan, so their officers were just as experienced as those on the Burmese side.  In the beginning the Karen occupied the Ayeyarwaddy Delta and nearly captured Yangon.  But the Burmese regrouped, drove the Karen out of the Delta and carried the war to Karen territory.
weaving in Mae Khanat, Lamphun province
       They never fully subjugated all of the Karen lands, though gradually pacified most of them.  The intensity of the conflict subsided over the decades, yet the insurgency has still not ended.  The war drove many Karen refugees across the border, living in camps until they could find a place to settle.  The fact that they had fled into what was already territory occupied by Karen migrants for several generations certainly eased their assimilation.
       Most of the Karen in Thailand belong to two groups—the Sgaw and the Pwo.  They live the same way, but speak mutually unintelligible, separate dialects. Both Sgaw and Pwo Karen women provide their families’ garments by weaving bolts of cotton cloth on a back-strap loom.  They used to grow and spin their own cotton, but in recent decades they have opted for buying machine-made thread in the markets. 
       Nevertheless, the rest of the process still follows the traditional procedures.  They wind the thread into balls and then prepare the warp threads by winding them out around pairs of bamboo sticks, changing colors where necessary.  When that’s done they mount the warp threads on the loom by tying them around end sticks, separating every other thread with a continuous, single-thread heddle, and attaching the near end stick to a strap that wraps around the waist while they are seated.  The far end stick they fasten to a house post, back of a trailer or anything strong and immovable.
marketing Karen textiles, Li district, Lamphun
       The weaver leans forward to loosen the tension on the warp threads, lifts the heddle stick to separate the warp set and create a ‘shed.’  Through this opening she tosses the shuttle with the weft thread.  She then leans back to tighten the tension and knocks the weft thread into place with a wooden beating sword.  She then repeats the process, but tosses the weft shuttle in the opposite direction. As the web of cloth gets bigger she may add patterns onto the surface by inserting what’s called ‘supplementary weft.’  These are often done using woolen thread to make them stand out more.
       The result is a tightly bound, strong and durable strip of cloth 50 cm wide and up to four or five meters long.  They stitch sections together for various articles of clothing.  The most common is the shirt, worn by both sexes, though with different patterns for each.  The head fits through an opening at the top and the sides and hem may be fringed.  The long dress that young women favor is a longer version of the shirt, reaching to the shins.  Usually it’s basically white.  Sgaw girls add some fringe on the sides and over the front.  Pwo girls fringe the top and decorate the section below the knees with bright red pile embroidery patterns.
       Most of the rest of the cloth goes to make sarongs, the everyday garment for women.   Another portion is for shoulder bags and the rest for blankets and cloth for swaddling babies.  With the onset of tourism and Karen involvement in the trade, the women now have incentives to produce traditional textiles for new, non-Karen customers.
young Karen man, Li district
elderly weaver near Mae Sariang
       With new roads connecting Karen villages with the outside world, the youth have been migrating out for education, jobs and new trades.  Modernization also means that seasonal labor or temporary work on construction projects is also possible.  Some Karen became successful tour guides, for the average trek of three to five days included at least one night in a Karen village and the customers usually preferred ethnic minority guides for visiting hill tribe villages.
still using mortar and pestle to pound rice
       In the 20th century many Karen men worked in the logging industry, particularly in Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang provinces.  They were the mahouts, the elephant handlers who trained the animals to haul logs out of the forest and assemble them into rafts to float downriver.  Towards the end of the century the government, in response to rapidly shrinking forests, banned logging.
       Throughout the 90s tourism began growing fast and the industry found a new use for the Karen mahouts and their animals.  Riding elephants became one of the things most tourists had to experience while in the north.  They had the option of the elephant show at Mae Rim, less than an hour north of Chiang Mai, where short rides were possible. 
Karen woman from Mae Sariang province
Karen woman, Mae Khanat, Lamphun
       If they had the time, though, they preferred going further away, somewhere looking less touristy and more authentic, even though it was set up for tourists.   One early popular excursion was the Karen elephant village Ruammit, on the banks of the Kok River west of Chiang Rai.  Not only did the ride take place in a genuine rural environment, customers also enjoyed the one-hour boat journey from Chiang Rai through the rural scenery, passing villages, temples, farms and other boats.
       Other riding centers sprang up in the forests near Mae Taeng, the remote streams of Mae Wang district and the hills above Samoeng.  Some camps also educate their customers on caring for elephants and learning about their nature.  The Karen have been involved with elephants for many centuries and certainly know them intimately.
Karen women at Chiang Mai's Tribal Life Festival
       Despite the changes of the last few decades, the Karen still live mostly according to traditions.  Historically a shy people, they have managed to stay aloof and largely unaffected the modernizing world.  Though about 15% are Christian, and a smaller percentage still animist, the majority are Buddhist, influenced by their long proximity to the Burmese Buddhists.  And like their Burmese (and Thai) neighbors, they never really abandoned animist beliefs, like the dangerous presence of bad spirits that must be placated.
       Their material life blends their tradition with the influence of neighbors.   When they build something to replace their bamboo and thatch house, it’s a stilted wooden house, like those of their northern Thai neighbors.   They use electricity instead of oil lamps now, but still pound rice the old way.  They might buy modern jackets in the city markets to don in cold weather, but still prefer, the women especially, their traditional, hand-woven clothing, as well as ornaments like the many brass and silver bangles around their arms. .
       They are also very community-conscious.  Family and kin are especially important.  While they devoutly observe religious holidays, special family occasions, especially weddings, are events demanding gusto and exuberance.  At such times drinks flow, frivolity follows, jokes and laughter fill the room and the normally hidden gregariousness of the Karen people puts on a full display.

