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A Day in Pagan


Burma, 1992


Sitting in the airplane, flying over the Burmese countryside, I'm feeling reasonably well, considering that I've been awake since five in the morning and barely managed to sleep the night before. Our car has arrived to pick us up right on schedule, and deposited us at the airport precisely as planned, but for the German couple with whom we are travelling, the adventure has already begun. Their driver has forgotten to fill the tank and they've run out of gas on the way to the airport. Fortunately, they are able to flag a taxi and we've all made it aboard with plenty of time to spare. 


We've been flying for an hour and a half, and now, on our left, perilously close to our wingtip, it seems, we pass a rocky hill that rises abruptly out of the flat, scorched earth. Along the spine of this outcropping, three or four white pagodas reflect the morning sun. And beyond, just barely visible in the haze, are the silhouettes of the famous pagodas of Pagan. 


Except for a few extraneous pieces of interior trim, our plane, an old Fokker 27 operated by Myanmar Airways, seems to be more or less intact, but as we descend, it is bouncing and rolling in the air currents that swirl over the hilltops. Htin Aung Kyi, sitting across the narrow aisle from us, puts his hands together, closes his eyes, bows in the direction of Pagan, and offers a prayer.


The hilltops are now above us, a rumble comes from the belly of the plane as the wheels are lowered, and on the cabin communication system, the flight attendant is speaking in Burmese -- presumably warning the passengers that they should fasten their seat belts in preparation for the landing. And now she begins in English. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Naung Oo Airport. Please return your seatback to its upright position and ..." Before she can complete the sentence, we are taxiing towards the terminal.


We've been warned -- whatever you do don't let strangers grab your bags. Not that they are likely to steal them, but they may insist on payment for their services. I have this in mind as a short stocky man reaches for one of my bags, and almost indignantly, I pull it away. This turns out to be Hla Khine, the General Manager of Flying Dragon Tourism Business Co. Ltd, the tour agency that has made the arrangements for our visit to Pagan. Fortunately, he takes no offense.


There are four of us in the group -- and there are four in the Flying Dragon group as well, with rather specialized functions. Htin Aung Kyi is the guide, and Hla Khine is more or less the boss. The driver is a heavy set man of about twenty who, no matter how hot it gets, always wears a leather jacket. And as for the fourth, a pleasant young man with twinkling eyes, curly hair, and extensive knowledge of European football -- he seems to have no real job at all except to keep the others company. 


This is the new era of independent travel in Burma. Ever since Burma embarked in 1962 on an ill-fated journey down the "Burmese Road to Socialism" (the socialist path was finally abandoned in 1988), tourism has been tightly controlled by the state. For a period back in the sixties, no visitors at all were allowed into the country, and then, for years, visas were limited to a week. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, known everywhere by the somehow appropriate acronym "SLORC", maintains a tight grip on the country five years after it shoved the nation's discredited leaders aside, crushed a popular uprising, and replaced the old dictatorship with a new and harsher military dictatorship -- but it sees both public relations and economic benefits from opening the country up to tourists, and has taken a few rather faltering steps to encourage visitors. Visas are now valid for two weeks, tourists are no longer required to make all arrangements through Myanmar Travel and Tours, the state-operated travel agency, and independent, privately owned tour agencies are now permitted to operate legally. Flying Dragon is one of several that have sprung up over the last year -- but it is clear that they are still learning, and, in particular, are not yet expert at the allocation of resources. 


Evidently, their well-intended but somewhat misguided strategy is to smother their clients with service. But it is also true that Flying Dragon has only two other tours scheduled for the coming month. Since the whole crew is on the payroll with nothing better to do, there's no reason for them not to all come along and enjoy the ride. 


Pagan is the most popular tourist destination in Burma -- and deservedly so. For several hundred years, it had been the capital of a Burmese kingdom, and then in a period of a little more than two centuries, beginning in the middle of the eleventh century with the conversion of King Anawrahta to the austere "Theravada" form of Buddhism, the kings of Pagan, motivated primarily by the prospect of earning merit for the next life, engaged in what must have been a manic, non-stop frenzy of pagoda building. The immediate environs of Pagan -- an area of perhaps a hundred square kilometers situated at a wide bend in the Irrawaddy River -- is dotted with more than 2000 pagodas. 


