Bagan is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. Many tourists choose to explore the 42 square-kilometre archaeological area on bicycles, but given the stifling heat and the novelty of alternative transport, my sister and I decided to see the sights in luxurious style.
Our transport for the day was a horse and cart. Soe Myin was our driver, but Ruby stole the show. A chestnut horse with dark locks for a mane, she was hardworking, uncomplaining, and docile for the duration of the ten odd hours we were on the road.
Soe Myin spurred her on with a series of clicks of the tongue, only using the whip – a small bamboo stick tipped with a piece of string – to lightly tap her when she got distracted. The cart itself had a seat across the front and a cushioned platform behind so that one person sat beside the driver while the privileged other was able to rest the feet up and watch the dust kick up in swirls behind us.
Bagan is a site to behold. Thousands of golden and red-brick temples are studded across an expanse of scrawny trees and baked earth. Given its scope, grandeur and beauty, it’s incredible more people haven’t included Bagan on their bucket list, just as they do Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu. But perhaps with the opening of Myanmar’s borders this will change.
A bit about Bagan
Bagan’s golden age was fleeting. From 1044 AD, the zealous King Anawrahta’s adoption of Buddhism inspired the erection of hundreds of temples across the desert plains.
The citadel, which was variously called Arimaddapanapura (City of the Enemy Crusher), Tambadipa (Copper Land), and (by the British) Pagan, was abandoned with the arrival of Kublai Khan raiders in 1287. But in their wake, the Bamar civilisation left over 4,000 Buddhist temples.
In 1975, an earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale brought down a number of temples, many of which UNESCO is now helping to rebuild. There are now just over 3,000 archeological sites ready to explore.
Bagan’s vendors have adapted to the tourism business much faster than their counterparts elsewhere in Myanmar. We quickly became weary of friendly locals approaching us to offer information. They typically invited us to explore some more remote aspect of a temple while proffering information about the murals and stucco artwork. But their friendliness was inevitably followed up with “come look at my store, just looking. Buy something small”.
Of course, the first few times this occurred, my sister and I felt obliged to purchase some scrappy little unwanted knick-knack to appease our newfound friends. They thanked us for the lucky money (what they label their first sale of the day) by patting the dirty bills over their other products to spread the good fortune.
If we kept it up, we would spend a day’s budget in an hour. So once we cottoned on to the scheme we hardened ourselves up. The most effective way of shunning hawkers was a simple “we are not buying today” and “we have no money”.
But of course, sometimes it wasn’t so easy. At the small Mahabodhi temple, a woman commented on our profuse sweating and invited us under her shelter.
“You hot! Thanaka very good for you. Keeps you cool. Keeps away wrinkles. I am forty years old, see. Come.”
Escaping from the heat we retreated into her bamboo shack where she showed us the process of rubbing thanaka bark against a stone slab to create the creamy paste all Myanmar women apply to their faces.
True to her word it feels instantly cooling. Much like applying a mud facemask, it began to crack as it dried, but it held our sweat at bay for the remainder of the day. The locals were gleeful to see our paint-smeared faces, our embrace of their traditions. Of course, after the bonding came the sale and given our new friendship we couldn’t help but buy up some squares of pre-ground thanaka.
On the road in the heat of the day, Ruby’s head sank low. Her clip-clopping slowed to a funereal march. Taking off our shoes to access sacred areas became torturous, the tiled ground and red bricks turning to cinders under the sun. Tourists wilted in chairs under shelter around the larger temples. We were grateful our cart had a roof.
There were endless temples: palacial and modest, gold, red-brick and white, crumbling and refurbished, wedding-cake and meat-pie, crowded with tourists and thoroughly abandoned.
The names were foreign, conjuring images of grand empires and regal visitors. Gawdawpalin, Shwegugyi, Thatbinyu. Ananda Pahto, where dozens of wall niches sheltered Buddha statues and bats alike, their eyes following our progress through the high echoing corridors. Sulamani, with its mystical frescoes of Buddha inside. Dhammayangyi, where it is said that if a pin could fit between the bricks, the responsible bricklayer faced the horrible punishment of having his arm cut off.
As the sun lowered, we came to our last temple. We joined a dozen other tourists at the top in the wait for sunset. Below us, an orchestra of cicadas was the only sound to be heard above the chit-chat of mingling tourists. The wind provided relief from the heat, although the hazy sky didn’t signal an inspirational sunset. Sometimes the sun, hidden, illuminated clouds from behind to create rainbow linings. But it disappeared completely before reaching the mountainous horizon.
On the way back into town, Ruby was alive. Her head was raised once more in anticipation of home and rest. Her mane danced and her clip-clopping hooves hit the pavements with increasing speed. She occasionally snorted in approval. After such a long day in the sun we shared her delight in returning to rest. But the images of the many temples of Bagan spread out across a flattened, barren plain remained fondly in our thoughts as we retired for the night.
Just one journey to Myanmar will give you so many travel stories to tell and memories you’ll keep and treasure forever. Read some more of my own other Burmese adventures today.