18 February 2019
Soybeans are dried in the open at Old Bagan, an oasis of serenity. Photo: Brendon Hong
Soybeans are dried in the open at Old Bagan, an oasis of serenity. Photo: Brendon Hong

How a desert sprang up in the middle of Myanmar

When Burma was under British rule, someone planted Iranian neem trees along the main avenue that led to the heart of Old Bagan (老蒲甘). 

They now share that space with eugenia, plum, avocado, papaya and tamarind trees, among others. These trees are your best friends.

They do something rare. Their shade shields you from a sun that never stops beating down on the gravel and pavement.

Blame it on the dead royals.

A thousand years ago, Bagan, in central Burma, now Myanmar, was covered with rice paddies. Potters said the best mud was in Bagan.

So when Burmese princes assassinated their brothers, uncles or fathers, and those sins had to be atoned for by performing public good deeds, they uprooted the trees of Bagan to fire their kilns and used the local mud to make bricks.

The landscape was transformed at a rapid rate. 

Now, it is a desert, and the ruins of temples and shrines are pockmarks on once-fertile land that fed half a kingdom.

Over 2,000 holy sites still stand, some barely. 

Now the most meaningful crops from Bagan are sesame, palm and peanuts — stuff that can grow on semi-arid land. Sesame and peanuts make wonderful sweet treats. Palm trees yield farmhouse moonshine.

Pull over at any plantation, and you’re likely to be offered homemade sweet things by the family that takes care of the trees.

They have little stalls that sell their own toddy too, just in case you need a drink before you drive off.

The cultivators of Bagan pray to 37 nats — animist spirits — for a bountiful harvest.

To do that, they travel 50 kilometers southeast and reach Mount Popa (波帕山), home to a significant temple, a place imbued with legend and lore.

Accompanied by a cacophony masquerading as music, third-gender mediums imbibe alcohol and cigarettes on holy ground as they are possessed by a selection of nats.

The spirits partake in vices on Earth before ascending to their own realm.

Thanks to Anawrahta, a ruler in the 11th century who is now seen as the father of the Burmese nation, nats became part of the Burmese Buddhist faith.

Constantine had the right idea. If you can’t suppress superstitions, eat them.

Eventually, Burmese kings would make pilgrimages to Mount Popa before they made major decisions, seeking the blessing of nats. Bare your feet and climb 777 steps to reach the summit crater, where gold stupas adorn the peak.

Monkeys may try to steal your stuff on the way up, so watch out.

The avian diversity is amazing, but that also means you’ll have to watch out for bird shit, since you won’t be wearing any shoes.

Back in Bagan and its nearby villages, with ruins aplenty, hit the temples with these names: Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, Mahabodi, Bu, Nathlaung Kyaung, Manuha, Nan.

The best way to see them is from above, which means waking before dawn to board a hot-air balloon. Failing that, hire a horse cart and driver.

Before the sun sets, ask him to take you to Shwe Leik Too, where you can climb on top of the temple and observe stray sun rays gild the eroded, aged, abandoned temples that stretch for kilometers, passing the horizon.

Bagan has its own quaint romance.

The internet connection doesn’t work so well. Sand is kicked up in every step. The food is rustic. Things move in that slow, desert pace.

It’s a place where you can unplug, worry about nothing and, with empty pockets, soak in the universe.

For sunrise balloon rides over Bagan, contact Oriental Ballooning or Balloons Over Bagan.

– Contact us at [email protected]


A major temple was built on the peak of Mount Popa (波帕山). Photo: Brendon Hong

The best way to view Old Bagan is to board a hot-air balloon. Photo: Brendon Hong

The "Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda" sign is a famous checkpoint in Old Bagan. Photo: Brendon Hong

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