Published: January 3rd 2013November 27th 2012
A temple showing off it's sexy curves
In Burma, they love their temples. In fact, that's probably the understatement of the year. It's like saying that McDonalds sell the odd burger or two. The golden stupas are EVERYWHERE. On tops of hills, deep in caves, perched on rocks. Anywhere is fair game, and it's rare to find a hill or mountain without a temple on top. Imagine a conversation between a group of Buddhist architects: "quick lads, I've found an empty hill over here. Let's get a stupa built before someone else does". Some of the stupas are easy to reach. Some of them require hours of strenuous hiking, as a means of proving you're a dedicated Buddhist. I'd like to see the same principle applied to a restaurant in the UK. A Michelin-starred restaurant on top of a mountain like Snowdon. Instead of having to reserve a table months in advance, all you need to do is make the four hour climb to the top. For dedicated foodies only!
Even though I've been in Burma for two weeks, I'm still in a constant amazement at the prolific nature of stupas, their powerful symbology and how integral they are to modern Burmese life. They are part of
Count the temples
This was our view from the boat. I see at least ten temples on this hill alone.
the national identity of the country. But in a few years time, when the Western World gets it's capitalist fingers into Burma, I can imagine the release of all kinds of tacky stupa-related merchandise. Markets will be selling stupa key rings and stupa-shaped alarm clocks. McDonalds will be selling the McStupa meal, with chicken nuggets in the shape of tiny stupas. The computer game "Angry Birds" has already taken Burma by storm. A new version will be available called "Angry Birds: Burma", where you catapult our feathered friends into a variety of destructible stupas. And Lego will release a special version with golden bricks so kids can build their own little lego stupa.
Next we were heading to the temple epicentre of Burma. We were about to hit the motherlode, to visit Stupa Central. Our destination was Bagan, a region covered with literally hundreds of temples. We boarded our boat for Bagan at the unsociable hour of 6:30am. Despite our sleepy eyes, it was a magnificent time to set sail. The sun was rising and the morning mists were hanging gently over the river. In the distance was a mountain dotted with golden temples shining like buddhist beacons in
How on earth is this boat staying afloat?
the morning sun. I counted the number of temples I could see. Seventy-five! The boat had limited space on the outdoor deck, and all the chairs had already been claimed by package tour groups. They had probably arrived an hour earlier on advice from their tour leader. The poor independent backpacker never stood a chance of getting a seat outside. But the tables soon turned. Whilst it was nice and cool outside during the morning, it got intensively hot towards midday. There was no shade outside, and no escape from the unbearable heat. The tour groups attempted to escape indoors, but there wasn't enough room for all of them because us poor backpackers were taking up all the seats. So emergency umbrellas and towels were erected outside to bring a semblance of shade to the sweating masses.
We docked late afternoon, waited on the muddy riverbank while the boat staff organised a baggage lottery. With an assortment of 140 backpacks and suitcases in the hold, it became a chaotic scene as random bags were dumped unceremoniously on the ground, and the baggage number called out. I grabbed my bag and checked the padlock - someone had tried to crack
No shortage of temples around these parts
the combination. I know this because I always set it to 123 after locking it. That way, if the number has changed, I know someone's thieving fingers have tried to open it.
We were staying at Ruby True, an exorbitantly priced hotel which was one of the few left available. The hotel brochure stated that we could book "pony cartridges". I think they meant pony cart rides. We also saw an advertising poster for a bus company which encouraged you to "Call our Huntline". Hmmm, hotline maybe? We were excited to read that the hotel had a swimming pool. I hunted for it in vain, and ended up asking the manager how to find it. She looked left and right cautiously, then leaned in close and whispered "Not built yet".
Our hotel was teeming with staff. Even at 6am there were women waiting on the garden path, whose only function was to wish you good morning as you walked past. When you got to the dining room, there were six staff and only two guests (including me). They were ridiculously attentive. After pouring the coffee, the waiter insisted on adding the milk powder and sugar himself, and practically
Enjoying a swim in the hotel pool
It wasn't built yet, despite what the brochure said
wrestled the packets off me. He spent several minutes struggling to open them, and so I waited in awkward silence as he attended to my coffee and then spent a further minute stirring it with a spoon . The six waiters patrolled the restaurant with military efficiency, watching me like a hawk. Once I'd had three sips of coffee, someone would dash over to refill me. If there was the slightest danger of butter running low, they'd rush over to replace it. An empty plate or glass would prompt them to burst into action, asking sir if he would like more toast, eggs, juice or jam. (At the last place we stayed, the jam portions had been miserable. When we asked for more jam, the waiter took away our existing jam and brought back a pot containing even less).
Zena arrived to breakfast and she had barely sat down when the waiters leapt into a flurry of toast-and-coffee action. As she started munching her toast, she looked around and whispered to me "there are four men watching me eat. It's very unnerving". Sure enough, there were four waiters forming a perimeter around our table, just watching!
