I arrive on the afternoon ferry from Mandalay, just as the sun is setting over the receding banks of the Irrawaddy River. There is no dock. I teeter along a narrow gangplank into the hands of frenzied touts pushing everything from guides to guesthouses.
The guesthouse offers rooms which are simple but immaculate. I have aircon, satellite TV, private bath and a “two-egg” breakfast served on the upper balcony.
Two thousand temples and stupas cover an area of 80 square kilometers. Another 2,000 lie in ruins, the victims of time and looters. Many dates back 1,000 years to when Bagan was the capital of Myanmar was in transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism.
King Anawrahta ascended the Burmese throne in 1044. He began a lavish building programme which was continued by his heirs for another 250 years. In 1287, Kublai Khan’s marauding Mongols overran the city.
According to Marco Polo: The king caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of his soul. They form one of the finest sights in the world. They still do!
Nyaung U has become the new base for budget tourists. The government moved residents of Old Bagan to a field several kilometers away, flattening and removing any sign of past habitation.
9 a.m. My driver is waiting. I prop myself up on a floral mattress and we clip-clop along dusty lanes. We pass a peanut plantation. A man perches precariously at the apex of a tripod built from three bamboo poles bound at the neck by strands of rattan. He shakes peanuts from freshly harvested plants onto a sheet of gunnysack.
In 1975 a major earthquake shook the area. UNESCO funding saved the day and restored the Ananda Pahto, the oldest of the great temples of Myanmar. It houses a 30 foot Buddha hewn from a single teak log. Restoration continues on many others.
We putter from one extraordinary monument to the next, dodging coachloads of French tourists and German cyclists. The spire of the Mahabodhi Paya is shaped like a pyramid, each face dotted with tiny niches holding hundreds of seated Buddhas.
Inside the dark passages of the Pahtothamya, I pay a toothless old lady to show me murals dating back from 1084.
Sunset is breathtaking. The sky turns from deep gold to darkening shades of pink. Temples slowly evaporate into the haze of the night. The street is suddenly alive with people and flickering BBQs. Hawkers prepare quail eggs, skewers of meat and deliciously crisp crepes brimming with onions and tomatoes.
Tonight there is a puppet show. Burmese love street theatre and an opportunity to watch transvestite actors strut their stuff.
In this extraordinary corner of an outrageously beautiful, if tarnished, country, I feel a warm glow of contentment. Myanmar is surely the most fascinating country in South East Asia. Golden stupas gleam from every hilltop. The one-legged rowers of Inle Lake are unique. Festivals happen around every corner. Smiles are contagious.