Bagan Bittersweet

I read and heard about Bagan before I finally set foot on this ancient kingdom of Myanmar with my mom and sister just recently. Perhaps I read and heard too much that I developed this distinct Bagan fantasy that saw me riding an e-bike through the landscape dotted with thousands of centuries-old temples; and as the sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, adorning the sky with brilliant reds and oranges, the austere beauty of Bagan emerged in a craggy silhouette. When that happened, solitude, freedom, and independence were my best silent companions.

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Of all the temples we visited, Tha Beik Mauk was our favorite mostly because, unlike most of the other temples, it was almost void of visitors and souvenir sellers. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

We were in Bagan, and things were not living up to my ideals. They say riding an e-bike is easy. I tried it for a few minutes. The brief practice went well, but I was overwhelmed by the overpowering fearful voice in my head “Can I really do it? What if something goes wrong?” I decided to give up on my fantasy of riding an e-bike, and settled for an old-school bicycle. But I was continuously haunted by the annoying little voice that kept repeating itself “how nice it would be to be able to ride an e-bike to sightsee the temples, or simply to explore the dusty little town”.

My mom does not have the capacity for bicycle riding. Therefore, she and my sister would explore the temples on a horse cart. And for the benefit of “being together on the trip”, I would follow them to heel on my bicycle. This plan should work out for all of us…especially for me since I was reluctant to take a horse cart ride. Riding a bicycle would still fulfill, though somewhat limited, my emotional yearning for a “free, independent, romantic, adventurous” discovery of this land of thousand forgotten temples. I had indicated all the temples that we would like to visit on the free map given by the hotel the night before. Upon meeting my sister’s and mom’s horse cart driver, we explained to him what we would like to see with an emphasis on “seeing sunset over the temples”. His grasp of the English language was limited so perhaps that complicated an understanding between us for he seemed to refuse to do it our way. The hotel guy assured us that “he knows best”. Based upon that assurance, our exploration of the essence of Bagan began…

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My mom and sister taking a horse cart ride on the dusty road of Bagan.

The first temple we visited was not one that I had marked out on the map but I was amazed by the original murals on the temple walls (at least that is what the “caretakers” of the temple claimed). In that instant, it brought back that nostalgic feeling of being in Egypt exploring the ancient structures and the imagination-nurturing paintings on the walls. There were just us and another visitor so things were pretty quiet, allowing me to better appreciate the ancientness of Bagan. We moved on to more temples; some of which included those circled on our map. As we visited more temples, I found myself feeling more annoyed… annoyed by the throngs of visitors and souvenir sellers, especially at larger and more publicized temples. The initial feelings that I had — amazement, quiet, ancient — had been replaced by feelings of annoyance, disappointment, and a sense that the temples were overcommercialized. Temple fatigue had set in too. As we traveled on the unpaved roads, dust was flying in every direction as honking e-bikes and cars passed us by. Were it not for the temples, I would probably have thought I was caught in a heavy traffic of some metropolis.

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The very first temple that we visited. If you happen to know the name of this temple, can you please let us know? The murals on the temple’s walls are said to be the original dating back to the 12th century.

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My sister, mom and I before a huge mural of Buddha. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Sand and watercolor paintings are sold at almost all temples. Here my sister is getting a sand painting which depicts sunset over the temples, the price of which she negotiated down to K12,000 from K15,000. Perhaps the seller was entertained by her joke of “I am using my last kyats to buy one of your paintings” hahaha!

Our greatest annoyance hit us when we were down to the final two temples yet to be visited when the horse cart driver announced “after the last two temples, I will take you to the Irrawaddy River for sunset viewing”. Once again, we explained to him that we did not want sunset on the river, and that we wanted to see sunset over the temples. After some back-and-forth arguments, he finally agreed to take us to one of the designated sunset viewing points. Tension hung in the air between us and the horse cart driver. I never liked to deal with such confrontations. Silently, I cursed the bad luck of getting a horse cart driver who took our money only to follow a plan that would work most conveniently for him. Most of all, I wished I could have gone on my own, seeing temples that I would have liked to see. No restrictions. Only freedom and independence, just as I had fantasized my Bagan experience would be, or should be…

We were told that since the 2016 earthquake, visitors are no longer allowed to climb up the temples for great views of the entire landscape, and for sunset (one of the things that I heard and read about a lot!). I was disappointed but it was not something that was in my control. We headed to one of the designated sunset viewing points and waited for the magical moment to unfold before us. Was the moment magical at all? Perhaps I had lost touch with my sense of enjoyment and adventure for I was not as touched by Bagan’s sunset as the sunset in other places in Myanmar (U Bein Bridge, Mandalay Hill)… or perhaps I was just appallingly distracted by the very large numbers of people all cramped together on the viewing platform for sunset. I only felt fresh air again as we left the platform.

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Sunset over the temples seen from one of the dedicated viewing points. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Massive crowds at one of the sunset viewing points.

I felt mostly disappointed as the day ended for us, and felt the need to make up for my crushed Bagan fantasy. My sister and I thought perhaps we could compensate for the “loss” by cycling to the temples for sunrise (without my mom, which she happily agreed). We thought we would rent the hotel’s bicycles. But the moment we stated our plan to the hotel guy, he (unintentionally, I believe) blew up our last chance of compensation by announcing “seeing the temples for sunrise is only possible by taxi” (which, after too late, we thought did not make sense). We decided to drop the idea as the whole point of the compensation was to have the freedom and independence to go on our own, and not being dictated as to how and where to do it.

The final morning in Bagan, I expressed my disappointment in a grumbling discontented manner. I was resentful. I found faults… and worst, I said one thing that I believed had deeply hurt my mom’s and sister’s feelings… I said “I wish I could have explored all by myself”, to which my sister responded “then you will get everything that you want”.

Now that I am home alone, reflecting on the Bagan portion of our Myanmar trip and writing this post, I am filled with mixed feelings, the strongest of which is regret. I was so very preoccupied with satisfying my ideals of a perfect Bagan experience that I forgot the very thing that I will appreciate significantly more as years pass — the moments shared and memories created with loved ones, and not exactly the things I saw or how I saw them. I had apologized to my mom and sister, and they demonstrated an understanding for the way I acted and the words I said and an unhesitant willingness to forgive. But I know that every time I look back, it will always be bittersweet. Sweet because there are some sweet memories to smile, and laugh, about… bitter because I wish I had chosen to trust happiness more than misery. I guess there is much truth in what Janice Kaplan in her book “The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Looking On The Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” says about “it happens too often that you have something terrific right in front of you but don’t realize it until the lover is gone, the moment is past, and flowers are wilted”. Bagan taught, or rather sternly reminded, me of this biggest lesson for future trips, and perhaps of a lifetime?

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Of the hundreds of souvenirs of Bagan/Myanmar that I saw, the colorful traditional umbrellas caught my attention. I thought they were very pretty.

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