View from Thonelawka htut Khauno Temple at Sunrise Bagan

RAG: Bagan – the Land of Temples

It’s a sight that you know will be etched in your mind forevermore. Sunrise in the Land of Temples. Bagan. Pagodas and stupas, steeped in history, more of them than anybody could ever comprehend.

Sunrise sees them illuminate suddenly with pink and amber and orange all glowing and glorifying the short green spaces between them all, the spikes of temple heights reaching above the Bagan forest. Sun rises still and hot air balloons, fired up and bellowing, litter the sky like a dandelion blown in the air, brilliant against a brilliant blue-ing sky.

We’re atop one of the few temples we’re still permitted to climb. We’re taking it all in, our 6am-eyes never stretching wide enough, dizzied, recognising that our trip’s really begun: that we’re really here. A thousand past office hours are blinked away and the dream-land so desperately dreamt of is before us.

But this reverie’s an interrupted one. The foundation is struggling. These balloons bear more than just the weight of passengers. 5am turns to 5.30am and by 6am our numbers have tripled, even more. We’re certainly not the only ones with kit. Yes, the tripod’s arranged and of course we’ve taken photos, but this sunrise belittles that. It’s impossible to capture; too much to squeeze in to a frame and ruin with digital pixels and pictures. We follow the fire which blasts from the motors and wandering to the other corner of the stupa we’re elbowed out the way, poses already in our absence, no route back. Happy passengers glide over the temples, clicking incessant as insects.

Her tattoo, naïve and not-niche, reads ‘live, laugh, love’, along the bone of her foot. They make sure it’s not in their photo – you know the one. Her perfectly pressed dress and blonde hair hanging loose are all part of the pretty picture of back to the camera and face the impressive facades – you know the one. The balloons fly like birds around her, the light bronzing her skin and it click-click-clicks.

See the Chinese couple on the stupa below, staring at one another intently. It’s hard to piece together, hard to understand, harder not to laugh. It’s a moment before we spot their hired iPhone photographer for the day – crouching like a fool in the corner, contorting his limbs in to all sorts of positions and barking back orders. The producer of perfect poses, author of ostentatious. The pair are in matching white uniforms, and now he’s touching her cheek, and she almost lost her balance but now they’re both gazing away from the camera and does everybody wants to be a model? Do all of us look like that?

We descend and take in Dhammayazaka Temple and enjoy the early hours of nobody here. The day’s beginning and the silence is still. Soon we’re back at our hostel and scoffing a hungry breakfast, coughing back any caffeine-fuelled coffee we can. In the room I’m changing kit and see a girl laying back in these awful bunk beds, the curtain closed and why would we ever want light in here? Headphones in her phone’s above her, the free hand feeling for the bag of snacks nearby.

Soon we’re back on the bike, like excited kids queueing for amusement parks, itching for the only traffic lights to change and admit us. We drive down Myinkaba, we see Old Bagan, we stop wherever there’s a temple seems interesting and there’s always something to see. With over two-thousand-temples in town we quickly discover that we won’t be able to see them all, will barely see any at all. We dart behind Dhammayangyi, gawk at Ananda, turn the backroads back on ourselves and fly forward in whichever directions takes us to Sulamani Temple, the scale of it grown larger the closer we come. Inside the guides tell us its history, share its secrets; they know each brick replaced after earthquakes. The quakes that fracture but cannot falter foundations.

The back roads are our favourite. They’re scorching. Bagan’s creeping toward its dry season, the wet season leaving with grassy green-ing growing plains as far as we can see. Eventually we see North Guni, South Guni, and nobody else here. A local looks us up and down, half-dazed in the daylight, and decides to continue hunting snakes with his spears. Guni is menacing, is bold, is darker than any Disney villain and you can’t climb this one either; this time we don’t mind.

It’s easy to lose track of time dancing between temples, forgetting the half-remembered names and on to the next ones. Our tip for sunrise took us to Htilominlo, but its temple owners confirmed that nobody climbs there anymore. And returning to the main road we find that ‘the Secret Pagoda’ is no secret anymore. We’re late arrivals, and sit on the brick-edges. Others cling to the structure, even behind us.

The Secret Pagoda is belching, is cans opening, cameras clicking, is overfilled and crammed past capacity. Junkies jostle for space and twist their iPhone case whichever way they can, anywhere they can stand. Trading tricks and passing poses and this beautiful old chariot’s crumbling under the weight of its tourists all desperate for ‘the shot.’ This time we’re smug and our camera’s tucked away – see no Instagram feed greed here. But with even with our hands behind our back and just taking it in, we’re two of those tourists still. Our footprints are heavy as theirs. Do we destroy these dream-lands as we document them? Do we take more than we give?