Chilling on top of a temple
A secluded temple with no other tourists for miles around. I climbed three sets of stairs to reach the top
6am breakfast, we set off on clunky hotel bikes to explore the surrounding area. The midday sun would be unbearable for cycling, hence our early start. The area of Bagan is a vast plain covered with ancient temples, some of which are almost a thousand years old. It covers a distance of over 10 square miles, and has a decent network of roads and dirt tracks, making it ideal for cycling. So why does Bagan have so many temples? Well, back in the 11th Century, an old monk wandered out of the dusty plains and asked for an audience with the King. This monk taught the King about Buddhism, and he took to it like a duck to water. In fact, the King got so enthusiastic about this new religion that he proclaimed "knock down all those old Hindu temples. They're rubbish. Let's build some new ones devoted to Lord Buddha!" But how many temples would be a worthy tribute. Ten? A hundred? Oh no, that simply would not do. The final figure was in the thousands. The successive kings also got hooked on Buddhism, and over the next two centuries, over 4,000 temples were commissioned.
So by 6:30am
Stunning sunset views of the thousand temples
we had begun our temple adventure, fresh faced and full of energy. We started out on some decent dirt trails, but then our particular path ran out. It simply faded away to grass. So in our wisdom, we decided to continue along the grass until we picked up another trail. Ten minutes later, we're surrounded by bushes and trees, and are completely lost. The sun is rising fast, we're desperately pushing our bikes through prickly undergrowth, and there's no sign of a path for miles. We're getting hot, bothered and scratched by the bushes, and we're starting to blame each other for this navigational disaster. Eventually I think I spot a path, and so we carry our bikes down a hill, through a ditch and up the other side. We do find a path, but we also find I've got a puncture. Dammit!!! Luckily a bunch of school kids appear from the middle of nowhere, and point us in the direction of where it can be repaired. 20 minutes walk later, some dude by a restaurant fixes it for me. Over the next few hours we got a further three punctures, and each time there was some random bloke able
Mummy Pig and Piglet
Very cute! Would also make excellent bacon
to fix it for us.
We spent the whole day cycling around temples. Many of them were locked, but others were open to explore. Some of them could be climbed via stone stairs on the outside, and some had interior stairs which led to a maze of higher chambers. The temples could be five or six stories high, and you reach the top by navigating through a labyrinth of passageways, hidden stairs and tiny doorways. Sometimes you had to walk along an outside ledge to reach another doorway or staircase. These temples were ancient and crumbling, and in any other country they would be sealed off to preserve them from the wear and tear of tourist feet.
Sadly, Bagan is becoming a firm fixture for package tour groups. The tourist infrastructure of Burma is starting to creak under the sheer weight of numbers. We saw dozens of 52-seater buses carrying package tourists, and this is exactly what the National League for Democracy did NOT want. When Aung San Suu Kyi gave a press release saying they were lifting the tourism boycott, she specifically stated that she wanted people to visit Burma independently. Learn about the country, meet the
Buddha clearly had a lot of time on his hands. Most statues are of him just sitting around
people, and choose wisely with your travel spending to keep money out of the government's corrupt pockets. Not to travel as a huge pack, stay in government-affiliated hotels and be whisked around the major sights without interacting with the local people.
We visited a couple of temples at the same time as tour groups. They poured out of their massive buses, queued to climb the stupas and fought to find a clear photo without a hundred other people in the shot. They were also hassled by dozens of kids selling factory-printed paintings. "Hello Mister. Painting?" We hadn't been hassled by anyone so far in Burma, but now there were kids pushing their wares onto you. The sad thing is, some kids are actually giving up school to start a career of selling tacky goods to tourists, because that's where the money is.
Zena and I mainly cycled along tiny dirt roads which were too small for the tour buses to navigate. We were seeking out remote temples untouched by the tourist masses. We found one hidden temple where the caretaker was living in the grounds with his family and a few cattle, chickens and pigs. He unlocked the
My favourite temple
Inside was a rabbit-warren of passages and staircases
temple and let us have a private scramble up onto the upper levels.
One of the temples we visited was shaped like a giant pyramid and had an Egyptian look to it. The temple is called Dhammayangi Pahto, but i prefer to call it "the Temple of Severed Hands." Because when this temple was built, the King wanted it to be perfect, and he insisted that all the bricks to be joined together so snugly that a needle couldn't fit between the gaps. He would then test his workers handiwork with a needle, and any who failed would have their hands chopped off. Inside the temple we saw a concrete block which had two grooves where arms would be placed, and a hole for the blood to drain out. Bearing in mind this was a Buddhist temple, devoted to a lifestyle were you are not allowed to lie, cheat, steal or be immoral, it's not very appropriate to be chopping off limbs. But King Narathu was a bit of a nutter by all accounts. He killed his father, his brother and his wife. In fact he could be described as the Anti-Buddha. He was eventually murdered in this very
Boy in a Basket
The ultimate shopping accessory. Put your kids in one basket and your food shopping in the other
temple, which is a fitting end to the tale.
At night we visited an area called Old Bagan under cover of darkness. We didn't see a single soul as we explored the temples by torchlight. I felt like Indiana Jones, creeping around in the dark passages of these ancient and abandoned structures. Zena was keen to warn me about poisonous snakes as we wandered through bushes, so we kept our guard up. At one point we were caught by a local who saw our torchlight and came out to investigate. He was one of the "temple guardians", and he offered to unlock a particular temple for us. He gave us our own private torchlit tour, and the walls of this temple were covered in well-preserved murals that were over a thousand years old.
So, there you have it. 4,000 temples, of which we only saw the teeniest tiniest portion. It was stunning, but we have officially reached temple saturation point. Our next challenge will be to continue our Burma adventures without visiting any more temples!!
(More photos at the bottom of the page)
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