Backpack packed. Breakfast boxed. E-bike charged. Map in hand.
We were ready to step into a world where the past has been preserved on the beautiful plains of Bagan.
Last night the hotel receptionist circled the temples on our map that are famous for sunrise. But one of the many travel lessons we have learned is to avoid the most popular locations. I told Eric the name of three more secluded sunrise options that I had read about, and we found their locations on our map.
As we rode down a dark, unknown road the headlight of the scooter went out. Great.
No streetlights or headlights. Had a map, but no road signs. The only signs were for temples, but it was too dark to read them. Do we go straight or turn right?
We pulled over. Both of us looked at two paper maps and one big map on the side of the road. A local on a motorbike stopped to point us in the right direction.
We rode north for a couple of minutes. Then we pulled over again to check the map. The same guy circled us with his motorbike. He offered to help, but he was also trying to lure us to a different temple than the one we wanted to see. It made me uneasy that he followed us. Yeah, we could have used some help, but he kept trying to convince us to go in the opposite direction, like we were as ignorant as fish that bite the sharp hook disguised by a worm.
We’ve been through situations like this before, when it seems like someone wants to help, yet they take us somewhere we wouldn’t choose to be, usually out of the way, and then ask us to pay them. The roads were empty because it was still so early. I told Eric I didn’t trust the guy, and we started the bike.
Now we headed east. Time was running out as the sky’s deep, dark blue hue began to lighten. We didn’t want to miss sunrise, so we pulled over to ask an older couple at the entrance of another temple. When we stopped the bike the man immediately asked for money to enter, even though we already paid for tickets to explore the archeological zone.
We expressed that we just needed help and didn’t want to enter this particular temple. The couple couldn’t speak English, but they understood the name of the temple I was looking for. They used their hands and body language to help direct us.
We headed west then south… backwards. I finally realized we needed to read the signs for temples. Sounds simple, but they were small, dark, and by the dozens… or hundreds. Because we didn’t have a headlight, we had to slow down, pull over, and shine light on each sign.
Somehow we got lucky when we saw the sign for Lowka Oushang. It was closed, but just across a dirt road, a stone’s throw away, stood a tall stupa with stairs carved onto each side. We climbed to the second tier and sat beside each other with our boxed breakfasts.
The famous and popular Shwesandaw stood in the distance, and dozens of tourists in colorful shirts crowded together on its upper level awaiting sunrise. I was grateful only three other people were on the stupa with us. It was quiet and intimate.
We sat together on top of this ancient structure as the night turned to day. Clouds prevented us from seeing the sunrise, but it was still a spectacular view of the pagodas and temples peeking over the dark green crowns of trees. Behind the distant morning mist we could see the outline of mountains that loom over the Irrawady river like hazy shadows.
Watching the sky and earth from the edge of this man-made monument, I felt a sense of wonder.. and curiosity.. and absurdity to ever know or understand the mysteries that stand before us, beneath us, and all around.
Could all of these structures really have been built to honor Buddha? Why are they placed so sporadically all over this particular city? Were the builders trying to communicate with someone or something above?
The peaks of even the smallest stupas reach higher than the trees. The big temples look like Kingdoms with a capital K, which makes sense since they were constructed under the orders of kings.
Rendering feelings of peace, awe, and confusion, I thought, “Where in the world are we?” It was all so interesting, and the day had only begun.
After sunrise we drove around without any destinations in mind. We just rode.
Turning on curved, dirt roads with the map tucked in Eric’s pocket, we saw stupa-ruins rising above the canopies of tamarind and palm trees. We saw the majestic silhouette of mountains scaling in the distance, and I wished we could get closer to them.
The first temple we went inside was Thagya Hit.
A large statue of Buddha sat behind an abandoned alter. The temple’s keeper, a small man who was eager to share his knowledge, shined his flashlight on the walls, revealing original eight-hundred-year-old art. As he shined his flashlight and led us through the temple, a coiled snake startled me. But after a closer look we saw that the reptilian creature was actually a pair of mating lizards. With their bodies entwined they appeared to make the infinity symbol.
We looked up at the Buddha image etched into the walls with an eroded face. The keeper said it cracked off during an earthquake in 1975. It was strange how the face was the only part affected by the disaster . . .
The temple’s keeper led us up a hidden stairwell. Standing on the top tier of Thagya Hit we could see the Irawaddy River enclosed by pagoda-studded hills. The keeper pointed to the north. “Mandalay,” he said. Then he pointed to the southwest, “Yangon.”
The Irawaddy, also called the Ayeyardwady, flows north to south into the Indian Ocean. From the second story of the temple we could see the tallest pagodas in Bagan. The keeper pointed to an imposing monument in the distance. “Htilominlo,” he said.
We went there next. The Htilominlo Temple, a massive monument built in 1218, was named after King Htilominlo. Inside were four Buddha statues facing the cardinal directions. People kneeled before the shrines, praying with incense and lotus offerings.
Faded murals of Buddha were illustrated on the walls. My favorite parts of this temple were the tiles that tell stories with scenes from the Jataka tales. In Sanskrit, Jataka means “birth history.” The scenes portray images that represent the life of Siddharta Gautama. There was a charming quality to the tarnished art within the damaged walls.
