Walk, Scoot, Gawp; or, the Bagan Templesplosion

Pagoda by Night

Bagan. There are pagodas there!

The sun rose in Bagan, as it often did, over a sea of ancient spikes.

I had only a faint inkling of quite how large this sea would be as our night bus pulled up to the bus station. After attempted fleecings by the attendant taxi drivers, we piled into a cab and took the long road into old Bagan, grumpy and only half-rested and feeling curmudgeonly about the price of our ride. We were prepared, as one often is on the road, to let the petty things dampen our mood.

Bagan quickly stamped on this impulse, as prickly temples and jagged pagodas soon sprouted from the ground all along the roadside. Holy places were thick as tumbleweed here, brick and mortar and metal and stone jutting everywhere into tiny and enormous structures. Along the roadside, like fireworks stands or ragged old taquerias, were dozens of spires aimed skyward.

We were stupid with awe, grinning and drooling and unable to fathom how we could attempt to see it all. After sloughing food into our bellies and showering off a night bus of stink, we set off into the distance to seek out adventure and splendour. The very first road out of New Bagan provided, as temples began to pimple the landscape with terrifying frequency as soon as you left the bounds of the new city.

Initial Pagodas

The first globs of history.

Temples and pagodas were everywhere, destinations appearing from the ether. As you finished circumnavigating one building, another cool one would present itself down the road, behind the brambles, just behind the sun. As you scrambled up the old brick stairs, as you fumbled up dark brick and crumbling mortar, new vistas would bring new destinations. Bagan was forever gesturing off into the distance, motioning towards the next amazing thing to see, the next great wedge of history to devour.

As we looked across our map, we realized we had journeyed barely a kilometre in the span of a day, sucked into the orbit of a dozen different swarms of buildings and structures to see. We needed to find another way to get further afield, to scrape all that we could from Bagan.

I hopped onto the back of an e-bike that second morning, proud of my sudden burst of bravery, awed by my own risk-taking. The sun was low at that early hour, birds flew delicately across the tea-and-honey sky, and the world was my oyster. I, Michael, was going to valiantly attempt to ride a scooter, despite my obvious and bewildering lack of balance or rhythm! I slid my fingers around the handles and revved forward, the wheels taking off before me. Bat Out of Hell was maybe playing on a loop in my mind.

Once I had completed a harrowing, brilliant 20 metres of distance, I decided to retire, as my skills with the motorbike proved so miraculous that I worried I would forever damage the wanderlust spirit of my fellow travellers. I was so dazzling, so immensely stunning on an e-bike that I could hear Buddha weeping in the buildings in the distance, each statue suddenly wet with tears at the beauty. I decided, instead, for the sake of the world and for everyone within it, that it would be better if I rode behind my friend Will, who was endlessly forgiving and accepted my kindly offer not to ruin cycling for the rest of time and space.

With Will as my driver I leaned back and let the countryside scoot past us at a moderate pace. Three large westerners on two tiny e-bikes would have been a hilarious sight if anyone had been around to see us. Bagan is described in most of the Traveller Literature as a massive tourist trap, a vacuous black hole of money-sucking mosquito people and terribly oppressive overpopulation. However, to our eyes, coming from more populous parts of Asia, and having spent the better parts of the last decade forging through more densely peopled tourism centres, the number of people who ventured into Bagan seemed bewilderingly small.

Sunset Pagoda

Sunsets and sunrises belong to the empty road and the valley.

Empty highways stretched before us, branching off into dozens of empty sideroads. Pagodas echoed with our footsteps, dirt spread below our fresh footprints. It seemed, at every moment, like discovery, like a freshly unearthed fossil. The world was ours to play with, here frozen in time, away from the hands and eyes of man. Our only companions were the sun and the sound of revving motors.

We had to be careful, of course, and measured in our approach. Too much templing too soon could wear us down, could burn us out on splendour. There were hundreds, thousands of structures dappling the horizon, and if we tried to reach each one, if we tried to scramble atop every roof and crawl inside every crenel, we would tire and fatigue. Ancient, beautiful holy places hold their mystique partly through rarity, and rarity can diminish with prolonged, dusty exposure.

But it can be hard when travel provides you such a perfect opportunity. When the road opens up before you, empty of all others, as much a remnant of a past civilization as the halls of prayer and contemplation that surround you. The undiscovered beckons, as it often does, and asks only that you never stop. There is always another sunset to see; there is always another staircase to climb. We kept seeing higher and higher buildings, new terraces for us to surmount, new vantages from which to view the glory of the valley before us. How can you stop when adventure calls?

We hopped back in the bikes and scooted, as always, towards the sun.

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