Life and Beauty at the Temples of Bagan

The alarm clock set at unholy hours was becoming a habit, by 5.30am we were already riding our bikes down a pitch black road. All we could see was some people, waiting for a lift like ghosts in the dark, and the silhouettes of stupa as the black of the sky started turning dark blue. By the time we reached Shwe-San-Daw Paya temple there was already enough light to distinguish the pagodas complex around us.  We climbed the impervious steps to the terraces, finding the best spot to observe the spectacle of nature undisturbed. Us and a hundred people around us.

The hue of the sky and the candy-floss mist inundating the temples in the plain beneath us was a sight that left everyone speechless. As the burning globe emerged from the verdant eastern hills the atmosphere felt suspended, like if everyone there was holding their breath. The magic was broken by a minute Chinese girl who dropped her phone on the head of a scary looking gigantic Dutch woman, standing on the lower terrace, with a loud crack. A fight was highly likely, but disappointingly nothing happened so everybody rushed off to their tour buses and bucket lists. We and few others indulged a little longer to admire the flock of hot-air balloons raising and slowly gliding over the Old Town.

Hot air balloons over Bagan

We spent the rest of the day aimlessly cycling on dusty paths, choosing the least busy way at each intersection, which is a very good way to explore Old Bagan for those who don’t have any particular archaeological ambition. We stopped for lunch at an excellent vegetarian restaurant, which had the typical Lonely Planet crowd but was nice especially considering the tourist-hassling, hard-selling area. We ate a delicious lunch within the idyllic frame of a garden populated by fearless birds and water-lilies, shielded from the noise and dust.

The way back to Nyang-U was much, much longer than planned. We chose to cycle along the spectacular old road, the one closer to the river. The many temples and stupas scattered either side of the road were washed by the orange light of sunset. It’s pretty easy to climb them to admire the sun fall behind the rugged horizon but we pushed on until we reached Shwe-zi-gon Paya, a thousand-years-old golden temple.
As if we hadn’t visited enough sacred sites for a day we park our bikes and step in. The only two foreign tourists in the complex, we were quite standing out amongst the flocks of locals in their festive attire meandering in the richly decorated courtyard. A group of them even insisted to take photos with us and of us. It felt a bit awkward but also, I admit, rather gratifying.

Shwe-zi-gon Paya Temple in Nyang-U

I’m not sure I managed to properly convey our experience but I hope it’s clear that it was a pretty intense day in terms of sightseeing. It doesn’t happen every other day to see such a vast expanse of heath, palms and ancient temples. Only that few of them were actually ancient. As a matter of fact most of them were brand new, built by the military dictatorship with modern bricks and unfashionable concrete. Does this knowledge lessen the value of our memories? Surely we had a great day and the whole area is stunning, but knowing that the former inhabitants had been forcibly pushed out to New Bagan is bothersome. With this dilemma resonating in my head I have no doubt about the richest invaluable moment in Old Bagan…

Looking for a place where to tuck into the fried delicacies we had just bought we stopped near one of the few trees, seeking repair in its meagre shadow. We asked permission to a woman camping nearby with her family. The private property concept in Myanmar is tricky to grasp, but we asked out of courtesy. Not only they had no problem with us camping there but they invited us to their table, gave us dishes and a cloth and served us green tea and tea leaf salad. We were shocked by such a selfless display of generosity, even if our communication was based mostly on gesture and very, very basic English. When the time to leave came we were baffled, “why did they do that and what shall we do now?“. We thought that simply leaving would have been rude, but also offering them money would have been offensive, tarnishing the beauty of their gesture. Only now, few months later, I’m coming to terms with this perplexity. What they did is perfectly natural, and maybe we too should take a bit of that spontaneity back.

Family in Bagan, Myanmar

Useful Info about Bagan

Sunset: Shwe-San-Daw Paya is the only temple officially open to the public. However some other temples are occasionally accessible. Remember to ask your hosts or your most trusted locals so that you can enjoy the sunset over Bagan in near solitude.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Large Golden Pot Guesthouse, which we recommend to avoid at all costs! However Nyang-U (north of Old Bagan, where the ferry to/from Mandalay docks) is probably the best choice in terms of location and facilities

Hot Air Balloons: This is supposed to be a unique breath-taking experience, and it’d better be as a ticket comes for little over 300USD. It’s difficult to bag a ticket, especially during high season, and checking a few months in advance might not be enough. The first company to run this service is Eastern Safaris but other are popping up to cover the high demand, like Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle Ballooning.

Moon restaurant Be Kind to Animals, is the restaurant we went to. On the other side of the road you’ll find Yar Pyi Vegetarian Restaurant which wittily claims that even though Lonely Planet doesn’t talk about them yet, lovely people do.

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After being in Rome a few times without even looking at the Coliseum I realised that there's more to travel than sightseeing: meeting the local culture is what, 10 years later, determined the birth of this blog.

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