As if clambering around a handful of Bagan’s 3,000 ancient temples wasn’t enough.
As if it wasn’t satisfying enough to spend the day in a horse-drawn cart with our guide Min Thu, who explained in great detail Bagan’s extraordinary display of iconic religious and then led us to his home to meet his family, drink some cool water and munch on palm sugar candy.
As if being in Myanmar at this extraordinary time in the country’s history wasn’t a poignant enough reminder of how quickly things can change in this complicated world (while we were bumping along Bagan’s rutted roads, Myanmar’s iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was in Washington, historically meeting with US President Barack Obama).
On this special evening punctuating an extraordinary day, Bagan had one more superlative surprise in store for us as we rolled along to watch the sunset from North Guni temple.
A rainbow cloud.
Rounding the corner near the Dhamayangyi temple, we spotted a wispy multicolored cloud sprouting from an enormous black cloud bank that hung over the Irawaddy River.
“Never have I seen such a thing,” breathed Min Thu, stopping his horse so we could watch the celestial display in silence – and in awe. It stretched to the east – tiny colored fingers reaching into the blue twilight skies.
Sunsets over Bagan are legendary. Shades of orange, lavender and yellows have been the subjects of countless travel articles and blogs. But this, a small piece of white cloud, painted with purple, yellow, blue, orange and green? This was different, special. And it morphed before our eyes, the colors becoming more vivid as the streak of cloud reached for the heavens, turned faint and disappeared.
Arriving at the North Guni temple for the real show, we climbed up the narrow stairs and sat on one of the temple’s terraces. Before us lay the Irawaddy River; behind it, a mountain range to the west.
A monk’s chant forewarned lilting music which wafted across the plains from an enormous nearby monastery where pilgrims were kicking off a week-long festival. The sound echoed off the sides of temples that over the centuries have borne witness to countless festivals as well as cyclones, earthquakes and the respectful curiosity of millions of tourists.
Flashes of lightning cast periodic white darts into the hulking black cloud mass that hung over the mountain range. To the north, the brilliant orange glow of a Bagan sunset separated the cloud bank from the horizon as if the sun were reasserting its rightful spot on the evening’s celestial menu.
Chattering of birds, gentle music from the monastery and the occasional happy banter of the temple’s only other occupants – a group of intrepid German tourists who had somehow climbed to the temple’s peak – provided the soundtrack to one of the world’s truly humbling panoramas. Small wonder that Bagan is being advanced as a World Heritage Site.
Before us stretched kilometer after kilometer of relentlessly flat land dotted with countless temples, pagodas, monasteries and libraries, many of them dating to the 11th to 13th centuries. This is a mystical place of enormous religious significance to this expansive country of intrigue.
One guidebook, comparing Bagan to Angkor Wat’s sprawling complex of temples, used a food analogy to make an appropriate distinction. Angkor is like a vast Chinese buffet; Bagan is like tapas, to be taken in small bites and savored incrementally.
Like the gorgeous temples of Bagan, Myanmar has a very special flavor.
Indigenous people and their traditions are more omnipresent here than many other Asian countries. Shan women and children streak their faces with thanakha, a mustard-yellow paste pounded from an indigenous tree. The stuff is sold everywhere, and a couple of young women painted Gabi before she could protest. Their direct attack sales technique failed miserably.
Men and women wear traditional dress. To a westerner’s eye, the men in their floor-length wraparound “pesus” stand out more, but the women in their “longyi” are equally demonstrative of this culture’s commitment to sartorial traditions.
Throughout the Bagan region, paying reverence to the temples is as woven into the culture as is the importance of tourism dollars – Min Thu tells us that 80% of the 1,000 people in his village make their livings from tourism. There are strict development and visitation regulations and signs direct visitors to leave their shoes behind when entering the temples. In some places, “ladies prohibited” signs speak to the fact that some traditions refuse to die in the face of modern trends.
Later, we paused to watch a progression of novice monks walking single file through Min Thu’s village collecting alms and the last meal of the day. Since novices and monks are prohibited from eating after noon the morning’s two meals have extra significance. The novices stop at Min Thu’s aunt’s house for a sweet bean rice cake snack, each accepting a cake in their alms bowl before returning to the dusty street.
There are extra cakes, and we get to sample one as Min Thu explains the home’s architecture, history and construction. I ask Min Thu to tell his aunt that she has a beautiful smile. He does, she beams, and he says she will probably float away on the breeze from the compliment.
Like countless others, this village flourishes in an intricate weave of relationships and cooperation. Food, security, family, safety – all are community concerns, tended to carefully like the water which is pumped every morning from the Irawaddy into enormous holding tanks at the village’s center. Women collect water for their homes twice a day – morning and night – and we see several of them making their way along a dusty street with two-gallon buckets balanced on their heads.
Life is simple here, isolated but reliant on the outside for the lifeblood of money. The ebb and flow of tourism –coupled with an occasional natural disaster such as the 1975 earthquake that ravaged over 2,000 temples in the region – makes for an uncertain existence.
And as Myanmar opens to the mixed blessing of foreign direct investment, so begins in earnest the inevitable conflict between globalization and progress versus cultural traditions and the benefits that come with being removed from the rest of the world.
Leaving the village, we stopped for lunch with Min Thu at Sarabar III, a tiny roadside establishment where Aung San Suu Kyi ate with the locals on a recent trip to Bagan.
Here, main courses defer to the tasty array of condiments. Steaming bowls of chicken, pork or beef curries are served with white rice and accompanied by eight or so side dishes. Tomato salad, tamarind leaf salad, chili paste and marinated bean sprouts were quickly replenished as we tucked into the vegetable curry and vegetable tempura.
Seated on tiny plastic stools a few feet from where our horse had prodigiously emptied its bladder only moments before, we happily worked our way through the mix of spicy, salty, slightly sour and mildly bitter side dishes. Realizing that the bowls would be refilled until we stopped, we surrendered and paid the bill – $6 bill for three of us.
Later, as I sit on the temple’s edge and watched the sun paint the Bagan landscape with yet another astonishing array of colors and textures, I can feel the antiquity of this place. A minute seems to become an hour, an entire day an eternity in a place so steeped in history.
World events seem far away, an abstraction in a place where 3,000 ancient structures remain the only visual breaks to a flat landscape.
As is the case with the rest of Myanmar, change has arrived in Bagan with astonishing speed in the form of a shift in political policy which is opening Myanmar’s gates. But for those who dwell in this hot, dusty and magical part of this enormously complex country, one gets a feeling that their lives remain constant. Like the millions of tourists who have swarmed across this land and the millions more soon to come, they are transient visitors in the shadows of these timeless structures of dignity and grace.