The sound of silence in mystic Bagan

Silence, solitude and sunset. A rare and elusive alchemy. In the wonderous and mystical setting of ancient Bagan, they form a soothing balm for the soul.
The world’s largest collection of stupas and pagodas sprinkle the skyline below and beyond me. Tiny honeycombs and vast temples stand side by side and take their silent and timeless place.
All around the light is being gently smothered by the slow, smooth sinking of the sun. Colours change from moment to moment and for as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear stillness and silence reign.
It is a time and a place to feel a deep calm and peace. A moment to glimpse deep within yourself.
And then I hear them.
Moments later I see them. From nowhere a coach has arrived, disgorged its tourists and they’re now rampaging towards me.
My perfect peace is shattered as they huff and puff into the temple. Their guide leads them through the darkness and up the narrow stone staircase. Within seconds a tidal wave of tourism smashes through my wall of solitude. They are a mass of loud, excited chatter, whirling cameras, coughs and splutters. “It’s amazing,” they scream to themselves and each other. “Stunning.” “Wonderful”.
Actually, for me, it’s close to heartbreaking. I cannot stop here knowing what a rare and elusive moment has been lost. I have just 25 minutes or so until the sun finally settles. But this is a place that offers choices.
Bagan in central Burma (now Myanmar) is one of the world’s great architectural sites. A treasure trove of around 2,200 monuments spread over 26 square miles. They stand, lean and in many cases decay, on a vast, dry plain framed by a bend in the fabled Irrawaddy River.
Serious building work began in the eleventh century. It continued for 250 years by when 11,000 stupas and temples had been constructed. All part of the Buddhist belief that such devotion on earth builds credit for what follows.
But the marauding hordes of Kubla Khan’s army wrought havoc in the area and thousands were obliterated. Earthquakes great and small have continued the destruction ever since.
Today Bagan is awe-inspiring, eight centuries ago it would have been beyond words.
A few days are needed to tour the sites. Many people go by horse and trap, plenty more cycle. Others, like me go on electro bikes. Stately but a little faster, so more ground can be covered.
I spent three days armed with a vague map of the “highlights”. There are some vast and hugely impressive structures that tower up to the sky.

But often it is the small, intimate temples that surprise. There is always a buddha inside but sometimes there are fabulous frescos and carvings. Tourists always visit the big pagodas but with so many monuments to choose from the smaller sites are mostly your very own to explore.
Now, I am in a race against time. I set off, desperate to rediscover peace and quiet, to watch the sun set in silence. I pass many small stupas but they are single storey. Height is crucial to really appreciate Bagan’s vast scope.
I’m getting a little desperate as the light deserts me……and then I spy it. A large pagoda several storeys high, surrounded by fields and with access marred by overgrown scrub. It’s enough to deter most people. The electro bike is buffeted by the hard, dried clay surface. It makes discouraging noises but gets me through.
The temple’s interior is a still, murky darkness. I search for steps and after one and a half full ciruits my torch illuminates the entrance of a stone staircase. It’s raised a few feet above the ground. I make the narrow climb under a low ceiling and two storeys later I emerge into the fading light.
A vast panorama of stupas and temples stretches for as far as I can see. And minutes later, when the sun’s rays leave the day behind, I sit alone. Just me, the beauty of planet earth and a warm, comforting blanket of silence.

The sight and sound of silence - sunset in Bagan

The sight and sound of silence – sunset in Bagan

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “The sound of silence in mystic Bagan

  1. Tanya

    Oh yes solitude is blissful to me too, Arthur. But then I am so looking forward to the chaos of my nephew’s huge 40th birthday party in Brisbane on Saturday with a ziillion family, and their friends. Ah, the idiosyncrasies of life. The party is Woodstock themed and David has a suitably outrageous velvet vest, hippy pants, Bob Marley wig, beads and mo to wear. Bare chest and belly- yikes!! And I will reread your post the following day to centre myself again and try to find peace! So appreciative as always of your beautiful writing and insights. Trusting Christmas finds you amongst friends. Xxx

    • Hi Tanya
      Lovely to hear from you. I hope all is really good with you.
      The party sounds a lot of fun. What I want to know is what your costume is going to be. Hippy chick??
      Glad to know the blog helps centre you – I fear it throws some people out of kilter.
      Christmas will be……amongst strangers in Khao Lak. But who knows. I hope yours is blissful. All the very best.

