There is little doubt that Myanmar, the former British colony once known as Burma, is rapidly changing. Left behind by its Southeast Asian neighbours after over two decades of military rule, Myanmar is now opening up to the world, yet the deep spirituality that remains the centre of daily life is still intact. One can’t help but feel that the longer you stay, the closer you can get to enlightenment.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
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Children holding postcards and their own drawings flocked around me in the marketplace of Nyaung U, close to the ancient city of Bagan. For a moment I doubted that they meant to ask for sweets. But as they put their hands to their mouths, I wondered no more. Their sun-kissed faces appeared eager for attention. I wish I had more than just candy.
It was a busy Friday morning. Motorcycles zipped past carts unloading sacks of rice as women trade floral garlands. Beside betel leaves arranged in swirling layers, dried nuts fill shallow baskets. Some corners are deathly quiet, save for the whir of a sewing machine; others are disorienting, like the wet sections where everything is fresh and ice is non-existent. Navigating the market is both peaceful and stressful.
As I made my way through the maze of stalls, a woman placed a round cake of thanaka in my hand. The guide had cautioned earlier against accepting “gifts”, as something is expected in return. I felt compelled to burrow into my bag for kyat, the local currency. In its own unexpected ways, karma’s cause-and-effect dynamics govern life in this predominantly Buddhist country.
I kept the solidified thanaka paste made from water and tree bark, wondering if I should wear it the next day. Seen as a beauty mark offering protection from the sun, thanaka is commonly applied on the faces of women and children in various patterns. It seems especially beneficial in the dry, dusty central plain of Bagan dotted by temples and stupas – some a thousand years old.
These structures are the only remnants of old Bagan, as brick and stone were reserved for religious buildings, while others were constructed with wood and similarly impermanent materials. Each pagoda has a number and no new ones can be built. However, the previous military regime’s inaccurate renovations have reportedly kept Bagan from attaining UNESCO World Heritage status.
The best way to explore Bagan is on a bicycle – taking the dirt paths between the main roads. There is no traffic light and no traffic police to stop you, with only horse carriages and ox carts putting traffic’s pace to a slow lull. A stupa (or a few) will be in your peripheral vision at any given time. The only sign of modernity is the electric wire running through the grassy fields. At night, the pitch-black plain is punctuated only by fluorescent lamps and the illumination of the largest pagodas. It was as if, time had never touched Bagan throughout the years.
Rich in gemstones and gold, Myanmar has never exploited its own resources until now, as investors are getting their hands on the plentiful jade and ruby. But for the most part, life is still difficult for its population of 60 million.