Story and Photo by Laura Voegele
Before me, thousands of Buddhist temples and pagodas dotted a plain drenched in the vivid oranges and pinks of a tropical sunset, their domes and peaks jutting up from between scattered trees. In my short 19 years on this planet, I’ve seen quite a few colorful places, from the canyons of Arizona to the deep blue water and white sand beaches of the tropics. But nothing has ever taken my breath away quite like the view I had sitting on the highest ledge of the biggest temple in Bagan, Myanmar.
Earlier in the day, I had visited many of the temples, though they were only a handful of the 2,200 that remain of the Pagan kingdom’s original 10,000-plus. They looked plain from the outside, but stepping inside revealed intricate decorations of symbols and Burmese scripture, sometimes in vivid colors, other times merely carved into the stone walls. Some housed huge Buddha statues and secret prayer chambers, while others simply had one vast chamber, kept surprisingly cool by the architecture despite the sweltering heat outside.
Perhaps most unique about the temples in Myanmar compared to other destinations was the lack of security or barriers of any kind. You could take as many photos as you wanted, even touch the walls without anyone stopping you. Nothing was behind a red silk rope or glass, and there were no guards or admission fees. Still, the people are respectful of the history and culture that these temples represent, and everything is wonderfully preserved. Vandalism, my guide explained, is simply not an issue in Myanmar.
Myanmar – also called Burma – has only been open to the rest of the world since 2011, when the military government, which had kept it under strict control and isolation from the rest of the world for almost half a century, collapsed. Tourism to the Southeast Asian nation has been slow to grow and is not yet seen as an industry, but rather as a way for the locals to share their culture and to learn about the world at large.
Never in my travels have I had so many locals approach me and try to interact with me – not by attempting to sell me things, but by attempting to talk to me and learn from me. Children would bravely run up to me and my mother and touch us, giggling and flashing innocent, excited smiles. Many had never seen a white person before, and I spotted a few teenagers surreptitiously snapping pictures of us. Everyone I met was curious, friendly, open-minded and welcoming.
Sitting on the highest ledge of the biggest temple in Bagan, I couldn’t help but wonder if, as the nation changes and interacts with the rest of the world, my next visit would find me looking at the centuries-old carvings through a glass wall. Yet at least its largely untouched culture, landscapes, and monuments will be shared with the rest of the world.
This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Baedeker.