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Published: November 26th 2011
BAGAN HAS A MYSTICAL AURA ABOUT IT. Approximately 4,400 temples (over 800 years old) rise out of the dry, central plains of Burma. Wandering through the temple strewn plains you feel like you are on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. The temples ooze history – stories of kings and dynasties and wars come to mind. They come in varying shapes and sizes; some only a pile of crumbling bricks and others several majestic stories high. They are not the sparkling, golden stupas of Yangon and Bago; rather they are dark red and orange stone fortresses covered in moss and overgrown shrubbery. Many have dark tunnels and staircases leading to rooftop terraces that offer 360 degree views of the plains. You cannot walk for more than a minute or two without stumbling upon one.
On our first day in Bagan we rented bicycles and took off towards the plains. The weather was scorchingly hot with not even a whisp of a breeze. Within minutes our clothes were wet with sweat. I felt like I could see steam rising off of my skin. We followed the main road out of town towards the central plains then took small dirt roads
which connected the temples to one another. Some sites had vendors selling things – food, drinks and sand paintings (lots and lots of sand paintings) but for the most part we were completely alone. This made it even more special – as there were no signs of modernization to remind you that you were in fact in the year 2011, not 1200. We climbed up steep staircases, through dark tunnels, onto sweeping terraces. Cathedral ceilings and walls revealed ancient hand painted murals. Statues of Buddhas and other gods smiled down at us. It was hard to comprehend the history that had taken place here – the slaves that had built these walls with primitive tools, the royal events that had taken place within these walls.
Each temple we visited brought a brand new experience. The first temple we arrived at was just outside of town. A small family compound was situated just a few feet away from the entrance. As soon as we pulled up on our bikes a woman named Momo emerged in the doorway and asked if we would like to see inside the temple. She quickly disappeared inside her house, re-emerged with a key and proceeded
to give us a tour of the temple. She said that not many people came to visit this temple – with over 4,000 temples to choose from many get overlooked. As we walked through the dark corridors admiring the ancient murals and statues her daughter, Neti, scampered along behind us climbing stairs, sitting on Buddha’s lap and rolling around on the dirt ground. It was obvious she had grown up here and this historic relic was the equivalent of the neighborhood playground. I tried to imagine what that would be like – to have such a stunning piece of history in your theoretical ‘backyard’ but I simply could not.
As we approached another temple a young woman asked me if I would like to try some of the thanaka (bark cream make up) to protect my skin from the sun which was reddening despite the several coats of sunscreen I had applied. I happily obliged and she proceeded to pull out a short thick branch of the thanaka tree, a bottle of water, and a flat metal plate. She poured some of the water on the plate and then began grinding the thanaka branch around in hard, short circles.
Soon a light cream colored liquid appeared on the plate and she applied it to my face with her fingers. First she put a thin layer all over, then dabbed some extra on my nose, cheeks and chin. Finally, she took a small bristly brush and brushed it across my cheeks to created a striped design. I wore the thanaka all day and everywhere I went Burmese ladies ooed and awed over me and told me how beautiful I looked. I found this really interesting because although I certainly appreciate the value of thanaka for it’s healing properties, protection against the sun, and traditional roots it is not something I would necessarily equate with beauty (at least on my face). In spite of this, I did feel beautiful in that setting, in that moment. Although I think it might be hard to pull off in the United States!
Around sunset we reached a large white pyramid style temple that reached five stories high, known as the Shwesandaw Paya. A steep staircase led up to each of the five stories with terraces on each level. Apparently, this was a popular spot around sundown because soon several vans with package tourists
began arriving. By the time sunset arrived there were at least 100 people – a stark contrast to the lack of people we had experienced at every other temple. Together we looked out over the plains at the thousands of golden temples as the sun slowly laid it’s head to rest.
The following day we rented a horse cart in an effort to protect ourselves from the sun. This turned out to be a good decision because it allowed us to get farther out into the plains without dying from heat exhaustion. The cart drove us around from temple to temple and we got out and explored at our leisure. Again, the day brought new adventures – new smiles, new views, new happy moments. Although we easily could’ve spent more time in Bagan we had to leave the next morning because we were running out of money. Since our guide book was published (1.5 years ago) the exchange rate from dollars to kyats had changed by 30% meaning our budget was substantially off and there was no way to get more money. On top of this, we had thought we would be able to book a flight out on
the internet from within the country, but unfortunately we couldn’t get a stable connection anywhere. We had even tried calling the airline directly but were told that their reservation system was down and the best thing to do was to go directly to the airport. So that’s what we did.
We climbed on the bus in Bagan around 5pm and arrived in Yangon a grueling 13 hours later around 6am. Upon reaching the airport we approached the Air Asia desk and explained that we needed to buy tickets back to Bangkok. The attendant was happy to help, however, the credit card machine does not always work, she explained. There was about a 50/50 chance that the machine would work – could we pay in cash? We only had $50 left, and the tickets would total about $200 – cash was not an option. “Okay, we can try” she said. As she ran the card, we held our breath….and then, it worked! We were able to leave Burma. We boarded a plane and a couple hours later we were back in our home away from home, Bangkok.
For more of T’s photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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