Cycling down the dusty road in the early morning light, I looked up and was greeted by a pick up truck full of smiling women. All were dressed in beautiful longyi, with bright coloured scarves draped over their shoulders. I smiled. “Mingalabar!” They called. “Mingalabar!” I called back to them and waved. They waved and we stared and smiled until we went in separate directions.
On the pavement children in their green school longyi waved at me as they lugged their woven satchels to class. I raced some schoolboys on bikes until I had to pull back to miss a pot hole. Scooter after scooter whizzed by, but there were relatively few cars and I felt happy cycling here after a few months dodging traffic in hectic Beijing.
We had arrived in Bagan the previous afternoon and were up reasonably early, ready to explore the ancient temples (built between the 11th and 13th century!). We borrowed bikes for free from our hotel and set off with no plan, just a simple map. It wasn’t long before we were at our first cluster of temples.
Pulling off to the side of the road, we headed into the grass to walk amongst the ancient buildings. There was no one else around. I couldn’t believe how calm and peaceful it was after the bustle of the main road. We entered out first temple (take your shoes off before you go in) and were greeted by a Burmese man. Most temples in Bagan do not have any kind of guide or guard at them and you are free to enter as you wish. Near some temples, such as this one, there are sometimes local people selling paintings. The man spoke English quite well and told us about the amazing Buddha statue in the temple. It was the first of it’s kind I had ever seen; there was another Buddha peaking out of it’s tummy!
Of course, I ended up buying one of the man’s sand paintings. It was the first of many paintings I would buy that day (if you’re lucky, I may even give you one!) but I always found the people selling them so friendly and helpful. In one temple a woman and her toddler child gave us a guided tour, taught us some Burmese words and used a flashlight to show us details on the wall and on the statues that we would otherwise not have been able to see in the dim light. In another, a man gave us historical information, told us about the earthquake in the 1970s, showed us little details (such as centuries old original wall paintings) and told us about explorers who had stolen statues from temples. It was always in my mind that many people in Burma (Myanmar) live in extreme poverty and they are just trying to make a living. I was happy to buy trinkets or tip people a dollar or so whenever I could. However, I never buy things from children as I believe it encourages them to drop out of school.
As we continued our exploration of this area, we saw another traveller who told us to climb some steps on the side of a temple. We did and looked out at the breathtaking sight of hundreds of hundreds of centuries old temples. Although some have been restored, it’s hard to believe how long these ancient buildings have been here. I wondered about the people who built them and what had happened to them (one theory is they were chased away by those damn Mongolians, according to my guide book).
The day was purely magical. We cycled around on our bikes in the sun (it meant a lot coming from cold, smoggy Beijing) stopping at any temple we fancied, often having them all to ourselves or occasionally having a chat and buying a painting from a local person. I’ll never forget the white and gold sparkling in the sun and the gentle sound of the wind chime at one of my favourite temples.
We avoided the larger temples, which were the only ones that seemed crowded, and made our own route, enjoying the calm and peaceful atmosphere. There are hundreds and hundreds of temples so (at least when we were there) you could easily avoid any crowds. It’s hard to believe that all of this is available for you to stop and visit as you wish. The only entrance fee is when you first arrive at Bagan on your boat, bus or aeroplane (one that, unfortunately, goes directly to the government).
When I look back on our time cycling around Bagan, my heart flutters. It really is a magical place and I hope I will visit it again one day. I’m sure as travel to Burma becomes easier, more and more crowds of people will come. I don’t blame them. But I’m glad I got to see it now.