August 2020, Bagan, Myanmar – Visiting a Major Touristic site when there are no tourists.
Watching the sun rise shyly through the heavy morning fog from the bus, in the distance, we can distinguish some stupas and temples… we finally believe it. Claire and I were able to escape Yangon and reach Bagan for a well-deserved holiday.
Bamboo houses are quite the sight on the side of the road. From the humblest huts, that seem ready to collapse anytime, to the more elegant wood and bamboo houses, they are all different and yet so similar. A small group of buildings, a fence surrounding a courtyard, a basin with a pump, a couple trees, a bike, a cart, some cows, the usual dogs guarding the premises or just waiting for leftovers, and the people, going about their activities. “So, this is what life looks like in the countryside”, I wonder to myself. The villagers are starting their daily routine. In the courtyards, fires are being lit to cook breakfast, open air, fully dressed baths are being taken, young children are still sleeping in their hanging cots, rocking with the morning movement around them. Farmers are already on the way to their land, with their bull carts, their goats, and their tools. This is an otherworldly sight. I feel like a time traveler. Only the smartphones and TV antennas remind me that we are still in the 21st century.
“Rainy season is normally a bit slow”, says Honey, our guide. “But this year is exceptional, I haven’t given a tour for the last 7 months. The pandemic has completely halted the activity around Bagan. Besides agriculture, most people in the area depend on tourism for their income, and without tourists, this makes life complicated.” As we ride our tuk-tuk through the gigantic site, he explains the history and meanings of the different stupas, monasteries, and temples, about Buddhism, about local life, about local handicraft and traditions. We take the back roads; the main sites are still closed to the public to avoid crowds and virus transmissions. This is perfect. We skip the usual tourist attractions and go directly to the hidden treasures and less explored paths. Not that we would be bothered by anyone in the main temples though! The large parking lots, ready to welcome the buses of history hungry tourists, are empty. The only foreigners left in the country are the ones working there in international companies or NGOs. No more mass tourism, no more busloads roaming the place every day. Fortunately for the economy, local tourism is still active. Some Burmese travel from around the country as a pilgrimage to Bagan, because as the saying goes: “You haven’t been to Myanmar, until you’ve visited Bagan”!
The dirt roads that normally buzz with electric scooters are all empty and easy to follow. We marvel at the sounds, colors, and sights. Everywhere I look there are bell shaped stupas mounted with wind-chimes. As the wind blows, the soft melody of wind bells fills the air. The dark red bricks and golden ornaments, contrast with the green landscape, and the grey sky (another benefit of being here during rainy season!). Honey is ecstatic: we are here to witness the blooming of thousands of yellow flowers that add to the magic of the visit. He shows us his Facebook feed: all his friends are posting photos of this rare phenomenon.
The shops on the side of the road selling traditional umbrellas, reproductions of Buddha statues, paintings and puppets are exhibiting their merchandise with little hope of making a sale, but they still try, because it’s their job, and even if it’s only one thing they sell today, it’s one thing to put in the accounting books. Times are hard, and yet, even though they haven’t seen another foreigner in days, sellers are very respectful and don’t try to force us to buy anything. It’s a relief. I easily feel overwhelmed and my empathy would make it hard to refuse if all these people came with their personal stories of why I need to buy something in their shop. I would like to be able to do something for them, but what? Promoting the beauty of the place and sharing my beautiful experience will be my way of honoring these people. They are the most resilient people I’ve ever met. They keep smiling, being attentive and generous even when making ends meet is a daily struggle. They help each other and look out for each other. I am in constant awe here. Myanmar is beautiful, but it’s the people that are bringing it to life.