Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the feeling of wonder that will accompany seeing it in real life as was the case with the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan. Over the years we had seen countless depictions of the city on websites and in magazines, but it wasn’t until we climbed up our first temple and were staring out at the vast plains of the city and the countless ancient temples and pagodas that filled them that we were truly in awe, a feeling that would never really go away during our time there.
If we could have had it our way, we would have explored every temple that we could see after looking out from that first one, but, as we had three days and not three months in the city, we would regrettably have to pick and choose which ones we would visit. As we rode our bikes down the dirt paths that wove through the ancient city, it seemed as if we were passing temples as frequently as we were souvenir shops, or people, or even trees for that matter. Some laid right alongside the road with life in the forms of restaurants and dogs roaming around their bases, and others sat off in the distance, looking as if no life had existed in their vicinity in centuries. Some were bell-shaped and others resembled castles with their towering tiers and toothed roofs. There were ones that stretched high into the blinding blue sky, blocking out the sun and offering a nice shady refuge from the midday heat, and others that struggled to stretch up two floors. There were fat ones and skinny ones, brick ones and whitewashed ones, restored ones and crumbling ones. In fact, with so many choices as to which temple to stop off at, choosing one wasn’t so much a matter of intention as it was one of feeling. “Ooh, that one has a lion outside of it” or, “The stupa on this one has a unique shape” or rather simply, “I’m tired of this bike and the sun, let’s stop off at the next temple we come across,” were all thoughts that dictated where we would go. And, although some buildings were more impressive than others, we were never disappointed by what we were seeing for each one offered something different from the next which is what made the place so incredible. With over 2,000 temples and pagodas, we never once came across one that completely resembled any other we had seen prior.
After finally giving up the view from that first temple, we clambered down it and hopped on our bikes to head across the road to Gawdawpalin Temple, one of the largest of its kind in the city. Before we could make it through its front gate though, we had other business to tend to: that of purchasing a longyi, the ankle-hugging skirt that men and women alike wear throughout the country. Besides allowing us to fit in, if only slightly, with the locals, its light and loose fabric also offered us an airy alternative to the constricting jeans and shorts we had been wearing up to that point, a difference that would be much appreciated as the day heated up. Later, we would find biking with them to be a nuisance as evidenced by our longyis coming unknotted several times while riding, causing us to nearly flash school groups and other tourists passing by. Apart from that minor downfall though, they were extremely fun and convenient to wear.
So, with our longyis now firmly wrapped around our waists, we made our way into the temple. Shortly after passing through the front gate though, our attention was caught, rather hijacked, by a large group of Burmese tourists who had elected one individual to shyly approach us and ask if we would take our picture with them. “Sure!” we thought, “what harm can a picture do?” After all, we have lived in China for nearly four years and having our picture taken, whether by request or not, had become routine. Expecting one group photo, we were surprised instead to find ourselves getting a picture with just one individual, then another, then another until the entire group of 20 or so had snapped a photo with us as if we were statues in a public square. However odd it was (what do they do with those pictures?) we found the situation more amusing than frustrating.
In fact, before that experience we had had others exhibiting the forthcomingness of the Burmese when it came to foreign tourists. For example, while waiting at a bus station in Mandalay the day before, a handful of people approached us to casually ask where we were from. After we told them the USA they would nod thoughtfully for a moment before quizzically saying, “Trump?” or sometimes “Obama?” in a manner that demanded an opinion from us about the president in question. One person, after opening with the aforementioned dialogue, proceeded to ask probing questions that delved deep into our beliefs about religion and politics. Nestled in the heart of the tourism industry, it became easy to forget that Myanmar used to be, and in many parts, still is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Experiences like these served as welcome reminders of this.
After snapping our last picture with the tour group, our tightly coiled smiles unfurled and we were finally able to make it into the grounds. As we stared up at the towering temple and the deep blue sky that it stood in front of, only one word came to mind: magnificent. We were paralyzed by the grandeur of it; the carvings that lined every window and door and ran along every roof, the sense of timelessness that existed as we walked through its corridors past the lifelike gaze of the Buddha statues that lined them, and the fact that thousands more temples (and at one time ten thousand), many as breathtaking as this one, sat within a few miles radius.
