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.

4 thoughts on “First stop: Bagan

  1. Good post.

    Honestly, I like the fact that temples are continually being built, and as far as UNESCO goes, some of their sites are extraordinary, some are literal piles of dirt.

    As far as new temples, this country is still in the “age of Bagan”, these aren’t ancient sites saved fro prosperity. These temples are still used by the people (some at least). Bagan isn’t a set amount of temples or a place having a set boundary. It seems to expand and contract with time, and the people of that time. It’s still in use today as a religious site and people are building temples for their religion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and so say, no, stop building, your not allowed, would be quite ashame in my opinion.

    UNESCO, well, I don’t think they know how to think “outside the bounds”, they would rather have the people punished for calling the site a World Heritage Site rather than include the poeple living there. True western thinking. In my opinion, there aren’t many sites in the world today that are more worth saving and expanding. Bagan isn’t just the temples, it’s the people, the culture, the religion, the Irrawaddy. It is truly spectacular, no matter what UNESCO says, idiots :)

    Good post – I think I go more into the idiot thinking in one of my Bagan posts. Not arguing with you, just giving my opinion. I don’t think it’s a wannabe type of thinking though, but more of what can be built today and although they may look corny, I bet some of the people 500 or 1000 years ago said the same thing about new ones being built…

    • John,

      Well said. As my trip progressed, I decided I am glad they continue building. The more the old ones collapse, the thinning the landscape will be unless they maintain the building. Absolutely agree with UNESCO’s inconsistency. I have come to use UNESCO as a guideline for pointing out places I did not know about, but not as a travel bible of where I need to go.

      I did see your posts about Myanmar.. I started reading a couple and had to stop myself. Because I’m so impressionable :) I’m going to read them after I finish my posts. I am really curious how different or similar our impressions are.

  2. Pingback: 2011: A Reckoning | Without Strings Tied

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