My reverie was suddenly interrupted by the ‘vroom-vroom’ of a bus as it slipped and skidded along the sandy path towards me. Once the dust settled around this extrinsic piece of metal, I could see a hundred faces pressed against the glass, eyes wide in anticipation of more ancient mysteries to discover. I was sat on top of a ‘temple-with-no-name’ – too small and humble to warrant a proper title. Absent of any decorative nuances, ‘2117’ was unremarkable compared to its big brothers – the Htilominlo, Dhammayangyi and Ananda – but it was ‘my’ temple, ‘my’ revelation… Well, up until a minute ago when it dawned on me that Bagan is not quite the hidden treasure trove I believed it to be.
Yes, Bagan’s allure is still in its infancy compared to celebrated Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the big tour operators have already descended in to Myanmar, bringing with it its coloured banners and matching t-shirts. One shouldn’t be so greedy though… With over 2000 shrines across an area of 104km2, there are plenty of other payas to seek refuge.
I clambered off the roof, back in to the cool, dark inner sanctum of its innards, down treacherous stairways until my bare feet met sun baked slabs again. At the temple entrance, a moment of panic hit me as I searched for my shoes. Where did I leave them? Was it this entrance? Were they taken? If my shoes were here, they were now joined by a sea of footwear as new guests performed the usual ‘shoes-on, shoes-off’ ritual. Thankfully I was able to spot them and I could set off towards the next, circled, squiggle on my map.
The pre-warning of snakes rang in my ears as me and my e-bike went solo in to unknown territory. I had lost all sense of direction and turned back on myself a couple of times. The intrepid explorer weakened in me as I tried to recall the last time I had spotted someone; coupled with the foreboding prospect of running out of juice. But a gilded sikhara winked at me in the distance now and like Pavlova’s dog, I raced towards the promise of something precious.
The sikhara I discovered, belonged to the Sulamani Pahto, the ‘Crowning Jewel’ of Bagan. Arguably Bagan’s most attractive and authentic Paya, the arduous journey down the sandy paths was certainly worth the effort. A carpet of candles rolled itself towards the foot of a giant gilded Buddha. My eyes traveled from its feet, up along it’s mudra-set-hands and serene face, and towards the heavens where, in a ‘gasp-out-loud’ moment, I could see impressive frescoes adorning the vaulted ceiling above.
It was late afternoon and the sun’s rays crept in to the inner sanctum through the outer arches, streaking the walls and floors with a blinding light. Buddhist frescoes came alive and bounced off the walls in their warm hues of cinnamon, vermilion and burnt sienna.
I must have sat in one of the archways for longer than I had thought… The halls had emptied now as people made their way to their last and final stop of the day. The grand finale of the day was approaching – Sunset, with a capital ‘S’ – a breathtaking and unforgettable vision when temples transcend in to warm orange hues as the sun sinks below the horizon. As it approaches, panic kicks in… Where do I go? Where can I avoid the crowds? Which is the best place to capture the iconic image we’ve seen in travel magazines?
Well, considered to be ‘off the beaten track’, only reachable by dirt roads, I felt sure my ultimate sunset spot would be at the Pythada Paya. ‘Everyone will be heading towards the ‘Shwesandaw’ I thought smugly, as I steered my e-bike on to one deserted dirt path to the next. Besides, the warning that this was snake territory would keep the adventure-wary away. I didn’t feel so smug though as my bike continuously skidded along the loose track and I battled with my e-bike exhausted, sun-burnt and saddle-sored.
A horse drawn cart past me and then a mini bus ten minutes after that; a sign that the impending sunset was not to be experienced alone. Sure enough, when I reached the Pythada, the area in front of the Paya was abuzz with sunset seekers. I almost turned away when hordes of coaches pulled on to the dirt track but there was no time… The burning orb was already making her way down towards the horizon…
I’m glad I stayed… The payas central location offered a view of hundreds, maybe thousands of temples; each one ablaze as the setting sun reflected brilliantly off them. But in the foreground, my oh my, hundreds of cattle could be seen making their journey home… A white smoke cloud emerged as they trampled through the loose ground, adding to the pervading mystery of these lands… The symphony of bleeting composed by its herder resonated across the land and subdued even the noisiest spectator. It was sensory overload… An all too powerful experience to put in to words.
And then, as quickly as a dropping penny, the sun fell behind the now dusky pink mountain, creating epic silhouettes of bell shapes, spires and pyramids all around us. It was simply majestic… a sight to behold; a sight which captures the tranquility, beauty and wonder of these Golden Lands…