"No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream – alone."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I sat alone at the top of the red brick temple, looking out over a land that was not my home, and I dreamed about peace. Ten million miles from anything like an utterance of my other life, I gazed over the vast open plains of central Burma and dreamed with my eyes wide open. I listened to the wind and the birds. I watched the shadows of the world appear and disappear as great white clouds drifted under the sun. Without any other discernible human presence I sat, and I contemplated peace in the world, and why there is none.
Everyone wants it. The world seems to constantly be in pursuit of a peaceful existence. Why then does it elude us? Why do we always want what we can’t have? Why is there unhappiness?
It seems so easy for people to divide war from peace, to confine their definitions to the unambivalent. I suppose I’ve finally witnessed too many faces of the poor, too many figures lying motionless on the sidewalk or in the gutters of streets where dirty, polluted runoff flows unceasing around them. And eventually I’ve come to a conviction - a searing realization that I can no longer look upon things the way I used to, no longer walk and see what I see with a neatly partitioned mind, stocked with a host of judgments.
The truth in my heart is this: I no longer believe in peace. There is no dichotomy between war and peace, between life and death – no true opposition except in their particular expression of ubiquitous inequity.
Human beings cannot be peaceful creatures. It’s not in our nature to appreciate peace. Perhaps this can be explained, or at least alluded to, by our most basic human need for survival. More than food, more than air, human beings need a purpose. We must always be doing something, going somewhere, or working towards some end. Every human action occurs because of some intent, known or unknown. It’s unfathomable to have no basic elemental reason for doing something; even more so to have no reason for being something. Or else, what is it all for? Why even bother? Self justification - this, I believe, is the most terrifying of all considerations.
People think they need peace, but what they need is the necessity of peace. They need it as a goal – as a means to justify their constant motion. They need it as a focal point that helps to blur away all of life’s other distractions. Peace appears to us as some lofty ideal, but if we ever actually achieve it, we eventually become fiercely uncomfortable with it and don’t understand it. Peace means contentment. It means stagnation and repose. These are things we cannot comprehend.
For humans existence is progress, and progress is existence. That makes sense. That’s what we know. But progress is never ending, and unfortunately I think, a ceaseless sense of progress presupposes perpetual displeasure. Things are never good enough. We never feel complete or satisfied. And from this unending discontent is born our futile and misguided desire for peace. Thus, a maddening struggle to attain the unattainable is created – a twisted betrayal writ in the very essence of human nature and insured to follow us on through every dream and all the relentless progressions of life.
Something about traveling alone makes me especially ponderous and philosophical. I’m able to take in all the beauty and all the hardship of the road objectively and commit honest thought to these things that normally pass through an observation disregarded. However, I think it is important to maintain one foot firmly grounded in the present. Every moment offers something exciting and worthwhile, and if we’re not attentive and aware, all those moments are wasted.
If you read "Circles in the Wild" then the last time you saw me I was boarding an overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan. While the bus was not incredibly uncomfortable, that night would prove to be totally sleepless. For the first five hours of the trip, they played music videos over the large TV at the front of the bus. Just in case you were all the way in the back of the bus and couldn't here the imported music, there were speakers above each isle of seats so we could all enjoy the music at the same ear-bursting volume.
The roads for the majority of the trip were not even in bad condition as one might expect in Burma. This is because when the government changed the capital city to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005, they built a new highway connecting the city to Yangon. So now the travel time from Yangon to the center of the country is cut to about seven hours. After passing by the Nay Pyi Taw junction, it’s roughly another three hours to Bagan.
I left Yangon at about 5:30 pm. If you’re doing the math, then you would’ve guessed that the bus arrived in Bagan at about 3:30 am. Yes, that is indeed the normal arrival time. The only reason I can deduce for these odd departure and arrival times is that the buses want to leave before the sun goes down. However, I have learned that trying to apply Western logic in Asia is a dangerous endeavor and rarely yields any sort of comprehension or success.
So I arrived at the bus station in Bagan at 3:30 in the morning, jostled, cramped, and half conscious. Waiting for the few foreigners to step down from the bus was a host of guesthouse and hotel representatives waiting to usher us off in the middle of the night. After speaking to a few, I agreed to one of the more legitimate sounding offers. I walked with the man over to his horse cart. He tossed my bag onto the back, and we both clambered up into the driver’s carriage. And there I went, into the night, riding along in tow of a trotting horse towards a guesthouse that I was hoping would live up to the usher’s descriptions.