conviviality at a Karen party

                                                                        * * *    

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Bagan’s Sea of Pagodas


                                      by Jim Goodman

Shwesandaw and Dhammayan Gyi
       For a country long used to negative reports in the international media, this year Myanmar drew the world’s attention for a very felicitous reason.  On 6 July 2019 UNESCO recognized the ancient capital of Bagan as a World Heritage Site.  It was a long time coming.  Myanmar’s government had first nominated Bagan for the award in 1995.  But Myanmar was a pariah country then, under the military-led State Law and Order Restoration Council (the notorious SLORC).  Western governments discouraged their citizens from making it a tourist destination.  And members of the UNESCO committee objected to some of the restoration work.
the gilded stupa of Shwezigon
       Time passed.  Eventually a civilian government came to power.  Tourist arrivals have been burgeoning for at least fifteen years, with Bagan one of the most popular excursions.  Despite the original qualms, UNESCO could no longer deny the site its due recognition. 
       It certainly deserved it.  The Bagan Archaeological Zone, with over 3000 pagodas and temples, comprises 104 square kilometers, making it the world’s largest.  Founded in the mid- to late 9th century, capital of the country’s first Burmese Empire from 1044-1287, the plain around it once held over 10,000 religious monuments.  Bagan’s religious tradition followed that of their Pyu predecessors, a Tibeto-Burman people occupying several city-states in the Ayerewady Valley, heavily influenced by their trade links with India.  It encompassed both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, plus Tantra, Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu, as well as the indigenous spirit (nat) beliefs.
stupas on the way to New Bagan
      Wars with its neighbor Nanzhao, in contemporary Yunnan, China, from 750-830, destroyed Pyu political power.  In this power vacuum rose the Kingdom of Bagan, founded by Burmese people (Bahmar), who would by two centuries later extend their control over the whole Irrawaddy Valley and its periphery.  Under King Anawrahta, who ascended in 1044, the state became an empire.  He extended the rice cultivation area, especially to the east, with weirs and canals, which encouraged the immigration of ever more farmers.  He made Theravada Buddhism the state religion, though tolerated other beliefs, and sponsored the formation of a script for the Burmese language.
Thatbinniyu (right), the tallest pagoda on the plain
      His able successors Kyinsuttha (1081-1112), who patronized Mon scholars and artisans, and Alaungsithi ·1112-1167), who constructed more irrigation systems and standardized weights and measures, presided over a long period of peace and prosperity.  The empire had no real rivals and grew quite wealthy.  And with both kings and commoners religiously pious, much of that wealth became devoted to building temples and pagodas.  Their palaces, houses and walls have disappeared, but their spectacular array of religious monuments remains as a legacy that draws visitors from all over the world.
pagodas on the Bagan plain
       People can fly to Bagan’s airport, but a more interesting way there is to go by boat from Mandalay, to the north.  The fastest boat takes about eight hours, though one could take cheaper, slower ones that arrive well after dark, or even the next morning.  The journey by road also takes the entire day and is basically a boring succession of farms and villages.  The river route can also be tedious for long stretches, but at least one can walk around on deck and enjoy food and drinks.
sunrise view from Shwesandaw
       After departing Mandalay in early morning, the boat soon passes slowly by the former medieval capital Sagaing.  The town lies on the west bank and morning light from the east on the two long, temple-studded hills that make up the town keeps the passengers’ cameras clicking.  After Sagaing the scenery is monotonous until the junction with the Chindwin River, and then relatively boring again until just before the landing at Bagan, where the northernmost stupas are first visible.
       I made the trip on a sunny day in December 2006.  The monsoon had ended less than two months previously but already the river was rather shallow.  The boat zigzagged its way downriver to avoid getting stuck on a sandbar.  It made brief stops at a village south of Sagaing, where children waded out from shore to sell bananas and other snacks, and at the confluence with the Chindwin, where a few passengers disembarked.  Until approaching Bagan scarcely any other vessels were in the river, with a surprising dearth of fishing activity.
Sulamani Temple

