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A Woman's Journey to Bagan, Myanmar

I am standing on top of a temple to the Buddhist gods. I have climbed crumbling stone stairs and am staring at an endless swath of dirt dotted with trees, green and shrubby. The sky is hazy, blue and soft, like eyes of someone who looks at you with tears in them. The sun spreads its last rays of gold, silver, and orange. Thousands of temples spread out around me as if I am the only person on earth. It’s as if god looked down and placed his fingers in the dirt over and over leaving temple after temple. I am standing alone in Burma, with the wind on my face and the sun in my eyes and no one knows me here, but god.

My trip to Burma began in a dark movie theater. A movie with no words just music and pictures. A panorama of five thousand temples hidden amongst trees, nestled up against mountains on the other side of the Irrawaddy river. The camera floated up in the air over this magical place, zooming in and out of ancient carvings and crumbling terraces. I knew I had to go there. I did some research and found Bagan. Bagan was in the center of Myanmar, a country of unrest, a place that women didn’t venture to alone, but I wasn’t most women. I flew to Singapore and caught a plane to Yangon.

I hired a guide.

“Call me Erik,” he said when we met. He was kind, a seasoned local with smooth black hair, pale skin, wearing a traditional purple lungi wrapped around his waist. That afternoon we caught a flight to Bagan. Erik carried torches so we could climb in and out stupas and up on terraces, through cobwebs and shadows. He pointed out ancient murals on the walls, scriptures from Buddha, from the monks, from Kings and Queens. These sacred places were crawling once with royalty and god. Massive Buddha’s covered in gold leaf, sat, lay and meditated in these primordial chambers. Erik and I wove through temple and stupa, creating a pattern so intricate and dense that my soul was shroud in a sandstone patchwork.

Early mornings, even before dawn, I would wander from my luxury hotel room outside into the dark not wanting to miss a moment. The first morning in Bagan, a wan head light approached and a motorbike stopped as I strolled down the gravel road alone.

“Where are you going?” the stranger asked.

“Just taking a walk,” I replied.

“Get on my bike, I will take you to a good place to watch the sun rise. “

I looked the stranger over, sizing him up. I was taller and probably faster even though I was only wearing flimsy sandals. I made a rash decision and hoped on his bike, taking note of the twists and turns, in case I had to make a run for it.

He was good to his word and dropped me at a magnificent temple. I climbed the steep stairs to watch the bloody sun rise over the tree tops painting the whole world yellow and gold.

When I descended the same driver was there, but no longer on his motorbike. Now he sat on an old wooden cart tethered to a horse. I hopped on the back of his rickety wagon and we clip-clopped back to my hotel. He stopped on the way to introduce me to his children and some of their friends.

I told Erik about my early morning adventures.

“You are brave," he said. “You are courageous to be here alone, to wander out alone.”

I was never afraid, not once in Burma. The people were kind, the countryside subdued, the roads lined with monks in saffron robes. I felt invincible, strong, and happy to be truly living every moment so fully in the present. There was no future or past, just the now. I wanted to stay sitting in front of the towering Buddha’s, cloister myself in the chambers filled with gold and hundred-year-old monks. I loved being so isolated, so anonymous.

“Take me with you,” I asked Erik at lunchtime when the driver went to drop me at a western restaurant.

Erik took me to a tiny shack by the side of the road to taste real Burmese food. So many tiny platters and bowls filled with morsels from plants and river; tea leaves with shrimp, spiced boiled roots, raw vegetables, marinated fish. Everything tasting of fish. I dipped my tiny silver spoon into each dish, trying it all, but mostly eating rice.

Later that afternoon as we perched high on the slated terraces of the sunset terrace, Erik said “I have never seen so many rainbows."

There were rainbows all over the countryside dipping down from the sky. Pots of gold left and right and by the hundreds, that’s how many rainbows there were.

I will never forget that afternoon looking out over Bagan knowing that if I could do this then I could do anything.

Guide: Erik Zaw, Hotel: The Hotel at Tharabar Gate

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