Fortunately, the guesthouse was fine – small single rooms with aircon and a private bathroom – for $10 a night which included breakfast. I didn’t want the next day to be a total waste, so I took a quick shower and went immediately to sleep.
I had agreed before I went to sleep that I would meet the horse cart driver again later that morning for a full day tour of Bagan. So I was awake again by 8 am. I showered, ate, packed a day bag, and was once again sitting behind the rump of a trotting horse by 9.
Bagan is huge. It is basically a vast collection of ancient temples strewn across an open plain of about 6 by 6 miles. There is no central temple or zone, but there are a few areas with a higher concentration of temples, and there are a handful of notably beautiful, large, or ornate temples. The full day tour
that I had planned would pass through these highlights, stopping briefly at each. This was great for my first day in Bagan, as I really didn’t have a grasp on the orientation of the sites yet, and I would’ve gotten lost immediately if I had tried to find all of these temples on my own.
For the whole day it was just me, the driver, and the horse venturing together from one site to the next. We spent the morning slowly making our way away from the town of Nyaung U, where I was staying. The temples seemed to be getting larger and grander as we neared the walled town of Old Bagan. Clustered in and around the outside of Old Bagan is probably the greatest concentration of popular sites. We spent a lot of time in this area as there are many of the most postcard worthy temples in Bagan, all within a short walk of each other.
Ananda is the most famous temple in all of Bagan. It’s quite large, uniquely designed, topped with a massive lotus-themed golden spire, and features the only pronounceable name of all the temples in Bagan. Ananda is one of the big three important temples that all the Burmese hawkers constantly talk about. It is known as “the most beautiful temple” in Bagan, while Dhammayangyi is the biggest and Thatbyinnyu is the tallest.
On this first day I went to all of these megatemples as well as a huge number of other sites including a monastery in Old Bagan, The New Palace, a village on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, the only Hindu temple in Bagan, and a lunchtime feast of traditional Burmese food. The day was long and eventful, but the most memorable stop was saved for last.
After this terrifically long and exhausting day, my driver and I cut off the main trail and rolled along towards a towering, white, pyramid-shaped stupa sitting far in the distance. This was going to be my vantage point to watch the sun set over the river and over the hills to the west of Bagan. We arrived about thirty minutes before sunset so I had plenty of time to climb to the highest level and scout out the best nook from which to watch the day come to an end.
Sunset over Bagan is one of those things – like sunrise over Angkor Wat – its one of those eternally memorable experiences that would border on cliché if it wasn’t so consistently amazing. There is simply nothing like being in a place as mysterious and foreign as Bagan and seeing it at its most beautiful golden hour when the light does magical things. Nothing can compare to that view, that vista that I experienced high above an ancient world just before the red sun eased below the horizon, just as all movement ceased and all heads turned to the west to appreciate the sun’s last stunning gift before it went away and allowed the world to slip into a shroud of darkness and into the company of lesser stars.
For my second day in Bagan I wanted to go independent. I wanted cut all the strings, lose the trail and do some full-on temple raiding on my own. That morning I woke up, had some breakfast and walked down the street to a bicycle rental shop. For 1000 kyats ($1.50 US) I was able to rent a bike for a full day. Granted, the bike didn’t look like it was made in the past decade, nor was it at all equipped for the trail blazing I had in mind. Road tires, a rock hard seat, and a silly front basket were the resources of the day. I figured if these creaky old Burmese women could do it, I could do it.
So with my bike, a map, and a couple bottles of water, I hit the road out into the wild. I left Bagan the same way the horse cart driver and I had the day before, but this time I planned to continue on further than we had ventured previously and then turn off the paved road and cut through the heart of Bagan. From there it would be dirt or sand trails for five to eight kilometers until I emerged into the civilization on the opposite side of the plains.
It took about thirty minutes to make it past Old Bagan and find the path I wanted to follow. Once I finally got off the main road, all signs of humanity disappeared. The hawkers and tourists from the day before were no where to be seen. The rattle of motorbikes and the clopping horse carts faded away. The trails were mine for as far as I could see ahead and behind. The temples were shared between only me and Buddha. The sky, the sun, the wind and the trees – those were all mine too. This day belonged to me and my bike, and there was no one around to challenge that.
