“There are only 54 steps to the top,” said my guide, Mu Mu. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can do that without even breathing hard. Halfway up the face of Shwesandaw Temple, I realized I must have tuned out the part where she’d said each step was at least two feet high and the climb was nearly vertical. I grasped the thick iron railings and pulled myself up one excruciating step at a time, taking comfort in the fact that people one-third my age were finding the climb just as difficult.
Huffing and puffing, I finally scrambled up onto the walkway that surrounded the pagoda’s pinnacle. Spectators were already standing three deep, jockeying for position to watch the sun set over the famous temples of Bagan, but more and more people kept shoving in. Just when I was sure the walkway couldn’t accommodate one more person, a group of women loaded down with shopping bags and gigantic purses pushed their way up from the terrace below. They barreled through the crowd, pushing me perilously close to the edge, where the only barrier against a fatal fall was a low brick wall. Terrified, I backtracked to the stairway and sat down, putting my head down on my knees and breathing deeply to regain my composure.
When my heart finally stopped pounding, I looked up and felt it miss a beat from the sheer beauty that stretched before me. The dusty, flat desert of moments before had turned to shades of red and ocher under the setting sun. In the distance, the Irrawaddy River undulated like a ribbon of liquid mercury, providing a backdrop for scores of temples, pagodas, and shrines that punctuated the landscape. These were the temples of Bagan I’d always heard about and longed to see, the ancient kingdom originally known as Pagan, where 10,000 religious structures had once stood. Despite the lack of safety and the sea of tour buses that were still regurgitating tourists, the view was undeniably astounding.
I was so taken with Bagan that, after the end of my Viking River Myanmar Explorer Cruise/Tour, I returned for an additional five days. Rather than staying in the Archaeological Zone, where the bulk of the religious structures are located, I stayed in the town of New Bagan. This village was created in 1990, when the government of Myanmar relocated all families living in and around the ruins. Today, there are no homes left in the Archeological Zone, though locals are allowed to farm the fields, run livestock, and sell handicrafts to tourists during the day.
By a stroke of luck, I stayed at the Bagan Empress Hotel. The staff virtually adopted me. Each morning at breakfast, they prepared a different traditional dish for me, and on my last morning they actually bought traditional Myanmar noodles for me to try. Some days I wandered around town, ferreting out ancient temples still being used for everyday worship. One day I hired a traditional horse cart to take me to tiny villages that sprouted in the midst of peanut-field stubble. On the dusty back roads I dismounted and walked, giving wide berth to ox-driven carts and watching women carry home plastic containers filled with water on wooden poles balanced on their shoulders.
Other days I walked for miles, stopping at every temple along the way, marveling at the differences between them. At one of these, the Soe Min Gyi Monastery, two young girls guided me to the top on an extremely narrow brick staircase with no guard railing. I looked at my feet the entire way up, fighting to control my fear of falling. At the top I was rewarded with a view that was every bit as good as the one at Shwesandaw Pagoda. Again, I watched the desert morph from drab khaki to rich red. Again, I gaped at the seeming endless number of temples scattered across the horizon. But this time, there were no crowds to fight, no pushing or shoving, only two sweet girls who stayed with me until dusk, then showed me the way down.
Disclosure: Viking River Cruises sponsored me on their Myanmar Explorer cruise/tour however the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.