I’ve had so many jaw-dropping moments in this adventure, I might actually forget what it’s like to close my lips.
Ten hours on an unexpectedly luxurious overnight bus travelling six hundred kilometres north of Yangon and I’m in Bagan – an enchanted necropolis of over two thousand temples.
BICYCLES & BUDDHAS
There’s one scene, one moment every day that makes this place a Mecca for Instagrammers worldwide. At dawn, hundreds of hot air balloons take to the sky, people cycle miles down sandy lanes and climb high up on the pagodas to watch that burning orange ball of life rise above, lighting up all of the temple tops below one by one.
They travel thousands and thousands of miles by plane, train and automobile just to get that perfect snap.
So as soon as I arrived, I jumped on the saddle of an old battered bicycle and headed down the main avenue towards the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was 4am and I had plenty of time to get there before the sun would rise at six thirty.
The sky was jet black, the stars were nowhere to be seen and it was raining pretty heavily. I cycled along the main avenue and turned left down a wide track towards the temple. With my phone torch in my left hand and my handlebar in my right I wobbled my way forward cautiously in the dark.
I wandered past the abandoned stall saying “pure purified ice cold veberages”, along a red brick path and around the huge temple that was lit up by dim spotlights. There were staircases on all four sides but they were all blocked off with chains and signs saying “do not climb”, which was strange as this was supposed to be one of the most popular spots.
I still had time to find a good viewing point, so I cycled further on down a narrower, sandier lane towards Loka Oakshang temple and waited there with hope that the spectacle in the skies would somehow beat the crying clouds.
The heavens were beginning to lighten, the blanket of grey above was being illuminated from behind and hundreds of temple silhouettes began to appear before my eyes.
It was nowhere near as picture perfect as the scenes I’d come across in my Insta-investigations, but it was somehow more magical for being perfectly flawed.
After a while, I headed back along the sandy lane and down the main track towards New Bagan.
The sand was thick at points and I kept skidding sideways – it didn’t help that the seat on my bicycle was far too low and I was smacking myself in the face with my knees every time I pedalled upwards. I stopped near a cluster of palm trees to adjust the seat and when I glanced up there was a raging fire blazing through a gap in the clouds.
I gasped and hurriedly hopped back on my bicycle and rode as fast as I could to the nearest clearing in the trees. There were around five or six pagodas to choose from, I threw my bicycle to the ground and, without thinking, starting to climb the biggest one.
I said said sorry to Buddha and God and Allah and everybody else as I stood there balancing my heels on an inch or two of brick while holding on for dear life to the crumbling corner of this ancient relic.
I turned to face the East and breathed in the waking sun with all of my senses.
Back on the bicycle to explore and I can honestly say I have never had a more breathtaking cycling experience than my two-wheeled adventure through this archaeological wonderland.
Every single way you turn, there’s an incredibly intricate redbricked memorial building or a magnificent golden steps peeping over the treetops. It’s an outdoor museum of ancient Buddhist architecture stretching twenty-six kilometres along the Irawaddy River and everybody has a ticket.
After a day of cycling, trying to put six adorable stray puppies in my backpack and sitting in tiny chapels, scribbling up my Dream Map in front of giant golden Buddhas, I ended up in Old Bagan.
It’s where you wave goodbye to tarmacked roads and say hello narrow sandy paths guarded by huge, wild leaves on either side. It’s where you’ll see locals living out their daily routines; women carrying things around on their heads, tiny tots running around with smiles on their Thanaka-painted faces and men getting their graft on – digging, chopping and making things with their hands.
It’s where stray dogs and their litters potter around with their tails wagging looking for scraps and where every few minutes a moped will whizz by. There are trees and plants and flowers in every colour and hidden amongst them are more ruins and more secret temples.
I wandered down towards the riverbank and found a sign saying Fantasia Garden Jetty. I rested my bicycle up against a wooden fence and walked through the leafy archway, along a winding, cobbled path to the café that overlooked the sand dunes.
It was so serene.
The clear blue skies were being painted with fluffy white clouds, the waters were still and there was a cool breeze heading inland.
I sat down, ordered a banana and avocado smoothie and had some quality time with my thoughts.
I noticed a sign saying sunset yoga and after chatting to the café owner for a while, I found myself clambering down sand-covered rocks towards the water’s edge with four other lycra-clad girls and stepping carefully into a tiny wooden boat.
It rocked dramatically side to side with even the slightest movement but once the engine was awake, we skimmed over the peaceful waters towards the sand dune about four hundred metres ahead of us.
I lay down my bamboo mat and sat cross-legged facing the snoozing sun with that open jaw I know all too well.
There was a bright golden yellow glow along the skyline and I could just about make out the mountains in the distance through the early evening haze. As the sun started it’s slow descent into bed, hundreds of temples started to appear again as silhouettes.
We started off with breathing meditations and some chanting before working through a very slow, very contemplative vinyasa flow.
The instructor had asked us to keep our eyes closed for the whole practice and I tried my best to keep the focus within but I just couldn’t help myself at times. In Downward Dog my eyes pinged open to face the mottled blue skies and in Sun Warrior I leaned back with my right hand reaching for the snow white crescent moon.
When the practice was over we lay there in savasana position with our feet and hands resting on the soft sand and said thank you to all the Gurus we’ve ever met. And I thought about mine.