Shwesandaw Pagoda

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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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A sunset climb at Shwesandaw Pagoda

The Shwesandaw Pagoda, left, in Bagan. If you look very carefully you’ll see several tiny, tiny little people climbing up the temple to give you an idea of the scale. Right, a Burmese father comes down the steep steps carrying his son in his arms. Photos by David Lansing.

So a hot-air balloon ride over Bagan at sunrise was out but Sai had another idea: watching the sunset from the top of the 328-foot-tall Shwesandaw Pagoda.

“But you must climb Shwesandaw and this is not so easy,” Sai told me.

How hard could it be?

So about an hour before sunset, we drove out to Shwesandaw, which is sometimes called the Ganesh Temple because there were once statues of the elphant-headed Hindu god at the corners of each of its five successively diminishing terraces.

Were the Ganesh images removed by Buddhists or had they been destroyed in the big earthquake in 1975 that also toppled the central spire (which now stands in the dust beside the pagoda, right where it fell)?

Sai didn’t know. Or maybe he knew but wasn’t telling. When a religious site is almost a thousand years old, a lot of shit goes on, not all of it good. The Burmese, like people everywhere, don’t like to repeat the bad stories. Better to just say, “I don’t know.”

Once we got to the site, I saw what Sai meant about the climb. I was thinking that it would be like climbing a hundred stairs or so to the top of a hill. But it wasn’t like that. Instead what I found were very, very narrow steps, each over two feet high so you practically had to stand sideways just to get a leg up, going practically straight up. This was more like climbing a ladder, with rungs two feet apart, on the outside of a 30-story building.

As I was standing at the bottom contemplating things, a young backpacker yelled back at his mate to not forget to bring their torches—flashlights. Something I hadn’t thought of. Because of course, if you were going to climb to the top of a 328-foot thousand-year-old temple to watch the sun set over Bagan, you were inevitably going to have to descend the same temple in the dark.

All this had just about convinced me to watch the sunset from the ground when I noticed a young Burmese father, wearing a longyi (not exactly the best climbing attire), begin the climb while carrying his two- or three-year-old son in his arms. Crikey, if a man wearing a long skirt can climb these steps with a child in his arms, I thought, certainly I can get my sorry ass up there as well. And so I began to climb.

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