Bagan temples

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Climbing Bagan’s Shwesandaw Pagoda

The view at sunset after climbing the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan. Photo by David Lansing.

Dozens of vendors at the base of the Shwesandaw Pagoda selling postcards, young coconuts, bottled water, and, most bizarrely, pirated copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days, covered in plastic sleeves.

The dirt road leading to the temple is lined with tour buses and the air is thick with the red dust thrown up by all the vehicles hurrying to get here before sunset. The dust lightly covers my arms and hair and gets in my nose and mouth.

I climb. The first couple of levels are not too bad. You just have to keep reminding yourself to take your time. Even if there are people right behind you. By the third level I am slightly out of breath. The steps become narrower, the hold more tenuous. I decide to depart from the stairs I am on and make a quarter turn along the parapet, looking for a new, less busy way up. By the fourth level, each step has become a challenge. Raise my left leg high, shift and steady my planted foot, lift while lunging forward with my body, trying not to rely too much on the thin, rusty handrail that seems only half-set in to the concrete steps. Pull too hard on this, I think, and one would immediately fall backwards and fly off the temple to the red dirt below.

Panting, sweating, feeling a little vertigo, I finally reach the final level. Get away from the edge, lean against the warm stone wall, catch my breath. And look out.

Magnificent. Red earth. Dry green fields. Palm and tamarind trees framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains. And all around, hundreds and hundreds of brick-colored temples. A sight so other-worldly it seems certain that it must come from a dream. Truly one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen.

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Murdered monks at the Ananda Temple

Photos of the Ananada Temple in Bagan, Burma by David Lansing.

Sai plays me like a fiddle. He knows all he has to do is tell me a good story about some place and I’ll want to go. So today he tells me the story of the Ananda Temple in Bagan.

“A thousand years ago eight traveling Buddhist monks approached the king in Bagan to beg for alms. They told him about this amazing temple in the Himalayas where they had meditated and were so persuasive in describing its beauty that the king immediately asked the monks to design a similar temple. Which they gladly did. The temple was so amazing and so unique that the king immediately had all eight monks killed. So they wouldn’t build a similar structure anywhere else.”

Okay, so how could I possibly resist that story? So we had to go to Ananda. Just like Sai wanted.

Water pots for the monks at the Ananda Temple in Bagan, Burma. Photo by David Lansing.

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Stories of the Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Burma. Photo by David Lansing.

Every morning, over tea, Sai tells me something new about the Shwezigon Pagoda, which I have been assiduously avoiding.

“Do you know why the temple was placed here?” he asks as I cut into a piece of dragon fruit.

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“Because the king placed a tooth of Buddha on the back of his white elephant and set the animal free with this oath, ‘May my white elephant bow down at the spot where the tooth relic wishes to reside.’ And this is where the elephant bowed his head.”

I wasn’t going to ask Sai why the king had a white elephant or the tooth of Buddha.

Another morning: “Do you know why the king could not complete building the temple?”

“Tell me.”

“Because he was killed by a rampaging buffalo.”

Again, there were unspoken questions: Why would the king be in a position to be killed by a rampaging buffalo? And why the hell didn’t his white elephant save him?

Another morning: “There are twenty-one lions, sixteen crabs, and sixteen sea frogs at the Shwezigon Pagoda.”

“Fine, Sai. Let’s go see the crabs and sea frogs today.”

So we went to the Shwezigon Pagoda. Which I knew we would sooner or later. I just wanted to make Sai work for it. It was beautiful. Of course. And when we were finished admiring the golden stupa and the sixteen crabs and sea frogs, I had a question for Sai: “Did you know the sound of a drum beaten on one side of the pagoda cannot be heard on the other side?”

Sai lifted his eyebrows and looked surprised. “No, I did not know this, Ko David.”

I nodded and walked on.

Photos by David Lansing

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A monk in the prayer hall of the Htilominlo Temple in Bagan. Photos by David Lansing.

Sai wants to go to the Ananda Temple today. It is worth seeing, I know. A large temple in the shape of a perfect Greek cross, four 31-feet-high teak Buddha images facing the four cardinal directions, 80 reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha from birth through enlightenment, all capped by a golden stupa that reaches 168 feet above the ground. Impressive, I’m sure.

But Ananda is foie gras and I want a dish of fresh fruit. Ananda is a Bentley and I’d like to ride in a horse and buggy. Ananda is big, complex, and very touristy. I want small. Manageable. Quiet.

So we go to the Htilominto Temple, of which I know almost nothing. Except that there is almost no one here. And it looks lovely. Small, but lovely.

As we walk through the dark, empty corridors inside the temple, Sai gives me a condensed version of its history: Built in 1218, the site was chosen when five princes were standing in a circle with a white umbrella in the middle trying to decide which of them would be the next king; the umbrella tilted in the direction of Nantaungmya, the son of one of the former king’s concubines, who built the temple to celebrate his coronation.

Sai knows I’m a sucker for a good story.

It surprises me that there is almost no one here except us, a man selling prayer beads, and a monk in the prayer hall. It is so quiet that it truly feels holy. Holier than any other temple I’ve been to in Bagan.

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