The seed for going to Myanmar was seeing the fields of temples at Bagan in a film I saw last fall. It was just a glimpse, but I was awestruck when the camera panned over them, and said out loud, Where is that? I must go there.
As soon as I landed at Nyuang U, near Bagan, I asked my driver to take me somewhere I could see the sunset. I ignored the people selling sand paintings and longhi and climbed quickly up the sides of the Shwe-san-daw Paya. When I turned around at the top of the pagoda and saw the reality, I welled up.
There are more than 3000 temples, pagodas, and little stupas dotting these plains, built in the 11th and 12th centuries. Like most immense feats of human architecture, Bagan is a product of some serious obsession, a king who was converted to Theraveda Buddhism. Overwhelmed with fervor for his new religion, he plundered other places for sacred relics and began building fields of temples and stupas in honour of his god. His successors continued the project until sometime in the 13th century when they fell from power, possibly from Mongol hordes.
There have been some really odd, archeologically unsound renovations. Like this little one — rebuilt with about six different materials, to an imagined idea of what was there.
Other terraces have been randomly patched with concrete, or whole stupas lifted and rebuilt onto lumpy plinths.
It doesn’t matter, though. Wandering among them, on my feet and bicycle, alone, I was myself, and I was everyone in history who ever wanted to find awe.
I sat and wandered among the sites at sunset and sunrise, in the heat of midday, hopping barefoot across thorny ground and plucking prickles out of my feet after misunderstanding the “shoes off” zones. Sitting quietly at the top of Buledi while American tourists burst to the top loudly, literally exclaimed “GOLLY,” and then sweat not from heat but from nerves as they tried to make their way down again. Me, silent, wind, epic hope and quiet everyday worship all around me.
One morning, I wanted to go to a somewhat distant site on my bicycle for sunrise, and I was a little concerned I wouldn’t be able to find it. I asked Soelinn, the 18 year old who couldn’t control his horse, to come with me.
At 4:50 am, I pedaled out of my hotel grounds, wobbly on a bike with an unfamiliar centre of gravity, high handlebars made more unstable by the camera gear piled into the old fashioned basket. Later in the day, I found myself gripping hard enough to hurt wrists as I try to keep the bike balanced on sand. As I sailed past the horsecart stand, Soelinn appeared, waiting for me, huge smile. I wasn’t really nervous about being on my own, but I was heading somewhere very isolated and planned to climb alone up some 1000 year old steep steps.
We rode further than I expected, this turn, then that one. Soelinn stopping first at the wrong temple, our bikes stuck in sand and pushed by hand. Soelinn was the perfect companion. Quiet, sweet, present. He solicitously helped me with the unfamiliar lock on my bike, and he knew which gate inside the temple would unlock for us to climb up. He didn’t say much except “watch!” so I didn’t hit my head in the dark stairwell.
There wasn’t much of a sunrise that morning, but the two of us sat on the wide square terrace of Pyuat Thut Gyi for an hour, in perfect, silent companionship. I sat quietly and listened, breathed — I would never dignify what I do with the term meditation — did a few sun salutations, scraping my already filthy toes against the rough brick. Feeling my body whole and cool. The only sound an oxcart driver giving loud commands to his animals as he farmed far below us, and spotted doves calling to each other.
The spell broke when it started to rain slightly, and we concluded that the sun was up, somewhere. I wanted to look for birds around the big temple about a mile away.
“You have a lovely smile, Soelinn,” I said, as we hopped happily down the wide, off-centre steps. “I have nice teeth!” he laughed.
I wanted to bird a little bit at the small lake, so I had binoculars and my camera with me. We saw two lammar falcons, far away, and white throated babblers, and a few species I couldn’t identify. I showed Soelinn how to use binoculars, which he’d never seen before. The rain kept holding its breath, then exhaling. We explored together.
Another mile toward the main road, I asked if there was anything interesting in a small temple off the road. Soelinn said he thought some rich people had paid to put a buddha in it, so we stopped to peer in. Something flew behind us, and we both looked. “Oal.” “Owl” we said together.
“There it is!”
“You have good eyes, Soelinn!”
“I am a young boy!”
Spotted owlet, looking at us looking at him. Lucky omen in asia.
Sunrises were the greatest gift I gave myself in Myanmar.