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Vail Daily travel feature: The mystical beauty of Myanmar’s Bagan

Dennis Jones
Special to the Daily
Hot air balloons float majestically over Bagan’s temples at dawn.
Dennis Jones | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a series of seven. To read the other installments, visit http://www.vaildaily.com.

Bagan is one of those mystical locations that has played on my mind for years. The Plain of Bagan is among the largest religious sites in the world. It is littered with temples from tiny to enormous. Thousands of pagodas built between 950 and 1287 CE make Bagan the premier tourist destination in Myanmar.

We arrive late afternoon by bus in Nyaung U, a town on the eastern bank of the mighty Ayeyarwady River in the northwest corner of the 26 square mile plain of temples.

I negotiate a pickup truck taxi to our hotel for $6.50, steep for the short trip. Then again, it’s a tourist trap and peak season. The hotel is perfectly situated for exploring the temples and I’m surprised to find ancient pagodas right across the road. Hundreds more dot the plain to the west and south.

With evening approaching, I set out exploring, seeking a temple said to be a prime sunset spot. The pagodas across the road are small, 25-40 feet high. Each stupa has doorways facing the four cardinal directions leading to chambers containing Buddhas. This is the central design no matter the size of the temple. The Buddha in the eastern chamber is always the largest.

Crossing the desiccated fields to a much larger temple, I find the same configuration on a grander scale. What is surprising is the condition and beauty of the ancient frescoes adorning the high chambers.

A boy whose family earns its living as gatekeepers of this temple, directs me to a hidden stairway. Stumbling up the broken stairs in the tiny dark corridor, I emerge into the smoky sunlight onto a terrace with an iconic image of Bagan spread before me.

In the distance I spy my goal, Temple 394, and descend to cross the dusty fields before the sunsets. Scores of people swarm the upper levels as the setting sun casts its ruddy glow upon the brick and stucco terraces.

Climbing urgently, I scale the increasingly steep stairs to find tourists from around the world occupying every available west facing space. To me though, the photographs are to the east as the fading sunlight illuminates the hundreds of temples scattered about the smoky plain.

PAGODAS at DAWN

The following morning, I’m up before dawn. No way sleep will keep me from capturing the pagodas in the pre-dawn light. An added bonus are the balloons floating majestically among the temples. Bagan is one of the premier ballooning sights in the world. For $325, a fortune in Myanmar, one can book an hour-long ride. Reservations, though, are filled months in advance.

Returning to the hotel, I join Yolanda for a hearty breakfast after which we set out for a morning of exploring. Another surprise is the vitality of the religious life within the temples. The larger the temple the more worshipers there are present. These are not simply world-class archaeological treasures but living places of worship. No matter how small, seemingly every Buddha, and there are thousands, have recent offerings of marigolds, candles, incense or fruit set before it.

The courtyards surrounding the largest structures host thriving markets selling food, drinks, offerings and souvenirs. These are a very entrepreneurial people. Entire families live from the earnings of their English-speaking children who act as guides and interpreters.

We stumble onto a smallish pagoda when a wizened old man motions us toward the barricaded entrance. Pushing aside the gate he points exclaiming, “Painting, painting.” The darkened interior slowly reveals a cornucopia of beautifully preserved Buddhist frescoes, treasures of the lost era when Bagan was the royal capitol.

I hadn’t understood the motivation behind putting such vast energy and resources into building these thousands of religious structures until I learned of the pagoda in Nye Pyi Taw built by Myanmar’s former brutal dictator — you build a temple to gain merit in order to be reincarnated at a higher level. (Whether this could possibly compensate for his manifold sins is debatable.)

I believe The Plain of Bagan represents the collective striving toward gaining merit by the most powerful people of the time. Even today new stupas are springing up all across Myanmar. The Burmese are a very religious people. Awe-inspiring Bagan is an ancient, living testament to their deeply-held beliefs.

Dennis Jones is a professional photographer and writer. He leads private photography workshops in the Vail/Beaver Creek area. To contact him, visit his website at http://www.dream catcherimaging.com.


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