As we moved from the cool inside to the significantly less cool outside to take in the exterior of Gawdawpalin, we found that our steps had to be taken much more carefully as the pavement was scorching hot. As we moved around the temple, we maintained the fragile balance between our desire to see every inch of it with the more urgent desire to avoid burning our bare feet (shoes had to be removed before entering a temple). Tiptoeing from one shady patch to the next, in a manner that channeled our inner Fred Flintstone, we were eventually able to make it around the entire temple before finally making it back to our bikes where we slipped on our sandals and began cycling in search of another temple to explore.
The next one we came to was Ananda Temple, one of the most revered sites in all of Bagan. Legend has it that the temple was designed by eight monks who had shared with the king at the time their experiences living in a cave temple in India. Eager for both the magnificence of the temple being described to him as well as the cool interiors (a novelty in the hot and arid Bagan plains), the king conscripted the monks to build him a temple of equal attributes. Upon completion, the monks were executed so that no other building like it could ever be built again. It is always a surreal experience to be in a place that has lasted as long as the legends that describe it.
Walking up to the temple, our eyes were naturally drawn to the golden stupa sitting atop it like a crown, the midday sun beating off of it at a degree that even made our sunglass-shielded eyes squint. Partially obscuring the stupa was a web of bamboo poles that wrapped around it, a reminder of the ongoing reconstruction efforts that had been taking place following the earthquake that shook the plains not even a year earlier. Even with such a blemish, the stupa was incredible and the rest of the temple followed suit as it expanded out from the central stupa tier by tier before abruptly ending in a two-story wall that shot down into the ground. Intricate carvings of mythical beasts ran menacingly along the eaves while their larger brethren sat formidably on the ground at each corner, dwarfing us as we scampered by in search of the next patch of shade to stand on.
What made the temple truly unique from the other ones we had seen though was its facade, which once had been whitewashed but now took on the color of sand due to what we imagined to be a bleaching process during its restoration. This detail gave the temple an otherworldly dimension as did the four Buddha statues standing as erect and timeless as an old tree inside its cool and dark corridors. As we stared at these and other features of Ananda, we couldn’t help but question the authenticity of them for they looked like an elaborate set for a Hollywood blockbuster or what you would imagine to appear out of the haze in a desert mirage. These things however, are often reflections of reality and not the other way around.
As the afternoon wore on, we became reminded that, while temples and statues can feed the mind, they can’t exactly feed the stomach and, with that thought, we left Ananda in search of lunch. After getting on the main road, there were choices abound and we pulled off at a restaurant called The Moon, where we enjoyed some curry so spicy that workers, upon seeing our red and profusely sweating faces, hurried back to the kitchen to bring us tamarind candies, a Myanmar remedy for spice. The waiters watched in amusement as we unwrapped the candies with the fervor of a Christmas-morning toddler, flinging them into our mouths and effectively extinguishing the fire.
After finishing our meal, which, in spite of its spiciness, was one of the best we would have in Bagan, we set off to find more temples. Unlike the more frequented ones that we had seen in the first part of the day, our post-lunch explorations would see us stopping off at random smaller ones scattered about before finally ending the day back at the temple we had started at. As we sat atop it, we watched intently as the sun slowly descended in subsequent slivers of light bursting through the clouded sky before finally disappearing beneath a silhouette of temple tops and mountain ridges.
Our second day began where the first had left off, sitting atop a temple, this time waiting for the sun to rise. We were warned by countless blogs and articles to not miss a Bagan sunrise or sunset while in the city, advice which we heeded and for good reason as there was something transcendent about the whole experience. Precariously perched on a ledge, we watched as the the features of the plains and the temples that filled them became slowly illuminated, their features emerging bit by bit from the deep blackness that had characterized them just moments before. What made the moment surreal though wasn’t what we could sense but rather what we couldn’t: sound. Apart from the chatter of birds, the soft, distant hum of a motorbike engine, or the subtle shutter of a camera inevitably failing to capture the moment, there was nothing to be heard. A noticeable void that was made moot, or rather mute, only by the overwhelming scenery unfolding before us. As the sun rose higher and higher, the scenery changed less and less and we decided to head back to our hotel, Bagan Thande Hotel, for some breakfast along the banks of the Irrawaddy River before getting back on our bikes to begin another day of exploration.
