Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Flying into Bagan

I'm not a good flyer.  I've learned over the years to stay calm because I love to travel.  If I'm going to visit countries half way around the world, I have to get on an airplane--there's just no way around it.   I've tried everything from reading thrillers to taking sleeping pills, but nothing relieves the anxiety.  I've learned to breathe deeply and deal with my racing heart and sweaty hands.  Sooner or later, I will arrive at my destination and everything will be all right.  With that being said, there have been times when the flying has been so enchanting, I actually didn't want to land.  Flying into the ancient kingdom of Bagan in Myanmar was such an experience.

Two thousand ruins dotted the vast plains below with the graceful curves of  the Irrawaddy River serving as a corridor through this utterly mysterious place.  I wanted the old Fokker we were flying to circle and circle and circle again.  I wanted to tour Bagan from the sky.  Pick out the Dhammayangyi Temple and the Shwezigon Pagoda from up high.  For the few minutes we took to land, my fear of flying vanished.

We climbed the top of the nearest ruin as soon as we landed in order to get another panoramic view.  We came face to face with another world, equally as mysterious and foreign--the black market.   The view from the top was great, but so was the exchange rate!  We got 25 kyat for the dollar, rather than the official rate of 7.5.  We descended one ruin and climbed another.  Again, the view was great, but so was the bartering.  This time we traded cigarettes for a guidebook, a set of weights and two lacquer boxes.  Atop the next ruin I traded a bottle of Johnnie Walker for a wooden puppet. 

The year was 1988 and Myanmar was still called Burma.  The country was under Ne Win's isolationist rule.  The only way we could even travel here was to get a short seven-day visa and tour the country with an official guide.  The black market provided the country with needed supplies.  No one cared that goods were being smuggled in.  The infrastructure had deteriorated and I wrote in my journal, "Time has stopped.  We have landed in 1960."

While we were there the government announced that all 20, 50 and 100 kyat notes were no longer legal tender.  The banks closed for two days and the Burmese economy was crippled even further.  Our guide told us he hadn't been paid in a month and our driver told us his company had no cash for gas.  My travel buddy and I were one of the lucky ones.  Our black marketeers had come through.  We had good currency.  Some of our fellow tourists lost hundreds of dollars.

Many things have changed since we were there, but the ruins of Bagan remain a draw for tourists.  The Kingdom of Pagan reached its zenith between the 11th and 13th centuries.  Over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built during this time.  It was a religious and cultural center until it was overrun by Kublai Khan's invading forces.

I have read with interest current reports of travelers' experiences there.  Even today, it is advisable not to exchange very many dollars.  Dollars are accepted many places, but be sure to take crisp, unmarked bills.  If they are damaged in any way, locals will not take them.

Flying into Bagan remains one of my most enjoyable trips.   The architecture, frescoes and sacred shrines are all beautifully decayed, much like the ruins in Cambodia.  Best of all, I actually looked forward to getting back on the plane for another view of this incredible place.  Would I go again?  In a heartbeat, sweaty palms and all.

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