  2. Iorwen

    Hi you ok? Glad to see you are getting about!! Where do you think you will be spending Christmas? and also I have noticed you havent changed your photo!! take care! Eif and Ior xx

    • Hi to both of you.
      Great to hear from you. Yes, still getting around. Looks like Christmas will be in Khao Lak in Thailand……but nothing booked yet so that might change. It’s not really a big deal in the Buddhist countries so will be very low key.
      Hope you and the family have a lovely time together.
      Photo not changed even though you think it ages me……I can’t find one that makes me look like I’m still,in my 30s : )

  3. Brian

    Title should have read…. A Bogun in Bagan! Nice writing but Deb was right, sent me into a deep sleep.
    Sounds like your having a peaceful time over there, I can just see when you come back to Oz you’ll be a Welsh version of the Dalai Lama. 🙂 Keep on trekking Arfur

  4. Anonymous

    Your need for silence is palpable! Too many people knocking into you over the past 8 months I suspect!

    • Hi anonymous

      I think it’s more the Bagan effect, it’s a place that’s best enjoyed in tranquility.
      You’re right though, a lot of people have knocked into me in the past 8 months. There’s also been a lot of people I’ve harassed for conversation after too much time on my own. Solo travel means you crave both at different times.

  5. Roger

    What a great read. I doubt any other travel writer could do better justice to it. Photographs are stunning. It is comforting to know that such places do exist and that they can be experienced. Your writings are stirring up the travel bug again.

    • Thank you Roger. That’s extremely kind of you. Couldn’t really miss given the amazing place that is Bagan.
      Glad it’s got your travel bug moving. So 2014 for you will be Japan and……?

  6. deb Chappell

    Hey Arthur….yep you got me in that first paragraph…..I was comatose…
    Probably should have told the tourists it wasn’t worth looking at because it was broken…………………the silence that is! Enjoy your time in Thailand….we have just booked to come over in April….will we see you there????

    • Hi Deb

      Yep my writing has that effect on people, sends them into a deep sleep. Best not read the book if I ever finish it – you’ll spend the rest of your life in a coma : )
      Bad timing on Thailand timing I suspect. I’m heading back to Oz in early April. We might pass in the air. When do you get here and where will you be?

      • deb Chappell

        We leave here 16th April and have no fixed address over there yet….more than likely Phuket somewhere for 2 weeks. Will spend time looking for that ultimate thigh massage?!
        x deb

        • Hi Deb
          In that case I’ll see you in Oz before you go. Lousy timing unfortunately.
          As for the ultimate thigh massage…’s in Myanmar, only costs a dollar and you have a full carriage of spectators.

  7. Anonymous

    As I read this blog I can sense the peace and quiet straight way how wonderful x

  8. Satomi

    Amazing photos and beautiful writing… :p
    Your journey being away from home for so long is truly worthy when you come across such place, thanks for sharing with us. Xxx

    • That’s very kind of you.
      You’re absolutely right. It’s been eight months since I left Australia. There are times I get a little travel weary……..and then a place like that comes along and fires the enthusiasm again.

  9. Suellen

    What a wonderful wonder filled experience.

  10. Eloquent or WHAT, Dad?! Am enjoying myself reading this out loud over the talkback to Matthew and Jane. They both have a faraway look in their eyes – they’ve still not forgiven you for abandoning them…

    • Hello Son.

      Presenters on air with faraway look in their eyes? That’s not my writing they’re both thinking about Christmas shopping or something instead of the next interview!
      Lovely to hear from you. Say a big hello to them both.

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