Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Temples, Temples, Everywhere!

After a somewhat terrifying flight on a plane that looked about 50 years old, my group landed at a tiny little airport just outside Bagan.  If you have not heard of the ancient city of Bagan, it dates back to the 9th century and contains over 3,000 temples and pagodas in a 40 sq mile area.  At one time, archeologists believe there were as many as 10,000 temples in that same area, however weather, earthquakes, and neglect led to many of the buildings being demolished.  The temples were built over several centuries by various kings as a way to show their wealth and power.  In its heyday, Bagan was the bustling capital of Burma where the royalty, as well as commoners, lived amongst the thousands of temples.

It seems many people compare Bagan to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I was able to visit last summer.  While I understand the comparison, they are drastically different complexes.  First of all, Bagan is nearly void of tourists.  It is truly like traveling back in time as you roam around the thousands of temples because it feels like you are cut off from the world.  While I loved everything about Angkor Wat last summer, the number of tourists made it difficult to even get a good photo.  There was just simply no way to be transferred back in time while visiting Angkor Wat.  Additionally, the Angkor Wat area is made up of massive temple complexes which can be climbed and explored.  Bagan's temples are much smaller, although many are in better condition than the temples in Cambodia.  I understand the comparison between the two, however, I really believe they are two amazing sites and both need to be experienced as they are quite different.

For me, another striking difference between this ancient city and Angkor Wat is that Bagan is still very much in use by local Buddhists and monks.  Every temple we visited we were able to see prayers and offerings occurring.  This really made the experience stand out as well since it allowed me to envision what the temples must have looked like as they were used by locals hundreds of years ago.

As part of the tour I am on, we were able to explore the temples via bicycle, which seemed like such a natural way to traverse the sandy roads that weave around the temples.  It was quite exhilarating riding through the area.  We stopped every so often to explore and enter some of the temples.  The architecture is just stunning and truly advanced for the time period.  In fact, some of these temples feature arches that were designed long before they appeared in Greek architecture.

The temples were all constructed from bricks and the bigger ones were supported with sandstone, particularly at the corners.  This advanced technique is what has kept the larger temples intact even after some rather large earthquakes have hit the region.

Originally the temples had all been covered with plaster, although most has been destroyed at this point.  Some of the temples still contain areas covered with the plaster and they are working on restoring the remarkable artwork that adorned every inch of the walls at the beginning of the time the temples existed.  Over the years, the walls had been whitewashed, hiding the murals, but preserving them.  Burma has reached out to experts around the world to find the best way to remove the whitewash and restore the natural murals.  Some had already been completed and it was simply stunning.  It reminded me a lot of the murals on the walls of the Mogao Caves that I saw in the Gobi Desert two years ago.  There is such meticulous detail to ensure every detail of the story being told is shown.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in most of these areas in order to preserve the art, but the few areas that allowed photos I was sure to snap a few.

Old Bagan is a site to remember.  I will certainly be back at some point, though, to ride a hot air balloon over the ancient temples for stunning views.  This must do attraction is unfortunately not available during the rainy season, so we were unable to make it happen this time around.  I could have easily spent a week exploring all 3,000 temples, but the trip must go on.  Next stop: a community-based tourism project...I'll be spending the night in a hut!

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