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Sunday 27 Jan 2013
Bagan, Myanmar

Temples, Pagodas and Stupas in all directions

Bagan is a fascinating place. Flat plains either side of the enormous Ayeyarwaddy river stretch out as far as the distant hills. Low trees and shrubs intersperse the dusty fields, ox carts still provide local transport and farming labour, the roads are mostly dirt roads with only a few sealed roads between the main points... Oh, and about 4000 temples.  Did I mention the temples?

Bagan was the chosen capital of the first Myanmar empire.  Starting around 1020 for the next two hundred years or so, there was a massive building campaign, with several temples a week going up.  How this was feasible is just beyond imagination, yet there are over 4000 stupas still standing and excavations have uncovered evidence of many more.  The area was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the criteria for this status requires that the buildings be left as they were found, whereas the Myanmar way is to renovate their temples every few years as a way of demonstrating their devotion.  Consequently, wherever you look, you can see stupas covered in bamboo scaffolding, or shiny new towers and bright new repointing in the brickwork.  It makes for an interesting mixture.

We had two days in Bagan.  The first day was a little hectic as it involved a very early flight up from Yangon.  There are some things we take for granted with air travel now, such as queuing at check-in desks, answering security questions, keeping liquids in 100ml bottles or less and security checkpoints being a one-way affair.  After some poor instructions from our guide, half of us were left on the coach and half the group followed him into the airport terminal.  When he hadn't returned after 20 minutes we went to look for him.  In the meantime, porters came along and took all our bags off the bus - including my hand luggage with my camera, laptop etc inside.  When I realised, I raced off to try and retrieve it.  The bus driver eventually rang our guide and called him back to the bus.  He then took me through security to where our bags were lined up in the middle of the departure hall waiting to be tagged and checked in.  After rescuing my hand luggage, I then managed to go back out through security again and fetched the rest of our group from the other side of the terminal where they were still waiting obliviously.  Our guide was not very good at counting his chickens or making sure we all understood what was going on.

On the second day in Bagan, we divided into groups to either cycle around the Old Bagan area - a fairly risky concept given the quantity of motorbikes, coaches and local truck transport hurtling in either direction - or take the far more sensible option of a horse and cart.  Guess which one I opted for! After a while the temples started to blur into each other, but there were a few which stood out for sheer size, quantity of gold leaf, or stunning views of the countryside that they offered.  One temple was commissioned by a captive King from one of the southern states.  His temple housed a very large seated buddha and dying buddha, both cramped into rooms much too small for them, designed to depict how sad he was in captivity himself.  After the many buddha statues we had already seen, these two were quite striking.

That evening, we were taken to a large red brick temple in the middle of a dusty plain.  A narrow flight of steps took us out onto a big flat roof topped with an enormous brick stupa.  There were a few ledges and walkways slightly lower than the main roof.  From here we were given the most beautiful sunset of the trip so far.  As the sun went down behind the horizon, it cast long shadows from all the other temples in the vicinity.  The temples behind ours were lit up in brilliant orange sunlight.  Best of all were the sunbeams cutting through the dust kicked up by passing ox carts in the fields below.  I settled myself on a ledge just below everyone else and enjoyed the peace as the sun went down - it felt almost like my own private sunset. Perfect.

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