The ancient city sleeps: an empty street, dark splintered by a naked streetlamp, windows clamped with rotting boards, and a rusty bike grinding through the dust.
I am the sole waking thing in a feast of broken temples.
Welcome to Bagan; welcome to my personal sunrise bike tour.
Forgive me the melodrama, but rising at four to splash on what scraps of jackets I’ve managed to pack, to stumble through the hotel lobby looking for a rental bike, to trust an over-folded lobby map and a headlamp to bring me to the sunrise of untold sorcery, well, it makes for the stuff of goosebumps and “should I really be doing this?” It conjures the emo, so to speak.
But they tell me it’s pretty much the best thing you can do with your time in Bagan: shoot the sunrise. So I’m heading there now–four AM and freezing, rusty bike and haunted street–to a climbable temple from whence the views are reputed best.
Bundle up and pedal along, follow my wobbling tracks through those empty streets. Join my sunrise tour.
BACKGROUND, BACK STORY
From the start, it seems Bagan was worth remarking on—the city of temples was in constant construction for the better part of a millennia, each successive king sprouting new temples, new stupas, new statues almost daily. The wealth of a prosperous people was poured into stone homes for the Buddha gods. All the visitors marveled and brought tales of the golden city of gods back to their incredulous countrymen.
But the stories were true.
Gold carvings in gilded alcoves among glittering corridors through the heart of a sky-spiking temple were the norm; avenues trailed the warm colors of monks’ robes under the gracious green palms, and golden streamers and wealth unchecked fluttered in the humid breeze. Sunrise chants rose from the forest, the clink of hammer and workman signaled a new dawn, and brick by brick, statue by statue, from the jungle floor a new forest emerged—a gold-spired symphony of worship, an unending one-upping of generation past generation threshing the produce of the unflagging fields into monuments—commemorations of their pious generosity, fodder for future generations to visit and photograph.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, I’m sure some wise-cracking peasant stood up and said, “We’ve got a lot of temples already. Don’t you think it’s enough?” The king probably scourged him and tossed him in the river. Maybe the next generation, someone in a similar vein, might venture to mutter, “Why don’t we, you know, instead of using the gold to build statues, use it to buy something nice for ourselves?” The head of the bricklayers’ union probably beat some sense into him with a nearby mason’s trowel. And perhaps, a few hundred years later, a heartless deviant would brashly mouth something like, “I doubt these temples are even for worship anymore. They’re just an architectural contest among the kings—” But of course that sentence was never finished, for tyrants seldom seem truly open to constructive criticism.
However it happened, though, the centuries saw the rampant temple fetish grow unchecked, and as gold flowed in, it took residence in the smiling countenances of row after row of patient Buddha, teaching the populace that happiness lies outside of wealth and notoriety. In response, they made him one filthy rich monument after filthy rich monument, so that his personal fame and adoration might never suffer recession.
What did all that mean for me and my bike tour? Well, not that much in that moment: I was busy trying to match a crinkled map with a darkened landscape. I muttered and sighed. Hopeless. I plowed off down the next dusty lane; then, when it proved unfruitful, circled back to the paved main road. I lumbered that crusty bike-chain up wine-dark hills that I somehow missed when we came through with a car.
My headlamp jingled and bounced with the crazy paving of the road. I managed to smash my front tire in a pothole masked by dust-powder. The tripod, slung over my should, snapped its case, clattering the equipment across the beaten road. Chill air seeped through the sweat on my shirt and clung to my bones.
Owls hooted. Darkness reigned. Somewhere in this maze of temples waited a tiered masterpiece with stairs running up the side of its Mayan-like design. That’s the one you can climb for the sunrise panorama.
That’s what I was after.
Map back in the pocket, tripod balanced across the handlebars, I started down another lane of stupas pondering in the dark.
DAYLIGHT AND DIRTY FEET
Bagan is a different animal during the day. Temples lift their dusty remnants and golden crowns over the forest canopy, and the meandering herds of tourists and villagers plod through baking streets. Kids throng from a schoolyard; women sell you scarves and nick-knacks; the coconut man waits in the shade for some customers.
Little in the way of organization exists. Yes, a few road signs can guide a guy to the principle temples. Yes, a pocket map will help you navigate them all. Yes, groups and guides can hand-hold you through the ruins of the city in paths that highlight certain rulers, or certain religious journeys, or certain temple features. But for me, Bagan is self-guiding—pick a road, pick a temple, wander through and shoot photos.
You’ll find buses for camera-toters outside some, others filled with pious pray-ers bowing before another neon-radiating buddha, others are left to you and your nasty feet.
Yeah, I forgot to mention—no footwear of any kind is allowed in the temples.
That means get ready for the grimiest, grittiest feet you’ve ever stepped with. Temple tiles are typically cold as refrigerator’s crisper, and caked with dust as thick what rests below that fridge. Throw in an occasional bug carcass and pigeon doo, and you start to re-create the picture.
I’m talking feet like Appalacian summertime when the coal mine shuts down dirty. I’m talking Woodstock ’69 in the thick of center stage’s mud pit.
