Bagan

 In Semester at Sea

Over 2000 ancient temples, pagodas, and shrines remain in the city of Bagan today. These are what is left of over 10,000 constructed beginning in the 10th century during the height of the Pagan Kingdom. Of the ones still standing, roughly 10 are the ‘must-see’ tourist attractions, others see a few visitors, but most lay deserted. Thanks to the lovely overnight bus from Mandalay, we arrived to Bagan at 3:45 am. Our guesthouse, as well as most of the town, was closed. Vulture taxi drivers smelled our foreign blood and attacked immediately once we were out of the comfort of the bus. We retreated to the road where we met a nice horse carriage driver, whom we took off with to watch the sunrise.

The horse stopped while everything around us was still black. The driver shined a flashlight to the top of the temple, and told us to climb to the top. We took off our shoes and began the ascent. Seeing almost nothing in the darkness, but by feeling the stairs in front of my face, I made my way up.

Watching the sunrise from atop the temple was beautiful. The horizon was composed entirely of temples, shrines, and trees. At around 8 am, hot air balloons began flying in the distance.

After being dropped off at our guesthouse, we took a seven hour nap. Two overnight buses in as many days is just rough.
The following day, we visited first some of the recommended temples by our guesthouse. The massive behemoths were stunning, lessened only slightly by the overabundance of souvenir sellers around every corner and even on the steps inside.

While the recommended temples were fantastic, I didn’t feel like I was truly discovering Bagan until I rented a bike and set off alone. I stopped first at a small temple right off the main road where I saw a woman standing on top. A man beckoned me in, and shined a flashlight on the stairs for me to climb. He told me a history of the temple and asked me to look at his brother’s sand paintings after seeing the temple.

Another highlight was a group of two temples right by the side of the road. Nobody was there, but as I began exploring a child asked if I wanted to buy postcards. The temple doors were blocked on three sides, and locked on the fourth.
As I was getting ready to leave, the boy’s mom came rushing up the temple steps holding a set of keys. She unlocked the temple door and shined a flashlight on the walls as her son explained that the murals were ‘originals’ (photo enhanced for vibrancy).

I visited many other smaller temples that day. Inside one was a family taking siestas, another had binds of rubbish waiting to be disposed of, another yet smelled oddly of corn. It made me curious about the use of these ancient relics, and how a government like Burma’s can maintain such an extensive number of them.

Since then I’ve begun to wonder, how does one get the keys to an 800+ year old temple?

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