The remains of more than 3000 Buddhist monuments, including temples, stupas and monasteries, are scattered across the plains of Bagan, the first Burmese Kingdom. Between the 11th and 13th centuries the Burmese established their greatest capital on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in present-day Central Myanmar. Burmese are Tibeto-Burma people who migrated from the north and China-India borderlands up to the 11th century AD.
A rather bumpy north-bound overnight bus ride from Yangon brought me to the bustling river town of Nyang U. This small, dusty town was recommended as the best place for independent travelers to stay who were visiting the nearby ruins of Bagan.
Down the street from my guesthouse was a busy marketplace. Street vendors along the way offered a colorful array of traditional prepared food.
The selling of thanakha paste (see photo on right) was a mission of many young ladies at the market. This natural, yellow substance, which is traditionally worn by many Myanmar women and children on their faces, is a combination of skin conditioner and sun block. I couldn’t resist letting them apply it to my skin. It felt refreshing.
One morning I ambled down a dirt road to the waterfront to watch the river trade activity. I passed friendly people in front of their lovely teak-framed homes with woven bamboo walls.
Some children who were playing around an old wooden boat seemed as intrigued with me as I was with them. In my case it was especially because of the comfort they expressed with their thanakha-painted faces. They squealed with delight when I showed them the photos I took of them.
The river activity I observed harkened of a by-gone era. Men and women wearing “longyi”, traditional sarong-style lower garments, were hauling heavy cargo from wooden boats on their shoulders and heads. No machines were present to help them with this heavy labor.
The main reason I came to the Bagan area was to catch the highlights of the temple-studded plain of the ancient Burmese kingdom.
I spent a leisurely day’s walk on the meandering road where most Buddhist ruins could be viewed or visited. Tourists on bicycles, “e-bikes” (electric powered bicycles), motorbikes and horse-drawn carts passed by me all day. An occasional café along the way offered some refreshment and shelter from the blistering sun.
The temples, stupas and monasteries in various degrees of renovation were fascinating. Some structures stood majestically in groups together. I followed a dirt path through the brush when I saw something on the horizon which inspired me to explore further. I was often rewarded with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. At sunset I hitched a ride on a horse-drawn cart back to my hotel.
At dawn one morning I left for Mandalay on an all-day riverboat ride with several international travelers. As the sun rose over the winding river, Bagan gradually disappeared behind us. It was a fitting way to leave such a special place – slowly – etching intriguing Bagan in my memory forever.