I arrived at the ancient city of Pegan in Burma (Myanmar) from Mandalay. My overloaded bus pulled up a dusty unsealed road and stopped outside a ramshackle hotel. It was hard to believe that Pegan was one of the premier tourist sights in South East Asia.
Pegan was a complex of temples built 1,000 years ago. Today, their elegance and sheer number rivals those of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
This was in 2003 and tourist numbers were very low. Hotels and restaurants were struggling and Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.
Next door to my hotel stood one of the magnificent Pegan temples. A local man had set up a tea store on the base of the temple where I would go in the evenings and talk with the Burmese customers. They would sit and listen to the BBC Burmese service and chew on betelnut.
I had hired a pushbike to get around the complex. It was difficult to cycle in the deep sand, but I was keen to take as many photos of the temples as possible and cycling was the quickest way to get around.
One day I came across a temple that was being painted white by a team of men. An elderly monk was overseeing the work. I took my shoes off as I entered the temple’s grounds – as that is the custom. When the monk saw me, he walked over to say hello and in doing so walked through a patch of thorns that had fallen from a tree. The monk, also barefoot, hopped from foot to foot yelping as more thorns stabbed into the soles of his feet. The painters climbed down from the temple and ran to the monk’s assistance. But it was too late, the monk had fallen back onto his bottom and sat in the area of thorns. As I left the temple, the monk was on his hands and knees, bottom in the air, having thorns being plucked from his bum.
Pegan was a wonderful place. Equally as photogenic as any ancient ruin I’ve seen. The people are very kind and generous and love talking to visitors. Burma is slowly opening up to tourists and is going through long-overdue political reforms, so now is a great time to go and visit a wonderful country.