Sunday, 25 September 2011

Temples as far as the eye can see...

The first time I ever heard of the Bagan district of Myanmar, with its plains of red brick temples, I knew it was a place I wanted to make it to someday. Around this time last year, I stumbled across a couple of blog posts waxing lyrical about the beauty and sheer scale of the area, and with a plan to spend some time in SE Asia at the forefront of my mind, there was no way I was going to skip it.

We saved Bagan until last - the final stop on a hectic trip, allowing us a number of days to relax and try to make a small dent into the thousands of visiting possibilities there. We had high hopes, and were certainly not disappointed. The temples were literally everywhere - sitting alongside the roads, hidden behind bushes and trees off the beaten track, and in the very grounds of our hotel, imposing features sitting directly outside our window.

Although there are some particularly popular monuments, either as excellent preserved examples of internal artwork, or temples you can climb to the roof of for views across the whole area, most are smaller and densely packed into the landscape, so there is little chance of coming across other tourists at all. We spent whole days seeing just a handful at most of other people, waving a quick greeting before finding ourselves alone again.

Bagan is very easy to get around, with few roads and no chance of missing temples, although the distances to reach outlying areas make travelling on foot difficult. We started on the first evening with a bike, although thoughts of using one for the next few days were quickly dismissed when considering the high humidity and relentless sun. We decided on the somewhat romantic option of using a horse and carriage, which came with the added bonus of a knowledgeable and friendly driver who not only directed us towards temples we may have missed otherwise, but also recommended timely eating options and helped us fit much more into our days.

The temples themselves were amazing, similar on the whole in architectural design and materials, but very different in other ways, from the size to the internal details. The combining of religious traditions was fascinating - Hindu influenced spirits sat beside huge golden Buddha statues, reflecting the complementing belief systems of the local people. Narrow stairs wound up through the belly of the larger temples, opening up onto wide roofs where we could see the flat land open up, temples as far as the eye could see and further.

Although the sunsets were rather subdued, dark clouds sweeping across the sky in the late afternoon, the sunrises were beautiful, with purples and pinks gradually making way to golden oranges and yellows before bursting into a brilliant blue which held the whole day. We made a major mistake on our first morning - in our hurry to view the sunrise on our terrace we left the door open, inviting huge numbers of mosquitoes into our room which we spent the next hour hunting down before we could do anything else (rather unsuccessfully judging by the number of new bites I received that day...).

The temples are not the only attraction of Bagan (although it would be pointless comparing anything to them!). We visited lacquer ware workshops, an art Bagan and nearby villages are famous for, the main challenge being trying to choose items from the shelves and shelves of hand painted objects coated in the rich and glossy black lacquer. Sitting by the river helped lower the temperature, slight relief in the form of gentle breezes whilst watching boats floating by. We had planned to hike up a nearby mountain, although the onset of rather nasty colds dispelled that idea, and we spent extra time at the temples instead.

We left Bagan relaxed and enchanted, both by the incredible sights we'd seen and the charming local people we'd encountered, and ready for a final day in Yangon before heading home.

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