We continued riding down random dirt paths, each one leading us to another temple or pagoda. Stupas substituted power lines. Pagoda crowns rose to the clouds like skyscrapers.
Almost all of the pagodas are topped with a spired ornament called a hti, which means umbrella. The hti represents protection of the Three Jewels; the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Out next stop was Shwegugyi Pagoda. Shwegugyi, meaning “the Golden Cave,” was built in the 11th century while Bagan was under the reign of King Alaungsithu. Giant, ancient teak doors were propped open at each entry. Cracks reached like rivers of veins from the walls to the ceilings from the 1975 earthquake. Original Sanskrit inscriptions and Pali poems were engraved on the walls.
After exploring the temple we bought a sand painting from a teenaged girl named Eirzer. She had completed hundreds of pieces, which made me wonder whether or not she goes to school.
“My family is very poor so I cannot go to school. I help my family by making art,” she told us.
Eirzer has never been to school, but she speaks English well, knows some Thai, and is a wonderful artist. She even explained the cultural, mythological, and religious meanings of her creations.
Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest pagoda in Bagan, could be seen towering over trees from most of the other temples. Thatbyinnyu, meaning “the Omniscient,” was built in the 12th century. The name represents the state Buddha achieved through meditation, an omnipresence through time and space.
Adjacent to Thatbyinnyu stands Ananda temple, one of Bagan’s most visited temples. The name was derived from Siddhartha Gautama’s first cousin and loyal companion, Ananda. In Pali Sanskrit, Ananda means “bliss.”
We experienced a strange moment of synchronicity at Ananda. At the entrance hallway, we stopped to look at books about the culture and art of Myanmar. Suddenly the shop keeper handed Eric Burmese Days by George Orwell. At first we were like, “What the….?” Because out of ALL the books she had, she handed Eric one by his favorite author. It was almost creepy. “How did she know?” we thought. She wasn’t even haggling, or annoying us, or trying to get us to buy anything. She just handed it to him and turned away. Then we were like, “Whoa… what just happened?” It was a magically aligned moment.
Of course we bought it as a souvenir.
Within Ananda are four standing Buddhas facing the four directions of a compass. The statues of Buddha are made from teak and adorned with gold leaf.
Kassapa and Kakusandha, the south and north-facing statues of standing Buddha, are said to be original. Both replicas have hands placed in dhammachakka or dharmachakra, a mudra that symbolizes the Buddha’s first sermon, teaching the path to nirvana.
Kongamana, the east-facing image of Buddha, holds between the thumb and middle finger a small pill-like sphere. This mudra symbolizes Buddha offering the cure to suffering. The photos unfortunately do not capture the great height of these statues.
Gautama, the west-facing image of Buddha, is displayed with his hands in abhaya mudra. This mudra symbolizes peace, benevolence, and fearlessness. It is said that this gesture was used by Siddharta Guatama when he was attacked by an elephant.
There is a sad legend about the monks who designed the Ananda temple. Eights monks came to King Kyanzittha seeking alms. They told the king about the temple where they meditated in the Himalayas. King Kyanzittha invited them to his palace to receive a detailed description of the temple. He then requested to have the Nandamula Cave temple re-created on the Bagan plains. After the Ananda temple was constructed, King Kyanzittha had the architects killed so the temple could not be imitated anywhere else.
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While admiring the beauty and magnificence of the temples, one can’t help but think about the labor involved to build such masterpieces. The temples were built under the order of kings. People worked like slaves.
Eric and I pondered the deeper meaning of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama would not want to see people slaving and suffering under the ruling of kings to build these magnificent structures used for worship. He did not want to be worshipped.
Siddhartha meditated under trees, in the mountains, beside rivers. Not in giant temples built by poor men under royal rulers, where people sell incense and golden leaves to place on larger-than-life statues.
Somehow the truths and philosophies of Buddhism got buried beneath rituals and religious ideas.
* * *
It was a day of recovery and discovery, exploration and imagination. So much, yet so little remains of these archaeological masterpieces. Some of the monuments have survived a thousand years, and we felt lucky to see them with our own eyes, to learn the history, to experience the culture.
At the end of the day we started hunting a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Because we seek seclusion, we didn’t want to go to the Shwesandaw temple, famous for the sunset views. Riding down dirt roads without direction or a destination, we discovered a hidden treasure. We climbed to the top of the ancient pagoda to watch the sun’s descent behind the stupa-studded horizon.
Pagodas peeked over the plains.
We were on an adventure.. Physically, we were tourists sitting on an archaeological wonder. But as we sat there, I kept contemplating… questioning stories I had read, and creating stories of my own. As I looked at the Earth adorned with these sacred, ancient structures, I made up theories about why they were built. I went on my own inner adventure.
I was lost in the beauty and colors and confusion of the mystery of being. So much doesn’t make sense, but I’m addicted to the confusion…
And he, my Eric, my partner in this magnificent life journey, was golden. He was enchanting.
I was enchanted. The images of Old Bagan are distilled into my memories.