THOUSANDS of brownish red pagodas glisten under the Burmese sun; their stupas spiral upward from miles and miles of vast greenery; towering Buddhas cast shadows on this dusty patch of earth while white horses, kings in blue robes, celestial beings and court jesters with velvet hats – marionettes all -- hang from age-old trees and dance with the wind. The air is dry but at times refreshingly temperate.
Welcome to Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar, surrounded by the famed Irrawaddy River and a silhouette of mountains smiling from the distance.
Founded in the mid to late 9th century, Bagan is a temple-studded city that stretches as far as the eye can see, set against a backdrop of a majestic curtain of orange, crimson and brown hues.
Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveler, once described it as “a gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.”
Indeed, Bagan is no doubt an archeological wonder, profoundly mystical and perhaps one of the finest sites in the world.
It’s a rare off-the-beaten path still unknown to many travelers and perhaps one of the few remaining places in the vast growing region of Asia that is untouched and relatively raw.
Bagan isn’t crowded or noisy. It isn’t a party place for drinking the night away although there are many places for travellers to drink and eat.
On the contrary, it might as well be the perfect place for a spiritual pilgrimage with its collection of 2,200 temples and pagodas and their shimmering stupas.
And so on a warm Friday morning of March, I packed my bags and left for the famed ancient city, all by myself. I took a nine-hour flight from Manila to Yangon and another hour more to reach Bagan.
Nope, I wasn’t really looking for a religious encounter nor was my heart broken and in need of healing.
But I figured one doesn’t need to have one’s heart broken into a thousand pieces to “eat, pray and love” halfway across the world as what the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did after a nasty divorce and portrayed by Julia Roberts in the bestselling memoir-turned-movie, Eat, Pray, Love.
Sometimes, in the words of a Filipino tycoon, “the soul simply needs the solitude.”
And it was exactly what I found and so much more.
I found that solitude on top of the Bulethi Pagoda, one of the highest structures in the city as I sat there in a quiet corner of the pagoda’s peak after climbing its steep and narrow stairs of more than a hundred steps. It wasn’t an easy climb, with its slope almost at 45 degrees and you have to walk barefoot and endure the scorching hot bricks.
But the breathtaking view of the city and its temple-dotted horizon was so much worth the difficult trek.
I stood there on the top of the pagoda swept away by the beauty before me. It was a land like no other. And so I lingered, forgetting the minutes and the hours, just savoring the silence and taking it all in. The view was majestic, the silence simply magical. It added a perfect piece to my narrative, yet another step in an ongoing journey.
But whether it’s just one pagoda or a thousand, the experience is uniquely one’s own.
The pagodas are sacred sites. One should be prepared to walk barefoot and to dress appropriately as a show of respect.
More than the physical preparation, it is important to empty one's mind, heart and soul to get a richer experience. The emptier one's vessels are, the more one can take in from the journey, which can turn into a spiritual pilgrimage if one is lucky enough.
Inside most of the temples are pilgrims from every corner of the world, praying fervently, making an offering, meditating or simply being there.
And while Bagan is predominantly Buddhist, visitors don't even have to have any religion to be able to have a rich experience in the temples.
Sometimes, to pray is to simply be in total communion with oneself, or to keep silent and reflect.
And in such places, one can find perfect corners for solitude to clear the mind or let it wander back to the olden times or to just listen to the beating of one’s heart.
One can stay in any pagoda for hours and hours on end, to meditate, reflect, and write on a journal or to just escape from it all.
Some pagodas are crowded with throngs of tourists but in other temples, it’s possible not to see a single soul. In the popular ones, there are vendors and hawkers by the entrance selling anything and everything – bells from bygone times, murals of Bagan’s picturesque landscape, the puppets, Buddhas statues, ancient watches, lucky charms and what-have-you.
I went to view the sunset one afternoon and braved a mammoth crowd in the Shwesandaw Pagoda, Bagan’s most famous sunset stop.
The white pyramid-style pagoda provided a commanding 360-degree view of the city down below. It has five terraces and a circular stupa on top adorned with an umbrella-like structure.
I climbed all the way up the hundreds of steps and waited for the sun to descend in a spectacular canvas of orange and red.
I opened my notebook and scribbled these lines: “Sunset over Bagan…you have to put up with the clouds to see the orange crimson sky then you can bear witness to the sun’s fiery kiss to the night. You have to let the moment linger until it’s gone because that exact moment will be lost forever.”
It was magical, no matter how fleeting. There’s so much beauty in its simplicity and I knew it would stay with me for a long, long time.
On my last day in Bagan, I traveled for more than an hour to the Taung Kalat Monastery, a fabled pilgrimage site on top of a volcano plug from the nearby Mount Popa. It sits perfectly 737 metres above sea level and stands out in the vast landscape below.
The monastery’s golden spires shimmer under the Burmese sun and provide enough enticement to reach the top.
Some say it’s auspicious to make it to the temples above. For me, it was enough that I survived – not just the steep climb of 700 steps but also the army of Macaque monkeys that are all over the staircase, seemingly guarding the monastery.
Aside from the monkeys, locals say the spirits known as nats also guard the sacred site.
There are 37 of them and are depicted in statues at the bottom of the staircase, according to Timetravelturtle, a travel website.
I froze many times because of the incessant fighting of the dozens and dozens of these wide-eyed creatures, wondering which god-forsaken clinic – if there is such a thing in the mountains -- I would end up if I ever get bitten or attacked.
But I’m stubborn like and not one to just surrender or turn back so I kept going, holding my breath and fervently hoping the spirits would guard me.
It was a different story when I reached the top. I instantly forgot how difficult the climb was. It’s true what they say -- you forget about your burning legs when you finally reach the temples above. The view was as I had imagined it would be and so much more – breathtaking and perfect as the gods seemingly welcomed me in a warm embrace.
I’d say it’s a slice of heaven on earth.
Climbing the monastery allows one to think of the simplest joys in life, those that really matter. It reminds you to travel light – literally and figuratively – and to leave behind those that could weigh you down, be it a tripod, an umbrella or memories of a nasty lovers’ quarrel.
While I was up there, I forgot about the time and ended up just savoring the whole experience. I remembered whispering a prayer or two, releasing everything I didn’t need to the universe below.
A pilgrimage, after all, is a long arduous journey to get closer to the gods. Many have done it: the Greeks, Mayans and the Israelites.