If you can only go to one place in Myanmar, make it Bagan. The fame of Bagan cannot rival that of Angkor in Cambodia (yet) but its beauty and the energy of the place is on par with that of Angkor. Both are breathtakingly and hauntingly beautiful. However they are quite different.
Angkor ruins are like celebrities – grand and beautiful; they are individual, further apart and hidden under the cover of forests. On the other hand, Bagan ruins are more like an ensemble; they are stunning and will take your breath away when you take them all in at one glance. Individually, some are more grand and intricately design while others more plain and simple. But together, they are awe-inspiring.
When I climbed the first temple and looked out at the large expanse of a rather flat land where over 2,000 temples and pagodas peek out from an ocean of green, I was stunned, immediately charmed and felt in love with this place. In my 10 years of travel, I had never seen a place quite like this.
My travel companion and I had wanted to rent bicycles and slowly explore this amazing site, but on the morning of our arrival we met a friendly horse cart driver, Aung Aung. After chatting with him, we decided to take the horse cart on our first day. It was a great way to go get to as many temples within a day as possible. Aung Aung was very friendly and knowledgeable, which made our experience so much the better. There’s nothing like looking at these ancient temples with someone narrating their stories to you.
Like most people, we ended the day at Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sunset. We got there an hour before sunset and the top of the zedi was already packed with people; there was a group of Japanese tourists with 10-15 telephoto lenses pointing at the west, as if getting ready to shoot the enemy. Luckily unlike the overly touristy Angkor, Bagan hasn’t garnered that many tourists yet so there was no need to jostle for space. I found a nice spot underneath one of the telephoto lenses and waited. When the moment arrived, it was beautiful. Unfortunately with shutters going off all over the place, it wasn’t the kind of background music I would want to accompany one of the best sunset I’ve ever seen. So I promised myself to find a quieter place for the next day’s sunset.
The next day we rented bicycles and went to the south and south-western side of the 104km² plain. We were rewarded with fewer crowds, intricate motifs and interesting murals on the smaller temples and pagodas in this part of Bagan. about as there are small villages scattered about. So finding cheap lunch was easy; local women would cycle up to you to offer the home cooked dishes. After lunch, we went in search of a quiet temple through some of the sandy paths, and I got myself a punctured tire on my bicycle. So I cycled back to where I had lunch and they fixed it for a small fee. Finally we found a nice deserted temple and decided to rest there in the hottest part of the afternoon. It was really peaceful and quiet. Sitting in the shade at the ledge at the top balcony of the temple, there was a gentle breeze caressing my face and drying my sweat. It lured me into a meditative mood and I sat cross-legged feeling as if I was one with the land. And for over an hour, we didn’t encounter another soul.
When the day was winding down we found a nice tall pagoda, with fewer people and decided to watch the sunset from there. We met friends whom we had run into the two days in Bagan. As the sun made its slow and graceful descend we chatted about our favourite temples and exchange unforgettable tales. It was a much better experience than the day before. The whole plain was paint brushed into golden hue. The legions of ancient temples and timeworn pagodas stood in silence as if waiting for the red hot ball of fire to turn into a soft yellow globe as it descend to touch the land. There was only silence as we witness a sight that no word is adept to express what our eyes were seeing or our emotions the sight was evoking.
The next day, we woke up at 5am and walked the short distance to the first pagoda to watch the sunrise. We climbed the zedi and there were a handful of people there already. The cold wind battered my inadequate jacket and I rubbed my hands together and blew hot air into them, all the while hoping that the sunrise warrant the suffering. When the land slowly woke up and the light from the new day sun caressed the temples and the tress, I had forgotten the cold, I was transfixed. It was just so beautiful; the cold dark haunting temples were given warmth and life by the sun; like children asleep in emerald cribs and being awakened by mother’s touch. I felt so privileged to be there and be a witness to this millennium-old ritual.