Of course I realize we in the States typically keep our feet well-insulated from the elements. We wear shoes everywhere. Asia doesn’t.
And I get that crusty feet is a cultural thing. And in that context, I understand respecting the temples by removing footwear. “But,” I whispered to Andy when the others had wandered around a corner, “how about showing some respect by sweeping and mopping these floors—or at least by keeping the pigeon crap off the Buddhas?” She just rolled her eyes and walked on.
Bagan was crypt-still when I finally found the road. No one else for miles—not even a passing headlight. Was I on the right track? I pedaled on, scouring both map and landscape in the process. Crickets whined around me, and a million stars swirled slowly overhead.
This has got to be it.
Before me, a square-ish conglomeration of a temple raised its crazy roof: four stories tall, stacked in tiers, a set of steps more like a ladder built by a myopic mountain climber, a coldness and dirtiness underfoot yet unmatched by any temple I’d visited so far.
Nearby, a villager was warming himself beside a tiny fire. Yes, yes, he motioned sleepily. Go up, go up. But no shoes.
I left the shoes behind and went up.
Shiver and sweat and a backpack full of camera goodies, I was the first one on the famed sunrise-spotting temple. It was just after five. Time to wait. Grab the best tripod spot, and wait. I was alone under the stars, atop the ancient temple, surrounded by forests and stupas. Somewhere far across the earth’s curve, the dormant sun lay waiting to blister this all into glory. I was alone and starting to shiver. Where was everyone else?
The previous afternoon had been no struggle to find strangers.
It started on the SUV ride into the ancient village. School kids filed past in bleached uniforms, shuffling up dust and making the morning sing with their laughter. “So strange,” I mumbled. “Children singing on the way to school? Laughter in the air before double-digit hours?”
But it was true, groups of wiry teens—not an obese one among them—walked arm in arm and held each other in over-the-shoulder embraces. They threw sticks, they smiled in white teeth, and the carried backpacks loaded down with stuff they may or may not learn.
In the temples, groups quickly emerged. Take the camera-toters for instance—the guys who knew Bagan’s fame for photo spreads as fine as any on the planet, and consequently traipsed through scene after glorious scene in perpetual frowns and furrowed brows, forever spinning through options and filters and settings hoping, somehow hoping, to tame the laser sunlight and coal-deep shadows into an artful landscape still. I know. I was one of them—too focused on the future photos to appreciate the present views.
Then you had the worshipers—the guys kneeling before the ancient statues staring, still staring, into the shadows after so many centuries. Unmoving. Unthinking, Unacting. Prayers bouncing off them at all angles. Sometimes, if the tiny temple were right, then an electric blast of lines radiated from behind the bald head. That’s right: Shwedagon was not the only place with a neon touch to the Buddha’s world.
Finally came the hawkers; you know, the guys out to milk the temples to make a living: they sell you water and coke, peanuts and novels, statues and prayer guides and coconuts and lacquer ware. In the temple with the tallest Buddhas, the one off the main square, I stopped in front of a lacquer seller while the girls shopped bracelets.
“No thanks. Too hot to drink.”
“Oh, you is very funny, sir. But I have lacquer, no liquor.”
“Hey, umm. I don’t know. I… what’s lacquer?”
“Here, here. This is lacquer,” his mustache wagged as he gestured with fat fingers. “This cup. Or this tray. Or maybe the owl. You see, this is all lacquer.”
I turned over the objects he thrust into view, and I glanced back at the girls—they stood in the sun at the end of a long, dusty shaft of stalls leading up to the temple gate.
“But don’t go with her,” he nodded out the stall toward Andy and Seinn. “She will take you to the expensive shops outside, where they will give her a cut.” He stared long into my eyes. He grabbed my hand. “Trust me. I give you good price.”
It was pretty awkward.
“Seinn? No, she’s our friend. We’ve known her for—”
“You will see. She will take you to expensive place and keep the extra as the fee for the guide.”
I twisted the black, plastic-ish cup between my fingers. The strange compound was light but strong, a perfect mix of brittle and wax and gleam, with the intricate sketches lining parallel rings drifting across the shell.
“Please let go of my hand.”
CAMERA TOTER MOB
That was hours ago—back when the sun was high and burning and the sweat was flowing, even in the shade. Now, in the hour before sun-up, the tides had turned: shivers and cross-armed bouncing and straining to stretch Andy’s thin rain jacket further down my wrists. It was cold. And it was dark. And I was alone.
Was that sun ever going to come up?
Eventually a string of headlamps started arriving in the dark—on bikes, on foot, on mega-giant tour buses. Like ants on a picnic cake, they started climbing the pyramid, coming my way.
Good news: my tripod and I were planted in the best spot. All it cost me was an hour and fifteen minutes of sleep-deprived freezing. “S-S-Suckers.”
Bad news: It was about to get real crowded real quick.
The next thing I knew, gray was sweeping over the horizon, a lady in a mountain-climbing coat was planted beside me, and, as if at giant green flag had been waved across the starting line of the Indy 500, the cameras’ focus beeps and shutter clicks split into the morning stillness.