Now, on the way to the Thiripyitsaya Hotel, we are getting our first look at this almost surreal landscape, from the inside of a Mitsubishi minibus. We drive past dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of pagodas of all shapes, sizes, and states of decay. Some resemble the reddish brick step pyramids of the Mayans, some are clad in white stucco, a few have gilded domes that sparkle in the sun, and others are little more than piles of rubble, seeming to melt back into the landscape, with grass and trees growing up out of the crumbling bricks. Htin Aung Kyi provides commentary -- this one is the tallest, this one is very old, that one there is quite interesting inside, and that's the one to climb to see the sunset. Most of it remains a jumble, in part because he has difficulties pronouncing some English words, in part because we have difficulties understanding Burmese names, and in part because it is difficult to make much of a connection with a monument you view from the inside of a minibus. After about twenty minutes, we arrive at the hotel, a sprawling and surprisingly pleasant complex of bungalows overlooking the Irrawaddy. It is far and away the most expensive hotel in Pagan -- and the only one that Flying Dragon will book you into.


The Flying Dragon schedule is presented to us as fait accompli: a tour of several pagodas in the comfort of our bus, lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then more pagodas, then a visit to a laquerware shop, a hike to the top of Gawdawpalin Temple for the sunset, then dinner at a Chinese restaurant (often in Burma, there are no other choices). We have visions of the four of us bouncing around the back of the bus, deposited at the front gate of such and such pagoda, snapping a few pictures, moving on to the next one, and in this fashion learning far more than we could ever wish to know about the architecture of Pagan. It sounds dreadful, and with considerable angst, we tell Htin Aung Kyi that we prefer to rent bicycles and to wander amidst the pagodas on our own. His expression instantly reveals the hurt -- after all their efforts, with so many nice things planned for us, and lunch, and it is a lot of walking, and the distances are very great.


But we are insistent. "As you wish," he says.


"You are insulted?"


Perhaps he doesn't understand, or perhaps more likely, he is indeed insulted, but he is far too polite to say so. "As you wish," he repeats. We leave the two Germans to the care of the four escorts from Flying Dragon, and walk rather uncertainly in the direction of a hotel that we understand rents bicycles to tourists by the day. We are not quite to the end of the long driveway leading from our hotel back to the main road when we are greeted by a young Burmese man on a bicycle. "Where do you go?" he asks. This is confusing because we have only just begun to accustom ourselves to the fact that Burmese people say this the way you and I say "good morning", and that it doesn't require a serious answer. However, under the circumstances, we feel a little guidance may be helpful, so we tell him we are looking to rent bicycles. "Yes -- come, I show you," he says, and almost instantly he has hailed a horse cart for us that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and we are bouncing along the road. After a few minutes, we are presented with difficult choices. There are several bicycles available, for 75 US cents a day, but each has its own idiosyncrasies. On this one the wheel wobbles, on another one, the brakes don't work properly, on a third, something strange is happening with the pedals, and then there is this one that works beautifully, but sitting on the saddle, I have the feeling I may need surgery if I ride for an entire day.


I hazard a suggestion -- that we change saddles, and soon a crew of three is working on the problem. Ten minutes later, they have it ready for me, and while it may be true that they don't quite get it tightened down properly, it seems functional enough. My companion determines that she can manage without functional brakes, and so we are off -- along with Aung Lin, the helpful young man who brought us to the bicycle rental operation.


It turns out we have traded four guides and a minibus for a couple of bicycles and one guide with intimate knowledge of Pagan. Aung Lin tells us he is a student at Mandalay University, studying geography. This intrigues me, since university students were at the forefront of the 1988 democracy movement. In fact, for most of the five years since SLORC assumed power, the universities have been closed. In Burma, which is desperately short of skilled personnel of all sorts, many of the potential leaders, teachers, doctors, scientists, and engineers have just sort of drifted away, forced by circumstances to get on with their lives while the doors of the universities remain closed. The slow pace of development that results may indeed contribute to Burma's quirky charm, but for the people who live there, it only causes hardship, as Burma falls further and further behind its booming Southeast Asian neighbors. 


