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
You’re not supposed to talk ill of the dead……..but I’m sure Buddha has broad shoulders.
In his name and honour Penang hosts one of the most unforgettable temple complexes in the world, Kek Lok Si. It is magnificent yet monstrous, awe inspiring but appalling. By turns it takes your breath away and then leaves you nauseous.
From a distance it is stunning. The largest Buddhist temple in the country is presided over by an immense figure, Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. Standing a colossal 30 metres in height under a giant canopy, the bronze statue imoposes magisterial command over the area. It is high atop a complex which in turn is built upon a hill. From miles around Kuan Yin dwarfs the physical world of mankind. Spiritually she has an even higher standing.
The statue forms one part of Kek Lok Si. Below, but no less imposing, is a seven story wonder called the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas. It is so spectacular that it seems almost unreal.
The base is Chinese and octagonal, the middle tiers Thai and the golden crown Burmese. It too stands over temples and ornate gardens. It is a candy-land extravaganza of colour and shapes.
Kek Si Lok translates as the Temple Of Supreme Bliss and at times the pagoda and its surrounds look like an epic piece of confectionery. It is that striking.
The originator and first abbot of the temple was the Venerable Beow Lean. Born in the mid 19th century he left his original occupation to devote his life to the teachings of Buddhism. The abbot was originally a businessman. He and his shrewd descendants have been employing these skills ever since. Today it is a growth industry. What Beow Lean started in the late 19th has become a sprawling complex, much of it built post 2000.
The Kuan Yin statue was only opened in 2002, a reconstructed replacement for a smaller version which was fire damaged. The completion of the Guan Tong Great Hall and the Aghast Hall are all recent. A new incline lift, an air conditioned box on rails, will take you serenely uphill to the Goddess herself.
All around is renewal. New tiles for the dazzling roofs and painting of the temples.
Kek Lok Si has always been a place which knows which side its bread is buttered. The temple houses “The Big Five”, life size sculptures of its original key benefactors. Their wealthy contributions rewarded and immortalised. The complex is a cornerstone of the Chinese community, they are unstinting in their generosity.
But here’s the rub. For a place that is so handsomely bestowed there are signs that it’s losing the plot. Walking to the temple from the foot of the hill takes you up through a seemingly endless trail of narrow walkways crammed full of hawker stalls selling tat. The temple elders may have no say in this. But in the centre of the complex, at the bottom of the incline ride, is a huge and monstrous gift shop. You can buy all manner of cheap, gaudy, rubbish here. And at the top of the incline……you guessed it, almost a replica gift shop dealing in much the same.
Posters inform you that profits go to the temple but it seems like commercial overkill. The most grotesque sights are stalls selling the same rubbish within temples. Who the hell this side of creation could have thought to offer a battery powered cat with moving paws in the middle of a shrine. Disrespectful or dreadful greed?
And it continues in different forms. Outside the magnificent prayer hall where hundreds are devotedly going through their rituals are instructions on donor opportunities.
Finally, there sat piously at a stall is a monk. His role seems to be to bless some of the religious artefacts bought by the faithful. A donation was involved. Next to him are roof tiles which you can sponsor, have inscribed with your name and have the monk bless.
It is endless and it is awful. This is not a place short of a shilling or two but the pursuit of growth and renewal seems to have overcome any sense of good taste, decency and piety.
At Chinese New Year Kek Lok Si is lit by 10,000 lights. It is apparently staggering to behold. Even better news, you can sponsor a light bulb.