      The boat pulled into the pier at Old Bagan next to Bupaya Temple, reputedly the oldest monument in the city.  Unfortunately, a devastating earthquake of 6.3 magnitude in1975 completely leveled the building and what stands there now is a reconstruction.  Most of the main temples remained standing, though some lost a few spires.  Bagan suffered periodic earthquakes throughout its history and it’s a tribute to the skills of the planners and architects that so many major temples and pagodas survived them relatively intact.
       Reconstruction commenced soon afterwards and by 2006 even the smaller temples and stupas had all been restored.  Some had plaques placed in front listing the names of those who sponsored the restoration and others had newly installed Buddha images.  Because they used new bricks it was easy to tell which spires or other parts had been damaged and some were completely rebuilt from the base up.
typical bell-shaped stupa
       We arrived late in the afternoon when the waning light enriched the colors of the monuments, enhancing the 40-minute hike to New Bagan, where I stayed in a moderately priced hotel for four nights.  Clusters of pagodas along the way gave me a foretaste of what to expect come morning.  Rich visitors stayed in luxury hotels in Old Bagan and backpackers headed for cheap guesthouses in Nyaungthu village.  But wherever one lodged, wonderful temples and pagodas were just a short walk away.
gilded stupa atop Dhammayazika
      For the most majestic view of the archaeological zone one could take an expensive balloon ride over the plain.  The government had also erected a 60-meter-tall viewing tower on the northern side. Most people were content to explore the area on foot, by bicycle or by pony-cart.  I did all three.  About a dozen temples have interior staircases enabling visitors to reach the upper levels, provided you can find the groundskeeper to unlock the door. 
       A notable exception is Shwesandaw, southeast of Old Bagan, which has exterior stairways on three sides, with handrails.  It’s the most popular spot to watch the sun set behind the mountains west of the river.  Perhaps because guests did not want to miss the free morning breakfast in their hotels, hardly anyone showed up for the sunrise, which I found even more enchanting.
severed Buddha head on the ground
stone carving on a temple facade
       Climbing up to the fifth level of this whitewashed temple and looking west I could see groups of pagodas at intervals, with the distant mountains in the background.  The nearest cluster stood about a hundred meters away.  The first sun rays bathed the fronts of the buildings, while wispy, low, skinny clouds lay between the trees in nearby groves.  When the sun rose higher, the clouds dissipated and it was time to move on.
stone frieze on Abeyodana Temple
       Scholars divide the buildings into three periods.  The early period, 850-1100, reflects Mon and Pyu influence, with small perforated windows and dark interiors.  The middle period, 1100-1170, features bigger windows, taller stupas and a vertical emphasis.  Those of the late period, 1170-1300, are more elaborate, with more sculptural embellishments.
       The majority of the buildings are individual stupas, both simple small ones and big ornate ones.  The earliest were often cylindrical or like mounds, but from the 11th century the bell shape dominated.  A few are whitewashed, others gilded, but most are of brick.  Some have smaller stupas at the corners of each of the pagoda terraces and some are completely gilded.  All of them are supposed to contain relics, indicating, from the sheer number of such stupas, just how prevalent the collecting and preserving of relics was to the religious-minded people of the Bagan era.
temple and stupas
       Stupas also rise above the tops of the temples, which have extended hollow chambers at the base, generally one or four, used for meditation and rituals.  They may also have large Buddha images from the original construction or smaller, modern ones installed during restoration.  Several temples feature interior frescos.
       UNESCO sponsored restoration of the biggest group, at Abeyodana Temple, mainly Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist imagery, but including lots of secular everyday life activities.  Nandamannya Pahto’s set of Mahayana panels is in less good condition.  Its most famous scene, the Temptation of Mara, with its bare-breasted beauties, is covered with glass and difficult to see.  Those at Ananda Ok Kyaung and Updi Thein depict daily life activities from the 17th-18th centuries, when they were painted.  Frescos in the Kyanzitthi cave temple, 800 years old, are too worn to see well, though they include panels of Mongols.
interior Buddha images