In what was once the actual village of Pagan thereis little activity -- the villagers were forcibly relocated to a "new town" several years ago by the government, which feared either that the monuments were suffering too much damage at the hands of the local residents, or perhaps that the residents would be corrupted by their exposure to western tourists. But Aung Lin leads us out of the "village" of Pagan along a maze of sandy roads, past dozens of pagodas, through fields of sesame, peanuts, and beans. I'm riding alongside him, and decide to take the opportunity to ask him about the upcoming National Convention, which the government has been enthusiastically promoting as a major step in the political development of Burma. I'm hoping to get some insights into the student perspective on the political situation. 


"Yes -- maybe it's good," he says. 


"Do you think things will change?" 


"No, probably no change," he says. 


"And do you like what you have now?" 


"No," he says. "It's no good government." I decide not to pursue the subject. 


We ride on, and then we are standing in front of the Sulamani Temple, an impressive and imposing structure dating to 1181. It has huge Buddha images in the alcoves facing each of the four entrances, and the walls of the interior hallways are covered with paintings depicting various scenes from the Buddha's life. We wander through it in awe, and emerge to meet a couple of elderly German tourists walking in our direction. Their minibus is parked by the entrance to the pagoda. 


They are accompanied by a tour guide who points to the bags we've left behind on our bicycles. "Don't leave things untended," he warns us. "They will be stolen." Actually, in this tourist magnet, there is only a handful of tourists, but nonetheless, the locals, especially the young, are rapidly developing that familiar aggressive friendliness so common to tourist attractions from Red Square to Tijuana.


We snap a couple of pictures and then we are off again, heading toward Minnanthu, Aung Lin's village, where, unlike the village of Pagan, the people and the monuments have been permitted to harmoniously co-exist. The feeling, riding past these reddish brick monuments, seeing them everywhere that you look, and then, in this village, towering above the houses, is magical. It is not difficult, perhaps, for the uninitiated to imagine 2000 pagodas scattered across the flat plain by the river, but until you are amongst them, in the near total silence and stillness, you can not really appreciate how the pagodas can actually become the landscape, rather than simply emerge from it. Overall, it has something of the feel of the buttes and mesas that rise from the deserts of Arizona, but with the added mystery that results from the knowledge that these are the works of thousands of human hands toiling in the blazing sun over eight centuries ago.


































Once in Minnanthu, a community of perhaps fifty or sixty homes, Aung Lin leads us to his house -- a typical Burmese farmhouse of bamboo and wood. The house is two stories, with the actual sleeping area built on stout wooden posts raised two or three meters in the air, and a working and eating area at ground level. While we sit eating watermelon, several women are working in the courtyard, unloading sesame from ox-drawn wagons, and bundling the plants for drying. Aung Lin's mother comes into the house, sits down, looks us over with little outward expression, and lights up a gigantic cigar wrapped in a corn husk. A few minutes later, his father comes in as well, but he displays even less interest in us than his wife has shown.


While we eat our watermelon, Aung Lin shows us what appears to be a geography textbook. It is old, with brittle, yellowing pages. There are maps of Europe and the United States in it, but they are barely more than outline maps with a few major cities marked by little dots. He sounds a few places out phonetically: Wah-shing-tng, Nyoo -yaw, Sang Frang-si-ko. And here in Europe: How-lan. The Burmese have difficulty with final consonants.


When we've finished our snack, Aung Lin escorts us a few hundred meters to another courtyard, where two woodcarvers are working on the delicate ornamentation that is essential to a good ox cart. The tour continues through the village, with the tops of several pagodas visible above the roofs of the houses. The rustic atmosphere is only temporarily disturbed once, when a rampaging ox nearly runs us down as we stand in a narrow lane boxed in by the walls of the facing courtyards. But the ox is brought under control and firmly reprimanded, we escape unscathed, and it is not long before we arrive at the house of Aung Lin's brother, where a more sedate ox is walking in endless circles, turning a grindstone to press sesame oil. 