The sun sets early, and we’ve time for dinner and drinks with other backpackers. We speak to the dutch, the brits, Slovakians, americans, French and Australians. Each of us tipped a pagoda for tomorrow’s sunrise, each of us frustrated with all-of-them closing. It’s a backpacker night, and everybody’s sharing stories. My new American friend who’s left the States for the first time tells me of Pai’s wonders, of a mountain near Chiang Mai and a camp in Chiang Rai’s cliff edges. He heard of this all in his podcasts, and indeed it sounds beautiful. We talk about South America, about South East Asia, and do I know where Central Asia is? His podcast assures him it’s the real ‘off-the-beaten-path’ place to be, and as a former Eagle Scout he’s confident he can turn up, fashion a tent out of timber and camp like a king… My beer’s just about empty with the listening, the chin-stroking, indeed-ing, smiling, saying nothing.

And since sun rises early, we’re shortly to bed. A girl lays sleepy in her lousy bunk bed, headphones in, phone asleep by her side. Did she forget to see Bagan because of the feed, her balance all wrong? How many of us fall asleep with our phone in our hand? Taking our favourite technology to our favourite dream-land?

***

They don’t get any easier – the alarm clocks at 3. But we’re determined that we’ve got a pagoda to ourselves and straight to the bike. We drive through the darkness, we turn off road, sure we can see the silhouette of Thone-lawka-htut-khauno in the nothingness of night. A Spanish couple meet us and we’re all trying to find the same place. Not even the locals are awake yet.

The morning mists hug the plains, soft as incense, sending worlds to sleep. Pagodas poke through like skyscrapers. The exposure dials up and endless amounts of Bagan stretch out before us and achingly beautiful. We take time-lapses and of course we take pictures but before too long the sun’s announced above us and each of us slowing, letting the sunshine warm our skins like lizards, restoring our balance. We’re joined by French friends and a couple from Germany: our tally of eight is an achievement not to be taken lightly.

Taken lightly as the drone they shoot in to the sky; it’s buzzing, whirring whine kills the atmosphere we’d all been nourished by. Bagan’s council strictly prohibits the use of drones for fear of further damage to their treasures. It’s the same reason they’re restricting tourists from climbing them, with only five or six left available to summit.

The local guide, who was once all smiles, is irritated, and asks them to take down their tyrant. He’s ignored, and suddenly incensed. He curses their name in Burmese and we smile sympathetic apologies like traitors. I look guilty at our tripod arranged and of course we’ve taken photos, so what makes us better than them? That we tip-top round temples rather than trundle? That I take my photos quickly and quietly, instead of brazenly and brashly and in front of the crowds? Surely there’s a balance between capturing the beauty, and being captivated by beauty? Can one exist with the other? Do we take more than we give?

We turn to take in what we can of the rising sun, the floating balloons on the horizon, blighted by the tiny buzzing blur that comes and goes.

The last ones down, the aggressors get talking to us – the standard script.

“How was your footage then, from the drone?”

“Actually, not so good – turns out there are heaps of garbage surrounding this pagoda, so the footage doesn’t look so nice so far. We think it will be quite shit this time.” And aren’t we delighted for their waste of time?

We’re keen to keep exploring – a busy day of temple-spotting planned out – but they’re happy to talk. They talk about the local kids approaching them too, promising to share ‘secret’ pagodas, ones that you can still climb. We’ve politely declined every such offer, but our German friends did not. Crafty kids, they did indeed show our friends a ‘secret’ pagoda for a $10 ‘steal.’ And sure enough it can be climbed, and so our German friends began, clambering to the top, giddy with the views and no-one else there.

“But as we were with our equipment set up, the locals arrived below us, man, they started throwing rocks at us, threatening to call the police. So of course we had to come down…we didn’t even get our money back.” And our water’s just about empty with the listening, the chin-stroking, indeed-ing, smiling, saying nothing.

***

That night we take in sunset from small temples near Buledi. We have the modest temple to ourselves, green fields stretching forever before us. Our technology, if only for tonight, is hidden like a hostage.

We see an adventurer, searching for police, looking for locals, making sure they can’t be seen and jumping the fence to climb to Buledi’s peak. Even at the top they’re still pacing, surreptitious, spying sunset, desperately seeking their favourite dream-land.

Tonight, the sunset is shit. This time, we don’t mind.

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