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.