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Feature - In search of liberty and peace of mind

The people of Burma live with injustice, believing they ‘will get there in the end’


It was 5:30 a.m., and despite the early hour everyone was chattering around the small boat jetty. I was taken aback by their energy at that time of the day.

Our estimated time of departure was 6 a.m. The captain sounded off, and we left right on time, with the soft light of dawn cresting in the east and the morning stars twinkling high above in the heavens.

Mandalay to Bagan is the most travelled part of the Irrawaddy River. Boats depart daily at the height of the tourist season. The river is wide and the water is muddy. Villages are set far back from the sandy banks to avoid the inevitable annual flooding. Shining white and gold pagodas dot the shoreline, fishermen in rustic canoes go about their morning catch, and lofty palms and abundant corn fields follow the river banks.

I was ready for a day of chilling out on the deck, listening to music, reading Paul Theroux’s latest travel adventures, and hanging out with my new travel friends: the Belgies and Mike the Aussie.

We arrived at Bagan half an hour early; I felt interrupted of my lounge time.

The archaeological zone of Bagan is considered the most wondrous site in Burma, if not South-East Asia, and I have to agree. Without a doubt it equates to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and China’s Great Wall.

Starting from the shores of the Irrawaddy, encompassing 40 square kilometres, over 2,000 stupas (temples) dot the horizon in every direction. Some temples are massive, dominating the skyline, while others lie dilapidated, collecting dust in the sand. There are so many stupas that most of them have been given a number instead of a prestigious name.

We disembarked and searched out a small guest house situated between Old Bagan and New Bagan. In 1988, after the student demonstrations in Rangoon, the government attempted to promote tourism in an effort to change its image with the international community. The government proceeded to open Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bagan to tourists. The government felt Old Bagan was too ascetic for foreigners, as residents were living amongst the premier temples. Therefore, 5,200 residents of Old Bagan were evicted – forcibly re-located several kilometres to New Bagan.

"We had two weeks notice," a local resident told me. "We were given transportation to move, but there wasn’t any money to build a new home."

We discovered Bagan on bicycles. Our guest house provided us with two wheeled "Pheasants." My bike was in reasonable condition, the brakes worked, and there weren’t any gears to worry about. I jumped on and experienced a strange sensation; the steering pulled dramatically to the right, but if I kept pressure on the left I managed to stay in a straight line. All the bikes had their idiosyncrasies, but the Belgies, Mike the Aussie and I happily set off to explore.

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