What lay ahead was a network of crisscrossing dirt paths that connected a stunning number and variety of temples and stupas. Interspersed between these sites were occasional homes or hamlets where villagers lived who either tended a farm nearby or acted as gatekeepers to some of the more far-flung secrets of Bagan. Over the course of the next eight hours or so I rode, climbed, pushed, walked, or trekked my way across Bagan’s heartland, maintaining a generally eastward orientation.
Around midday, I embarked on a vague quest to scout one particular temple known for its elevated viewing platform and central location. I would eventually find my way there, but before that I mistakenly stumbled upon a similarly sized, but well hidden temple. As I rolled up to what appeared to be the main entranceway, I noticed in the far corner of the temple grounds a small yurt-like dwelling from which smoke was rising. The brakes of my bicycle squealed as I came to a stop. I tucked the bike away under the shade of a tree and turned to witness an ancient old crone of a woman shuffle out the yurt heading in my direction. From her bent hand hung a massive, archaic key ring. She passed me and without uttering a word, beckoned me to follow her to a side entrance where she unlocked the heavy gate.
Once inside, she led me around on an impromptu tour of the temple and its statues and art. This temple had the largest and most garish statues of Buddha I had seen in all of Bagan - extremely surprising considering the isolation of this temple. The hallways were modestly dark and dusty in a way that implied being host to a human presence was a rare event indeed. However, I suppose the very existence of a gatekeeper suggests the presence of something precious within. As quick and accidental this detour was, it was representative of everything I loved about this day – the exploration, the isolation, and the chance encounters that make memorable travel experiences.
Eventually I did find the temple I was looking for – a great, red brick leviathan smack in the center of the plains of Bagan. I knew I would be alone here so I wheeled my bike around to the back of the grounds and hid it behind a bush. Once inside, I made a full circle through the corridors of the lower level, taking note as I passed by the lone ascending staircase in a far corner of the complex. When satisfied with my exploration of the ground floor, I returned to those steep stone stairs and began the dark climb to the top.
The stairway opened into a large patio-like viewing platform from which you could gaze 360 degrees out over the land for miles. And there was not another visible human presence in any direction. I sat upon that perch and let my mind wander for more than an hour - looking out over the noontime world, watching goats graze between the temples, glancing an occasional farmer far in the distance, and following the shifting shadows as they contrasted the sun.
The world looked so peaceful from up here. But I knew it was a false peace. A façade painted on because even that is preferable to acknowledging the suppression and the injustice that exists in this country. All those toothless smiling faces and watery eyes holding back a lifetime of despair. All the abundant natural beauty acting as a distraction from the shameless and untouchable corruption. There was no peace in this place – at least not of the kind I would see or experience.
In retrospect, it is clear that this was the climax of my trip. It seemed as though I had traveled for days or indeed weeks and months to make it to this place, this panorama, and in everything to come later I would feel those reminiscent pangs that always accompany a return journey. Even though I didn't realize it at the time, this was my ultimate destination. This was where I had meant to go all along.
When I finally came down from that magical tor, I remembered that I still had quite a ways to go before I reached the road on the far side of Bagan. The sun was already beginning its western decent and I wanted to find a suitable point to watch the sunset. So I readied my bike and continued on. I peddled for a while across an empty wasted plain where no vegetation grew, then abruptly skidded to a halt in the loose sand of a dry riverbed I had rode into. From the location of the sun, I judged that the riverbed carried a mostly eastward course, so I followed it on until it opened up directly behind a small village.
In front of the village ran a small paved bike path, which I knew would eventually lead all the way back to the main road, still some kilometers distant. Across from this path there was a serene oasis of a lake still leftover from the rainy season. I took a brief siesta in the shade next to the lake, then proceeded on down the road.
In not much time at all I found the junction that would take me to the temple I had in mind for sunset. I made it there with plenty of time to spare, so I spent about half an hour exploring the ruins in the vicinity. This was when I started to see signs of human activity again. It became clear that my sunset spot was not a secret. Bikes and cars began arriving in the minutes before sunset and soon there was a small crowd at the top of the temple. In that failing light I was drawn back into civilization and couldn’t help but feel just a little bittersweet as I watched the sun go down again over the Golden Land.
