The bus journey to Bagan ranks among the worst I’ve ever taken, although at 8 hours it is mercifully short. Yes, this is what they mean by “poor infrastructure”, and the locals cope with this by hawking, spitting and vomiting. Usually into plastic bags, but sometimes nature creeps up on them. We stop every ten yards or so to ingest or disgorge rice, people, boxes, etc. I distract myself by eating random things – spicy noodles, doughballs stuffed with coconut, wobbly things in broth – until we arrive at Nyaung U, the low-budget traveller’s gateway to the temples of Bagan.
Having checked in to my budget accommodation of choice, I wave myself under a trickle of cold water in an attempt to freshen up, then meander down the main road and round the back of Schwezigon Pagoda. I feel a bit like I’m prying, as I wander among the laundry and skirt an energetic game of chinlon (rattan ball keepy-uppy) right in the back yard of the gold-domed stupa. The stupa appeals for its quietness, and its freedom from tourists – and touts, which I will soon discover is not true in much of Bagan. I’m left to wander, contentedly, and tempted as I am to snap the kids’ game from an artistic angle it feels far too intrusive. The camera stays away.
This real-life going on among the temples is all the nicer to see, as residents of what is now “Old Bagan” were all relocated – a cynic would say forcibly – in 1990. Better to preserve temples for tourists than have citizens live among them and worship in them, clearly.
The government is fond of moving people. In 2005 the junta announced that the capital was moving from Yangon (Rangoon), home to some 5 million people, to an as yet unnamed site that had previously been nothing but fields. The process of moving ministries to the new site began on 6 November at the “auspicious” time of 6:37am; family members were initially prohibited from joining officials until some infrastructure could be built. In March 2006, on Burmese Armed Forces Day, the name of the new capital was officially announced: Naypyidaw, the abode of kings.
Reports suggest that the infrastructure is still being built, and visitors say that this is happening more by muscle than machinery. Once again, allegations of forced and underage labour have, as if by magic, attached themselves to the regime. Rare photographs such as those here show an uncanny clash of candy-coloured modern prefabs – supposedly colour-coded by ministry – with the ragged low roofs of slums. The generals themselves are zoned 11km away from other employees in a heavily restricted zone which, according to this Time report, appears on the map as a blank space.
It’s this kind of distance from ordinary people which is necessary to maintain the kind of visionary thinking that boldly forges ahead in moving nearly a million people to a half-imagined city in the scrub, forcing them to leave their families behind, at immense cost to an impoverished and starving nation, but still has the courage to prioritise the completion of a selection of golf courses, a game the generals are allegedly rather partial to. Seriously, even China criticised the generals on this one. Given their complicity in supporting the junta, drawing their censure is quite an achievement.
From here on June 8th 2011.