Back in the nineties, regional travellers who wanted to pay witness to the grand relics of once mighty empires chanced their hand in Cambodia. At a time when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge still controlled a large swathe of what is now Angkor Park, it goes without saying that the pilgrimage had some risks.
The country remained fractious after the Paris Peace Accords, and the country experienced a sudden stop in a quickly burgeoning tourism industry in 1994 after six foreigners were abducted while travelling down to Sihanoukville, then abortively ransomed and executed.
For those who made it to the outskirts of Siem Reap around this time, gazing out through the gates of Angkor Wat was a sublime experience. Can visitors say the same today? I visited Angkor Park at the crack of dawn earlier this year, my first return since travelling through as a backpacker in 2008. This time around, more astounding than the park itself were the tens of thousands of people, including many regional tourists on package deals, milling about the entrance with exactly the same idea.
APSARA Authority, the organisation responsible for managing and maintaining the temple sites, is widely reputed to leverage more political power over urban planning in Siem Reap city than the provincial government – unsurprising, given the amount of money the explosion of tourism has reaped for the authority. With about two million visitors now travelling through the park’s gates yearly, the character of the town seems unrecognisable even from four years back, a result of the relentless pursuit of foreign coin: new boutique guesthouses dot the city while Pub Street has become an unrecognisable cacophony of heat, light and shrill electrobeats.
Central Myanmar’s Bagan is the next place where this phenomenon is going to unfold, and it will be tragic and wonderful in equal parts.
Much of the Bagan’s history remains the subject of archaeological debate, but what facts are certain are enough to inspire wonder. Mostly constructed during the First Burmese Empire, Bagan was the seat of government for the ethnic Bamar, which conquered most of the region constituting the country’s present boundaries.
More than 2000 temples and stupas dot the landscape around Bagan, spread out around kilometres of fertile land backing onto the Irrawaddy River. The empire survived 250 years of internecine ethnic warfare and an apparent bankruptcy from exuberant bouts of temple building, only to fall apart with a Mongol invasion towards the end of the 13th century.
Recognising the potential of Bagan as a tourist zone, the military government forcibly relocated a community living in the walls of the old city in the 1990s to a new site five kilometres south; this new village now hosts an array of cheap guesthouses for budget travellers, while resorts have been rebuilt along the Irrawaddy waterfront to accommodate the more lavishly-minded visitors.
The usual itinerary for tourists involves renting bicycles for the day and riding along a series of dirt and sand tracks between the pagodas lining the river and dotting the plains further east. Those without the stamina can, absurdly, ride around for the day in a horse drawn cart with a professional guide.
While many of the structures have survived the ravages of the last thousand years, others have been rebuilt from virtual scratch using antiquated methods and based on the excavation sites of ruins, in part fuelled by UNESCO recognition of the site’s heritage value and local and international donation campaigns. One edifice to receive such treatment is a facsimile Bagan Palace, constructed with a great deal of artistic license 100 metres away from the building’s original site.
Most of these places remain active places of worship. Sharing Cambodia’s widespread adherence to the Theravada strain of Buddhism, but lacking this country’s history of anti-religious violence, spiritual practice in Myanmar seems to utterly permeate civil society when compared to this country – indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi herself once said Theravada Buddism was the most powerful force in the country.
The temples of Bagan are rivalled only by Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda as places of worship, and the more ornate temples closest to the villages have people lying prostrate before the four giant, gold-clad statues of Buddha staring outwards towards the temple entrances, each one professing the four noble truths.
Myanmar saw 320,000 visitors in the financial year to 2011, a substantial increase from the three years preceding. With the lifting of the tourism boycott by the National League for Democracy last year in the wake of tentative political reforms, a boom in overseas arrivals has proceeded apace, and in the six months between July and December last year, 230,000 people arrived in the country on tourist visas.
If this continues, the Bagan of five or 10 years from now will be markedly different from the rustic atmosphere that pervades in the region today. The shift in outlook among some of the local population, from citizens and custodians of the region to eager chasers of tourist largesse, is already apparent.
At places like Schwezigon Paya, where the steps leading up to the inner courtyard are squatted by women selling lacquerware and shrewdly pinning tin sculptures to the lapels of visitors, hoping to extract a transaction in exchange for the gesture. Inside, others hover around with flower bouquets and gold leaves with which to adorn the statues hiding about the site.
This kind of aggressive hawking has a history at Angkor Park, and to the outsider it seems a shame to see the same patterns starting to be replicated in Myanmar. Of course, said outsider has no legitimate authority with which to judge this phenomenon.
An increase in tourism will benefit the country, or at least a segment of it, in a way that decades of international isolation and economic mismanagement have not, and it’s selfish for a visitor to lament the fact that a future return might not elicit the same thrill of exclusivity and tranquillity that Bagan offers now.
A more worthy thing to ponder is what it means for a country where Bagan is still considered a centre of culture and religion, for Theravada Buddhists from across the region who come to practice, and for a symbol of national pride on a par with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
As Myanmar throws its doors open to the modern tourist industry, it has a choice to make: does it pursue a different path from its neighbours, or does it throw open the temple doors to the SLR-brandishing hordes?
At the moment, anyone visiting one of the country’s pagodas must remove their shoes and socks as a sign of deference. Judging by what I saw there last week, I wonder if in five years there will be enough temple custodians to enforce this rule, and I wonder if the backpackers attracted to it will be deferential enough to care.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at email@example.com