Our Experience Inside the Untouched Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
As our plane cut through the dry, clear sky, the faint outlines of hundreds of temples began to stand out against the rust-colored earth. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I gasped at the sight of each new temple rising toward the sky.
This was the reason we came to Myanmar. Intrigued by the prospect of exploring even a tiny fraction of the Bagan region’s nearly 3,000 temples, our entire time in Myanmar centered around dedicating ample time to roam the dilapidated structures, some of which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries.
However, as our plane touched down Dan scrambled to find a restroom, even a corner removed from the crowds would do. His face, pallid and green, could not hide the horrendous food poisoning from which he was suffering. Our cab wound through the dusty, arid countryside and past dozens of temples, their true size now revealed as they stretched forth through the sparsely vegetated desert.
Unfortunately, the temples lining the drive from the airport to our old, mold-filled hotel room would be the only ones we would see that day. Dan, now too weak to even stand, collapsed on the dirty bed and remained atop the worn linens well into the night when he was finally able to hold down a cipromycin antibiotic.
Sadly, as Dan’s prognosis improved, I became ill. The next morning found us both ordering plain toast and steamed rice from the hotel restaurant and shunning our original idea to explore dozens of Bagan’s temples by bike. Instead, we hired a car and driver and set off through the hot, dry plains in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle.
The narrow, paved roadways once again served as the main artery for all traffic not just the few cars on the roadway. Ox carts and pedestrians lined the side of the roadways, and tourists on bikes swerved their way in and out of the long, dirt pathways leading to the mostly red brick temples rising from the same russet-colored ground.
Bagan, once the Pagan capital of the region, was once home to more than 10,000 religious structures built by local leaders and those with immense wealth. In fact, one could say Bagan’s unique skyline is the result of the region’s deep-rooted corruption and sin. According to our guide, the rich, who often obtained their money through less-than moral means, would seek the advice of Bhikshus or Buddhist Priests who would tell them how many temples to build to atone for their sins.
Our driver took us directly to one of the largest and most popular temples in Bagan, Shwezigon. Still weakened by dehydration and lack of food, we wandered through the baroque buildings surrounding the elevated golden stupa in the center. While most of Bagan’s temples are well maintained and still the center of active worship, Shwezigon temple and several others are the focal point of current religious activity.
At the Ananda temple, built in 1105 by a king, we sat quietly in an open courtyard surrounded by the ancient structure, the outside walls scarred by time, and watched intently as a group of young, barefoot, bald-headed monks clad in crimson robes played amongst each other. It was seemingly so simple. It was as if we were watching the innocence of childhood in a relatively remote, undeveloped community; but, while it seemed so elementary and basic, I couldn’t help but wonder if Myanmar was like many Southeast Asian countries where young boys were forced into monkhood and their desire for other childhood pursuits ignored. Still, there was something so pure about the scene unfolding before our eyes.
Inside the Dhammayangyi Temple we were greeted by Ky Mo, a small, squirrelly yet relaxed and friendly man who looked not all of 18 years much less his 30 some odd years old. Ky Mo, his intentions hidden, but not altogether lost on these now-experienced travelers, led us through Dhammayangyi Temple detailing the features that set the ancient temple apart from the rest. We were led to the only Chinese Buddha to be found inside a Bagan temple and pulled up a seat to listen to the stories of the king who ordered the temple’s construction in the 10th century.
Somehow the conversation retreated from us asking questions about Dhammayangyi’s history to Ky Mo asking questions about the outside world, but more importantly what the outside world, and in particular we, thought about Myanmar. Overwhelmed by the task of explaining what “the outside” looked like and how it operated, we suffered through an awkward silence before Ky Mo pulled from his pocket a thin blue book filled with currency from countries across the globe. “We can’t go there,” he said matter of factly, “So, I collect money from people who come here.”
Something about this moment caught me, and I froze. For the first time, I understood the impact of Myanmar’s oppressive military regime on a personal level. While it’s simple to see each and every Burmese citizen has been impacted by the country’s closed-door policy and decisions made by an overbearing military regime, it was the first time I understood the effect on an elemental level. Yes, the country is ripe with poverty and void of opportunity, you see it everywhere you go, and hear the stories from nearly each and every person you interact with. Ky Mo may not have been impacted directly by violence, but he is a product of poverty and lack of opportunity. Still, I couldn’t grasp his disconnection with the world beyond until he unfurled his book of bills and proudly showed us each currency from New Zealand, Canada, UK and the United States to Bangladesh, Argentina and Oman. This was his world. This was his connection – right here in his back pocket. His intelligence, desire to learn more, his desire to succeed, his need to be connected with the world beyond Myanmar’s boarders, and ultimately his craving to connect with a life other than the life he knows were revealed in one simple moment.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t help him grow his collection with what he truly wanted – an American $2.00 bill. But, we did offer him our support by purchasing a knock-off sand painting he was trying pass as his own. I walked away from Dhammayangyi temple with not only a greater appreciation for the ancient architecture and the religious history and tradition of Bagan, but also the deeper impact of the country’s political upheavals on the Burmese. Ky Mo wants the same things we all do – to succeed and to provide for his family. But, like many of us, he also wants to reach past his own life and learn of foreign people, places and politics. Ky Mo is a man of the world trapped within a time warp without the opportunity to reach his dreams.
The remainder of the day was spent temple hopping, each one offering something different from the last and each one offering a cool reprieve from the heat. Eventually, as the sun waned in the west we climbed the steps of what’s now referred to as sunset temple to watch the sun sink from the sky. A deep orange haze set the sky ablaze igniting the terracotta-colored temples dotting the landscape. As my gaze fell upon the horizon, I couldn’t help but revel in the uniqueness of the moment, which coupled with the intriguing people, culture and history made for one of our most exhilarating destinations yet.
The next two days, feeling slightly more invigorated by a bland breakfast of toast and jam, we set out on bikes to reach Bagan’s more remote, less-trafficked temples. We spent the entire day peddling through the heat and relaxing inside the cool walls that hold not only reprieve from the heat, but also centuries of some of the world’s the most extraordinary history.