After a few days of exploring Mandalay, our journey extended into the central part of the mysterious country. We hopped a local bus for an eight hour journey to Bagan, one of the most historically important cities in Burmese culture. The town, in the central part of the country, was a long dusty and bumpy ride from the tree-lined streets of Mandalay.
To say we stayed in the town of Bagan isn’t entirely correct. The stupa-studded valley is known as Bagan, with three townships occupying a north-south corridor. Our bus dropped us off in the northern town of Nyaung Oo. We were greeted by another horsecart, waiting to haul us back to the Inn Wa Guesthouse.
The adventure in the valley truly began with a sunrise bikeride to the older, historical Bagan. With birds still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, we hopped our cycles and raced the clock. Furious feet pushed us the short 5 minute ride to the main road in Old Bagan, a road studded by dusty red paths, each leading to a new and different temple. Just as the morning drifted over the treetops, swathing the valley in a syrupy drip of golden light, the ancient temples sprouted from the earth like dense brick trees reaching for the blue-ing sky.
After a jaunt down a ruddy red road, we parked our bikes at the nearest pagoda, Shwensandaw Temple, scrambled up the terrifying steep stone steps to the highest platform around the chedi, and watched the sunrise kiss the entire valley with its sweet early-morning warmth.
The Bagan valley, littered with thousands of temples (reports range anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 structures), was our playground for the next few days. After sunrise we pedaled to the Ananda Temple, one of the areas most beloved pagodas. The center of the temple is guarded at the cardinal directions by four Buddha statues, each 31′ tall and made of solid teak. (Fun fact: when viewing the statues from a distance, Buddha’s mouth is turned down, giving the Buddha a serious and pensive look. With just a few steps closer to the statues, his serious frown changes into a gentle smirk).
Beyond Ananda, we explored innumerable unpronounceable temples, including Dhammayangyi, the unfinished temple built by one of the civilizations’ mad kings, now just a giant pile of bricks with unnavigable passageways; Htilominlo, a 150 foot tall pagoda which still struts awe-inspiring detailed plaster carvings on the exterior structure; and a slew of temples with no particular name, just a little pointed spire jutting up from the nearby fields.
Of course, between the temples, we were allowed a brief glimpse into life in Myanmar. We weren’t accosted by hawkers as much as I expected, and the sellers certainly weren’t as persistent as outside the Inwa village outside Mandalay. While their living certainly depends on exchanging their handmade goods for our crisp U.S. dollars, the sellers didn’t seem quite as frantic. Perhaps they’re satisfied with their own pace of life.