After riding on the main road for a short while we veered off it in favor of a bumpy path that we vibrated down before pulling off at a cluster of brick buildings sitting outside the gates of Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Before exploring the latter, we decided to check out the smaller ones surrounding it, a decision that was met with enthusiasm by one of the vendors sitting on the steps outside who warmly approached us and began taking us around the buildings and telling us about each one; a nonverbal understanding that we’d be receiving information in exchange for business, an agreement we were happy to make as she was very nice and the things she was selling very cheap. And, as for the information, it was priceless (cue eye roll).
One of the more surprising things we learned from her was that the temple we were walking around had been looted by German soldiers in the 19th century (a fact we weren’t able to confirm in our own research). Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that German soldiers, before both world wars, would have been wandering around Bagan on the very ground where we stood cutting statues out of a temple we were staring at. What else had happened there that we were completely unaware of? The answer is unfathomable, but the search for it, whether factual or imagined, can give any place life and context where legends and stories fall short.
Another interesting fact that was shared with us was that the three unassuming brick buildings lying across the dirt path from the temple were built in subsequent centuries. One from the 9th, one from the 10th, and one from the 11th, all sitting side by side and, as far as we were concerned, looking as if they had all been finished in the same day. Their architects may have begged to differ though for, for them, the structures probably couldn’t have been more different. After finishing our impromptu tour, we bought a longyi from our guide and climbed up the 11th century pagoda for a great panoramic view of Bagan before heading to Thatbyinnyu.
Not being able to explore the temple’s signature feature—its height—due to the staircases leading to its top being closed off, we opted instead to just meander around its base, which perhaps was the best way to appreciate the towering nature of it. Unlike the brick pagoda that we had climbed up just moments before, Thatbyinnyu had whitewashed walls which always seem to add to the antiquity of a building. The black mildew lines that ran in streaks across the walls made the intricate features of its exterior seem to bleed together like the age lines on a carved piece of wood. It was nearly impossible to imagine it having the sandy brown exterior of Ananda that we had seen the day before.
After making the full circle around the temple we boarded our bikes and began heading to Shwesandaw Pagoda to scope out where we would be watching the sunset that night. The pagoda consisted of a series of toothed tiers stacked on top of each other with the smallest and uppermost one being capped by a bamboo-encased stupa. Compared to other sites we had seen in Bagan prior, the building itself wasn’t that incredible (which for a 1,000 year old free-standing structure was still pretty incredible), but the views offered from it were unlike any we had seen in Bagan up to that point. As far as the eye could see stretched a forest whose trees, with their different shades of green, gave the landscape the camouflaged look of a soldier’s uniform. It was the perfect backdrop for the sharply contrasting brick temples and pagodas that rose out of it in uncountable numbers. Some were big and thick and seemingly rooted into the ground while others were thin and spindly, sticking out of the forest in a pointed fashion like stalagmites rising up from a cave floor. If you weren’t too lost taking in the magnitude of it all and the details of each individual temple, you would also notice the ring of mountains circling around the landscape or the silver streak of the Irrawaddy River shooting across the mountain’s base or even the bright blue sky shining over head.
As we sat on one of the tiers taking it all in, we wondered what the designers of the buildings would think of their works of art (for that’s what each one was) being climbed upon by civilians, some of them unaffiliated with Buddhism. Or, for that matter, that their creations had been reduced to crumbling brick, worn statues and faded paintings. Our first thought was that they would be disappointed, but upon further contemplation we imagined that they would be very proud. Proud that, not only had their work lasted a millennium, but that people traveled from around the world to see it. Imagine creating something that could captivate even one person 1,000 years from now. In that amount of time would it be the work itself or the age of it that would captivate? In Bagan, it was both.
