I love travelling. It is an important and influential part of my life. However, one consequence of moving around the world is that I miss some important events that are on the home front. Christmas is one of the times when I large part of me longs to be back in Cardiff.
I could, of course, have got home. Indeed, hindsight is telling me that maybe I should have gone back this year. This is the third year of the last four that I have missed and, if I had not invested so much in this Burmese adventure and had an easier route home, I quite possibly could have been writing this from my sofa after gorging on turkey and singing Christmas songs loudly in the kitchen.
For all the rampant commercialism and the complete lack of snow, Britain is a fun place to be in the build up to Christmas, as well as the day itself. I believed that Myanmar would have been as far away from Christmas as anywhere else on the globe, due to its prolonged and self-inflicted isolation. I have thus been somewhat surprised to find so many decorations sporting Santa’s face in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Bagan, my current residence, is no exception.
In spite of internet problems, common for this country, I did manage to contact those that I hold dearest. A phone call to Wales on Christmas Eve cost a princely $5 per MINUTE. On the day itself I managed to get Skype working sufficiently to send a message of joy.
I was determined to enjoy my day, in spite of the fact that I was away from home and going to spend the latter part of the day on a bus. Unlike Britain, Myanmar doesn’t grind to a halt on December 25th. A breakfast of pancakes was hungrily devoured whilst I read the Christmas cards I have been transporting in my bag since leaving snowy Astana. Every Christmas must be a white one there, I would imagine.
I then hired a bicycle and ventured off, like many people do at home on this day, to grand old places of worship. I, however, was not going near a church. My vague target was Old Bagan, to see some of the town’s grand temples. After all, there are enough of them. It is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas and pagoda in the world.
Bagan was at the zenith of its influence in the 9th century, when the country was united under Buddhism from here by King Anawratha. His street is one of the two main roads linking Nyaung U, where most people stay, with Old Bagan. Temples are dotted all around the area, but the biggest and most significant can be reached relatively easily on a bike just off these two highways.
The majority of the temples can be dated back to the 11th and 12th centuries. It is estimated that there were over 13,000 temples and stupas here at one point. Attacks and the aging process have left approximately 2,200 standing today, which is still a ridiculously high amount in such a small area.
Some of the stories behind the temples are also noteworthy. The Dhamma Yangyi Temple, for example, was built by King Narathu as a way of atoning for assassinating the rest of his family. The story goes that he executed a bricklayer whose masonry work on the temple was not to the required standard.
The holiest of the lot is the Ananda Temple, built by the third King in 1091.An earthquake in 1975 almost brought it to its knees, but it is still standing imperiously on the flat lands of Bagan. A common theme of each temple, as shown in this one, is that the four Buddhas who have attained nirvana are facing the four cardinal directions.
Quite rightly, due to the fragility of many of the red-brick temples, you are not allowed to climb up the vast majority of them. One exception is the Shwe Sandaw Temple, which has four rather precarious and terrifying staircases to its summit. From the top, the scale of this place starts to formulate in the mind. Imagine six times as many temples as shown in the pictures below – it would have been a remarkable place to be. Marco Polo came here and described Bagan as a ‘gilded city alive with…the swishing sound of monk’s robes’.
What Bagan did not have a few centuries back, however, was a Wetherspoon’s. You know, the popular pub chain in the U.K.? Beer and a burger in every branch? Well, there is one in Bagan!
Almost, at least. A slight spelling difference, a larger price difference, an immeasurable difference in the friendliness of the staff…and much better burgers. My Christmas lunch was a Weatherspoon’s burger, and I could not have been more satisfied. The owner, Win Tun, is local but lived in Bristol for a while, and obviously took some ideas back with him. The scribbled messages filling every inch of the café’s walls show that I am not alone in appreciating this little gem.
All in all, though I did want to be home, it was not a bad Christmas. The beautiful temples of Bagan reminded me that, though I wanted to be in Cardiff on this special day, I was in a pretty special place. Not to mention one that was a lot hotter!