Quintessential Burma – Beguiling Bagan, Myanmar

November 5-7, 2015

If there is one place that epitomizes the magical intertwining of exotic aesthetic, historically rich culture and some fantastically infused adventure, Bagan is it.

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This ancient land is home to approximately 2200 temples and pagodas, mostly built between the the 11th and 13th centuries, and you cannot go very far before another cluster of ornately crafted, sky-reaching brick structures pops out at you. Whether surrounded by crop-laden fields, dusty village roads or town centers, they are literally everywhere, decorating this little piece of earth.

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This triad of side-by-side towns along the Irrawaddy river, New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung-U is the epicenter for what must have been one of the most prolific eras of construction in honor of Buddhism ever, which at the height of its glory days is said to have had over 10,000 of these incredible places of worship. Although the count of standing structures today is only a fraction of that, the effect on the landscape is still quite breathtaking.

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Getting from the top of the first town to the bottom of the last is not doable by foot, but a number of exploration options exist… hired car, e-bikes, scooters etc… however for our first adventure we choose to go with the option most appropriate for the antiquated romanticism of this place, and sit on the shaded, plush cushions of a horse-pulled cart* to explore the pagodas in the northern region.

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Exploring the temples of Bagan is an ominously exciting task, and with so many to choose from a game plan of some sort is in order while leaving plenty of room for the unplanned. We map out some of the well known must-see’s… Shwesandaw, That Byin Nyu, Gawdaw Palin etc, tolerating the crowds, which mid-day, are not terrible since a) it’s warmer and b) most folks save the big monuments for sunrise and sunset.

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The temples and pagodas vary greatly in size, with many of the largest ones having permanently closed off their higher levels, leaving only the ground floor open (there are exceptions, and we take the steep steps to the top of one such temple.)

I didn't count the steep steps, but there were a lot. The view? Worth the climb.
I didn’t count the steps, but there were a lot. The view? Worth the climb.

No matter the size, each structure houses one, two or up to four Buddhas (one facing each direction.) The similarities between all the inner sanctums are consistent, but each temple construction or resident Buddha has some slightly different variation from one to the next, which is sort of unbelievable considering the quantity of temples.

Companion Buddhas
Companion Buddhas

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The small pagodas, about the size of a tall shed, are absolutely everywhere… they stand alone or in random small clusters and they also serve as adornment, surrounding the bigger ones. Each of these is home to a unique Buddha.

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The temples, big or small, are all magnificent to look at. My favorites, however, were what I started calling the medium climbers. These structures were often unattended with no other tourists around, and if you were lucky, the inner stairwells were ungated (assuming you could find them, but that was half the fun!) and you could carefully climb through the tight, low-ceilinged brick staircase to discover what awaited you several levels up (thank you, iPhone flashlight.)

Secret stairwells. What goes up, must come down...
Secret stairwells. What goes up, must come down…

Sometimes another access to go further upward waited to be discovered from the landing where the stairwell let you out, and careful footwork was often involved. Of course this is all done barefoot, as the temples are sacred and no shoes are allowed.

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Temple view from the temple with a view.
Temple view from the temple with a view.

We ask our horse-cart driver/guide to recommend a less-crowded place to watch the sunset and he does not disappoint us. Carefully we ascend the inner stairs and then climb further up the somewhat dangerous side of the temple (Parks and Rec would never allow this back home,) shimmying around the perimeter to the west side, where perched on a brick ledge we sit and watch the sun set over the temple-dotted plains with only about 10 other people.

Our perch.
Our perch.
The view as the sun goes down.
The view as the sun goes down.
The view.
Goodnight.

