When one thinks of Myanmar, the first image that springs to mind is usually thousands of pagodas and stupas rising up from misty green plains.
The Bagan Archeological Zone in the centre of the Southeast Asian nation was once home to more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Today, over 3,800 religious monuments still stand.
These breathtaking archeological remains are the main attraction for Myanmar’s emerging travel sector, but since vendors, local pilgrims and international visitors disappeared when tourism came to a halt in April, the temples have suffered from looting.
The desire to protect this UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as the local environment and endemic wildlife, spurred a group of young unemployed tourism industry workers into action, and hence Clean Bagan was born.
Founded on World Cleanup Day on 21 September, Clean Bagan is an NGO comprising 15 core members and 50 volunteers made up of tour guides, hoteliers, drivers and souvenir vendors from Bagan and neighbouring villages. A youth-led initiative, it works closely with an older volunteer organisation, Bagan Plastic Campaign.
Ko Min Min, Clean Bagan’s chair, shared that the government sent 200 special police to guard the site, after members of Clean Bagan and Bagan Tourist Guide Association started conducting patrols of the temples and reporting damages to the state archeological department. Looting has since decreased.
As well as an archeological wonder, Bagan is also home to a number of endemic species of bird life, which Clean Bagan is determined to protect from illegal hunting. In collaboration with the environmental conservation and forestry ministry, Clean Bagan educates hunters about the importance of protecting the rare birds.
The organisation's efforts are backed by financial support from several donors including hotels and travel agents (like Exploration Travel Myanmar) and promotional support from the Myanmar Tourism Marketing Association (MTM).
“We applaud and welcome any initiative at a local level to take care of the environment and the tourist sites. We hope to support in the marketing and public relations for these excellent organisations so they can get more funding to continue their work. Besides that, we also appreciate very much the work from the Bagan Plastic Campaign, which has been working hard to collect garbage in the temple zone,” said MTM’s chair, Myo Thwin.
“All our businesses have stopped for nine months. We can’t survive without tourism, which is why we are wishing all domestic and international visitors return as soon as the government allows,” said Ko Min Min.
“We also hope that people will notice our efforts and support us by loving and preserving our beloved Bagan.”