Nietzsche said that there are no facts, only interpretations.
That is the sentiment Bagan reminds me of. Visits to the ancient ruins of Bagan year after year make me realize how I have palpably changed.
Bagan is heralded as the epitome of the Burman national superiority in Myanmar. The military draws its inspiration from Bagan heroes, proudly placing their statues as a backdrop in official ceremonies. When I was a young kid, I was told that there was nothing quite like Bagan anywhere else in the world. I was told that Angkor Wat was great, but it was just one temple. Bagan is all other civilizations combined and on steroids.
Then we travel to places and read books outside of classrooms only to find out that my childhood teachings have been a lie.
Over the Christmas holiday, when I was touring the Roman Forum after Colosseum, my Myanmar friends (one Kachin, one Shan – both princesses, too!) wondered what Italian tourists go and see when they travel to Bagan, where temples and heritage structures are so poorly preserved. Most structures in Bagan date between 10th-13th century. During my Italy trip, my friends stopped getting impressed if something was built later than BCE. My friends are under the impression that Medici-s are the new money! There is more to the world than Bagan.
My Bagan experience also changes significantly depending on who I go with. Travel companions make a huge impact. The Burmese way to do this is to visit the big four (or six?) on a van within a day for bonus merit, which I did as a kid with my family and relatives. When I was in high school, students had to take bikes and measured temple grounds to write a 15-page research paper. While watching the Bagan sunrise from the top of a derelict temple feels wonderfully cozy, being high up in a tiny basket of a hot air balloon forces you to look at Bagan in a new way.
For instance, most Bagan temples treat the eastern vestibule in a special way. Most shrines are located on the eastern end, and so are the main gates. This is more noticeable from a bird’s eye view. In 13th century Pyathagyi temple (pictured below), the eastern porch is wider and larger than three other wings. Its more famous cousin, Dhammanyangyi temple houses shrines in its north, south and west ambulatories but the eastern end bears the only open window to its blocked inner sanctum.
Up from a balloon, I also notice that most temples, stupas and ruins are often concentrated in square-shaped complexes, whose fences no longer stand. It is also easier to spot temples with double fences, signifying that the temple’s patron is of royal lineage. These are the things I usually miss when I visit these temples on a bicycle.
In summary, perspective matters. Your travel companions matter. Context is all.
Bearing this in mind, I want to be a better companion for those around me on their metaphorical life journeys. I really want to be more mellow this year. I need to chill the f down, instead of getting worked up over small details. As cliched as it sounds, there is value to letting things, events and people go, and wish that they find what they are seeking on their journey. Each person I meet is going about in his/her interpretation of life and sometimes I may hit it off with somebody and sometimes we do not. Either way, it is fine.
The very top of this post is an embedded TED talk on the longest study ever conducted on happiness. The finding is not that surprising. Good relationships make people happy. The quality, not just the quantity, of relationships matters. I subscribe to that.
So I will be a better friend, daughter, sister, and girlfriend to those who come my way. Show up to birthday parties. Return phone calls and messages. Bake cakes. Give sincere compliments. Give a ride to someone. Don’t get worked up over a gossip. Stay under the radar if someone gives off malicious vibes, but be gracious. Ask people out for coffee. Buy coffee to someone having a hard day. These are all my new year resolutions and they seem do-able!