BAGAN AND POPA BAGAN AND POPA WOW SO GOOD While this photo might look like I took it in 1897 not 1997, the truth is much more mundane.My camera was damaged and so was the film, probably by the bumpy roads and a typhoon.For many centuries power has rested in the central plains of Burma, the flat and fertile land east of the Irrawady.The most famed of the kingdoms was based in Bagan from the 11th century, and its legacy of thousands of temples and monastries are scattered across the fields.Burma is a land that time, and justice, forgot. Magnificently peaceful, and yet heartbreakingly brutal.1997 was "Visit Myanmar Year." It felt like they forgot to tell anyone. 491,000 tourists came. 7.8 million went to Thailand.Slow progress was made in the 2010s, as the military pretended to go democratic, and Aung Sun Suu Kyi was happy to play along. Much of the country remains backward (but tasty).By 2018, the fabled Bagan temples drew 3.5 million visitors from far and wide. The Instagrammers had arrived.After 3 weeks of motorcycling in 1997, I turned off the highway, and before me lay one of Asia's greatest sights, void of people.New Years' 18/19: Traffic, carparks, busses and busloads of tourists. The sunset viewing spots were over-run, but thankfully just a short walk away, quiet could be found.Some structures are nameless, humble brick stupas. Others are vast, or delicate, or glittering gold wonders.None glitter more than Shwezigon Paya, built by Bagan's first great builder, King Anawrahta who reigned from 1044-1077.Legend says the site was chosen by a white elephant.All of Bagan is a UNESCO site, and Shwezigon contains 28 designated monuments.The King had images of 37 nats (spirits) adorn the terraces, and today, the Shwezigon Festival attracts many nat worshippers.Built by King Kyanzittha (r. 1084-1113) Ananda Pahto sits at the top of the Bagan's achivements, its central tower rising 57m, its terraces decorated by Mon and Pali language jataka tiles, teling the story of Buddha's life.A symmetrical Mon style temple with Indian influence, its design inspired other temple builders in the area. It is remarkable to think that at many of these incredible places, I was the only person there.So numerous are the temples, that even at the busiest of times, a quiet spot, a lonely monument was only a stroll away.In 2021, the military shed its thin veneer of democracy, and returned to killing civilians to retain power. Toursim in Bagan, and all Burma, has been turned on its head.We left Bagan's crowds, and headed on hour south to one of Burma's holiest places, Mount Popa.Known now as Kalat Taung Popa, this golden relic tops a boulder like moountain, which incogruously rises from the plain.While there was traffic and crowds to contend with here also, the whole atmosphere was different.777 steps convey worshippers the 225m up. The landings are filled with hawkers.Several shrines are found on the way up, including to Lord Kyawswa, the drunken nat (spirit), who protects gamblers and drunks.At times resembling a market, the atmsophere was very festival.While food was most common, others traded in trinkets and religious items, or traditional produce like tanaka, the wood ground for skin care.There were plenty of options to refill for the climb up, or a reward on the way down.The multi-layered summit of the temple buzzes with activity: prayer, bell ringing, gongs and of course selfies.The people of Burma can't see a hill without wanting to build a temple on it!It is a culture which has gifted the world a great many holy places and glorious sights.