Bagan's history is a rum one. The Bamar king who ruled here got word of a new fangled religion called Buddhism, being practised in the south by the Mon king and his people. So he knocks off a request for further information from this Mon king. Soon enough a couple of monks arrive with a few brochures and photos of payas (payas being any religious building) and Buddha statues. The Bamar king was disappointed only to get a taster pack though and sent his army south to capture the Mon king, 30,000 of his people, their whole library of buddhist scriptures and a crate of mangoes while they were at it (it being mango season). Before you knew it, Theravada Buddhism was declared the state religion, the first Burmese kingdom was born and the building of stupas, temples and statues began in Bagan. This continued for about four hundred years until the late 1200's when they ran out of bricks. At this point some pongy Mongol fellas turned up claiming to represent their gaffer, Kublai Khan. They were put to the sword. On hearing news of this, Mr. Khan sent a horde south to represent fully his views on this slight. It's not known if the Bamar fought or just ran off, but Bagan was abandoned.
Many years later the site was tidied up a bit, using forced labour. A few luxury hotels were built and a whole village of people were relocated just in time for Visit Burma Year. This was the year that Aung San Suu Kyi asked people not to visit the country, and calls for a boycott on tourism have been continued by some of the Burma democracy campaigns (see Burma Campaign UK). One of the problems with sanctions against Burma is that they don't seem to cover the oil and gas industries and Burma's near neighbours, India, China and Thailand, all do big business with Burma anyway. Unless China, the biggest investor, puts pressure on the regime, things are unlikely to change. And China is not renowned for its pro-democracy stance.....
Bagan remains Burma's biggest tourist attraction. Old Marco Polo made it down here, and if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for us. We stay in a quiet guesthouse and each day take bicycles to ride around the huge plains where the ruins of payas still stand. The cycling practise is good for us, even though the bikes are old Chinese ones and the dirt tracks are mostly too sandy to ride easily. Gayle gets punctures two days running. When we get the first one fixed at a village bike repair shop, everyone bursts out laughing when they see the inner tube. We count over 24 patches. I, meanwhile, am practising how to fall off a bike safely. This takes me a few attempts and a few cuts before I perfect my technique. Many of the buildings have been restored to varying effect and only a few of the bigger temples are still used for worship. There are some startling details dotted around, but it's the collective sight of countless stupas that impresses most.
In the evenings we catch up with Gertrude and see if there are particular places we might visit the next day. There is more than enough to keep us occupied for a few days. The 15th January is a special day though because a solar eclipse is due and Bagan turns out be a good spot to see it, what with such clear skies and all. A tourist has been selling dark glass to view the eclipse and the locals are all very excited. We meet two fellas who have both come here especially to view it. One of them learnt about this one twenty years ago, and booked his Air Asia flight then for the bargain price of 6 dollars. In July he's off to Easter Island to catch another. The other eclipse junkie is a Muscovite. He tells us that once you have seen a total eclipse you become hooked. Fortunately then, this one proves not to be a total eclipse, as at this time of year the moon is much smaller than the sun. (I know this cannot be technically correct as neither of them changes size, but this describes the visual effect.) The light certainly dims, and the birds get confused. And while we await our turn to look through someone's dark glass I meet a Canadian with the same family name. It was written in the stars, obviously.
We spend our last days back in Yangon. The month has passed quickly and it's time to move on. It's been a bit frustrating having to commit ourselves to flights and sticking to these dates - we much prefer the freedom of overland borders. It's also hard to say whether coming here has improved our knowledge about the situation here. On a simple level it hasn't - we have not been able to have open conversations with people about their country, and the government restricts access to many of the areas where problems are at their worst. But this in itself is something for us to think about when we look back.