October 19, 2012

Burmese day

"Bagan. Shit."

That dusty land of many temples. And you mean many. Eighty percent of them razed or devoured by the ravenous mile-wide Irrawadday River, and still nearly three thousand of them remain, crammed into a mere hundred or so square kilometres of dusty land. More than two thousand pagodas and monastery, ranging in size from "chapel" to "cathedral", all red brick covered by whatever may remain of weather-eaten plaster, occupying the foreground, background, and skyline in every direction, jutting into the sky above rice paddies, bushes, cactus walls, thatched farmhouses, five-star hotels, an eighteen-hole golf course. Some remain original, but most have been reconstructed -- unconvincingly --

"What about you, Marlowe? Do you think my reconstruction methods have become...unsound?"

"I don't see...any method at all...sir."


-- but they're still magnificent, eerie, mindbending. Especially at dusk, when the hordes of feral dogs who infest the area appear out of nowhere and make it look like a land sacred to canine gods rather than human ones. But truth be told, you're a little templed out, and the sight of just one more gilded Buddha might make you wince, or groan, or even howl with some kind of cumulative fury.

So you take the bus. Easy enough. It comes to pick you up, at your guesthouse on the warren of motorcycle-ridden dusty streets called Old Bagan that overlaps the Monument Zone. Almost every establishment on these streets caters to tourists; there is almost no industry other than Bagan, in Bagan.

Only ten minutes out of town it is different. Everything is ragged, hardscrabble, utilitarian. The villages are wooden buildings with mostly thatched roofs, maybe one or two of corrugated metal. Roadside stalls sell gasoline in converted one-liter water bottles. The road is pitted but decent, and mostly empty; motorcycles are ubiquitous in Burma, but gasoline is expensive, and inter-city transit prohibitive.

Beyond the road's laterite red and the brown villages there is little but green on green. Rice paddies, orchards of some spindly trees, tufts and thickets and clusters of bushes, flood plains filled with palm trees, steep hills dark green with thick uncultivated vegetation. Some few are topped by white-and-gold temples.

The bus has room for forty but carries only twenty: fifteen Burmese, dressed in longyis, mostly burdened with many bags of cargo carried as errand or favour; two elderly German women; a French couple; and you. The seats are large and comfortable, air conditioning hisses down to every seat, and floral curtains cover the windows against the sun. Music videos and surprisingly well-made Burmese movies play on the television at the front, with the soundtrack turned up to 11. The faces of the women and children are chalked with the by-now-familiar pale tree-bark paste. Here it is not artfully arranged, as it is in stylish Mandalay; here it is streaked and smeared.

You stop for lunch at a large roadside restaurant of wooden terraces, where soup and rice and a Coca-Cola cost you a combined 1500 kyat (US~$1.90), a dark cloud of flies buzzes around the block of squat toilets, and women sell small roast chickens and other less identifiable foods for the road from trays balanced on their heads. Back on the bus, and then, suddenly, the highway.

A gleaming, divided, four-lane highway that connects Yangon and Mandalay. It is almost entirely deserted but for buses. Once you pass a man in a ragged longyi with a wicker basket on his back, striding along the path worn into the highway median, carrying a bright C-shaped scythe in his hand, like some Burmese avatar of Death. And green, green, green, hills and trees and rivers but mostly an endless almost-indistinguishable green, a sea of life. Rainy season only just ended.

The penumbra of townships that surrounds Rangoon come as a rude shock. As does the smog, which you try to convince yourself is fog.

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