Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens.
Part 7: Chasing the Sunset
Sunrise over some small temples in Bagan
Bagan is a valley with 2500 temples strewn across it, most ancient, some new, a vast complex of Buddha statues and enormous shining shrines and crumbling brick pagodas, a few well preserved, most not big enough to earn government repair money. The town adjacent, Nuang Oo, is a chief destination for any foreign visitor, and is quickly becoming a staple of those on the South East Asian backpacking circuit. It is a place tourists come from all over the world to watch the sun cross the horizon.
Every day, one hour before sunset and sunrise, all the tour buses start their engines in unison, and the hotels empty out to fill them and head out to the twice daily show. The most popular place to watch is the Shwe San Daw Phaya temple, where you can sit higher than any other. It is also has a bus parking lot. Thirty minutes before showtime, the temple’s three Western (or Eastern) balconies are packed with tourists, who perch shoulder to shoulder like crows with DSLR lens beaks, each jostling for the best position to take a photo hundreds of others took yesterday, and the day before, and could easily be downloaded from Google images. The hundreds of temples below, being photographed, stand mostly empty, but for a few adventurous souls who walked. When the sun sets, the place clears out. The beer stations back in Nuang Oo are full before it’s completely dark.
The rhythm of Bagan is indicative of how tourism has changed Myanmar since the trickle broke into a flood after the country opened up. We tourists are clearly overwhelming the infrastructure. In major stops like Yangon and Bagan, the hotels are booked full almost every night. Tales abound of travelers who were left stranded because there was a not a single room in town. The government has not helped the situation: getting a license to host foreigners is a lengthy bit of bureaucracy that normally involves remodeling and high taxes, and few owners have that kind of capital. The shortage is evident in the rooms’ skyrocketing prices. We paid an average of over twenty dollars a night for our hotel rooms, over twice what it costs in neighbors Thailand and India.
But just as the tourists of Bagan stuck to the same temples, they seem to stick to a fairly standard itinerary. Almost everyone we talked to was going to the same places, “the big four”: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake, with the fifth option being to visit some of the Western beach resorts. It seemed as if most who visited Myanmar were still meek to set out and explore the places where Lonely Planet had not yet reached. Thirty kilometers south of Nagpali Beach, one of the largest of the resort towns, we were among the first foreigners to visit a small fishing village on the coast.
Crowds of tourists await sunset on one of the more popular temples.
There is some good reason for this. Internet in Myanmar continues to be as reliable as congressional campaign promises, and feeble English in rural communities makes communication difficult. Furthermore, the roads away from ‘the big four’ are atrocious, and travel difficult. Even short journeys tend to involve sleepless nights on buses that try and distract passengers from the jostling with bad Burmese soap operas. The visa is also short, just 28 days, and few really want to test the Burmese government’s policy of allowing overstays with a fee of 3 dollars a day. Finally, the police questioning is as omnipresent as the free glass of orange juice at hotel check in—while there are always smiles, the intimidation of a uniform is often enough to keep people on the safe routes.
Mostly though, people just don’t know where to go, or feel that the big four are good enough. Tourism is new enough in Myanmar that even the most trod-upon destinations keep their exotic flair; they still feel like Burmese towns that are being visited rather than foreign colonies. Even in Bagan, you can follow the locals to the best restaurants in the center of town, and pay the same thing they do.
This will change quickly. Not just because Myanmar will become better documented, and the tourists will blaze more trails outside the big four. The rest of Myanmar, with its forgotten pagodas and ancient ruins and untouched beaches, will not be able to ignore the call of so lucrative a business.