Bagan is a magical place. Old pagodas dot the plain, thousands of them. And, unlike the shiny, slightly garish pagodas that gleam incessantly throughout the country, these ones were old. Crumbling stone stuck to my palms as I climbed up the itty-bitty stairways onto the roof, the perfect place to gaze upon the gorgeousness of the ancient city.
According to tradition, building a temple or a pagoda/stupa would cleanse the maker of the sins they committed. Whoever was in charge of Bagan while it was at the height of its power must have been really terrible human beings in order to justify this many. There are remains of over 10,000 buildings in the plain, with over two thousand still standing today. That’s a serious amount of sins.
I’ve heard it’s now against the rules to climb up the buildings, but I highly doubt there will be anyone around to stop you, and it’s the best way to get up high and see the sheer vastness of the city. Unless, of course, you’ve got $300 dollars to spare for a gloriously extortionate hot air balloon ride.
As can be expected for such a beautiful place, Bagan is stuffed with tourists, and the main drag just outside the ancient city is a dusty, soulless tourist trap with overpriced food and incredibly expensive rooms. There is also a surcharge to enter the protected area, but don’t worry; it’s worth it.
The only vehicles allowed in the city are electric motorbikes, which is the best way to get around in 35 degree heat. They also mean you can leave the tourists behind, as by choosing the smallest, least travelled paths it’s easy to find yourself alone, surrounded only by bougainvillea plants and maybe the occasional horse.
After a small hiccup with the electric bike (the sand gets quite deep occasionally) which caused much giggling from postcard vendors and some low-level foot injuries, we gave up on the day’s explorations to treat ourselves to a nice greasy Myanmar-style dinner. Where we met a very confusing monk.
We were quietly listening to the uncontrollable giggles of two children who were equally bemused and amused by a mixture of our presence, our foreignness, and our unfeasible height, when we made a serendipitous encounter with a monk. Although having limited experience with monks at this point, I assumed they would be calm, gentle creatures. Not so in this case.
“HELLO!” he boomed from a neighbouring table. Some British mumbling was enough for him to join our table and exchange the standard pleasantries of age and nationality in our limited English-Burmese hybrid. Then he asked us to make a fist so that he could read the lines on the side of our hand. My first palm reading, I thought smugly. I awaited a verdict that foresaw a future full of gold and puppies, but he dismissed me straight away and accused my male friend of being firstly a ladyboy, and then pregnant. Either he had an incomplete knowledge of biology, or thought that he had truly committed to his newfound gender.
We shared a beer (can monks drink?) and he surreptitiously showed me his packet of cigarettes hidden in the folds of his robes (can monks smoke?). He ended up walking us home, attempted to hold my hand, and said goodbye via a hug where he kissed my chest. Bit forward for a monk, I thought.
Apparently monks aren’t allowed to touch women. So, either he was on a night off, had renounced his religion and had gone on the run, or was just a sly monk impostor dressed in burgundy robes to get alms and confuse Westerners.
Monks play a big part in Myanmar, where you can see groups of them almost everywhere you go. But they are a lot more relaxed than I expected. Groups of teenage monks loiter on street corners, smoking cigarettes. Older monks rev motorbikes, laughing in glee at the deafening sound of the engine as black smoke spews out of the exhaust.
Bagan is a beautiful, otherworldly place where culture, religion and tourism clash in a strangely harmonious way.