Knowing we would be returning for a second round at Shwesandaw made it easier to leave the sweeping scenery behind in search of our next stop: Dhammayangyi Temple. To get to the temple we had two choices, take the well-labeled main path or the winding stony back roads that we weren’t entirely sure even led there. Naturally, we chose the latter and it didn’t take the wisdom of hindsight long to tell us that we had chosen poorly. For starters, we were venturing out on an empty stomach (it was well past lunch time at this point) as well as an empty water bottle, which is a recipe for disaster for any experience really as the desire to survive drowns out the desire to enjoy. What’s more, not long after starting down the path we realized that it was impassable by bicycle due to huge patches of sand that made our bikes swerve uncontrollably each time we hit them, which was frequent. So, walking it was, with our bikes in tow and practically no shade to shield us from the sweltering midday heat as the temples and trees that had appeared endless while sitting atop Shwesandaw all seemed to stop well short of the path, which is perhaps why it was there. As we slugged on, each step felt slower and less productive towards reaching an end, but, as tragic as our travails seemed, Dhammayangyi would eventually come.
For as long as the path to the temple had been, it did make our coming across it more meaningful and it almost felt like we were the first ones to have seen it for centuries. While on the path, we hadn’t seen another soul in the hour and a half we were on it and, as we looked at the temple in the distance, all we could see was its ruined state sitting atop an empty plain. There were no noises, no people, not even the sound of wind as the air was heavy and stagnant, just us and the temple. As magical as the moment was, it was short lived as our thirst sent us racing towards it in hopes of finding some water before heading off to find lunch, both of which we did before circling back around to the temple to begin exploring it.
If a building could ever be described as sinister, Dhammayangyi would be it. From the legends that accompanied it to its current state, everything about the temple oozed with a mysteriousness that incited both curiosity and unease. As the story goes, the king who commissioned its building, King Narathu, was not a good man in the slightest. To give you a measure of his character, it is said that he murdered his own father to ascend the throne and become king. Sadly, his intolerance didn’t stop with more powerful family members. When it came to the temple, whose construction he oversaw, he was notorious for being a perfectionist. According to the legend, he would occasionally conduct a test that involved attempting to push a needle between two bricks. If the needle could be pushed through, the mason who laid it was executed. His downfall though, came in his intolerance of other religions. He was known to execute practicers of the Hindu faith, the main competing religion with Buddhism at the time, with one notable example being an Indian princess. Angered by the loss of his daughter, the princess’s father sent eight disguised men to Dhammayangyi where they assassinated the king in its halls before the temple had even been completed. A fitting end for an unfit king.
If the legends that filled the temple’s halls weren’t enough cause for wary treading, the temple itself was. In a completely appropriate use of the term, the interior was cavernous. Darkness crept down from the ceilings and out from holes in the wall for there were places in the temple too deep and ominous for the dim, outmatched light, making its way in from the occasional window, to conquer. The unmistakable squeaks of bats echoed out of the darkness which wasn’t the only trace of their presence as the temple walls were covered in their feces, filling the halls with a subtle, but putrid smell. If the hushed voices and footsteps of other temples were out of veneration, the ones here bore the aura of caution.
The atmosphere though, however repulsive, was unlike any we had ever experienced before and, like a good horror movie, we became addicted to the unease it created. As we made loop after loop, we couldn’t help but think how the late King Narathu would feel about his temple now: a crumbling exterior, an interior more noticeably painted by bats than the work of human hands, non-Buddhists roaming through its halls, and locals taking naps inside to escape the summer heat. The conclusion we came to: not favorably.
With our feet now caked in a range of filth we dared not ponder, we left Dhammayangyi and and rode a few minutes down the road to Sulamani Temple, the last site we would be seeing that day before taking in the sunset. Outwardly, the temple didn’t appear all that unique from others we had seen, which bode well for our sunset viewing as we thought we would be in and out, leaving us plenty of time to get back to Shwesandaw and get a good seat before the masses descended on it. Once inside the temple though, we found ourselves surrounded by paintings, covering the walls and ceilings and anywhere else we cared to look. Some were too big to see in their entirety, as in the reclining Buddhas that stretched from one end of a hallway to the other, while others were small and intricate, as in the paintings of countless palm-sized people depicting different religious scenes. The elaborateness of it caught us completely off guard, as if walking into an old, abandoned warehouse and flicking on a light to find not a room full of dust and spider webs but rather one lined with marble and adorned with gold. We marveled at every square inch, our heads straining up and down, from side to side in an unblinking attempt to not miss a single inch. However incredible it was in the present, we couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have looked like upon completion, a thought we would have to ponder as we regretfully left the temple to speed back to Shwesandaw (on the main road this time!) to catch the sunset.