The entire atmosphere is, without question, one of the most dramatically beautiful settings in which you could envision watching the day come to an end.

~~~~~

Exactly 12 hours later, facing the opposite horizon, we will watch the sun rise in a completely different setting… and although I’ve been looking forward to this day since I started planning this trip, I wasn’t sure things could get any more breathtaking than last nights theatre, but I was wrong.

It’s 5am and still dark when our ride picks us up and takes us to an open field where at the moment, all we can see are linen-lined, candle-lit tables with coffee cups waiting to be filled.

As we sit down, piping hot drinks and croissants now in hand, the stars are still shining in bright quantity, letting us know the skies are mercifully cloud-free, while the beautiful moon-Venus-Jupiter triad faithfully highlights the eastern sky.

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It is then, that the first hissing, firey-orange blast of hot air flares from one of the nearby balloon baskets, momentarily lighting up the pre-dawn sky. Before long, all the baskets in this large field are flaring and testing, readying themselves for the ride, and suddenly my sleepy 4:45 wake-up-call eyes have been replaced with vision fueled by pure excitement.

As darkness is slowly replaced by light, we are divided into groups and each group follows their pilot to his balloon… our balloon… in order to watch the process of inflation. It is at this juncture, I believe, that I have completely forgotten about my fear of heights and any accompanying anxiety about this flight. I have been transformed into a child on Christmas morning, watching my new ride being put together, and I want ON!!

Lift off!
Lift off!

Rising above the ground as the sun lifts off the horizon, there is a soft warm glow that blankets everything… from the other balloons to the tree tops to the hundreds of stupas that are now apparent from above.

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We effortlessly float and glide through the sky, alternately rising and falling in some sort of languid dance with the other balloons, the perspective constantly shifting, the magnitude of epic beauty never-failing. I feel I have been transported to some other world, and it is full of magic.

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We see the large temples we visited yesterday and try to pick out the smaller, lesser-known ones we stumbled upon, all while flying over villages preparing for the day, farmers tending their fields and children yelling and waving up at us in happy excitement. This ride is one hour of pure joy and an experience that will remain imprinted in my mind forever. Perhaps longer.

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~~~~~

Once home, we lounge by the pool, exuberantly recounting all the images from the morning, comparing variations in photo perspective (two cameras, a million shots, all different, all amazing!) and designing an plan for afternoon exploration.

Hopping on a rented scooter, we first seek out sustenance to fuel our next adventure and have yet another outstanding meal, this time at Star Beam, a Burmese-fusion sort of place run by a Myanmar native who spent years abroad as chef at some internationally acclaimed restaurants before returning home to open his own place.

The setting is rustic… dirt floors and plastic chairs, but the food is Michelin star, and how I am not gaining weight here is a complete mystery. The food in Burma, with perhaps one or two mediocre exceptions, is not to be passed up. And this fresh-mint lemonade? Yes, more of that please.

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The next several hours are spent tooling around the southern region we only saw from the air, and our mission? To find the climbers… those mid-sized, unmanned temples where via dark and dusty unmarked stairwells we can ascend a few stories above the ground and into the light in order to enjoy the view from above.

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And we succeed wonderfully, also happening upon many temples where the original wall and ceiling frescos are still largely in tact, most from the 13th century.

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11th Century wall paintings.
11th Century wall painting of scripture.

As the witching hour approaches we set out to find a specific temple that was recommended to us by one of the locals… which is not exactly easy.

Aside from the main thoroughfares, the roads here are all dirt and wind through fields and groves of trees and there is little to no signage. So if a temple in the near distance looks interesting you either try to find the path leading up to it or you make your own, but since not all the pagodas are climbable, we are intent on finding this man’s recommendation for tonight’s sunset.

The road leading to tonight's viewing post.
The road leading to tonight’s viewing post.

We have success and find that there are actually two temples, one slightly behind the other. We choose the smaller, less crowded one which coincidently also had an easy, straight-forward climb up the side, and perch ourselves west-facing to watch the other pagoda slowly become silhouetted by the sinking sun.

If you want the view, first you must climb.
If you want the view, first you must climb.

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Same sun, different silhouette.
Same sun, different silhouette.

And thus, another epic day in another world comes to an end.

~~~~~

Bagan is a fairy-tale land come to life. There are customs and rituals, perpetuated by the monks and locals who care for these glorious relics, that have probably not changed much in the last few centuries. People still worship in these temples; candles and incense are still faithfully lit and flowers are placed at even the smallest of pagodas, regardless of whether or not anyone will see them.

But I see them. These are the details that excite me and these are the things I seek out. These bits and pieces are meaningful to me, not just because the ritual is sacred for so many, but because that sanctity holds so much inherent beauty… and I simply can’t get enough of it.

Random, candlelit roadside Buddhas.
Random, candlelit roadside Buddhas.

Of all the incredibly glorious things I’ve see in the last five weeks, and there have been so many of them, Bagan is right up at the top of the list.

The mysticism of a bygone era still lives in each and every one of these dwellings… you can see it in the hue the sun casts on the brick and you can feel it in the echo of each Buddha chamber. Regardless of ones religious beliefs, the unwavering faith and deep peace of those architects, now long gone, still lives on in beautiful Bagan.

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~~~~~

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*A few words about animal welfare here. I have to be honest and say I struggled a little bit with using the horse carriage. Interestingly, Myanmar, similar to India, is a deeply religious culture that has a lot of respect for animal life, but unlike India, where there is extreme poverty compounded by a vast quantity of people and animals, the creatures here are actually well taken care of. I saw very few horribly thin and starving animals, and the thing I noticed with our horse cart, was that the horse and driver had a very clear and close relationship.

I have mentioned the Burmese kindness many times, and it is extended here as well, in the gentle way this driver coaxed the horse where we needed to go, never hitting, whipping or yelling. It was actually quite fascinating to see all the different noise commands the horse knew… like clicking, tapping and certain tones of voice.

Without justification, and with a Buddhist-leaning heart, where every life on this planet is honored and of value, I can honestly say this horse cart ride was as sweet and romantic as it was in large part because I felt good about the care and welfare of the animal doing the work.

I am aware this is not the case everywhere, but once again, Myanmar shines bright in its ancient and compassionate ways.

 

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