Myanmar: Bagan - where temples are in a holy overdose

Bagan, possibly the most sacred place in Myanmar, and one of the most known in the Buddhist world.



It is usually advised to take an e-bike (scooter) to ride across the temples, but I feel so intimidated by the traffic, and the constant honking and illogical movement. So, I take the "brilliant" decision that I will WALK from Nyaung U to Bagan (it's just over 5km, without all deviations, and probably 10km with all temple drifts). Later I will bitterly regret, when I will need to find the most random kinds of transportation any time I need to move - from a horse carriage (!), through an open-air van for workers (!?)...to the back of the scooter of some poor kid (!!?).

I am literally the only lame duck walking on the road. At some point I wonder if I am on the right way and where are ALL these temples when suddenly they start erupting from everywhere. There are over 2200 temples in Bagan and one could hardly imagine what that means unless they really see it with their eyes. Wherever I look in the fields, on all sides of the dusty paths, there are dozens of temples of all sizes, as little as a chalet or as big as a gigantic cathedral. In some you could enter inside, in some you could climb the walls and get to the roof to get your breath taken away by a spectacular view, in some there is an area where you could chill and sit down. The largest ones are very visited and especially around the full moon, they are a bit overloaded with buses with local and foreign tourists. Hence, I avoid them. In the beginning I enter each temple, which could be entered ...until one point when I actually lose interest. There's only so much murals, Buddhas and candles I can be amazed by. What will turn out is that what is more exciting beyond the temples, are the people I meet on the way.






Myo temple and Ei Ei, the girl who had nothing and knew everything


Finding this temple is my most exciting experience of the day. Next to many of the temples there are families who live there and are considered "temple keepers". They usually clean the temple, hold the key, tell tourists to take their shoes off, offer flashlights and sell some items. Sadly, most of the time all these activities are performed by little kids. There I find a little girl, called Ei Ei. She accompanies me inside the Myo temple and tells me the story behind each Buddha statue, what his hands and eyes want to say, what they symbolize. I finally learn what's behind these thousands of temples in Bagan. Apparently around 13th century Bagan (at that time Pagan) was the richest city in the Pagan empire and was full of noble people. Since they were highly devoted to Buddhism, they believed that if one builds a temple, that will bring very good karma in their next lives. Hence, apparently they went big for the karma thing!

The little Ei Ei is amazing. She is just 10 years old, doesn't study much English at school (unfortunately, doesn't go much to school, either, as she can't afford it) and she is not only completely fluent but also has an amazing accent. She says she "learned it from the tourists and from reading all books of George Orwell, which some tourist gave her"! She has 5 siblings and earns the money for the whole family through her talks with tourists, as her parents are uneducated and unemployed (father had a drinking problem and is half paralyzed). When we finish the walk and talk around the temple she invites me to their house to meet her family and to put some Tanaka on my face as "I was very white and my face will burn" (Tanaka is this "thing" which is basically a powder from some nice-smelling tree turned into a cream, which all women, and some men, wear constantly on their faces - no matter whether people are from a village or a big city, dressed traditionally or in modern style, they all wear Tanaka). I agree because I want to meet the family and see their house. I am simply amazed to discover how people live just like that with no walls, no electricity and still have this warm and hopeful spirit. I guess the good karma in the area has something to do with it...








Bupaya temple and my 10 minutes of glory

I have been walking for quite a while, hangover hitting hard, and I haven't reached even the middle of my route. I see a guy with a horse carriage who asks me where I am going and I immediately jump in the back so I can eventually get to the river. The temple by the river has a promising view, but way too many tourists. 




I sit down to rethink my plan for the day and there it starts. One girl (not speaking any English of course) comes and sits to me posing for a photo...just as if I was a statue sitting over there. Then they take turns with her girlfriends, they apparently all want to be photographed with me. Fair enough. Then more people start coming and piling around me, exchanging phones and cameras to pose with me. And I am just quietly sitting there... Then some Colombian tourists start taking photos of me being photographed (!?) and later ask me if I was famous. Then more random people join, some even send their kids to sit in my lap. And I am just sitting there, can't even move because everyone wants to hug me...thank God and the good Karma that no one actually had the intention to rob me as I am completely helpless - just sitting there and enjoying my 10 minutes of glory.







Thabeik Hmouk sunset temple and my private (workers') van

Across Asia one could frequently see those vans, whose rare part is open and covered by something like a cage (for people not to fall off). Usually they drive workers to their work places, and sometimes people from one village share the expenses (and the van) to move to another one. They are always a funny overcrowded picture. 



I am unsuccessfully trying to find some means of transportation to get to the further temples, where the sunset is seen. As I figure there is literally nothing to rent, one guy approaches me with a big smile and red teeth (yes, people in Myanmar chew this horrible betel nut leafs all day long and irreparably color their teeth in red-brownish color). He asks in some sort of English if I needed transport and points at his friend, another smiling red-teeth guy, driver of one of those open-air vans. I figure the van guy will be my friend and immediately jump in, renting the whole thing for myself for almost no money. He drops me off at some very remote temple, which is supposed to have a great sunset view and to be "less known" among tourists...but I later figure out the sunset is seen from some wall by the temple, and I want to be on top!




Ta Wet Hpaya sunset temple and how I almost got a local kid in prison

I strike a conversation with this 12-year old boy who is selling post cards and trousers (it is simply amazing how all these kids have learned English just among the tourists, I have big hopes for their future). He quickly convinces me that there is another temple with "much better for sunsets" and I jump on his scooter, offering him some money if he comes to pick me up and drive me home after the sunset - he agrees and immediately turns into my knight.

I am on the roof of the temple and the sunset is beautiful. It is a little misty and cloudy in the beginning but gets clearer every moment. Just when the sun goes down and I think it was beautiful but not spectacular, the clouds get colored in all shades of purple and red and I am simply drowning in the good Karma and unique spirit of the place. For a fact, I wish there were less tourists so I could fully embrace the atmosphere, but I somehow manage to filter their constant murmuring.






Towards the end of the Sun performance, my little knight appears on the roof of the temple to pick me up. Then he guiltily explains that he can't drive me to Nyaung U because the police will get him, if they caught him driving a foreigner. But then he drives me to the main road, where he makes some calls and suddenly some other dude, a friend of his, appears from somewhere in the dark with another scooter and makes me a sign to jump on the back...I am like "whatever" and I jump. Transportless and stupid, I happily make it to my guest house, ready for another night in Nyaung U.

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