Sandals off, we ascended the pagoda and perched ourselves on the uppermost tier and watched as the tour buses and bicycles rolled in, one after the other, until the entire pagoda was full of people watching as the sun took a bow and disappeared behind temple tops and mountain ridges.
Most of our last day in Bagan was spent atop a bike as we peddled to more far off places than the closely clustered sites we had seen the previous two days. After a sunrise at Shwegugyi Temple, and a breakfast on the Irrawaddy, we headed off towards Nyuang U, the city that many of those who work in Old Bagan call home, in hopes of seeing Shwezigon Pagoda. While the pagoda was a bust – it’s signature gold exterior was instead covered with mats due to construction efforts – the ride through the city was not, offering a glimpse into the culture of present day Myanmar in a way that touring the old town could not. Women toting oversized baskets around on their heads, street vendors tucked down forgotten alleys, monks that looked barely out of primary school, and the genuine friendliness of locals that exists once one escapes the bubble of the tourism industry were all on display as we wound through the city streets. As tempting as it may be to spend the entirety of one’s time in Old Bagan, and one could easily be forgiven for doing so, a trip to Nyaung U for a taste of local life should always be considered.
After leaving Nyaung U, we made a stop at MBoutik, a shop selling handicrafts made by the area’s underprivileged women, and grabbed lunch at Sanon, a restaurant that trains area youth in the culinary arts; both being worthy causes to support if you ever find yourself in Bagan. Our last destination of the day, whose arrival was prolonged by the frequent and sporadic stop offs at interesting looking temples on the way back from Nyaung U, was Jasmine Lacquerware Shop.
Having seen lacquerware pretty much everywhere we went in Bagan, from the stalls outside nearly every temple whose prices, if inquired about, dropped by half with each step you took away from the vendor, to the more official looking shops lining the roads of Nyaung U, Bagan was seemingly full of places looking to capitalize off of one of the region’s more unique products. We even had people on motor bikes slow down beside us on our bicycles and, in an almost scripted fashion, ask us, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Ah, good country,” and lastly, “Do you want to buy some lacquerware?” before speeding off after our prompt “No!”
Wanting to find a more authentic place to get our souvenir, we went to a nearby village to visit the small, family run lacquerware shop we had read about online and were very glad we had. Upon arriving, we were given a detailed, step by step description of the lacquering process, which was so much more lengthy than we ever would have imagined. Some of the more interesting pieces of information we were able to dissect from our guide’s heavily accented, but much appreciated English was that most bowls were made from bamboo leaves and some even used woven horse hair as their base, the dyes used for the colors were all made from ground natural materials, and that the dazzling designs adorning each bowl and vase were all done by memory, with no grid to guide the artist’s hand as it made the intricate carvings.
After he finished telling us about the process, we were taken to the family’s shop and given time to choose an item from its vast array of bowls and vases and trays. Upon picking out our item, he told us how amused he was at the different ways that tourists plan to use the lacquerware. One story he told, which he still seemed to be trying to work out in his head as he told it to us, was of a customer who intended to use one of the bowls he purchased to, of all things, put his keys in! It turns out that the bowls and plates made there are usually used to hold food like the betel nuts that many men in the country enjoy chewing as evidenced by their brown teeth, or as a serving dish for tea leaf salad, a delicious local delicacy. We told him that the small bowl and dish that we had chosen would be used for decoration, deciding to withhold that using it for our own keys had been a thought!
After leaving the shop, we realized that the afternoon had slipped away from us much faster than we had expected it to. With precious little time left until sunset, we manically peddled back to Old Bagan just in time to catch the sun dipping below the horizon one last time. We stayed at the temple longer than we had with previous sunsets, being fully aware that this was the last time we would ever experience anything like this in our lifetimes.