Tim Foolery

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Sights and Sites of Bagan

Bagan was our second stop in Myanmar.  The real draw for Bagan is thousands of temples in the surrounding countryside.  For those of you who don’t know (and before this trip, I was one), Bagan is an ancient City in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar.  From the 9th-13th centuries it was the unifying capital of the old Pagan Kingdom.  Between 1000-1300AD thousands of temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious buildings were constructed – more than 4,400 of them still remain in and around Bagan to this day.

Bagan is in a very active earthquake zone – one of which hit just seven months before our visit and we saw some temples were substantially damaged.  Restoration work is currently underway, but we found many temples with bamboo scaffolding affixed to their capitals or crowns.  These Buddhist temples and pagodas are breathtaking and were a highlight of our trip to Myanmar.

In addition to the amazing temples, Bagan is known for its lacquerware. These highly stylized functional and ornamental pieces are made with various base materials, but all are covered with sap of local trees.  We visited a lacquer shop where was saw all aspects of this process, starting with the weaving of the bowl, plate or other vessel with thin pieces of bamboo.  Once the base is completed, it moves on to another member of the team who coats the bamboo with the liquid sap.  Once fully coated it dries for 2-7 days, then another layer is applied.  In total about seven layers are added, leaving the finished product a smooth and shiny top coat.  Master artisans (only men) then carve detailed drawings – either coming from nature, like trees or animals, or just ornamental designs. Once he is satisfied with the carvings (scratching is probably a better way to describe it), he passes it on to his colleague (a woman) who layers on a color, which embeds itself in the scratchings.  This process can be repeated multiple times so you get the exact design and color distinctions you are looking for.

These women were adding another layer of lacquer to the bowls.

This gentlemen was etching the bowl with the intricate design that would pop with color once completed. The woman next to him was weaving a bowl from bamboo.

After the etching, this woman would add gold leafing then wash off the excess. Only leaving the small amount of gold in the previously etched designs.

This process was still very patriarchal and done in an old world fashion.  Everyone was doing this work by hand, without gloves, masks or anything else that could protect them from a long term illness.  It just seemed strange to a westerner (especially in my line of work) not seeing people using gloves here.  The work is painstakingly detailed – and quite honestly, looks very tedious, but it is an honest days work for these craftsmen and women.

Bagan is truly one of those beautiful old cities.  The city itself isn’t much to write home about, but the temples and pagodas are not only beautiful, but the sheer number of them is staggering.  You could rent electric motor bikes and guide yourself through the area, but the heat and lack of clear road signs could make that difficult.  We saw many people out and about who didn’t check the battery level on their bikes and wound up pushing their motorbikes through the dusty dirty path in the blazing heat.  I recommend getting a guide.

Have you been to Bagan?  Did you raid the lacquerware stores too (this will likely be our host gifts fro a long time)?  What are your highlights from Bagan?


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