As far as the eye can see they rise-up in their thousands from the burnt arid plains, hollow temples and stupas of a medieval Buddhist kingdom, edged by the distant mountains to the east and the Irrawaddy River to the west.
The countryside is flat, dry and dusty with thirsty green trees, the white fluffs of cotton bushes and bursts of purple flowers against a reddish earth. We ebike through a network of dirt tracks and trails that connect the temples, from the blazing gold splendour of the Shwezigan Pagoda to the ruined stubs and mounds of those destroyed by earthquakes. What remains is astonishing, what was even more so. Where once there were grand plazas and busy markets now there are dry scratchy fields that will grow soya beans, sesame seeds and nuts when the rains come. Royal teak palaces once stood in place of today’s bamboo houses and thatch-roofed tea stalls.
The bike wheels spin and slip on the sand as we followed the tracks shared with herds of goats and local villagers. This is a touristy area but we hardly see anyone else. Nonetheless, signals are being sent and we are ambushed by the occasional motorbiking hawker, friendly and keen to sell us paintings, trinkets and Orwell novels.
There are temples filled with children and people sitting and gossiping in the shade. There are temples full of treasures, frescoes, gold Buddha statutes, many quiet and deserted yet visited and cared for by the local community with vivid arrangements of daily flowers and fruit, an invisible care down the generations, similar to rural churches in Britain. Monks swathed in crimson robes glide barefoot down cool hidden passages that lead to Buddhas benignly smiling from alcoves. Sun-baked tiles scorch bare feet.
We stop for a lunch of beef curry and fried rice washed down with lime juice and finished with palm sugar sweets. Scarfed and cowled women in tartan patterned shirts and conical hats slowly work the fields in the increasingly hot sun. Ox slowly lumber by pulling creaking rickety wooden carts piled with straw bales. The heat rises and time stretches.
On the main road we weave in and out of the traffic, a slightly uneasy mix of villagers, farmers, tourists, school children in smart green longhis, monks and Thai pilgrims. Women with white paste on their faces sit elegantly side-saddle on motorbikes. Lorries carrying gangs of scowling locals mix with belching trucks with hoods stripped back to reveal spluttering engines, the phut-phut of engines a particular sound of Myanmar. Families chat under the shade of trees, waiting for the afternoon heat to pass, others sleep or loll on mats. A child use sacks of rice as a slide. Boys serve the customers in a tea house while adults work the stoves and make the tea behind the counter.
Stupas and trees are silhouetted against the mauves, reds and gold of a mellow sunset as smoke drifts up amongst the palm trees and across a plain suffused by the light of sunset. The photos will capture both the atmospheric beauty of a tropical sunset and the firing lines of tourists line the vantage points with huge cameras, jostling for the best angles. Tourism and photography can become absurd. Two women make the mistake of sitting on a wooden cart in a field to eat their lunch. Tourists stop and ruthlessly zoom in for the capture. Other passing tourists also spot the opportunity and suddenly a mini-bus screeches to a halt and out pour more tourists, bumping into each other struggling and scrabbling for their cameras and the auto-focus.
The girl with dust in her voice
We ride through a village filled with dusty sand and bamboo huts. Gardens are marked out by rows of cacti or bamboo walls. A villager growls at me when I wander too close to his ox. And then we are flagged down by a village girl.
She is like many Myanmar women – slim, graceful, dark hair, a composed expression. She wears the ubiquitous longhi and check-patterned shirt. Her voice is surprisingly deep and nasal, as if inflected by dust and rains. The girl is keen to talk and practice her English. She works in a restaurant and she wants to be a teacher but her parents don’t have the money for further education. She holds herself with a quiet determination as she talks about the village. The girl is an insight into the struggle beneath the tourist veneer for education and opportunity taken for granted back home. She is also a reminder of the Buddhist value placed on teaching and teachings. We bid cheery farewells. She waves until we are out of sight.
Bagan: a quick history
From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Pagan kingdom that was the first to unify the regions to later form modern Myanmar. At its height over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were commissioned by the wealthy and constructed on the plains.
Over 2,200 temples and pagodas still remain surviving earthquake, fire, neglect and controversial modern-day restoration.
Bagan was cosmopolitan, prosperous and scholarly, its religion a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and native animist beliefs. Virtually nothing remains of what would have been wooden royal or secular buildings.
Pagan collapsed in 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions at a time when Mongol authority, for a few years, bound together Pagan (Myanmar), Kiev, Moscow and Baghdad.
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