Exploring the Plains of Bagan
15.08.2011 - 15.08.2011 28 °C
Myanmar’s greatest architectural site has as many red-brick temples on a plain the size of Manhattan island as Europe has medieval cathedrals. The Kings of Bagan, Pagan as was, who introduced central Myanmar to Theravada Buddhism, liked to make bold statements. Their building frenzy of a startling 4,400 temples lasted only 230 years, fading before the Mongols poured over the plains in 1287.
Our exploration of the Temples began at the morning market in New Bagan. Open for only a few hours each day a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish were available. From there we began our exploration of the vast plains of Bagan by bicycle. Whilst renting our bikes we had been acquainted with a Mandalay university student, happy to provide us with an unofficial tour of the temples. Phohtaoo (Foo-Tou) was to be our companion for the next few days showing us the oft visited temples and the quieter areas of Bagan, that see few tourists.
A wide loop through Old Bagan takes us to a plethora of domed red brick temples. Typically, filled with large golden buddhas some such as, the Ananda Pahto, with its shimmering gold, 170ft high, corncob-style hti shimmering across the plains, also house detailed 18th century murals bursting with bright red and green, showing details of everyday life from the Bagan period. Their vibrancy and visual style is simply stunning. Often only visible with the aid of a small electric bulb, on a long cable, we catch glimpses of the artistry and skills of ancient artists. Whilst prevalent in many of the temples the stucco walled murals were, unfortunately, significantly affected by the 1975 earthquake. Those examples that remain provide a saddening insight into what must have been quite glorious religious sites.
Over the years, neglect, looting, erosion, bat dung and, in particular, the massive 1975 earthquake have done their part to undermine a bit of the former majesty of Bagan. Many restorations projects, including several by Unesco, have rebuilt damaged temples from the 1975 earthquake yet all too often the result of this devastating earthquake that saw the total number of temples in Bagan reduced from over 4,400 to 2,250 are still visible.
Cycling through the red brick temple strewn landscape of the Plains provides a glorious visual feast of ancient architecture. With August heat and humidity ensuring minimal tourist visitors our tour of the key temples of Bagan are almost private. Few travelers impact on our tour. As an unofficial guide Phohtaoo does not enter many of the temples, as not having a guide license would cause problems. Yet his presence is both agreeable and helpful, especially when finding the small doors and passageways that lead to the upper floors of some temples.
Keen to see the process of making ‘new’ Bagan statues he takes us to a friend of his that manufacturers these items. Far from the usual tourist trail, clay still wet, Phohtaoo’s friend artistically carves images of Buddha into the red medium. The following day he promises to have them fired, finished and ready for purchase.
With lunch in Old Bagan and ample cycling between temples, along often sandy tracks, completed we finish our day at one of the many Lacquerware workshops that Bagan is famous for. With quality pieces made from bamboo, teak or horse hair and requiring at least twelve layers of lacquer, each taking over a week to dry a large piece can take up to eight months to produce. With a drying cellar in the basement the store we visit has a first floor where the lacquer is applied with fingers and a second where craftsmen hand carve the many and varied patterns. Each color of the pattern is applied individual, with natural dyes and acacia tree glue used to apply and maintain the color. The free hand drawing skills of these artisans is amazing. Unsurprisingly we arrange for a few choice items to be sent to our hotel in Yangon.
After a long, hot day visiting the temples we are happy to spend a quiet night at the hotel. Tomorrow will see more temples and more cycling. Saddle sores need to heal.