Where temples outnumber tourists

Nowhere in the world is the impact of Buddhism as strong as it is in Myanmar, where holy men are more revered than the rich and powerful. Half a million barefoot monks walk with their wood and lacquer bowls every morning all over Myanmar accepting rice, curries and money from their benefactors.

Women wake up achingly early to prepare meals in giant cauldrons for monks who also receive clothes, umbrellas, hand fans…the necessities of their threadbare existence. For centuries, wealthier folks have shown their devotion and left their mark by building stupas, monasteries, shrines and pagodas. Many of these are covered with layers of gold foil earning Myanmar the moniker — The Golden Land.

Devotional state

An 80-minute flight from Yangon is Bagan (former capital of Burma), the largest ancient Buddhist site in the world. Here, temples outnumber tourists. Three thousand arrestingly beautiful monuments, zedis, and pagodas have been erected across 16 square miles by generations of royals, the rich and the pious.

The edifices, covered in gold, whitewashed stucco or laden with red brick, are a forest of spires. We stepped into the temples’ silent spaces, walked their 12th century ramparts and discovered delicately smiling Buddha statues by torchlight. The tattered frescos and the wrought filigree crowns that topped the pagodas are remarkable. Apart from a few edifices reminiscent of Hindu temple architecture, most of them were in Buddhist style, similar to ones in Thailand.

At sunset, Han, our guide, took us up the precipitous steps of Shwe San Daw temple. Nearby, children fetched water in tin drums and a thin old woman pounded peanuts. Their frugal lives contrasted with the architectural riches. Yet, the serenity of the place was echoed in their gentle faces.

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