First stop: Bagan

Bagan is home to many many religious buildings. Old in origin but many have been restored, renovated and rebuilt. Mostly exposed brick. The kind of construction seen also in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, Thailand, and many parts of Angkor sites in Cambodia. All the sites mentioned, many were made of brick. But then covered with stucco or its ancient equivalent then painted and gilded over. It’s hard to picture what they must have been like as so little of those layers survived. In some ways, that’s part of the charm. It’s up to the viewer’s own imagination to lead him or her down the path or history.

There are over 2000 such buildings and sites. Unlike Sukhothai in which other than a few major buildings is now more foundation remnants than structures, the Bagan landscape is completely dotted with stupa tops. The Burmese have been maintaining the sites on an ongoing basis.

However, unlike all the other destinations I related to, Bagan is not an UNESCO World Heritage Site. While I don’t place much stock on the status as I’ve been to some rather underwhelming designees, I would have thought Bagan hands down would have earned it. Alas, no. Primarily because the sites keep being built on, over. They are modified renovated instead of restored. UNESCO maintains a strict hands-off-unless-for-basic-preservation policy. It’s a difference in thinking. Many Burmese Buddhists believe that many of the pagodas are still religious sites to respect and deterioration is not acceptable. The school of thinking does not accept the sites as “ancient relics.” By refusing to adhere to the strict guidelines of preservation versus maintenance, Bagan would be disqualified.

They continue building. Some of the wealthier want to donate money or integrate their contribution into the historic landscape of Bagan and proceed to build a new structure to blend in or to completely take over an unclaimed ruin. So we see stupa tops of fresh pinkish brick scattered amongst the more aged ones.

I don’t know how I feel about that. A lot of the new structures emit the aura of a wannabe. Up close, some of them look downright fake and cheesy. Yet, from a bird’s eye view, the endless pointed tops, regardless of color and shade is breath-taking. In reality, some of the buildings are at the brink of collapse. Years of neglect, war, and weather have beaten up on some of the structures so badly humans are no longer allowed in it. Many have completely collapsed in the weather, monsoon, and earthquakes of the past 5 years alone. The new ones may look corny, but with this kind of environment, they will look old eventually and be the ones holding up the famed Bagan landscape in the future.

The old

... the semi-old...

... the new (far right)...

... and the view.