After a short visit, we return to Aung Lin's house, and now we discover the pervasive influence of the west. Aung Lin's father knows precisely one word of English: "present." Unfortunately, we have come rather poorly prepared. The best we can do is to offer some biscuits from an open package. We extend the package and the biscuits are grabbed up a bit more enthusiastically than we anticipate -- they are scooped up by the handful. In return, Aung Lin's mother presents me with a corn husk cigar.


As we are beginning to see with growing clarity, Aung Lin, for all his good will and enthusiasm for the beauty and magnificence of Pagan, actually has an ulterior motive. For better or for worse, he is after our material things -- clothing, jewelry, electronic goods, watches, and if all else fails, cash. He particularly covets my companion's watch, but she is quite unwilling to part with it. It seems not to cross Aung Lin's mind that she might like it or need it, or for that matter, that buying a new one could possibly pose a problem for her. We are about to leave, having posed the family in front of the house for a group photo, when the father begins once again asking for a present. I fish out a one dollar bill from my wallet and give it to him, and can't tell from his reaction if he is grateful, if he is insulted, or if he plans to frame it and hang it on a wall rather than spending it.


Eventually, we do move on, and by the end of the day, we've toured a half a dozen exquisite pagodas, stopped by a rather bizarre underground monastery, enjoyed a tasty lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and helped Aung Lin patch up a quarrel with his girlfriend by purchasing a few pieces of lacquerware at her shop. 


Aung Lin gets a t-shirt, but it turns out not to be enough. It's a delicate situation. After all, in Burma, a few dollars is enough to live on for several weeks, and I can easily spare something, but there's something vulgar and annoying about the mentality that presumes that I can and should empty my pockets just because I have something and he doesn't. Still, Aung Lin has been kind and helpful, generous with himself and his time, and has provided us with the connection to this place that is the key to experiencing it in such a remarkable way. There's another dollar bill back in my room, so I go fetch it (non-guests, naturally, are not permitted in the guest quarters) and hand it over to him. 


It's early evening, we've said good-bye to Aung Lin, wandered down to the bank of the river to watch the sun setting behind the hills across the Irrawaddy, and now we are sitting on the terrace of the Thiripyitsaya Hotel, looking out on the river which still glows in the fading red light of the day's end, enjoying cold beers in one of the few places where they are available, and waiting for the Germans and the Flying Dragon crew. Htin Aung Kyi comes along first and joins us at our table. From the first he has struck me as a curious, rather introspective fellow, someone whose mind is constantly churning, who hears all and sees all and says very little. When you ask him a question, he tends to pause before every reply, as if he is considering not only the English words he needs to express an idea, but also the culturally and politically appropriate formulation. 


Sitting there on the terrace, I ask him -- cautiously -- about the National Convention. He pauses just a moment, his face darkens, and then he responds quite firmly. "Me, I don't think about political things. It doesn't interest me. I never talk about politics." 


It is a polite evasion, but the sadness in his eyes, the darkness in his face, and the spaces between the words suggest that the real answer is somewhat more complicated. We let it go at that, order a round of beers, and, as we turn our attention to American rock and roll, Htin Aung Kyi's smile returns.



West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.


China 2010: An annotated album


Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.



Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 


Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 

A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow

Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 

Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition



Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 


The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993 

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods


Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha


Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 



The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga

Buffalo News, 1996


On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride


A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 


End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls



Yes, I do have a job, sort of. Free-lance writing, journalism, editing, translation. If it's English words you're looking for, I can help you out. Click here for more information. It pays the rent.



Katvanger — dubious blues, twisted roots, counterfeit country & western, improbable jazz, and more ...


plus Jim Wake & Sleepwalker (1994-2014) — blues with a twist, rock and roll with a hop and a skip, country and western with tongue in cheek, quasi-tango, pseudo-Caribbean, proto-klezmer, etc.



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