Myanmar: the 3122 pagodas, temples, mounds, and monasteries of Bagan

With our new guide Mya Mo and driver Mr. Yazoo, we drive to Bagan about 3.5 hours away. Mya Mo sounds like, “me amo” or I love you and we laugh and he gives us his nickname: “Mo-Jee” and we all laugh again. He is a fountain of knowledge having been born and raised in “Ba-gaaahn”, his speech takes an effort to understand. He speaks softly, and drawn out, accents are in different than expected spots and if we interrupt with a question he retells his story from the beginning in the exact same way as by rote. All that aside he is passionate about his birthplace and very personable. He has the telltale red stains between his teeth that belie his betel nut habit and we talk about it. In fact, at every market he points out the ingredients which are sold everywhere: slake lime ( in green plastic containers that litter the roadsides), the nut itself usually sold in chopped pieces, flavored tobacco, some spices according to your taste wrapped in a betel leaf , sucked, chewed and then spat. It leaves a distinct brick color that is splattered on the ground everywhere. He says he still chews occasionally but can’t really indulge as a tour guide. That kind of personable.

Bagan is a very hot, very dry area south of Mandalay. It is so hot the cooler air in my lungs is sucked out of me in seconds. We are here because it is one of the most historic in Myanmar. It was the capital of Burma from the 9th-11th centuries. Of the 10,000 structures built in the 11th to 13th centuries, 3122 remain of which 892 are mounds of brick ruins.

Mya Mo explains that farmers and townspeople used to occupy “Old Bagan” until the government made them move. His grandparents lived there then and had to move to New Bagan which caused a loss of livelihood. It must have been something to be living and working beside all these ancient monuments and a little less than something to be displaced.

Dhammayangyi Temple built by King Narathu 1170 A.D.

This is a huge temple, 250 feet across and never completed due to the death of the King. Rule and power at any cost describes King Narathu’s reign and demise. Narathu became a King of Bagan after murdering his father and brother who was next in line. To assuage bad karma he built this massive temple to gain merit and to compensate for the two murders. He himself was murdered and construction stopped. Nevertheless it is a grand structure that has ancient painted murals inside. We’ve seen countless Buddhas and it is interesting how his image shifts depending on what the locals look like.

A Burmese Buddha gazes down at Steve and our guide Mya Mo

The Buddha, Guatama and future Buddha, Maitreya built 900 years ago

According to Buddhist scripture, there is a long line of previous Buddha’s, Gautama Buddha being the 28th and Maitreya, the 29th who will incarnate on earth and teach the pure Dharma. I am remembering the largest book in the world we saw in Mandalay. Truly, studying these texts can be your whole life. Oh, I just realized what monks do. It amazes me how much knowledge and lore the locals know and believe. The people are immersed in their religion and philosophy from birth. I can only glean the ramifications of being part of an ancient homogeneous culture. My mind spins with all the permutations and how small my experience is in the scope of the world.

Going to these monuments that signify power and religious belief takes on a greater meaning than sight seeing. People are praying at every image we see. I think it interesting and I wonder what they are thinking. When in Laos, we went to the biggest full moon festival at Wat Phou, an ancient temple built on a mountainside that is older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We witnessed worshippers praying and then lifting a big rock. If they could lift it over their heads they believed their wishes would come true in the next year. How vulnerable to see the relief, joy or disappointment with their attempts to lift the stones. I could see their devotion and belief. Religion is an interesting concept. Coincidentally, Bagan’s original name was Pagan (Pa-gaahn). Now I’m muddying the waters.

We head to Sulamani temple which means “little ruby” because the King found one at this site and thought it auspicious. One neat thing about Mya Mo is he loves finding picture perfect spots. While Temples and pagodas don’t necessarily look alike they don’t look that much different either. Our guide knows the best face of a temple and when to go because the light will be better. He’s like a fashion photographer, temple cosmetician and stage manager as he urges us into the most advantageous spot.

Sulamani Temple, Minnanthu village

The corners have ogres as guardians
Ancient frescoes line the temple walls

A Buddha image once occupied this niche, my turn

The most spectacular temple in the region is Ananda Temple. Mya Mo wants us to take a picture from a specific angle but there is a group of Chinese tourists hogging the spot and doing a prolonged selfie session. I can tell he is getting annoyed but being a practicing Buddhist he paces instead. Finally our chance comes.

Ananda Temple built in 1105 and is one of four surviving temples in all of Bagan

The last shrine for the day is the brightest: Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U village. This is one of the oldest started by King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan dynasty in 1060 and completed by his son in 1102. It is said that a bone and tooth of the Buddha were interred here but were subsequently stolen. It is a huge complex and site of many pilgrimages and festivals. Anawrahta was a venerated ruler and considered the father of Burmese culture. His temple is revered and well preserved despite the serious damage from earthquakes. The upper stupa shape was recently reinforced by 30,000 copper plates and gilded in tons of 18k gold leaf while the bottom terraces are still in their original form 900 years later.

A tiny water filled depression mirrors the pagoda perfectly

It is getting close to sunset, the witching hour for tourists to find the ultimate spot. The night before we went to Nyaung lat Phet Kan a man made hill for the view. Mya Mo was perturbed by the crowd; he prides himself on finding the best view with solitude. Tonight riding in our donkey cart we head to one of his private spots. There are only 4 other people there and it is quiet, meditative. The red orb of the setting sun is not illuminating the sky but makes the surrounding pagodas glow.

While we visit holy ruins, we also stay at amazing hotels, visit villages where families continue their traditional businesses, and see another Novitiation ritual. Mya Mo tells us he knows of a ceremony in Taungbi village, “Do you want to go, it may mean skipping something in the itinerary”. We can’t believe our luck, “How do you know about it?” He answers in his soft drawl, ” I am from Ba-gaaahn, I was born here, this is my village”, and he smiles. I love the joy, family, pomp and ceremony and ecstatic to witness another one.

Procession: grandparents first, sponsoring parents then village parents of novices, then novices
Eldest son of eldest sponsoring family

Oxen carts bring up the rear

The youngest of the sponsoring family with 2 year old twins

Then the feasting. The kid’s table; they’re adjusting their clothing, taking off headdresses, chowing down. The grown up table with beautiful young women in dazzling colorful silk longyi. The social event of the season. When a family sponsors, the rest of the village takes the opportunity to have their sons noviated. It is a lavish affair. This time we got to see and hear the traditional dancing that follows the feast.

Buddha would be pleased

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