Southeast Asia’s sand-coated cousin, Bagan, deep in rural Myanmar, holds a thousand secrets on its plain of deserted pagodas. Modern Traveller paid a visit to this barren paradise.
Veering unsteadily off across the scrubland of the plain on rickety, rusted bicycles, MT shakes and shudders to a stop outside a tiny temple. Shoes are discarded in the entrance, and weary toes come to rest in the cool orange dirt of the darkened, cave-like doorway.
Gold-and-burgundy Buddhas, the only part of the structures that the Burmese government has recently refurbished, loom out of the dim light, cross-legged in silent contemplation. Some of the cracked, dust-beaten brick pyramids contain just one lone figure; others are bedecked in cut-glass mirrors and countless meditative carvings.
Tiptoeing into arched alcoves and up crooked, winding stairs, one side-steps locals dozing in the darkness, or painting beguiling pictures, knelt before the altars of their ancestors.
Dust-coated and achey-legged from wobbling along dirt tracks between ancient pagodas, visitors congregate at The Moon: Be Kind To Animals, an epically-named oasis in a corrugated-iron shantytown seemingly in the middle of nowhere. In a place where, amidst almost two thousand temples, spotting a fellow voyager is a near-unheard-of oddity, this midday pilgrimage comes as a strange relief: a fleeting return to some semblance of life in a landscape which simply beggars belief.
Tarnished two-wheelers are abandoned in favour of well-worn seats at wooden tables, topped with red-checked tablecloths. Here, waiters laugh at terrible attempts to pronounce the names of local dishes, plying wilting travellers with ginger and lentil soup and myriad other vegetarian specials as they cool off. MT is greeted like an old friend the day after, and the day after that, such is the vibe of this hideaway that time forgot.
Stuffed full of tamarind sweets, one staggers outside, pedalling away almost in slow-motion in the hazy afternoon heat, amidst the crumbling red-brick structures which rise like a mirage from the dust.
As the sun beats down over the arid plain, a secluded spot atop an unusual white-tiled pagoda provides the perfect respite, ideal for leafing through the dog-eared pages of a counterfeit copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days, bought from a local boy the day before.
Perched in a patch of shade, MT gazes, awe-struck, at the wonders stretching out before it, until it is time to clamber back onto weatherbeaten leather saddles and roll unhurriedly towards home.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS