Behold the Ancient Splendor of Bagan

I am not a temple person.  Old, crusty religious monuments languishing in some far off corner of the world are not the reason why I board twenty hour flights and fifteen hour buses.

All that changed when I visited Bagan.

Over 4,000 pagodas saturate the jungly plains of Bagan, situated on the banks of Myanmar’s mightiest river, the Irrawaddy.  Centuries of sun have burnt the temples orange, and they rise out of seas of lush green rice fields like bright islands. 

Our bus arrives at 5 AM, the night still cool, the sky still black.   It had been a long journey, thirteen-hours through pot-holed concrete and lopsided dirt roads with the occasional Buddhist pagoda flickering by on barren stretches of land.  We had luckily scored the last two seats on the bus from Yangon. Unfortunately, they were in the very back row, where every bump was magnified tenfold and the Merman was forced to straddle a sleeping Burmese man in a foldout aisle chair for ten hours. 

“Excuse me.”  The young man sitting next to us taps the Merman on the shoulder.  “Before you go, here is my present to you.”  He holds out two apples, the first fruits we had seen in Myanmar.

The Mer takes one of the apples and furrows his brow.   “How about I take one, you keep one, we will share?”

Lucky for us the gatekeeper was on hand to open up the iron gates of this this brilliantly painted ancient temple.

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In any other country, an ancient pagoda such as this would be the centerpiece of a town, drawing tourists from the globe over.  But in Bagan, there are over 4,000 beautifully carved temples, making a restful afternoon atop a centuries-old historical monument with not a soul in sight an everyday occurrence.

The ancient commingles with the present in Myanmar. A farmer plows his field beneath a temple hundreds of years old.

The young man shakes his head.

“No.  These are for you. My Present.”

The Merman nods and reluctantly accepts.  It was hard at first to receive gifts from the locals when many of them were living in dire poverty and it felt as if we should be giving things to them.  But this gift giving was firmly rooted in the Burmese’s expression of Buddhism, by acting kind to strangers they were following the Buddhist way.  It was our responsibility to accept their generosity, failing to do so would be an insult.

We pile out of the bus and into a horse cart destined for our guesthouse.  After sleepy deliberation, we decide to fight our inevitable bus-lag by waking up three hours later for an all day horse cart tour of the ancient city of Bagan. 

The next morning, when we meet our driver, he is ferociously chewing beetle nut-- a narcotic herbal concoction that almost all Burmese men use. 

“I will be showing you around today, along with Rainbow.”  He points to his horse lazily munching flowers growing on the side of the road.

“Oh, Rainbow!  What a beautiful name!”  These Buddhists, I think, it never ends with their peace-loving antics.

“No, no. His name isn’t Rainbow.”  Our driver smiles, his red beetle-nut- stained teethe glimmering in the morning sun. “It’s Rambo.  Like in the movie.  Bang Bang! Strong horse, Rambo! You know?”

“Oh.”  Perhaps Buddhists liked action movies as well.

And thus begins our day in the ancient city of Bagan.  We trot along small paths winding through jungly overgrowth that lead to pagoda after endless pagoda.  Each time we stop and peer into the monuments, we are startled to find statues of Buddha stuffed in every nook and cranny.  Gatekeepers wander out from the shadows and unlock creaky gates so we can climb the many flights of crumbling stairs onto the temple roofs, admiring the view of the monuments spreading out in front of us.

As the day wears on, it gets hot, the sun blazing from a cloudless azure sky. Farmers return from lunch and plow rice fields, snaking their ox around crumbling pagodas. We stop at a large temple with a 75 foot gold Buddha, and meet an entire village getting off a rickety old school bus to visit the monument.  One young girl spies me and giggles, tapping her mother on the shoulder.  They wave at me and I wave back.  Slowly, they approach.

“Can I take a picture with you?” The girl giggles again.

And then it begins: she takes a photo, and then another girl wants a photo, and then another, and another, all shyly giggling and snaking their arms around my shoulders.  Finally I hold up my hand.

“How about everyone gets in for a photo?”  The crowd erupts in laugher, and all the women crowd around me and the Merman, giving their film camera to a monk to snap a photo. 

“Say cheese,” I mutter, holding up a peace sign, and they all laugh again.

Finally we make it to the “Sunset Pagoda,” a tall five story brick monument that overlooks all of Bagan.  I am awestruck from the day’s journeys, the gorgeous temples, the ancient monasteries, the lush greenery of Myanmar.  We had managed to see just a fraction of what the city had to offer, and undoubtedly tomorrow we would be off again, this time at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise.

We climb the steep temple stairs and watch the sun burn gold, silhouetting the hundreds of pagodas on the horizon.

It is easy to lose yourself in Bagan’s winding paths and thousands of temples.  After riding bikes aimlessly for hours, we climb atop a pagoda to get orientated.

Buddhist pagodas suspended amidst rice fields in the Old City of Bagan.

Pagodas speckle the land in endless miles.

An entire village from northern Myanmar journeyed to Bagan to pay homage to its holy temples; however, I think they may have been more fascinated with the Merman’s techni-colored dredlocks and my blonde mermaid hair then the seventy-five foot gilded Buddha in the temple behind us!