Bagan: Chasing Temples
Imagine driving a scooter in the near silence of pre-dawn darkness along smooth deserted roads lined with trees, the wind blowing your hair and stroking your skin. Only quiet sounds of nature break the stillness. If you’re imagining the purr of your scooter’s engine, take that away, because it’s an electric bike you’re riding and it makes no sound other than the barely audible whisper of wheels on the pavement. There’s no one else on the road but you; for this dreamlike interlude, you have the world to yourself.
This is what it’s like, waking up at 4:30am and getting on the road before 5 during low season in Bagan, Myanmar, to drive to a “secret” temple, one of the few that haven’t had roof access closed off by the government, where it’s still possible to climb up narrow, crumbling, low ceiling stairs onto the roof where you can wait for the sun to send its rays across the horizon, over a green landscape bejeweled with temples and pagodas.
How did you get here? The story starts the previous afternoon, your first afternoon in Bagan, while you were driving around visiting temples in daylight. You have plenty of temples to choose from; there are 2200 of them in Bagan. Some large, some small, all ancient, all exotically beautiful in their own way, all housing Buddhas of different shapes, sizes and colors. Most of the Buddhas share the same small, knowing smile - as if they’re all in on a big cosmic secret. It’s comforting, somehow.
Most of the smaller temples are silent and empty. In the larger ones you come across crimson-robed monks, caretakers and the occasional visitor. Inside Dhammagangyi, the one that captured your attention months ago thanks to an unforgettable photo in an airline magazine, you sit down crosslegged to meditate briefly in front of a large gold Buddha. An elderly man who seems to be responsible for keeping the temple clean comes to sit next to you, places his legs in lotus position, straightens his spine and indicates for you to do the same. You oblige him temporarily and then go back to your preferred, infinitely more comfortable, non-lotus meditation position.
Most of the Buddhas share the same small, knowing smile, as if they’re all in on a big cosmic secret.
Later, when you’re back on your bike, you cross paths with a young local on a motorbike at the corner of a road. He asks if you want him to show you a secret temple where you can see the sunrise from the rooftop.
Yes, that’s exactly what you want. You didn’t know it was possible anymore, you thought all the temple rooftops had been sealed off. He tells you there are a few secret temples left where you can still access the roof. He has a nice peaceful vibe, quiet, not pushy.
Inside Dhamma- gangyi, only this man, you, and a few bats.
You accept his offer and follow him and his motorbike down a series of dirt paths between grass and trees and the occasional temple, small shop or house, until you come to an ancient red-brick temple. Inside, you’re greeted by a striking ivory-colored stone Buddha, his hands resting in bhumisparsha, earth-touching mudra, representing the moment the Buddha reached enlightenment.
Bhumisparsha, earth-touching or earth witness mudra, also symbolizes the unwavering dedication shown by the Buddha while in pursuit of enlightenment, and the union of skillful action (represented by the right fingers pointing toward the earth) and wisdom (the left palm facing up toward heaven). This mudra is believed to help transform anger to wisdom.
Your guide directs you up a steep, low-ceiling stairway and onto the roof. You have it all to yourselves. A wide vista of green treetops dotted with the iconic spires of hundreds of pagodas greets you. The view is nice now and looks like it will be stunning at sunrise. You save the location on Googlemaps so you’ll be able to find your way back.
“If you want I can show you another temple that’s good for sunset view,” your companion offers.
So you follow him down more dirt paths to another temple. It’s now late afternoon and the sun is drifting closer towards the horizon. There’s no one else on this rooftop either.
Your guide asks if you want photos. Of course you do, at this place. He turns out to be an excellent photographer with a great eye. Soon the sky lights up with fiery streaks of red and orange.
It’s mystical to be on this ancient rooftop with no one else around to disturb the peace, as if the view belongs only to you.
As well as a guide, he’s also a painter. Later, when you descend from the rooftop, he shows you a few of his paintings. He has talent; some are really beautiful. You might buy one except at the moment you’re a wandering homeless gypsy without a square millimeter of space to spare in your luggage. Maybe someday when you own something with walls you’ll come back for some.
(Some of his photos are stunning too. You can find them on Instagram at @bagan_aungthu.1010.)
You meet a couple other guides in the following days who show you other temples, but @bagan_aungthu.1010 was the best.
And this is why the next morning around 5am, you’re on the silent road returning to the secret sunrise temple. There are no street lights now to illuminate your path but you find your way there.
You park your bike, slide your shoes off by the door, turn on your phone flashlight and enter the temple. You hear the whirr of a few bats above you. They don’t bother you – at this hour, everything and everyone is peacefully coexisting. You duck into the entrance of the staircase to your right, happy not to be an unusually tall human, and climb the stairs.
You straighten up as you step onto the roof and look around. The sky has lightened into pale pastel shades, foretelling the sun’s pending arrival, dimly lighting the orange-brick tops of the hundreds of pagodas that peek above the trees. The large pyramid-esque shape of Dhammayangyi, Bagan’s largest temple, rises before you in the distance, with another tall pagoda to its left – you’re not sure which one that is, maybe Ananda Phaya.
You take a seat on the brick edge and settle in to watch the sky change colors. Eventually another e-bike or two or three arrive, bringing other visitors, each group accompanied by a local guide. A few other people are in on the secret of this temple - and the other secret ones. Depending on the day, there might just be two people, or maybe five or six. Never too many. Everyone is quiet, for the most part. Sometimes someone forgets to remove their shoes and a local will scold them: “Shoes off! No shoes in the temple!”
You sit, and wait, and watch. A little after 6am, glimmers of orange light start to appear behind cracks in the clouds. The sun begins his slow journey upward, drawing his paintbrush of light across the sky. Depending on the day, he may tint the horizon with shades of orange and yellow or pale pink and send beams of light stretching across the sky, bringing delight to the hearts of all present. Or he may remain a fierce red ball, holding his color to himself and leaving the sky unaffected.
It’s never the same twice.