Sleepy mumbles livened into chatter; apertures compared, speeds adjusted, white balances manipulated. Second by second the mists of Bagan flowed into and around the dim shades of temples. Moment by moment the gray sky lightened into pale yellow.
The magic of Bagan glittered before eyes and lenses, then blossomed in a golden moment as the sun splintered across the mist and temples. Chatter rang out—more apertures and shutter speeds, lenses and focal points—and a field full of hot air balloons inflated before our time lapses and gently wandered with the breeze. The orbs sifted across the still-lifes of a land with as many temples as inhabitants. We bumped and excused ourselves on the narrow temple rims, all fighting for a better angle for the madness, all were smiling the entire time.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been here—on a roof in a cocoon of photo nerds clicking away at the orange ball hovering around the horizon. Just last evening, in fact, the scene was much the same.
Just change the temple and toss the trio of girls into the mix.
Bagan’s glow in the golden hours is something hard to explain. An hour before the sun retires, and the after he’s abroad, the landscapes absolutely changes, and all the narrow domes of the temples robe themselves in a luster you can scarcely imagine.
But it’s more than just a cool color—it’s the calmness of it all. As the temples stand in the same posture the centuries have taught them, as the breeze scarcely touches your cheek and tingles the sweat on your back, as the red dust powders the horizon into a dreamy haze, you feel as though you’ve stepped into a photograph from an age before photos were invented. All is quiet; all is washed in reverent tones of gold.
In that solemn quiet of the afternoon, buffaloes plodded a steady path and a chubby artist wearing a faded Adidas tee stood beside a smattering of easels waiting for a sale, and a trio of girls ran screaming from the SUV to the temple. “Hurry, hurry. The light is perfect!”
They scurried inside and squeezed through tiny passages—dark as a cave and narrow as a ruler, the kind of staircase that riddles a claustrophobic’s nightmares. After a few moments, the girls burst into the dazzling heat and light of the roof.
I was their photographer.
Wielding the bright umbrellas typical of Burma, they giggled and posed and sent me climbing across crumbling brick spires and hanging by toeholds for a better angle. At our back, the resident artist of the temple, who also squeezed up the stairs, smoked yet another cigarette and offered plenty of two cents on framing the shot.
“Faster, faster,” the girls were frantic. “The sun is setting.”
And just like that we were off again—into the dark and down the stairs and across the lot to the SUV: a fleeting whirlwind in the Bagan stillness.
The photographers’ hangout was buzzing—after we negotiated another round of crumbling stairs, of course. This temple was square and practical—the homely, practical older sister to the glitzy divas dotting the dark mists flowing among the temples. Camera get-up more pricey than cars fired at will, and each photographer secretly envied or scorned the shots of his neighbor.
A tour bus rumbled gamely off in the distance—these guys were with a photo tour from, of all places, Jakarta. We glibly traded lines of fledgling Indonesian while trying for a million-dollar shot of housewife-turned-glamour-model and her Burmese guide.
Just a few thousand frames and a few moments later, the sun was retired to his interstellar abode; we to a less celestial lodging. Sleep a few hours before sun-up.
This isn’t how you’re supposed to see Bagan. This is all wrong.
What you need in your stay is a few more days. You’ve got to bike to the sunrise temple each morning: calmly, serenely, appreciating the chirps and flutters of the still-unseen birds. You’ve got to stroll through the temples in repose, well-rested and fueled with the salad and the spice of a hearty noodle breakfast. You’re supposed to shake hands and share tea with the home-dealing lacquer-maker, the one with the mustache and trustworthy grip, and buy a few pieces off him just as a way to say thank you for helping this place stay beautiful.
You’re supposed to buy some Orwell paperbacks they’re forever hawking around here, and you’re supposed to slip through his stories in the glaring midday—a coconut at your side and fan pushing a breeze your way.
You’re supposed to take at least three days here—three sunrises to get the lighting right; three sunsets to practice the subtle art of the orange and the gold.
We sprinted through in half that time—barely perusing a temple long enough to grab our sneakers for the scorching pavement before dashing through the shadowy caverns of the next. This was our Bagan—dirty feet and a shivering sunrise, heat-soaked afternoons slipping into extended photo-ops in the waning light of day.
No doubt remains, Bagan has got to be one of the most remarkable sites on our list of visits—the mist creeping up through the trees as the same sun steals over the horizon that stole the same way so long ago: this light, this iridescent flow, tugs at your core, tugs you back to days of morning campfires springing throughout the forest of pagoda spires, to the days when the temple chanting would ring through the bright walls instead of the dusty echo of empty centuries. It’s the whisper of the ghosts of the stupas and night-dark stairways. To see the gold spires gleam in the fire of the sunset makes you wonder how exactly this people of priests and monks must have once lived, how they once went about their lives in a chanting metropolis of the pious and the Pharisees.
The crowds were mostly gone; the sun finally warm enough to melt my jacket from my arms. Slowly, I turned back to the faithful, sad, crippled tripod—time for breakfast noodles, and then, I smiled, the road to Mandalay.