Alright, I’ll try to walk you through this dusty, lovely, sandy terrain. Even at this morning hour, the sun is high and sharp. I alternate between squinting and widening my eyes. There is a temple to take in every way you turn.
We got up and had the standard Myanmar hostel breakfast: egg (fried or scrambled), toast with butter and jam, fruit (banana or papaya or an orange), tea, and coffee (the instant kind, some with milk and sugar added – Birdy brand was my favorite). Then, the smiley receptionist, his teeth spread so wide I couldn’t help but like him, showed us to our electric motorbike. I gripped Ben tightly from behind and we wobbled our way out onto the road, picking up speed. The town quickly turned to grass and shrubs stretching out. And the temples popped up.
Pick a path. It’s deep sand and you carefully negotiate your way through. You feel the dust sticking to your sunscreen, but you smile. These temples, some remodeled, many elegantly crumbling, sit by an overwhelming choice of ways. You want to see them all, but it’s impossible. The best thing to do is try to remember your route, going back to the temples you bypass, but you’ll get turned around anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ll still see.
We slowly rode and walked our way around, peering through the screens of locked temples or removing our sandals and stepping in to peer at the Buddha, or the place where he sat previously, now cracked and dirty. Our feet quickly became caked in a coating of grime as we removed our sandals again and again; we stepped carefully to avoid thorns and rat droppings. We disappeared momentarily from each other, blocked by mazes between temples great and small. As we approached one temple, two children ran up to us and offered to show us to the top. We followed them up a steep and uneven staircase that was more like a semi-vertical passage at the edge of the wall. I was surprised to come out on the flat roof of the temple, looking down at the golden land stretching out ahead.
There are more popular areas and temples, it’s true. Here the sand tends not to be so deep and there are vendors stationed outside the larger attractions. Women stand by the temples and introduce themselves as you approach, tailing you and interjecting to explain paintings on the walls, trying to earn a few hundred kyat. It’s a little overwhelming in these areas, but the temples are dark, cool, and calming inside. Inside every one, look for hidden passages to the top. Sometimes they exist. You peer into the brown-grey and see where the wall opens away.
We rode through Old Bagan; the road became more crowded. We stopped at a roadside stand for lunch and sifted our way through the condiments laid out on the table before us. “Myanmar food!” the restaurateur kept yelling out to passerby. After eating our curries and momentarily basking, we hopped back on the e-bike and began winding our way off the tarmac and down the sandy paths. Eventually we found a temple with no other tourists containing inner stairs that rose up to the flat roof. There we sat, fields and temples and trees and faraway hills expanding outward, away from our center.
You can visit these temples for days and still not cover the entire territory, see every monument. Some are whitewashed and majestic, with stairs ascending their outer walls, steep, several levels up. Some have been reinforced with metal strips. Others have locked entrances, are small, away from the more grandiose temples who command more traffic. And then there are the crumbling ones, red-brown bricks on the ground and moss growing in cracks. Many of these temples are old, old, old, dating back to the 11th century. They all hold their charm, even a command, over the landscape and over time.
Sunset was approaching and we took off to find a temple roof to watch the spectacle from. After tromping through a field that a path petered into, e-bike in tow, and getting suggestions from a friendly vendor, we crawled up the stair passage to the roof of an old, slightly crumbly temple. We looked west at the red-orange sun, which slowly settled itself lower and lower, momentarily resting atop the hills before sinking out of sight. Camera shutters rustled around us; we participated in the chorus. Though the roof was somewhat crowded, a steady and fleeting sense of calm and awe settled over us, broken by a goofy vendor who declared, “shopping time!,” gesturing at the paintings he laid out on the stone. Everyone laughed.
Darkness is quickly falling now, and the streetlights are intermittent. The cool is settling in as well, after the heat of the day dissipates and abandons the plains. Speeding along the tarmac, clutching your e-bike, your dusty hair tangling itself in the wind, you could laugh again. Headlights and dark temple walls flash past. Everything mingles.
We dropped our e-bike back at our guesthouse and set off on food to one of Nyaung U’s streets crowded with restaurants. We settled on a Myanmar food place in the shadow of one of the temples. Lights were strung up overhead. Dust stirred in the street, illuminated by passing bikes and excited by footsteps. I tucked into my noodles, which were quite delicious – though I hadn’t met a dish of noodles in Myanmar that I didn’t like. Tourists and locals strolled past. Differences of time and place sat alongside each other, light smiles playing back and forth. Everything was, clashless.