The second day in Bagan we decided to hire a tour guide, someone knowledgeable about the history of the area, the temples, the changing face of modernizing Myanmar. The only guide we could find was an elderly man, a former English teacher during the British control of the country. He seemed friendly enough (and, of course, spoke fantastic English), so we climbed into the back of his horse cart and crept along the dusty road to our first destination, Shwezigon Temple, the main temple in the heart of Nyaung Oo, the town north of Old Bagan.
As the morning light spread its warmth throughout the concrete courtyards, we wandered among the bustling morning crowd of early-risers, souvenir sellers and worshipers. A group of small girls in glittery outfits sat listening to chanting monks beneath an open air pagoda. The girls, who looked between eight and ten years old, were surrounded by older relatives seated with their hands clasped before their hearts in prayer position. These girls, explained our guide, are going off to live as nuns. This is their initiation ceremony where the monks and family members pray on their behalf and wish them good luck in their coming spiritual journey.
A short ride down the dirt road from Shwezigon, we turned into the grounds of a monastery. Our guide explained that this particular monastery is primarily for orphaned children. The young kids are taken in by the caretakers at the monastery and brought up as monks. Children tumbled through the grounds of the temple as we rode in, all dressed in the crimson robes so familiar from the Mandalay monks. They darted between the horse cart, around the nearby trees and in and out of the buildings, giving the courtyard a buzzing feeling, much more like an elementary school at recess than an austere monastery.
After about an hour with our guide, it became clear this was going to be a very long day. His eighty-something legs could only go so fast, so the speed of our tour was quite limited. In the crisp clear morning it seemed fine to have a leisurely tour. But after the first two sights, we stopped for tea at a nearby restaurant. Two hours passed under the shade of the restaurant patio, and, as the morning quickly slipped into the afternoon, we had only seen two sights with thousands of still-unexplored temples dotting the valley.
Hoping to speed up a bit, we asked the guide to take us off the beaten track. So we dipped down a bumpy side road to Nat Taung Kyaung, a teak temple down a few winding, shaded alleys, far from the main circuit of temples.
“Perfect,” we thought. “Far from tourists, there’ll be very few hawkers here and we can really get to know the heart of Bagan.”
As soon as our horse cart pulled next to the dark teak temple, a gaggle of giggly children bombarded us as we scooted off the back of the cart.
Postcards! Baskets! Lacquer ware! Buy something, buy something, they insisted.
Hardly an escape. Our guide gave us a very brief tour of the main room inside, the characteristics difficult to discern from the dark teak and minimal natural light. After briefly showing a few intricate carvings, and statues, our guide drifted over to a friend lounging outside the temple in the shade of the giant leafy trees, for a leisurely chat, leaving us to stave off the taunting hawker children and wait to move on to the next location.
Finally, we hopped over to the Htilominlo temple, where the guide gave us a brief history of the importance of the outer carvings on the temple. With a close look you can see where the outer facade was once decorated with elaborate carvings of Buddhist lore. But through time, as rain and wind take their toll on the structures, the carvings crack and wear down, exposing the brick beneath. Here it was easier to imagine the entire valley of Bagan covered in temples gleaming in white and gold, instead of the rustic brick of today.
After lunch near the Ananda Temple, we trekked over to the Mahabodi Temple, modeled after India’s famous temple of the same name, where Buddha was said to have achieved Enlightenment. The temple was only a simple room adorned with a Buddha statue surrounded by a plethora of incense and offerings. The outer facade is said to be covered in more than 450 seated Buddha stone carvings, each in its own carved frame.
After a short tour around the circumference of the temple’s spire, our tour guide led us to the front of the temple again where he not-so-subtly suggested we buy a sand painting or three from his jovial friend. Each temple stop was book-ended with our guide leading us to his friend’s shop to buy jade and silver jewelry, lacquer ware , postcards, paintings.
Just look, he said. You don’t have to buy.
But the sellers’ expectant stares is enough to feel guilty and uncomfortable when you smile as generously as you can and then walk away empty handed.
The suggestions started quietly at first, but by the middle of the afternoon, I felt as if we were on an infamous tuk-tuk tour of Bangkok, where the driver makes hour-long detours only to drop you off at his friend’s tailor shop where he insists that you buy a suit.
It was about at this point, we felt the tour should be nearing its end. Our guide gave us a disappointed look, as if the tour was just getting started. But the sun’s heat was beginning to wane and our eyes and minds were fatigued from the sightseeing and barrage of Buddhist history. Temple-fatigue is easily accomplished when your guide is too knowledgeable and his explanations of each temple’s history are independently worthy of a PhD dissertation.
Our guide left us back at the guesthouse in Nyaung Oo and we spent the evening revisiting the temple we’d stopped at first thing in the morning, Shwezigon. This time we just watched the locals relax and socialize. It was here I realized, that for Burmese, temples aren’t only a place to worship, they’re a community center. The people are so proud of their temples, and not only for the architecture and history. But the temples are place where families and friends feel safe to gather in the mornings and evenings to spend time together, let children play and catch up on the latest gossip.
It took two days and an excruciatingly long tour of exploring every nook and cranny of the historical temples to realize that the importance of the Burmese temple lies not within the architecture, but within the people who enjoy and respect its space.