This day was truly special. In my memory, this day unfolds like an epic adventure book – each unpredictable event seemingly emerging from nowhere, proving independently memorable but ultimately vital to the overarching story. Each crossroads and each character along the way contributing elements of the fantastic, and in the end, the wild, multifaceted accumulation is nothing short of dreamlike.
That night I was sitting in a restaurant down the street from my guesthouse when another solo traveler pulled up a chair at the table next to me, and we immediately struck up a conversation. She was a French girl in her late 20’s who had just arrived in Bagan that day, coming from Inle Lake. Don't ask me what her name was because I never knew it. She was full of questions about how to best explore the temples of Bagan, and I was glad to help another solo traveler
Eventually we decided to share a table. After some time chatting about our past travels, the topic changed to what we had in mind for the next day. I told her that I was leaving the following evening, but before that I wanted to make a half-day trip out to Mount Popa. She said that was on her agenda as well and would be happy to tag along. So with dinner finished, we parted ways with plans to meet bright and early the next morning.
I wasn’t sure exactly about the best way to get to Mount Popa. The guide books said you could either rent a private car or take a series of public buses, but neither of these options seemed particularly convenient. Thank goodness I had befriended this French girl. When I met her the next morning she had already negotiated a deal with a pick-up truck driver to take us to and from Mt. Popa for a fraction of the price it would’ve cost to hire a driver. The only small hitch was that we had to ride in the bed of the pick-up truck for the two-hour trip.
The deal was a good one, so we hopped in the back of the truck and off we went. It was not even as uncomfortable as you might think. The bed of the truck was roofed to protect from the sun and there were blankets covering the floor to make sitting more comfortable. In no time at all we were parked at the base of the vertical cylinder of a mountain called Mount Popa and ready to begin our ascent.
Mount Popa is a bizarre, flat-topped mountain that juts straight up out of the Earth. I read somewhere that it is actually called a volcanic plug, and that it was pushed up towards the sky by volcanic activity millennia ago. Well the Burmese built a monastery at the very top of the mountain and now visitors can climb over seven hundred stairs, spiraling around the circumference of the mountain, all the way to the top.
For the entirety of the ascent there were marauding troops of monkeys that got quite excited or even violent with the faintest prospect of food. My French partner had one bold monkey try to steal her water bottle straight from her hand, only to then receive a squirt of water to the face. Occasionally, there were some tame, placid monkeys that you could get very close to without inducing any reaction at all.
It all made for a nice distraction during the quick but intense climb to the top. The thighs really begin to burn after a few hundred vertical steps.
But getting to the top made it all worth the trouble. Mount Popa bursts straight up from a pancake flat plain, so it is easily the highest thing in any direction. And from that pinnacle, from the crow’s nest of the world, the view was just breathtaking. Imagine how the world must look to God. Rivers snake through the green land. Hills roll far, far away. The white, dreamy clouds dwarf everything. With one objective glance your eyes skim over an untold number of people, homes, and lives - all of which you will never be a first hand witness to. But from that Olympus-like zenith, those things matter just a little bit less because you can't help but feel like your on top of the world.
And suddenly I found myself huddled again into the back of that bouncing pick-up truck, watching the beautiful, wild world ribbon away beneathe me. Staring out as the road and the trees and the sky swept through my gaze, I couldn't help but reminisce about the past week I had spent in this wonderfully golden land. Was it life or was it a dream? Or does that even matter? It was sensational in the truest form.
Oh, and there it was again - that feeling that has persisted throughout my travels, walking in my shadow from the very beginning. That feeling of cosmic perfection, of absolute equanimity. That feeling that everything in the world is the way it should be, and that nothing outside of what I currently feel, see, hear, and breathe carries any significance at all. All the inequity of the world, all the pain, war, and unhappiness - all of those things are simply by-products of human existence. They always have been, and they always will be, and an idealistic 23-year old American is certainly not going to change that. The only thing I can control with any degree of certainty is the reciprocating legacies left between myself and the world.
And so it seems I've come full circle yet again on this wild adventure. Peace, at least of a sort, I had found. No, it certainly wasn't a peace predicated from the the world or of its people. Nor was it directly inspired by or founded upon my travels, but rather just an unexpected derivative of them. It was something much more internal - something more profound and intensely personal.
What I found was peace of mind.
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