       Compared to the sculptural paradise of Angkor, Bagan doesn’t have many extant carvings.  Here and there one comes across a toppled Buddha head on the ground.  A few stone panels of deities, mythical animals and dancing apsaras exist, like the set at Abeyodana Temple.  A couple others have standing Buddhas or well-worn elephants.  Dhammayazika, with a recently re-gilded spire, has panels of Jataka scenes, stone sculptures around the base and protruding, stone makara-headed drainage pipes on the terrace levels.
       Among the most picturesque temples are three from the early period:  Shwesandaw—the sunrise/sunset viewing favorite, Thatbinniyu—the tallest on the plain, and Ananda Pahto—the biggest and most complex.  All three are whitewashed.  For its 900th anniversary in 1992, Ananda Pahto had its spires gilded  
Manuha Temple, built by a captive Mon king, 11th c.
       Besides Abeyodana and Dhammayazika, other Bagan temples draw much visitor attention.  Sulamani has the most classic shape, with small stupas lining the sides of the multi-tiered base.  Mahabodhi is an exact replica of the ancient one in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment.  Dhammayangyi is the largest in volume, though its spire has toppled.  The Sein Sisters pair are in completely different styles from each other. Seinnyet Nyima resembles a smaller version of Sulamani, while Seinnyet Ama is a large, bell-shaped stupa.
       Bagan reached the zenith of its prestige and power in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, under Kings Narapatyi Sithu (1174-1211) and Htilominlo (1211-1235).  These rulers enlarged the borders, prevented Khmer expansion out of central western Thailand, codified the law, established a standing army and extended Burmese cultural influence beyond its boundaries.  The capital’s population then is estimated as anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000.  Yet this heyday was not to last much longer. 
everyday life in ancient Bagan
       Piety had become a problem.  Kings and nobles granted much of the agricultural land to temples and monasteries, which were exempt from taxation.  Falling revenues meant less money for state administration, especially in the furthest away border provinces, building canals to open new farmland, and equip the army.  The religious spirit, which had inspired so much architectural grandeur, was undermining the state. 
       Conflict began in the south and Bagan lost territory to Arakan and Martaban.  Later in the 13th century Bagan faced Mongol invaders.  While the Mongols apparently never occupied the city itself (they usually destroyed every city they captured), their campaigns successfully terminated Bagan’s power.  By 1287 Bagan’s empire was history and its population reduced to several thousand.  The Myinsaing Kingdom to the south became the pre-eminent state in the country, though neither it nor any of its successors for the next few centuries held sway over Myanmar as much as Bagan had.
UNESCO-restored frescos at Abeyodana
Mahabodhi Temple
       Though it was no longer important politically, Bagan continued to attract pilgrims from all over the country.  They concentrated on Ananda Pahto, Shwezigon, Sulamani, Htilominlo and Dhammayazika.  The other monuments fell into decline.  When the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885) took control of Burma, holding territory even greater than the Bagan Empire, its government sponsored many restorations in Bagan, though not necessarily following the originals.  Nevertheless, the ancient site’s prestige, with its importance to Burmese culture, endured. 
Winido Temple, near the viewing tower
       Pilgrims continued to journey to Bagan throughout the colonial period and in the first few decades after independence.  With a slightly improved political situation, tourism began taking off in the 21st century.  It did not draw anywhere near the numbers that visited Cambodia’s Angkor, but it was a less congested, more relaxing experience.  Like Angkor the main sites had their local hawkers, selling souvenirs, bric-a-brac and snacks, plus the ubiquitous painters.  But they were never very persistent.
       In 2006 the entry ticket was a mere US$10, valid for however long you stayed.  Unlike Angkor, where the nearest hotels were in urban Siem Reap, the lodgings were all inside the quiet archaeological zone.  Right after you left your hotel you were in the vicinity of ancient monuments.  You could even walk among them by moonlight.  Many travelers explored the zone on their own.  Groups in buses were not so numerous and didn’t stay long at any particular site, other then the sunset viewing pagodas.
       Visitor numbers have increased since my 2006 excursion, and are likely to grow more now that Bagan is a recognized World Heritage Site.  No doubt more people will be taking the balloon flights over the plain, but the area is too vast to get very congested.  And for an example of what religious fervor can do for architecture, Bagan remains one of the world’s most outstanding,

Seinnyet Nyima and Seinnyet Ama

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